Gp Capt Ajit Keshav Agtey 12188 F(P) , a graduate of the Air Force Test Pilots School was one of the very pilots to have been associated with the Vintage Aircraft Flight of the 1980s. He writes about the flights he undertook in the Tiger Moth of the VAF, which is currently flying with the Heritage Flight.
The Vintage Aircraft Flight (VAF) was established in late 1981/early 1982. and was located in the hangar bang opposite the Base Operations Room, across the huge tarmac in the Technical Area of Palam at New Delhi. The IAF first demonstrated the vintage aircraft for the “GOLDEN JUBILEE”, back in October 1982.
The aircraft involved were as follows:
1. Tiger Moth HU-512 (The very same aircraft that flew 3 days ago at Hindan. She was heavily restored by Mike Edwards much later).
2. Harvard IIB (HT-291)
3. Vampire FB.52(Where it has disappeared non-one knows).
4. Spitfire VIII (It was not ready to fly that year. Subsequently, the late AM Prithi Singh flew two test flights on it in 1983 but was not happy to fly it for the parade. He flew it the following year and in 1985, for the AF day parade. 1986 onwards till 1989, the late AVM Ajit Lamba flew it).
“The Vintage Aircraft Flight”, as it was known then, was shown to the IAF and the public for the first time at the Air Force Day parade on 08 October 1982 “Golden Jubilee”. The Air Force decided that only Test Pilots, currently with ASTE would fly the Vintage aircraft for the Air Force day parade. In keeping with that policy, the nominated pilots would load up in our Avro and go to Palam (normally keep the Avro with us) and in general have a whale of a time for one full week, comprising rehearsals in the mornings and “Masti” in the evenings, and maybe some shuttles on the Avro on OFF days.
For the Air Force Day parade 1982, the Tiger Moth was flown by NC (Nancy) Thomas, (and if my memory serves me right), the Harvard II B by IS Sandhu, and the Vampire by the late PK Yadav. The Spitfire was not ready.
It is not too well-known a fact that all the aircraft were restored by airmen and NCsE. The sole qualification they had was a deep love for the work they were doing. Apart from that, they had no other technical qualification on the aircraft that they were working on.
So fast forward to 1983. The vintage aircraft to be flown were the Tiger Moth, Harvard II B, a Vampire FB52, and the Spitfire VIII. My heart was all set on the Spitfire, however, I was firmly told that it was “off-limits” as Air Cmde (later AM) Prithi Singh had already staked his claim and that there was to be no further discussion. The only other type that I had never flown was the Tiger Moth. I had flown the Harvard and the Vampire and hence they held no great challenge. Apart from the fact that I had never flown a Tiger Moth, I had never flown a bi-plane, and this particular airframe had been originally manufactured in 1933, just a piffling 15 years before I was born. That was a huge challenge and, in any case, nobody else was too keen on a genuinely antiquated aircraft. So it was settled that I would fly the Tiger Moth, IS Sandhu the Harvard II B, and PK Yadav the Vampire. There was no discussion about who was to fly the Spitfire.
On arrival at Palam, we went to the hangar and got to know the people who had restored the aircraft. There were only two words one could use to describe the work done by the crew. “DEDICATION & LOVE”. They explained in great detail each and every little bit of the work that they had done on the aircraft. It was an NCE who had cut and spread the fabric over the wing and tailplane surfaces, of the Tiger, coated it with dope and hand-painted it. Fascinating was the word. The Gypsy Major engine had been overhauled just the previous year in the UK and was in perfect condition.
The Tiger had been flown the previous year by NC Thomas (Tommy). His briefing to me was worth its weight in gold. I followed it right down to the last comma and full stop. That made life considerably easy for me. I had to make some alterations as a couple of things had undergone a change since the previous year.
The following were the eye-openers at the first glance at the Tiger Moth aircraft.
The Tiger had NO electrical system. Hence no battery, generator and naturally no associated wiring and lights
The instruments were a collection of instruments from various sources. The ASI was ex-Gnat Mk 1. All Gnat guys would know that it came to a rest at 72 KIAS. The VNE of the Tiger was just a wee bit above that. It was not properly calibrated. So if it indicated 100 KIAS, one could very well be at 90 or a 110 KIAS, or anything in between. My dear friend and predecessor, Tommy, who flew the Tiger the previous year for the very first time had very helpfully made some “China-graph” pencil marking for unstick, approach, and VNE speeds. That was an invaluable input. To this day, he refuses to divulge how he arrived at those figures.
There was a great big instrument in the centre of the instrument panel, which said: “Turn and Slip”. It had two needles pivoted at the centre. The indicator tips were 12/6 “O Clock” respectively. To this day, I have not been able to figure out which was turn and which was slip.
The Tiger had no R/T. Communication between the front and rear cockpit was via “Gosport Tube”.
AFS Delhi had made it clear “No R/T, NO Fly. So a small 2 channel R/T set had been installed and powered by a battery. The previous year Tommy had complained bitterly about the life of the battery, so the VAF guys had found a huge tractor battery and installed it in the front cockpit. The net result was, no front cockpit occupant (which was good), but the huge battery had shifted the Centre of Gravity (C of G) way far forward. No one really knew where the C of G was located. It must have been so far forward and I found that out, to my horror, on approach when I wanted to flare out. I had the stick fully back well before touchdown, but for the life of me, I could not get the Tiger into a “three-point” attitude, (the only way to land a taildragger). So I had to settle for a “tail down wheeler”.
