By Air Mshl S Raghavendran

I had commanded No 23 Squadron from April 1959 till end of 1961. During that time we had converted onto the transonic Gnat aircraft from the subsonic Vampire aircraft and the squadron had earned a reputation as a highly professional one which had learned to fully exploit the amazing performance of the Gnat in climb, maneuverability and very small profile. We had won the front gun trophy in the annual Armament Meet, much to everybody’s surprise, including our own!! The Gnat is a very jumpy aircraft, far from steady platforms like the Hunter, Vampire and Toofani. But we managed to shock everybody. At that time it was the only Gnat fighter squadron in the world – no other country flew it in the fighter role except Finland, which had a flight of it for a short time, I believe.

I was posted as one of the staff officers in the then only operational Command in the Indian Air Force, appropriately called Operational Command. I was in charge of operational training of the fighters in the Command. My life in the Operational Command deserves another story.

In 1963, I got an opportunity to go to Iraq as a flying instructor for two years. When that tenure ended, in their usual Services way, the Air Force didn’t tell me where I was posted till I had left foreign shores. I landed in Bombay, as it was then, and managed to get a call through to Wing Commander JB Lal, the P1 in Air Headquarters (officer in charge of postings of officers upto the rank of wing commander) and asked him where I was posted. Wg Cdr Lal nonchalantly told me that I was posted to Ambala to command No 23 Squadron again, after a break of four years!

I had left the squadron in Ambala in 1961, having commanded it as a Squadron Leader. The rank of the CO of operational squadrons in the IAF had been upgraded to Wing Commander. I believe I am the only person to have commanded the same squadron twice. This was in late July ’65.

Having taken over command, from Wing Commander Bhupinder (“Bhindi”) Singh, I left on 45 days leave to collect my wife and second daughter from Bombay, where they were arriving from abroad, and to collect our first daughter from Madras, where she had been sent a few months earlier to get into the school system. I had flown a couple of sorties on the Gnat before I left but not any operational training sorties, as I wanted to get back from leave and do some serious flying.

The political situation with Pakistan, when I left Ambala, seemed OK but started to deteriorate by the day almost immediately. I was reading about it in the newspapers. I read that Pakistan had made incursions in the Akhnur sector. Then I read that four Vampire aircraft that had been on a mission to support the Army in that area had been shot down. I knew my leave was about to be over and sure enough the recall telegram reached me two weeks after my leave started!! I rushed back with my wife and second daughter. We had no house as yet and so I got some accommodation in the Sirhind Club.

During the short time I was away, a flight from my squadron under Squadron Leader (later Air Marshal) BS Sikand had been sent to Halwara first and then on to Pathankot in a matter of days. This was in response to four of our Vampires having been shot down by the Pakistani Air Force. Some pilots, including Squadron Leader (later Air Marshal) Johnny Greene and others, from the other Gnat squadron, which was not yet fully operational had been sent along also. Open war had not been declared but by the time I returned, two Sabres had been shot down in the Akhnur sector by Squadron Leader (later Wing Commander) Trevor Keelor, and Flight Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) VS (“Pat”) Pathania from my squadron. About the day arrived, I think, Sikand and his formation had gone on a sweep, got separated. Sikand got lost and taking Pasrur airfield in Pakistan (just across the border) to be one of our disused airfields, made a landing there and got captured by the Pakistanis!! Enough to make ones head whirl!!

I had to join my squadron in Pathankot immediately and take the lead but I hadn’t done any combat training flying in the Gnat nor used the gun sight for four years. And we were going to fight for real and not make-believe!! I quickly did a couple of sorties in the Gnat, practicing pulling high ‘g’ but there was nobody to interact with. Except for Rozario, who had just joined the squadron and had not yet started flying the Gnat, there was nobody in my squadron left behind, with whom I could practice combat. Also, all training missions were prohibited, to conserve the hours for operations!! Most important of all, if I told the Station Commander that I needed to do some training flying with some pilots available in the other Gnat squadron on the base, he would promptly decide that this was not the time or that there was insufficient time to undertake so many training sorties to get back my skills. He would in all likelihood tell Command and Air Headquarters that I should be taken off Command!! I was not about to take that chance. Fighter pilots train all their lives to be able to fly in a war, or better still, lead a squadron in war.


So!! Off I went to Pathankot to fight a war, pretty unprepared!!

But the Gnat was an amazing aircraft. As people will tell you, pilots who were average would come to the Gnat squadrons and go out as above the average because the aircraft made you more alert, it brought out the best in you to exploit its capabilities fully. Senior pilots who used to be skeptical about our tales of performance and combat maneuvering changed their mind when they flew the Gnat. One was my good friend Omi Taneja who flew it later on and told me “Rags, what you said about the Gant was true. It took me some time to catch my breath after take off”!

I had more hours on the Gnat and other fighters than most people. The couple of sorties in the Gnat that I managed to get in before going to Pathankot, with G suit on and pulling 8 ‘g’ brought back most of my confidence. The pressure of the ‘g’ suit on the abdomen and the legs made me feel that I was back in full control. Also I had not been off flying altogether. I had been instructing the previous two years on Vampire and Jet Provost aircraft to trainee pilots and keeping up my flying skills

I quickly recapped the sighting system and the gun firing system, including putting the ‘gun dip’ switch ‘on’ during an operational mission. This was a switch you must put on above a certain height if you were to fire the guns. The guns were located in the lip of the air intakes of the engine and if the engine was operating at high power, it would surge and pack up when the turbulence from the shells leaving the barrels affected the airflow. To prevent this, the engine was automatically throttled back as the guns fired.

So, when I arrived in Pathankot, I was reasonably confident but apprehensive. I could not afford to fail in performance or professionalism. I could not indicate any lack of resoluteness in tone or body language that I felt that I was not equal to the task. If I failed in performance, I would die, and if I failed in professionalism as a combat leader, my squadron would fail.

