By Wg Cdr (Retd) Prakash S Sanadi
Gnat aircraft E-1038 was on AOG for over six months. Its parts had been cannibalised to recover other aircraft, with the result it had to be kept propped up on three picketing blocks in a blast pen in Ambala, minus the undercarriage, engine, canopy, ejection seat etc. The blast pen had not been used in ages and had a lot of bushes and junk material lying in it. E-1038 was looking like a junked aircraft forlornly kept in a corner with dust covering its airframe and a piece of canvas just as dirty and torn, haphazardly spread over the cockpit.
15th Dec ’71. With the Indo Pak Dec ‘71 war at its peak Ms Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was tasked by Air Hq., with immediate supply of items on AOG for all aircraft of HAL manufacture in the Western Sector. Chairman HAL ordered all concerned Divisions to immediately arrange to supply all the AOGs items and airlift the required items in the HAL Avro. A message to this effect was flashed to Hq WAC who in turn informed C Eng O, Ambala that the Avro would arrive on 17th Dec 71 with all the AOG items for E-1038 and the aircraft has to be kept ready for rebuild which is to be completed within 24 hours and the aircraft be flown out to Amritsar for operational duties. Flt Lt Sanadi was tasked by Wg Cdr Johnny Greene, OC 2 Squadron AF, to monitor the progress and when the aircraft was ready, he was to air test the aircraft on a flight towards Amritsar and land there only.
16th Dec ’71. Never had a squadron achieved what transpired in the next 24 hours. The STO of No 2 Squadron, Sqn Ldr Shaukat Ali ordered all the available manpower to start cleaning the blast pen and the aircraft, camouflage the blast pen completely so no light could be visible from the outside. The activity was feverish, the blast pen was cleaned of all the bushes, the aircraft was washed with soap water and wiped clean, the cockpit was vacuum cleaned. The blast pen was camouflaged and fitted with flood lights focused on the aircraft, all equipment required to work on the aircraft was positioned in the blast pen procured from the R & SS and each team was tasked to complete their responsibilities in the shortest possible time. Meals, tea, coffee etc were arranged to be delivered by the Mess in the blast pen. Sleeping arrangements (in fits & starts) were arranged in nearby rooms with attached toilets for all personnel working on the aircraft.
17th Dec ’71. The HAL Avro aircraft landed at Ambala at about 1pm. All the equipment required to rebuild E-1038 packed in neat boxes was off loaded and moved directly to the blast pen, where it was opened and segregated. The engine & ejection seat complete were positioned on their trolleys side by side in the blast pen. At about 4pm the work to rebuild E-1038 commenced. It was getting dark and the weather was biting cold with a stiff cold breeze blowing to make matters worse. At about 10pm Flt Sgt Ramamurthy an engine tradesman came to Flt Lt Sanadi and requested issue of two bottles of Rum. Sanadi was dumbfounded with the request, but Sqn Ldr Shaukat Ali was there to reassure Sanadi and said give it to him. So two bottles of Rum were issued!! Sanadi then went to monitor the progress. Cpl Yadav leaning his back to the main wheel as a support was seen desperately trying to lock the buttons of the rubberised wing fuel tank inside the wing. This task was done just by feel through a opening on the under surface of the wing. His hand and back paining he continued with his task. Sanadi offered to help and was able to push just one button into its locking slot before his back & arm gave way. Yadav laughed and took over the task himself. The blast pen by now was a beehive of activity, AOC Ambala with the C Eng O came to see the effort being put in. Sqn Ldr Shaukat Ali was asked when the aircraft would be ready for the test flight and he said the plan was to have the aircraft ready for the ground run at 9am the following morning, the time at that moment was 2230 hrs. Sanadi was told to return home and get some sleep and be ready for the air test the following morning. Simultaneously the air raid siren went off but the technicians continued to work on the aircraft, unmindful of the risk they were taking. They appeared like ants clambering all over the aircraft in their effort to complete the task in hand.
18th Dec ’71 0900 hrs. E-1038 a gleaming Gnat in all its splendor was towed out of the blast pen and positioned for the ground run just out side the blast pen. A bowser was positioned to top up the aircraft after the engine run. The engine tradesman was inside the cockpit all set to start the engine. At the given signal the engine was started up with the sound of a beautiful whine of the engine RPM winding up. Everyone assembled gave a loud cheer and a thumbs up signal. The ground run was successful and no snags were encountered. Slight adjustments were made and the engine was switched off. E-1038 was readied for the air test & ferry. ATC got the clearance from ADC for the air test & ferry of the aircraft to Amritsar. Sanadi got into the cockpit, quickly strapped himself in, closed & locked the canopy and gave the signal for start up. Checking all the parameters, he asked for taxying out and line up permission from the ATC. Again there was a roar & clapping from the crowd of tired officers, technicians and NCE’s as the aircraft was taxied out. Everyone saluted and E1038 rolled out and lined up for take off. ATC controller called 35 GOOD LUCK, YOU ARE CLAEARED FOR TAKE 0FF. With a full throated roar of the engine, E-1038 was airborne and zoomed off into a brilliant blue sky, climbing away. With radar cover provided, Sanadi checked out the aircraft enroute to Amritsar, informed Ambala operations normal landing at destination. At approximately 1120hrs E-1038 landed at Amritsar airfield and was inducted into operational flying. A job well done by all the personnel & M/s HAL. E-1038 remained fully serviceable through out the war.