The Tiger had NO brakes and also NO tail wheel. It had a skid. The Tiger was meant to be flown from the “kutcha” surface. On a kutcha surface, the skid had good traction and gave good directional control. Also on the kutcha surface, one did not need brakes to slow down. Delhi was a concrete jungle. The tail skid had no traction whatsoever, so one went skidding from one side to another with no speed or directional control. The solution was to have “wing walkers”, who would pull and push to guide the aircraft from start-up to line-up. Start-up would be close to the runway, so the procedure was quite painless. As soon as the engine had revved up to full power and the take-off roll commenced, the wing walkers would let go. The rudder was effective almost immediately, thanks to the prop-wash. On the landing roll, the wing walkers were positioned on the edge of the runway on both sides, at 50 metres intervals from the predicted touchdown point to about 300 metres. As soon as the aircraft slowed down enough, they would grab the aircraft and make sure that it did not run away.
It goes without saying that the Tiger was always flown solo from the rear cockpit. So on the ground in a three-point attitude, the view over the nose was nonexistent. That did not worry me at all as I was used to it having instructed on the HT-2 extensively at FIS. So weaving while taxying was SOP. However, the distances were very short. After flare out, once again the view was nil. That did not worry me either as I had bags of experience instructing on the Iskra, where it was a shade worse.
The Gypsy Moth engine had to be started by manually by swinging the propellor. The power to the plugs was supplied by the magnetos and the engine would fire and tick over smoothly with a gentle purr.
The first look into the cockpit was quite daunting. However, as soon as the engine was ticking over, one was back in the home environment. the Tiger has an open cockpit, so I wore a Jaguar bone dome, with the visor down so the blast never bothered me.
The flypast – 8 October 1983
The briefing for the flypast was very impressive indeed. I was the lead aircraft and I had to make good a Time On Target (TOT), which coincided with the departure of the last marching flight past the saluting dais. To ensure that I made good the TOT, I was given time to leave the Orbit Point (OP) and a time on the Initial Point (IP). All this sounded very professional and impressive, but there was a small fly in the ointment. I did not know my own speed, the compass was a bit ropey, to put it mildly, and to add insult to injury, a 10-knot head or tailwind could put me clean out of my slot. Losing time was no problem whatsoever. I could do that by doing an “S” turn or an orbit. Gaining time, even God could not help me.
Explaining all this to the powers that be was like talking to a brick wall. Everyone was a fighter leader with a smirk on the face which said, “Hey Test Pilot, this is the simplest thing to do”. This home truth dawned on me like a ton of bricks on the very first rehearsal. I found the simplest solution. There was a line of trees outside the perimeter of Palam airport, about 3 miles from the saluting dais, which was about two minutes flying time at my speed. I decided to hang around at about 100 feet or so a little beyond the line of trees. From there I could see the parade quite clearly and knew exactly when to set course. With the prevailing Palam visibility, I was quite certain that no one would be able to see me hanging around there. Or so I thought. This homegrown solution worked very well.
I did a quick-handling trip, just before the rehearsal and that was a sheer delight. The Tiger rolled straight as an arrow and was airborne in no time at all. the noise level was not too bad and the blast did not bother me. The airflow through the wires that held the two mainplanes together actually whistled. It was like music. She climbed slow and steadily to a few thousand feet. It was the most delightful feeling to be out there in the open. I found she needed a fair amount of control inputs to get some action out of her.
As I said earlier, I could not figure out the turn and slip indication, so I had to fly by the seat of my pants. That was the stage I got to know the complete meaning of the term. The approach was good, but the flare-out was crazy. With fully back the attitude would not go to three-point attitude. I just had to wait a few seconds for the speed to bleed off and let the aircraft touch down on the main wheels, in a tail-down wheeler. The wing walkers were prompt and smart. They grabbed the aircraft as soon as it had slowed down to taxying speed. the rest was simple.
After the first rehearsal, I ran into Air Cmde (Later AM) Prithi Singh. His Spitfire was still not ready. He told me some words of wisdom, which I still remember. He told me not to be shy of booting in full rudder and full deflection of the stick. Without which it was well nigh impossible to get action from the Tiger. This little bit helped me a great deal.
On the final day, the trick of hanging around beyond the line of trees worked absolutely fine and helped me in coming over the saluting dais within a few seconds of the allotted time. I was quite pleased with myself and was quite sure that no one had seen me there. Till I ran into Air Cmde Prithi Singh again, and he wanted to know what the devil I was doing beyond the line of the trees. I told him exactly what I was doing. He just grinned and said, “I would have done the same”.
The Spitfire joined the gang the following year and AVM Ajit Lamba flew it from 1986 onwards as if it was his personal baby. The Vampire dropped out a couple of years later. The Tiger, Harvard, and the Spitfire continued till 1989. After which the Air Force got cold feet. The Air Force day celebrations used to be a sheer delight for everyone at ASTE.
I am glad that the Heritage Flight has been revived and I am hoping that the Spitfire joins the gang soon. The most important and heartening part is that the aircraft has been resuscitated by a body of professional restorers. That puts them on a very sound footing. Most importantly, aircrew training is being given the kind of importance and respect it deserves, by acquiring expertise from abroad or by sending our aircrew abroad. This will help us immensely in the long run.
I can only wish the Heritage Flight all the very best and hope it grows in strength.
© Gp Capt Ajit Agtey