I realized how true it was when some wise person said that an individual who does not know fear is not courageous, but one who has known fear and gone ahead to perform upto his full capabilities in battle is the really courageous one. I certainly needed it. Nobody was aware of the odds that I was working against. My parent base commander, Group Captain David Bouche, was out of the loop and it didn’t strike him that I hadn’t had a chance to train; and the Base Commander at Pathankot took it for granted that I was ‘fully in the groove’. My only fear was that I may not perform as well as I was capable of, due to being out of practice. There was a Mystére squadron commander who was not upto the task and was removed after a few days of war.

One of the supreme imperatives of combat flying is that you must have utmost faith in the capabilities of your ‘wing man’ and trust that you would ‘look out’ for each other. This is where the term ‘guarding your tail’ was coined. I had not flown with anybody in the squadron and the only person who had been in the squadron during my previous tenure was Flt Lt “Pat” Pathania. He had been a young but dependable Flying Officer when I had left the squadron, and was now a senior Flight Lieutenant and designated leader of elements in his own rights. But I told him that whenever I flew on a mission, he was to be my Number 2. This was to be only on missions across the border, not on the endless Combat Air Patrols that we flew over the airfield after 5th September ’65, when Pakistani Air Force Sabres attacked Pathankot.

Our job was two fold. One was the CAP missions, and the other was to escort the Ground Attack fighters and the Canberra Bombers, when they carried out day time raids on Pakistan. All the escorting that we did was to targets other than airfields, army formations or targets like railway yards etc. One reason that we didn’t escort the fighters to airfields was that we didn’t have the range to accompany them that far at low level. And the Canberras attacked the airfields by night, anyway. The two Mystere squadrons (Nos 3 and 31) had the benefit of my squadron to escort their missions but the squadrons operating from Adampur didn’t have this luxury until later in the war!!

The Hunter squadrons went out from Ambala un-escorted because the Hunter was considered capable of looking after itself. It was not too widely known that the Hunter could manoeuvre as well as the Gnat, if it was ‘clean’ – that is without drop tanks and bombs. If the pilot was to use ‘two notches’ of flaps -15 degrees, it was unbeatable. But the squadrons never trained for this kind of combat and all training was done with tanks on. The standard call from the leader of any formation, Hunters or otherwise, when enemy fighters are sighted should have been ‘drop stores’ and take on the opposition. The corollary to it is that if you have started high ‘g’ manoeuvre, the tanks and bombs may not jettison as the load on the holding clamps would prevent them from opening to release the stores. I believe that many of the Hunters that we lost during the war were maneuvering with their tanks on. Without doubt the Pakistani fighters would have been their ORP aircraft in ‘clean’ configuration. We lost some very good, senior Hunter pilots in the war.

The CAP missions were no great problem. We would be on a roster and go round and round the airfield, on either side, covering each other and looking around, getting cricks in the neck, reversing the orbits to give relief to the muscles on the other side. We also expected to get warning from our ground observers, radars and look outs in the Air Traffic Tower. It is unfortunate that we didn’t start this till after the PAF strike!!

The missions across the border escorting the fighters and Canberras were a different matter. We expected to meet opposition. The success of the mission and the survival of the escorted aircraft was our responsibility. We had to think of the performance of the Sabres and Starfighters that Pakistan had. The Starfighters were supersonic and we were only transonic, in a dive. The Sabres and Starfighters could carry Sidewinder air to air missiles. We discussed all this amongst ourselves and even talked to the MiG-21 squadron commander, Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) Malcolm (“Mally”) Wollen, since they also carried comparable missiles.

Two things were clear to us. We were supremely confident of our ability to outmaneuver both the types of aircraft. The sidewinder missile could not be launched if the ‘g’ force at the time of launch was 2 ‘g’ or more. Also, it was very erratic close to the ground, say less than 2000’ and when the target was in line with the sun. So, we worked out our tactics. As we reached the target area, the escort Gnats would get into a tight spiral at about 4000-5000 feet and look out for enemy aircraft. We would fly at the throttle setting that we had arrived on target with, to keep up with the Mystéres at 420 Knots or increase to that setting when we arrived with the Canberras. We were not worried about what the strike aircraft were doing and concentrated on NOT getting hypnotized by their weapon delivery etc. Sometimes we did take a quick glance to see tanks being attacked etc. Since our strike fighters from Pathankot were never assigned to an airfield attack, we did not get any ‘guaranteed’ opposition. But we scanned all round the target for any enemy aircraft approaching as well as above. The intention was that, if any enemy aircraft was spotted, the strike formation would be alerted to leave the target area and we would take them on.

Most missions were escorted by two Gnats and we would plan to be on opposite sides of the orbit so that we could cover each other’s tails. Our tactics would be to take on the enemy aircraft in close combat. If one of us was in a tight spot, the manoeuvre to escape any missile armed enemy was to point the nose towards the sun and open full throttle. No aircraft could keep up with the Gnat climb, with a power/weight ratio of 1. Even if they stuck behind for a short time, the missile would not be able to track the small exhaust of the Gnat with the sun ahead. The alternative was to dive down to low level where the missile, again, would not be effective. Unfortunately for our tally of Sabres, we didn’t meet enemy aircraft on any missions, except for ‘Kala’ Sandhu towards the end of the war. This was especially so in my case – there went my hopes of decorations!!

Many Mystére and Canberra squadron commanders got an MVC or Vr C essentially for courageous leadership on missions during the war, but we Gnat pilots had to shoot down a Sabre to get an award. The only exception was Sqn Ldr Johnny Greene, whom I personally recommended for a Vr C for continuous good leadership while attached to my squadron and I fought with the powers that be to accept this exception. I believe his is the only case of a Vr C being awarded other than for a specific act of bravery. But whenever Gnats met Sabres, the latter always got shot down or ran away – throughout the war not one Gnat from my squadron was shot down but many Sabres were. In later years when our officers met Pakistani officers abroad, on courses or at air show events, they all admitted that they were terrified of the Gnat.

