By Gp Capt PM Velankar VM (Retd )
During 71 war I was in 22 Squadron and we were operating from Dumdum. The squadron had been operating detachments and had a major portion of the unit operating from Dumdum since September – October 1971.
Squadron aircraft crossed the international border to attack various ground targets or as an escort to Hunters for the first time on the 4th of December 71. A good number of sorties were carried out by almost all the pilots of the squadron. I did not cross the border that day but was detailed to carry out CAP sortie over Dumdum. I did three or four sorties of CAP with different No 2s. It was the same story the next day. Even after requesting the Flight Commander to let me go on ground attack sortie I was informed that the CO did not want to send me across the border. My relations with the CO were not the most cordial. He thought I was a good for nothing useless pilot. On my part the feeling was mutual! So once again I did four CAP sorties. The same thing happened on the third day as well. Doing CAP sorties every day, for three days, had its effects ! Things had become so bad that even after flying was over for the day my head kept snapping and swivelling from left to right as if still looking around for the bogies ! It was OK so far as it went but caused lot of trouble in the evening when I could not put the glass to my lips as the head kept swivelling! For the first couple of sips I had to literally hold it still with my left hand and take a sip from the glass in the right hand. Things used to improve after a couple of drinks and and were back to normal by the time my normal quota was consumed!!!!
On the fourth day the sun did not rise from the west but I had a feeling that things would be different that day. The start was not too good. For the first sortie I was again detailed for a CAP! Boondi took four ac formation for a ground attack / attack on river borne targets at a place called Satkhira.
The time was around 1030 or 1100 when I was told that CO wanted me. He told me that, as I was keen to do a strike sortie , to take a two ac formation to Satkhria and to get air borne as soon as possible, Vinod Batheja was detailed as no 2, apparently Flt Cdr’s urgings had their effect!!! This being my FIRST EVER sortie in enemy territory and that too as a Leader, I was extremely excited and rushed to prepare the map and do the normal planning for the sortie. I Wanted desperately for every thing to go smoothly with no f***-ups !!! As usual when you are in a hurry things are just not found. Frantic search for the map, the pencils, protector, ruler was yielding slow results. In between people were telling me to hurry up as CO was enquiring whether I had got airborne or was still on ground and was being told that I was preparing the map !! Finally every thing was found and I had just drawn the line joining Dundum to Satkhira and measured the distance which appeared neither too little nor too much. Calculation of distances , timings and fuel consumption were next in line and still to be done , when I was told that if I was not airborne within 15 minutes some other targets were expected and then I could forget about the strike and keep swivelling my neck over Dumdum airfield. All this while Batheja was hovering around and like a good no 2 was neither a hindrance nor help. But now he pipes up and says “Velu, it is OK I have been to that place in the morning with Boondi and every thing was ok, no sweat.” To my enquiry if he was “sure”, he said, “Ya, absolutely sure every thing ok” I wanted to say “OK Bats kick the tyres, light the fires, briefing will be on D Delta”. Instead I just said, “OK Bats let us go, briefing as per the SOP” and we proceeded to the aircraft. Time elapsed between my being told to go for the sortie and we setting off for the aircraft less than 18 minutes!!!!
Start up, taxi, take off and reaching the target at a height of 500 to 1000 feet was smooth and normal. The weather was fine with good visibility and thin 8/8 cloud cover at medium altitude. Our targets were ships / mechanised boats plying on the river in Satkhira area. There were quite a few of them and fairly big in size too. I told Bats to get in the position and go for the targets.
For the first time ever in your life , going in to the dive , removing the safety, putting the right index finger on the trigger , tracking the enemy target and opening fire when at correct range , seeing the bullets hitting the target causing devastation, pulling out doing a hard turn to see if you have hit the target and being pleasantly surprised that the bullets which missed the target on the range, had hit the mark accurately the. Target being destroyed. Believe you me, it is a totally mind-blowing experience. As a fighter pilot one has trained all these days to take on the enemy, that and only that is the purpose of all your training, hard work, in fact of your life and existence! Very few of us are lucky to really achieve and fulfill to any degree the raison d’etre of their being. I feel we were one of those lucky few! No words can describe how one really feels at times like this.
