By Air Commodore Tapas Sen (Retd)
I had joined the Panthers in November 1963 as a Flight Commander and had needed just twenty eight days to be declared operational on Gnats. Therefore, my story today must have been set on a cold Sunday morning early in December 1963. I do not have my logbook handy at this moment so I cannot quote the exact date. Tradition demanded that I get rostered for a holiday stint at the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) as soon I get declared operational on type. I claimed no exception for myself; I found myself on the ORP on that Sunday. By chance, the other pilot on duty was the other new flight commander, Reggie Upot. We were no strangers to each other. He was my instructor when I was a pupil in the Flying Instructors’ school, and he was my CO when he was commanding the FIS and I was his Chief Ground Instructor. He was now my senior colleague.
December 1963 was an exciting and busy time for Ambala. Exercise Shiksha was in full swing. The USAF had deployed a squadron of F-100 Super Sabres at Palam that also operated off Ambala for the exercise. Both the Hunter squadrons (7 and 27) were taking part in the exercise while the two Gnat units (2 and 23) were sitting it out. We got to do twice our share of ORP duties but were hard pressed to find any time to carry out routine training with the local radar unit. A new ADDC (Air Defence Direction Center) had just been set up at Ambala, and all the radar units under the ADDC were wrapped up with the exercise. To compensate for this neglect, the controlling radar unit generally indulged the pair of aircraft on ORP duty with one practice scramble during the day if a live track (an unidentified aircraft being detected within the radar cover) did not chance by.
It was a misty lazy Sunday. The usual ORP routine of restful alertness punctured by cups of tea and shop talk kept us occupied until a scramble was ordered just before noon. For those unfortunate folks who have not witnessed a Gnat scramble, the wonderful drama would bear a recount.
From the place of rest for the waiting pilots to the cockpit of a Gnat on readiness was seldom beyond fifty or sixty strides. Covering that distance normally took less than ten seconds. The entry into the cockpit was athletic: a jump, a push up on the cockpit side, legs over the side and on to the seat, half a twist left and on the seat, both arms up to the shoulders to receive the shoulder-straps handed over by ground crew, click the straps tight, strap the helmet on, lock the canopy as the ground crew slams it down. It took perhaps twenty seconds to perform it all. Then hands on throttle and stick, click click click on the relight button as the starter air bottle churns the engine and all you have to do is to bring the throttle to the idle gate allowing the fuel to flow. The engine start-cycle was amazingly fast, and it permitted the pilot to pour on power as soon as the light up was stable. By about one minute and twenty seconds after a scramble the wheels could roll. It took just another twenty seconds or so to get the wheels off the ground. I do not think there has been another fighter ever designed to have a faster scramble response. We rolled on to runway 27R and slammed our throttles. I was on the left lane and Reggie ahead of me on the right.
Perhaps I was a bit tardy in gunning my engine or perhaps it had a little lesser thrust compared to the other aircraft. I started falling behind. I kept my eyes locked on my leader. It was easy to lose sight of a Gnat even in a slight haze and I had no intention of doing so. Reggie’s nose wheel left the ground and mine followed suit. We got off the ground almost at the same time. Just as I got airborne and my left hand moved from the throttle to the undercarriage lever, the nose of my aircraft cocked up and the left wing dropped.
It took me perhaps a couple of microseconds to realize what had happened. I had allowed the aircraft to stall on take off through excessive early rotation. Instinct took over. The stick went forward to unstall the aircraft. I took my eyes off the leader and looked at my left wingtip perilously close to the ground. Ahead of me stood a structure which used to be the old flying control building and the aircraft was turning directly towards it. It took every ounce of my self control not to use the ailerons for another fraction of a second until the aircraft was fully within the flying envelope. I then levelled the wings and let the aircraft roar over the blast pens of Sahara Dispersal as I gained height to safety. Rajpura become visible on the horizon near my right wingtip.
By now my heart had stopped the jungle dance it was going through for the last few seconds. Slowly my breathing became normal and I was able inform my leader that I was separated from him and that I would return to base on my own. In the local flying area I roamed until the fuel drop tanks were empty and then I came back to land. Back at the ORP I went mentally through all that had happened to find out the reasons why. One reason of course was a gross flying mistake committed by me. I had allowed my aircraft to match my leader’s attitude while I was still behind him in the acceleration curve. This was an error. However, with the kind of power and acceleration that the Gnat had, this would have been soon overcome. I had been surprised by the way the aircraft had bucked up. This was my first take off in the Gnat with the drop tanks full and the difference in feel was perceptible. This change coupled with the mistake I had made had caused the problem. It became clear to me that a special point needs to be made for a new pilot taking off for the first time with drop tanks full about the rearward shift of the c of g with in that state that caused this trouble. Why wasn’t I warned about it? Perhaps my large footprint as an experienced QFI had made Trevor Keelor, who was the nominated supervisor for my conversion and ops training, complacent? How about Reggie Upot? Perhaps he did not even know that this would be my first take off with the drop tanks full. Be whatever it may, I was lucky. Gods grace allowed me to live to tell the tale. I should be happy about it, should I not? But every time I recollect the incident I am covered with a sense of guilt. I will tell you why.
The incident had shown me that a special briefing point for change of trim on take off with drop tanks full was necessary. Panthers were the mother of the Gnat fleet and I was its flight commander with all necessary background of training. I should have ensured that no other pilot ever faces the problem that I had faced. I did what I thought was necessary. Briefing notes were prepared and through out my stay in the squadron I made sure that the necessary briefing point was included and used. I did not give the subject a second thought as I left the Gnat fleet and moved on. Years passed. I never heard of any one facing such a problem. I thought all was well. I was wrong. Twenty two years later, in 1986, I faced a moment of truth. I had just retired from KKD as the Air Officer Commanding. I had gone back there as a retired officer to tie up a few points of personal administration that I had left undone. I was sitting in my old office facing my successor Kamli Khanna with a cup of coffee when the siren wailed. There was an accident on the runway. A pilot officer performing a stream take off behind his leader in an Ajeet had suddenly flipped over and crashed. I reached the spot along with Kamli and heard the accounts pouring out from eye witnesses. A shiver ran down my spine. The pilot was taking off in stream behind his leader. He seemed to lag a little initially. He seemed to have unstuck along with his leader. He had very definitely unstuck prematurely going by the place where he had crashed. The aircraft bucked up dropped a wing rolled over and went into the ground. And yes, his drop tanks were full. Is it possible that poor pilot officer Venkat had missed out on this vital small point of briefing for take off? Is it possible that over a period of more than twenty years, knowledge earned through experience had not been passed on from seniors to juniors? Could it be that the steps I had taken to introduce the point of briefing were inadequate? The briefing was not entrenched enough to survive the passage of time?
Venkat was perhaps not even born in December 1963 when I had faced a problem similar to what took his life. On my own station at KKD Venkat used to be a part of a group of happy young adults that included my own children. Why is it that we failed to prevent his untimely demise? Must I carry a portion of the guilt for the loss of Venkat for ever?