We had some exciting times during the escort work. The only fighters that we escorted were the Mystére from Pathankot. They flew really, really low, especially while coming from the targets. We were concentrating on pivoting our heads all round to look for enemy aircraft. We had no chance of navigating by map. Going to the target was not so bad as never was any formation bounced on the way in. Since we were swiveling our heads on top, the Mystére had to tell us when they left the target and we would latch on to them and escort them back. But we had far less fuel capacity than them and could not fly all the way back at tree top level. Once we were safe inside our territory, we had to pull up to a height where our fuel consumption would reduce and we could get back home. The agreement was that the formation leader would tell us how far and what direction base was. It didn’t always work out, Either the formation leader was not sure of his position, having exited in a hurry form the target on a heading other than planned or when we left the Mystére formation, the visibility from higher up, due to the haze, would prevent us from identifying known landmarks!! A number of times we landed back with no fuel even for an overshoot!! Thank God we had no losses due to fuel starvation, other than Sikand’s aircraft.

But it wasn’t always a routine matter of taking off with the Mystéres from Pathankot. More often than not, they would go to Ambala after their mission. Then, we would have to rendezvous with them on their way to the target for their mission next day. This took quite a bit of doing. The timing had to be perfect as nobody had the fuel to orbit around and join up. When the Command tried it the first time, the orders came to us to be at a specific landmark at a precise time, to the second!! We were there precisely sighted them well in time and were turning to join them when one of the pilots noticed us and excitedly started shouting “Bogeys, bogeys to starboard”. Command had forgotten to tell them that they were getting escorts!! We quickly told them, fortunately we were on the right channel, that we were the escorts. There was great relief in the voice of the Mystere leader when he said “Roger, Roger”. Next time onwards, we arranged the rendezvous between the squadrons and it worked out well.

With the Canberras the problem was different, especially with the Bombers and not so much the Intruders. Their idea of low flying was about 1000 feet!! We had to be like shepherd dogs, breaking R/T silence and literally screaming at them to ‘get down’. This was especially so while returning from a mission, We could never be sure that enemy aircraft were not following us and they would easily spot the large Bombers when they are not really low.

We had a natty way of joining up with them for escorting. They would give a coded call two minutes before reaching overhead Pathankot. We would scramble from ORP and lift off just in time to come up on either side of the formation as they flew past the runway.

Our endless CAP sorties from half an hour before dawn to half an hour after dusk was really painful physically and mentally. Our endurance time was about one hour and so you can work out how much of effort went into it. Not once were we attacked but we were at high tension throughout. After half the sortie was over we would reverse the orbit to give relief to our neck and arm muscles and to an extent our butts!! We found a new problem while doing the CAPs. The Hobson Unit that controlled the movements of the slab tail would freeze if we kept on orbiting with more or less the same position of the elevator. We had been everlastingly having a problem with this unit over the years and had recently lost some aircraft due to its malfunction. So, when we found this problem, all we could do was to periodically porpoise the aircraft to circulate the hydraulics.

There was a mission when Sqn Ldr Johnny Greene and Flt Lt Pat Pathania had Sabres in their sights but both their guns jammed and would not fire. So we worked out a system whereby the first tow CAP missions would fire a few rounds into the Chakki River, along the perimeter of the airfield, to ‘clear’ the guns. Then all the aircraft likely to get into combat would be cleared for the day. It was “War” and who bothered about getting permissions and checking out things!! We learned only after the operations that we had seriously interfered with the life of people in the vicinity. The river bed was the open air lavatory for hundreds of people in the area!! Can you imagine 30 mm explosive cannon shells going off near you when you are contemplating the skies above and relieving yourself!! I am not sure whether it helped in their ‘evacuation’ or not, but they certainly evacuated the area in a hurry!! Thank God we didn’t cause any casualties!! Of course, we had always fired the guns in open and sandy part of the river bed and would have seen if any body had been there. Had we opened fire indiscriminately in the brush along the banks, the results would have been catastrophic!!

Though we wanted to carry out ‘Sweeps’ and bring up Pakistani fighters and take them on, we could not as we were told to keep all the aircraft for ORP duties, CAPs and escort missions. As the war progressed, even the escort missions became less and less. So, endless Combat Air Patrols over the base became the main task.

The war was over soon and the Tashkent Declaration followed where the Indian Government gave back Haji Pir Pass, an incredibly stupid thing to do.

It was decided that Pathankot would be the permanent base for No 23 Sqn. It seems to have been my fate, ever since my marriage that I only had to go to a unit and it was moved elsewhere. No 23 Sqn had peacefully existed in Ambala, where I left it four years, after moving it to Palam and Ambala. But the moment I joined it again, not only does it move but gets into a war!!

The squadron had one more historical event to undertake before I handed it over. In 1966, the Government decided that it would no longer follow the unwritten principle it had followed of not operating any fighter aircraft from the Srinagar Valley. So we were the first fighter squadron, after 1948, to be sent to Srinagar to show the flag for a few weeks. That was in 1966 and we had a very enjoyable time, just flying around, no ORP, and picnicking. The outing lasted three weeks.

By the middle of 1967, I was getting flying fatigue. I had done 17 years of non-stop flying, had more hours than most people of my age and seniority, had 21 postings/moves, and had been given only 13 months of leave in all this time. On the two occasions that I had asked for and been granted 45 days leave, I was recalled within two/three weeks. The first time was when I went to get married, and I was recalled after three weeks because the Squadron (No 4) had been ordered to move to the boondocks of Adampur. The second time was when I had just returned from Iraq and had gone to collect my family (who were arriving later) from Mumbai, and to meet my mother and other family members whom we had not seen for two years. I was recalled in two weeks to go to war!!

Added to my frustrations and anger was the fact that in all these years I had not been nominated for Staff College. Officers in the field who did not have the time, or facilities like libraries, to study for the entrance exam were nominated, on their merit. I believe there were six vacancies for nominated officers. Year after year I used to see officers from cushy ground jobs being nominated. 1967 was the last year that I would have been eligible for admission, and when my name again didn’t feature in the ‘Nominations’, I reluctantly decided to make an effort with the meager resources of the library in Air Force Station Pathankot, which wasn’t much, and take the exam myself.