We carried out two passes. I asked for fuel check and asked Bats to join up for return. He gave me the fuel state, just borderline, but also said “Velu there, there at 2 O ‘Clock about 3 miles a big ship”. I made contact, could not resist such a good target and agreed for just one more pass. We got carried away and did one more pass. The ship was doomed. We set course for Dumdum at 500 to 1000 feet. I saw the fuel and started easing up. Climbed up to 5000 to 6000 feet and levelled out as there was thin cloud layer above that. Now Bats gives a call of Bingo. I was taken aback, we were still a distance from base. I checked with the SU if they had joy on us and to give us pigeons to base. They had joy and we get the pigeons. We were a few miles from Jessore airfield. But I did not feel joy as Bats was bingo minus and wanted to land at Jessore. I told him to shut up maintain position and we started climbing. We got through the cloud layer and kept climbing to level out at around 16,000 ft as there was another cloud layer above that and much darker and thicker. We set the RPM for range flying and continue towards base. By now Bats was yelling his fuel state and was wanting to land at Jessore or he may not reach the base. I told him to shut up once again and to maintain position. I was getting worried, I thought, if I did not take back the formation with my no 2 intact, I would never again cross the border. In fact, the way things were between me and the powers that be, might not even fly again.
I called up the SU and reported ” This is Vodka 1 , steering so & so , at FL 160, estimate so & so miles from base “. SU promptly came on and said ” Vodka I have joy on you your pigeon’s so & so.” The pigeons tallied with my report and gave me a little bit of happiness. I recognised the voice of the controller. It was Bagchi, a thorough professional and a very good controller. I dropped all the formalities and said, “Bagchi, this is Velu, my No 2 is low on fuel, we are on top of 8/8s and have no contact with ground, can you please take us and position us so that we can make a direct approach and landing also fly / commence descent in such a way that the whole thing is done at the least power setting, a sort of GCA if you can do that”. Being a professional he came back promptly and told me to ” stand by.” Within no time he came back and started controlling us giving new courses to steer etc. We continued, started descent when told to do so, entered cloud, carried on following directions. continued after getting below clouds and following directions, till such time he said, “Runway should be in front of you, report contact”. I reported contact thanked Bagchi and told him we were changing over to tower. Bagchi had done a wonderful job. Runway in use and touch down point was just ahead and we were ideally positioned for direct approach and landing. And all this while, once we had commenced descent we were flying at the least power setting ,(( Mercifully except for asking if he could eject once or twice Bats had ” SHUT UP “, which was good as it did not disturb my prayers!!!I )) I confirmed if Bats had the runway in contact, told him to land first and went round after he had rounded off and about to touch down. By now for the last minute or so my own bingo light was also ON. I heard Bats asking if he could switch off at the end of run way. I told him NOT to do any thing of the kind and switch off only after reaching the dispersal!. To this day I am grateful to Bagchi for bringing us back safely, which may not have been possible considering the S*** we were in.
After landing reached the tarmac and saw that Bats was just getting out of the ac. I switched off, jumped out and briskly caught up with Bats. Nearly caught him by the scruff of the neck and shouted ” Damn it Bats you had said””ya , absolutely sure every thing ok “”so why the hell did we land up in such S*** “. That fellow says every thing was OK except that we had followed HIGH – LOW – HIGH profile.!!!!!!!! If any one had come close to committing a murder it was Velu at that moment ! Any way the mistake was mine for taking a strike formation without proper planning .
I told Bats in a threatening voice if he ever told any one of the closest shave which we had, I would kill him. I also kept quite about the whole thing.
RS Mehta later gave me the refuelling figures. I have a feeling that the last few minutes before Bats had reached tarmac and switched off, his engine was running on fuel fumes AND my prayers.
It is since then that I became firm believer in the power of the prayer. Later I carried out quite a few sorties, happily without any F***-Ups and to the satisfaction of all.