By Air Mshl S Raghavendran

After my Day Fighter Combat Leaders course in U.K., in; the second half of 1958, I was posted to No. 17 Sqn (Hunters) in Ambala, from where I had gone for the course. I knew this couldn’t last long because the squadron was so top heavy! The C.O., Johnny Bhasin was a Fighter Leader and A2 QFI, Kit Carson the senior flight commander was a QFI, I was a DFL and QFI and Johnny Greene was a DFL and PAI. Sure enough I was posted out as the senior flight commander to the newly formed No. 27 Squadron (Hunters), also in Ambala, under Arthur Berry. Kit Carson also left soon and migrated to Australia. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and taught the boys all I knew about fighter combat. If I was not leading a mission or flying as a wing man to one of our potential element leaders, I would be listening in to the aircraft set that I had fitted in my flight office to see how the missions were being led and handled. I remember one of the element leaders, my pupils from the instructional days, flying officers Ravi Bharadwaj, later on a Vr C winner and Air Marshal, and Pinky Pillai, an AVM later on. There was Pundit Sharma who did well in the Air Force. This was towards the end of 1958.

On 12 April, ’59 there was a signal which fulfilled my total ambition in life. It said that I was posted to take over No. 23 Squadron, based in Poona, on 15th April on promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader. I would have exactly nine years of commissioned service on that date and was 29 years old. Before joining the Air Force, my only ambition had been to join the Air Force, become a fighter pilot and fly the Spitfire of Battle of Britain Fame. But, once I had joined the Air Force, become a fighter pilot and flown the Spitfire, I had only two ambitions in life – to undergo a Fighter Leader Course (those days in the U.K) and be a Squadron Commander. I had realized my first ambition in 1958 and now I was realizing the second one. I believe, I was getting command of a squadron before anybody in my course or the course before me. My cup was full and even if I did nothing more in my life I would have died happily. God, and my Commanding Officers, had been great in getting me there!!

I spoke to Sqn. Ldr ‘Dirty Murphy’ or Murthy in The Operational Command Hq (The only Operational command that the IAF had at that time) and got permission to fly to Poona in Hunter aircraft to take over the squadron and then return immediately to pack up and go with my family. I got the permission and flew off to Poona (It was still Poona those days). Incidentally, Dirty Murphy was an amazing ‘Tempest’ pilot in his hey days. He was a flight commander in a Tempest squadron and what he couldn’t do with a Tempest was not much. Once he had an engine failure in the vicinity of the airfield and he called the tower to say that he was going to do a ‘dead stick’ landing on the air field and he wanted the junior pilots in the squadron to come out and see how it was done!! Unfortunately, he didn’t go far in the Air Force due to over diligent attendance at the Bar.

I took over the squadron as scheduled, on 15 April, 1959, exactly nine years after commissioning, from ‘Digger’ Digby, without much fanfare. Digger had just come as a flying   instructor to No.1 AFA at Ambala just before we had been commissioned. They didn’t have parades for handing over/taking over squadrons those days. I met the flight commander, Flt. Lt ‘Locky’ Loughran and the adjutant Flt. Lt. Bejoo Pallamji Gotla, as well as the pilots, engineering officer etc.

But I had a shock waiting for me when I landed there. My “Bete Noire” from my days as a flying instructor in Jodhpur, Group Captain ‘Happy Harry’ Dewan took over the station the same day on promotion to the rank of air commodore!! In his considered opinion, in Jodhpur, I was the embodiment of indiscipline in flying and he had once wanted to have me court martialed!!

One afternoon, I was on an air test with a cadet called Dewan – he happened to be Jaggi Nath’s nephew. After the testing part of the flight, I was teaching him the technique of low flying along the Luni River as it was without any obstructions and wound around nicely to make flying interesting. I did this because too many young pilots had died by trying to do extra low level flying, without a methodical and graduated approach. I did this with a lot of students and I hope it helped them survive. I suddenly felt as though somebody was watching me. I pulled up a little bit and looked around and saw at a distance one of the yellow Dakota aircraft of the Navigation School. I could almost feel two bulbous eyes peering at me from the aircraft. So I climbed up, got to height, did some aerobatics and came back and landed. When I parked the aircraft, I found a full reception committee waiting for me. The Chief Instructor Wg Cdr Masillamani, the Chief Flying Instructor of my Squadron, Squadron Leader Ronnie Engineer, the Station Adjutant and the CFI of the other Squadron, Sqn Ldr H.C. ‘Cut lip’ Chopra. The pilot of the Dakota had been the Station Commander, Group Captain H.C. Dewan, who had been returning from a trip to Delhi!! Immediately on landing he had called the supervisors to confront me, the Station adjutant to give me the letter saying a Summary of Evidence had been ordered against me, the prelude to a Court Martial and he had detailed the most vindictive misogynistic individual known for his fondness for crucifying his juniors, Sqn. Ldr. HC.Chopra!! . Dewan was known as ‘Happy Harry’ because of his doleful mien and voice. His was the nearest physiognomy you could find resembling a St. Bernard dog. He was also known as a very strict disciplinarian who didn’t pull his punches. In the somewhat short time he had been there, he had fairly terrorized the Station but I cannot say unfairly. I saw visions of my ‘close arrest’ during my Summary of Evidence and Court Martial, loss of seniority, posting to the boon docks etc that night, when I couldn’t sleep, of course. The morning would see me under arrest!!

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had fallen foul of the Station Commander. On the days when we used to have night flying, it was incumbent that all aircraft are air tested for full serviceability and for the functioning of the night flying systems such as cockpit lighting, landing light etc. So, all the instructors would assemble early and the flight commander would assign aircraft to each of us to do an NFT as it was called. It was a hurried job as we had to come back brief our pupils and get airborne on time, to a very tight schedule. So, all of us taxied fast to and from the runway. On two occasions when the Station Commander had occasion to be around to watch the proceedings and noted the fast taxiing, the only aircraft number that he could note turned out to be mine!! I was told by the CFI, Ronnie Engineer to look out or else!!

Wg Cdr Masillamani, our Chief Instructor was an amazing personality. One of the most renowned pilots of the Indian Air Force during the II World War, he and Ramunni were known as ‘The eyes of the Indian Air Force’. His skills at low flying and observation were anecdotal. He had flown with me, as is the wont of CIs, a few days before to check out my flying and instructing skills. Then he had taken me down and showed me some low flying!! I have never seen anybody so relaxed and laid back flying at tree top height. He had handed over controls to me at that height and watched my abilities to do the same. He had made no comments after the sortie but thank God for that flight! Clearly he was impressed. Also, I had mentioned to him when I landed as to why I had been doing low flying i.e. to prevent young pilots from doing impromptu low flying and dying. He may have questioned Cadet Dewan.

The next morning I was summoned and told that the Station Commander wanted to see me. Very ominous!! I was ushered into the office and Wg. Cdr Masillamani was also present. This was the first time I was seeing HIM at close quarters. He seemed more doleful and threatening than I had imagined. I was at attention in front of him and he said “The Chief Instructor tells me that you are a good pilot and instructor and that I should let you off without a Court Martial”!! Wg Cdr Masillamani ( in tamil it means a flawless jewel) had cornered the Station Commander the first thing in the morning, I learned later on, and told him that I was very good material for the future and that I should be given some other salutary ‘unofficial’ punishment and let off!! So Happy Harry looked at me and said, “If I give you some other punishment will you abide by it and behave yourself”. I nearly fell at his feet and said in the most impressive military voice I could summon ‘Definitely yes sir’. He grounded me for three months, made me the catering officer for the airmen’s mess (a most frustrating and demeaning job), and made me one of the Air Traffic control officers and no leave for the year!! I somehow put up with it for two months and then asked for an interview with the ogre and pleaded with him to let me get back to flying. He looked at me with his sad eyes and agreed to let me get back to flying but I would have to continue for another month as the catering officer. ‘And I don’t want to see Mr. Raghavendran on a flying discipline case again’. Fortunately, I was posted out to No 2 AFA in Begumpet in a few months and I breathed a sigh of relief at having escaped the guillotine.

Not a very happy situation to take over a squadron. But, I decided to give my imitation of a bull in a china shop and sought an interview with him immediately, before I left for Ambala. I marched into his office the same day as I had just flown down in the Hunter from Ambala to take over the squadron and was going back the next morning. I told him, “Sir, I am not the same immature flying officer you knew in Jodhpur. I would like to start with a clean slate and you can judge me by my performance”. He looked at me with his doleful eyes and said in his somewhat nasal voice, “All right Mr. Raghavendran, we will see”. He stuck to his word. On the base we had two Canberra Squadrons, a Liberator Squadron, a Hunter Squadron and my squadron on vampires. Of course, above all he would see whether the squadron flew the full hours authorized for your squadron per month and did you get people instrument rated and more operational? One of the yard sticks by which Dewan judged squadron commanders was also by the rate they used up the ‘minor training grant’ money. It was only in a few hundreds of rupees per year but it showed that you were using the full resources available. Also, he was great for infrastructure. Nobody knew more about Works Services than him and so if you could show some modicum of knowledge in this regard and get the services for the squadron, by pestering him if necessary, you were again one up. That year, during the monsoon, my squadron flew more than the Canberra, Liberator and Hunter Squadrons. The weather in Poona was treacherous during the monsoons. Our flying area was to the east and the weather would come rapidly from the west. Instead of relying only on the meteorological section to give us a forecast and sitting on the ground, we would get airborne. We were highly rated Instrument Rating wise, Five Master Green and umpteen white card holders. We would have one of the flight commanders fly a weather check to the west and if the weather was far enough away we would get airborne. I had an aircraft radio rigged up in the first floor verandah of the building, where my office was and either I or one of the flight commanders would man it to recall all the aircraft in time!! We were the first squadron in the IAF to have all pilots instrument rated. We were the first to use up all the Minor Training Grant money and ask for more. I was able to get a lot of ‘Works Services’ for my squadron by ‘Genning Up’ on what I could get and going to HIM if I was denied by the Senior Admin Officer.

That winter, during the first Gunnery Meet of the Indian Air Force, we won the overall trophy for the subsonic aircraft. With all this, Happy Harry now called as ‘Uncle’ Harry by my squadron used to go around asking the other squadron commanders as to why their squadron couldn’t be like 23 Squadron, much to my embarrassment!! He did my squadron the ultimate honour by wearing our squadron badge on his flying overall and I found him wearing it even when he was the Vice Chief of the Air Force. Contrary to most people, I found him a very helpful and knowledgeable person and ever after we had great mutual admiration for each other!! No doubt he conveyed his satisfaction about the squadron to the Command Hq.

That winter we had the first ever ‘Armament meet’ of the Air Force. It was nothing like the one that we developed later and was merely marksmanship assessment in the delivery of rockets and bombs and strafing runs from standard range circuits. But my squadron came first in the overall championship for the subsonic group. Jatar and I did the staffing and rockets and Banerjee and Loughran did the bombing.

At this time the squadron probably had the most number of highly qualified supervisory staff in the Indian Air Force, at that time, as follows:

a) Sqn Ldr S. Raghavendran – Fighter Combat Leader( combination of Fighter Leader and Pilot Attack Instructor courses) and Qualified Flying Instructor

b) Flt Lt I.S. Loughran – Qualified Flying Instructor

c) Flt Lt J.N. Jatar – Qualified Flying Instructor and Pilot Attack Instructor.

d) Flt Lt R.K. Mehta – A2 category Qualified Flying Instructor and Instrument Rating Examiner.

e) Flt Lt M. Banerjee – Pilot attack Instructor.

Perhaps all these factors added up to help Air Headquarters in deciding to pick my squadron to be the first Gnat squadron. On the other hand it could have been just a random choice like many things done by Air Hq in their typical mysterious ways – like when they posted me to a Toofani squadron, just before my DFCL course, when I should have been posted to a Hunter squadron for experience n type before undergoing the course on Hunters in U.K.!! This was announced by the end of December 1959.

Soon afterwards the squadron moved to Palam, took part in the Republic Day fly past and then handed over its aircraft and Vampire equipment and tools to No. 40 Squadron which was raised newly in Palam for the purpose. One problem was presented to me.. We had to give one of our flight commanders to No 40 Squadron, Loughran or Jatar. Locky saved the day by sacrificing and volunteering to go to No 40 Sqn, saving me a very very difficult decision, as I rated both very highly as my subordinates and friends. We also could take only those pilots who we thought could cope with the much vaunted performance of the Gnat. We shed some already before leaving Poona. After three of us supervisors had flown the Gnat, we definitely had to shed some more. Only four of the pilots of early ‘59 could make the grade. We started our Gnat saga with them, the four remaining supervisors and later on one pilot from the Gnat Handling Flight at Kanpur, making nine in all.

Jatar, Baldy Mehta and I went for conversion training to Kanpur where a Handling Flight had been established to fly the Gnat and write out the Flight Operating Manual etc. It was commanded by Sqn Ldr Mally Wollen and had Sqn Ldr Sudhakaran, my close friend and test pilot, and Flt Lt VK Singh, who later on joined my squadron when the Handling flight finished its work. I flew the Gnat for the first time on 5th February 1960 (IE 1072). “The little bugger” as Mickey Blake called it years later, was all that Mally and Sudha had told me about and more. It just ran away with one. By the time you got the nose wheel off the ground, you were airborne and seconds later, when one raised the undercarriage, the pitch up was so sudden and the power was so great that one seemed to be going into orbit. No pilot that I know could trim the aircraft on the first sortie to the recommended climb speed because it was so unbelievably steep. Added to that was the fact that the nose was so much above the horizon that nobody could continue a straight climb comfortably and had to dip the wing and turn, to see if the ground was still there.

The conversion went smoothly but was longer than we thought because of the low serviceability and the need to continue with the programme of the Handling Flight. Towards the end of it, the Air Force decided to have a super air show in Bombay, over the Chowpatti Beach. The Gnats were to be a part of it. A formation of three Gnats, led by Mally Wollen, with Jatar and me as wing men was supposed to take part. There was talk of showing off the ‘Big and the Small’ by having the Gnats formate on the Air India Super Constellation, then in the process of being handed over to the Air Force for Maritime Reconnaissance.

We took off from Kanpur on 19 mar, ’60 and were to land at Nagpur, on the way, for refueling and proceed to Bombay. I was flying IE 1070. We were cruising at about 30,000 feet and while approaching Nagpur started descending. At about 10,000 feet when I opened throttle to keep up with the leader, I found no response from the engine, though the engine showed idling conditions. Like all pilots, I pushed and pulled the throttle saying to myself, ‘this can’t happen to me’ over and over again. Of course, I had immediately called my leader and told him about the situation. He and Jatar orbited over as I descended. Even though my engine showed idling I tried a frantic relight, in case the engine had shut down and the engine was windmilling..

It was clear that ‘It’ had happened to me – something every pilot goes up in the firm belief would not happen to him. That is half the reason that they don’t do the things that they have trained for all their lives. I decided that I would eject by 2000’. In fact even that was late because the ground underneath was not at sea level and the altimeter showed the height above sea level. But I did remember to pull the aircraft out of the descent before I ejected. I remembered the axiom that if you don’t do that, you would lose 600-1000 feet of height in the six second that it takes for the parachute to deploy and open fully. I reached for the blind. It is amazing how fast the brain works. In the few seconds that it took from the moment I pulled the blind to the time the blind came away in my hand, I remembered that the test pilot Ashok had baled out from a Gnat a few weeks before and, when we asked him, he didn’t know what happened to the blind. I remembered that at that instant and held on to it throughout the time it took for the parachute to deploy and brought it with me to the ground!! While I ejected, though the seat does only half a revolution or less, I felt as though I was somersaulting over and over again. It felt so nice to realize that the seat had worked perfectly, separated from the parachute, which then opened as it said in the book – all in a total of six seconds!! Mally and Jatar had orbited around, seen my parachute open and then proceeded to Nagpur, not very far away, perhaps about 40 miles or less. There was a pond towards which I was drifting and I pulled on the rigging lines, like we had been taught, to prevent that. But as I neared the ground, I realized that I would be coming down through a tree. So I covered my eyes with my arms and pulled up my legs to protect my vitals!! That is why I did a one point landing on my tail bone on the rocky ground under the tree. This was near Chindwara. The whole area was very rocky. It was very near a village and the Gnat had made a large hole near it. One of the very heavy 30mm cannon had flown off and missed a man by a few feet. If it had bit him, nothing would have been left of him!! The villagers came around and helped me collect my parachute, which I saved and brought home. The Blind and the handle are framed in my house even now and the parachute was cut up and distributed to female members of the family, who promptly dyed it and made clothes for the kids etc.!! I was in great pain along my whole spine. They gave me some milk, as usual in India, some food and the local vaid massaged my back with some oil. I discovered I was about 17 kilometers from the nearest railway station and that also happened to be the nearest place from which I could communicate with the outside. World, by telegraph only!! A packet aircraft came around looking for me but it was very far away and I had no means to attract its attention. After a while it went away. This was in 1960 and strangely enough, due to the obduracy of the DRDO to have only indigenous development and production, we didn’t have pilot’s locator beacons even in 1988 when I retired!! I had to solve my transportation problem. The only means was by bullock cart and the terrain was so bad and hilly that the local bullock carts were only half the size of the ones elsewhere. There were no roads, only trails. I decided to go by that and it was getting dark, as I had bailed out late in the afternoon. The cart was such that I could not lie down. I was in such excruciating pain that I wished I had died in the crash. The rather worried cart man didn’t help my spirits by confiding in me that the area was full of panthers and our life was in danger!! The terrain was so bad that it took a good 12 hours to reach the railway station at BIMMALAGONDA. I sent a telegram to the Air Force Station that I was safe and would arrive by the next train to Kanpur.. Till then they did not know what had happened to me. My wife and children, including 13 day old daughter were in Delhi. My father in law, who was also in the Air Force had been told that I had bailed out and was seen to be alive but had no contact. Now he was told and then only he told the whole story to my wife. Poor man, he had been going out many times in the night to call Air Headquarters to find out if there was any news. Our new born daughter was named Jayanti to commemorate my ‘Jayam’ in the incident.

I was sent to the Military Hospital in Lucknow to check up the extent of the injury. There was a crack in the tail bone, which the surgeon said would have to heal by itself. If it continued to hurt, I would have to have surgery to remove that segment of the tail bone. He suggested that I shouldn’t fly aircraft with ejection seats!! Luckily he was an Army doctor. If I had gone to an Air Force Hospital or evaluation center they would have grounded me for ever or sent me to transport aircraft. Fortunately he didn’t make the entry in my records. I decided not to follow up with the Air Force medical system!! Against all orders, I flew the vampire trainer, with an ejection seat, in the squadron with a ‘doughnut’ air cushion, to commute to Ambala from Delhi to make arrangements for the move of the squadron there from Delhi. Then I was back in Kanpur flying the Gnat itself from 19th April, 1960. I presumed that I would probably be crippled or die if I ejected again but I was determined to continue with my career on fighters. I had acute pain many time then and in later life in my fighter flying career but never mentioned it to the Air Force medical system. In fact, I have it to this day!! If I had been intelligent, I would have got myself a medical disability pension when I retired; not only is it larger but exempt from income tax, I believe!!

We had only nine pilots to start with on Gnat – Self, Jatar, Banerjee, Baldy Mehta, TAK Taylor, Pran Chabra, Pandit Sharma, “Douglas “ Badia and V.K. Singh) and some more Mazumdar, Chowdhry,Kadhu Kapila joined by and by.

The Gnat was an amazing aircraft. We could take off in about 500-600 yards and land in about 800 yards.. We could just pull back on the stick after unsticking and it wouldn’t stall but do a roll off the top or loop as you wanted!! We didn’t do this but Wg Cdr ‘Dasu’ Das, the test pilot who had grown with the progenitor of the Gnat, The Midge, and now commanded A&ATU, did quite frequently when he was asked to do a display. He visited us at Ambala often from Kanpur to see if we were getting on OK. He was so avuncular and would readily put on an impromptu air display to the thrill of the entire station. When you got into the cockpit for the first time, you felt that there were a lot things missing. There was no flap lever, no airbrake switch, no fancy air conditioning controls, no rear view mirror like the Hunter etc. There were a few unusual things like the lever for splitting the tail in an emergency, a lever for streaming the tail parachute and a lever for emergency jettisoning of the canopy. Many were the people who split the tail when they wanted to release the tail parachute and, years later, somebody jettisoned the canopy trying to split the tail!! There was this very small magic lever that operated the under carriage, drooped the ailerons to act as flaps and stuck the undercarriage halfway to act as the ‘dive-brake’!! We had problems with brand new drop tanks from HAL, with a whole lot metal filing in them, blocking fuel flow. We were just lucky that this didn’t happen on our ferries from HAL. .We came across them after we had ferried all our aircraft. On my first ferry from HAL I had met Air Vice Marshal Ranjan Datt, the MD and suggested to him that he may want to give a memento to the squadron to commemorate the first aircraft that they produced and not assembled. He promptly got a beautiful silver model of the Gnat made by renowned Barton of Bangalore and sent it to the squadron. We, and the Folland Engineer, discover the mysterious ‘Bent Thrust’ on take-off on aircraft fitted with a new engine, which couldn’t be explained. The aircraft would swing violently on take off. Folland brought in some trims to be put on the exhaust pipe, which helped at times. At other times, all one could do was to change the engine or learn to apply lots of ruder on take off. We also discovered that the engineers in Folland had designed a very clever system by which the empty rounds from one gun fed into the ammunition tank of the other gun (there being only two guns). But, the catch was that fairly often the empty rounds would jam and automatically firing stopped!! We worked hard at it and thought we had solved it but it happened at crucial times during the ‘65 war. We missed the opportunity to shoot down two more Pakistani Sabre aircraft, as our pilots had them in their sights!! That was during my second tenure as Squadron Commander in the squadron. Our fuel capacity, in the clean configuration was a little more than the amount that the Hunter pilots had when they would call out “Bingo’, meaning time to go home. Throughout my first tenure, we flew in the clean configuration. Our sorties were short but exciting and our fuel reserve was pretty low on all missions…

Even with all these hiccups, we felt that it was an amazing aircraft that demanded more from a pilot than any other aircraft. It was like riding a spirited stallion. If you didn’t look out, it ran away with you. It made one extraordinarily alert and dexterous. Average pilots who came to the squadron would be above average when they went to other aircraft. Above average pilots were made exceptional. By and large the below average pilots were sent away, for their own safety and the safety of others!!

We had a fair amount of problems with the Station Commander, Group Captain Samsi. Because our aircraft was small he decided that all we needed was a very small hangar and very little office space!! We had a lot more ground equipment in the way of individual starter trollies etc. He also allocated half the number of offices that the three hunter Squadrons on the base had. I tried to argue with him but he was a very short tempered man and would not listen till I made repeated visits to his office and then, very reluctantly agreed. My pilots had barely converted on to type when he ordered that we must take our turn at carrying out Operational Readiness Platform duties!! For those not familiar with the term O.R.P. duties, this was the term given to the element of aircraft at instant standby at the end of the runway, ready to be scrambled, if there is any Air Intrusion across 0ur borders. I was really bewildered and angry, because one should be ready to take on any combat aircraft that may come across and fight it out if necessary. For that the pilots should be fully operation on the type of aircraft, undergone air combat training and carried out some air-to-air gunnery. I told him that my pilots had not even carried out firing of their guns on a range and had done no air combat on the Gnat and also most of them had never undergone air-to-air gunnery on any type of aircraft!! One also had to be familiar with the “Gun Dip” system of the Gnat. This was a novel phenomenon of the Gnat, whereby, when you fired your guns above 15,000 feet, the engine was automatically throttled back for a few seconds. The reason was that the guns were mounted just outside the intakes on both sides of the aircraft. And, when the guns were fired at higher power settings, above 1000 feet altitude, the engine could surge and flame out!! So, one had to remember to put the “Gun Dip” switch “On” if you were expecting to do air combat above that altitude and be prepared for the reduction in power, perhaps at crucial times. But he was adamant. I had to point out to him that any real scramble would result in a serious failure that would reflect on him. Then he relented but laid down a deadline by which I must train them to the basic level for the duties. When we started doing the O.R.P. Duties, the pilots were certainly not ready by my reckoning. I tried to make up for it by always putting one of the supervisors, including myself, as the leader. Incidentally, we could “Scramble” (Start up and take off) within 45 seconds, from cockpit readiness and in one and a half minutes if were in the underground readiness room. This has never been achieved by any type of aircraft in the World. The timing for the Mig-21 was two and half minutes from cockpit readiness and it was very similar for other Eastern and Western fighters.

Throughout my first tenure in the squadron, we flew without drop tanks and we were cocks of the walk. We had three hunter squadrons on the base. I would tell their commanders that they could take up their formations and call me after take off. After acknowledging their call, from my office where I had an aircraft radio installed, I would walk out to my aircraft and wait for them at 40, 000 feet!! I did this repeatedly and later on would wait for them with a pair of aircraft!! What made it more humiliating was that we would spot them early and, being used to sighting camouflaged Hunters, they would not spot the tiny silver Gnats till we were in firing range!! They were a very chastened lot. They didn’t realize that it took only 20 seconds to start up a Gnat, we took off from the short runway, from the intersection, about 500 yards from my office and dispersal and that we reached 40000 feet in 6 minutes. They would be climbing laboriously in formation to get to that height and the Hunter with drop tanks, in formation could take upto 15 minutes to get there.

Most of the senior ‘Hot’ pilots in other squadrons just would not believe us when we talked about the power/weight ratio of 1 and the ‘run away’ performance of the Gnat. But one by one they flew the Gnat and came back shaken men because they were not prepared for it. Great pilots like Bharat Singh, Omi Taneja etc were in that lot and their experience was aptly put by Mickey Blake in an e mail years later, who said “The little bugger ran away with me and I was at 30,000feet before I caught my breath”.

We took part in the annual Armament meet in December, 1960 and to the surprise of everybody, including ourselves won the air to ground gunnery trophy. We were competing against the Hunters, a very steady platform compared to the jittery Gnat!! They had four guns and could ‘spot’ harmonize, which we couldn’t. But I was first and Jatar was second.

Soon after we had a tragedy in the squadron. Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee, the first Indian Chief of the Air Staff died in Japan, during a visit there. There was a fly past over the cremation ground at Nigambodh Ghat in Delhi during his funeral on 10th Dec, ‘60. We were to take part and flew in from Ambala, on 9th Dec, ’60, Jatar, Baldy Mehta and I. On the down wind, coming in for landing at Palam, Baldy had a bird hit and had engine malfunction. In his nonchalant way he announced that he would make a dead stick landing on the runway. On the final approach, he realized that he was not going to make the runway and decided to eject. The seat ejected but did not separate and Baldy died. It was doubly a sad day for the squadron.

The Gnat flew past for the Republic Day for the first time on 26 January, 1961.

I handed over the squadron to Mally Wollen on18 Oct, ’61 and moved to HQ operation Command, as Training 1. The job entailed monitoring of the Operational Training of the Squadrons in the Command.

Photos of Gnat celebrations on Photo Gallery

Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava: Calling all Gnat Fiends

The way you are being addressed in this post is not an accident. AVM Ajit Lamba along with other recipients got a mail from me which was addressed to Dear Fiends. He promptly phoned to ask if this was intentional. It was then a Freudian Slip, though the idea was right. This time it is intended as all of us are almost fiendishly attached to the type.

My wife and I had come to Gurgaon on the way to attend a wedding in Rajasthan. I used the opportunity to get some lessons from my son Kishore whose idea and work it was to create this site. It has proved to be a proper repository for information on the Gnat and now includes photographs. Adequate control was ensured on the site to not make it a totally public blog. I needed lessons on how to manage it (not always successfully). The lessons this time were for learning how to upload pictures to the Photo Gallery of the site.

Please follow down to Photo Gallery. Under Gnat Vignettes, three sub-albums cover arrival etc, the sessions, and lunch. The other independent albums are for the Dinner at Le Meridien and the Reunion at ASTE. Since I cannot name many people in the pictures, the picture captions are neutral: a single title and a serial number. I wonder if I should add the photographs from the Brotherhood functions in Pune and include albums for pictures received from the UK and the HAL. In any case, these will have to wait till I am back home in Bangalore.

I request the Gnatties to identify the personalities etc and discuss any pictures they want with friends. But for this, please do not use the gnat-people email address. All of you Gnatties have the email address of each other. Using the already distributed directory, please keep the one-to-one exchanges between yourself and your contacts.

If anyone needs to make a large print of any picture, please ask me for its un-altered original file. These vary from, 1 MB to 4 MB each. For smaller prints or saving the picture on your hard disk simply right click on it and save the file on your own computer

In view of my plans for access to photographs in this manner, I had arranged with Mr Kapil Chandni that he should only produce a set of two DVDs for the live recording of the Vignettes session. Each set of two DVDs should cost about Rs 150 plus postage. We should hear soon about them and they should get distributed as planned by him. I now have little do with this process.

I do have one anecdote up my sleeve to be added to the site. But I wonder why the Gnat fiends have not added to them. It is your site and it should keep growing. Please have a look at Site Statistics – top right (third item) of the site itself. As of now, we have had 28479 visits from 7496 separate computer locations and 87 visits today. The visitor count below Photo Gallery was  started a bit late and will soon be removed.

The site has been a bit inactive though visitors keep coming to it each day. It is now up to all of you to add your Gnat tales to share and inform others around the world about our aircraft. Surely, we have not covered all that we know about the Gnat and Ajeet. Stories and information for these aircraft cannot have already dried up. Please exercise the grey matter and let us have the benefit of your experience and knowledge, even the funny bits that tickled you sometime in the hoary past.