“I saw a display of MiG-21s on an airfield & I knew-Air Force, for me, meant Fighters, nothing else"
Sir you have been an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence Academy and you have been a fighter pilot in the Air Force. Taking you down the memory lane, we would like to know why you wanted to join the Armed Forces and what made you be a fighter pilot?
I joined the Air Force by accident (laughs). I have mentioned this in my book, ‘The Accidental Pilot’ as well. Since my father was in the Indian Army I was more inclined to wear the Olive Green uniform. Right from my childhood, I would be very “triggered” if I heard an Army band playing or a Military column marching! I visited the unit areas with my father and I was highly motivated to be an Army officer. I appeared for the National Defence Academy (NDA) examination. After I cleared my Service Selection Board (SSB) interviews and the medicals, I remember being asked if I would like to go for the Air Force SSB (my first choice was the Army, then the Navy and then the Air Force) and I surprised myself by excelling at the Air Force SSB. When the merit list came out, I found that I was fairly high up in the Air Force merit list as compared to the merit list of the other two services. Although I was a little apprehensive to join the Air Force in NDA, my father (who was a very practical person) said that it didn’t matter which service I joined and which uniform I wore as long as I was committed to join the Armed Forces. This made me stick to the Air Force and when I joined, all my friends, my course mates, were from the Air Force stream and so I had no inclination thereafter to change my service.
As far as joining the fighter stream is concerned, I recall this one time during our training in Jodhpur. Three MiG-21s flew and did a display over the airfield. We were made to witness the display and just by looking at those aircrafts, I knew that Air Force, for me, meant Fighters, nothing else!
Could you tell us something about your two books ‘Raindrops’ and ‘The Accidental Pilot’?
These are short stories based upon my experiences in the Indian Air Force. They include certain incidents and anecdotes which happened with me during my tenure. I took that little incident and built a story around it. Plus, I have written some fictional work also along with a few poems here and there.
It has been 16 years since you superannuated from the Air Force. Could you tell us about your life post retirement?
When I retired in August 2004, for the first six months I felt like a fish out of water. I was trying to reconcile with the fact that I don’t have to wear a uniform again and I don’t have to go to the office or go see an aircraft or fly. All these thoughts were going through my mind till I picked up a job in a startup airline in Bangalore as the Chief of Flight Safety and Deputy Chief of Operations, where I was with them for 6 months. However, the airline did not take off as such and I returned. Along with a colleague of mine from the Indian Air Force, Squadron Leader Harold Bankien, we started an organization called “Blue Diamond Aviation” in Pune in 2006. It was essentially a ground school, building up the essential knowledge of the aspiring pilots and then channelizing them into flying schools both in India and abroad. We also guided the students who were inclined to join the Indian Air Force by motivating them to be a part of the Indian Air Force. This continued till 2013 but due to the slump in the aviation industry, the academy had to shut down. Thereafter, I’ve been a consultant for a civil flying school, indulged in my hobby of writing short stories/articles writing, and doing a bit of consultancy work for a construction company on the management of societies.
At the time of retirement
You have gained exposure through your travels to the UK, the USA and various other countries. Were these travels a part of your tenure? Could you please elaborate on that.
As part of the National Defence College (NDC) team, I had visited Saudi Arabia and Turkey. I had also been to France and the UK. Post retirement, I travelled to Australia in connection with my aviation academy back then where we tried to tie up with flying schools in Perth. In the USA, however, I met a lot of people both from the corporate as well as the Defence sector. In San Francisco, we were witness to all the Air shows and it made me compare them to the ones we have back home with our Surya Kiran aerobatic team! I found quite a lot of similarities and it felt good to be able to see the flying of the Blue Angels- US Navy’s aerobatic team.
While you were nominated for a course at NDC, did you encounter any officers from various neighbouring countries as well?
There were many officers from foreign countries in that course. There were people from the USA, UK, Australia, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and some African countries. I became good friends with the person from Brunei. Although he was a Group Captain, he was actually the Chief of Air Staff of Brunei.
You joined the Air Force in 1969. Were you also a part of the 1971 war? What was the atmosphere like, at that point in time?
Although our squadron participated in the war, I was unable to fly because I was still an under trainee pilot on the Gnat aircraft. We however supported the flying operations and were in close proximity with the people who flew. I remember we initially operated from Kumbhirgram and halfway through the war we moved to Agartala. We helped with the preparation of the aircraft for the mission. Even though we didn’t fly, it was a great experience!
To give you a little background, the real ‘action’ took place in February 1971. An Indian Airlines plane was taken to Lahore and subsequently blown up. That was perhaps one of the triggers for India to start the preparations. But of course, the main cause was Mujibur Rehman who was elected as the PM but was not allowed to become one because of the contradictions within the political parties of Pakistan at that time. The preparations had already commenced to form Bangladesh much earlier than December, when the actual war broke out. The Mukti Bahini was the indigenous force of Bangladesh comprising all the volunteers and trained by the Indian Army to fight. We had some kind of indication in October that war was imminent and so our preparations became even stronger from October onwards. People were really charged and were eagerly awaiting some kind of action to take place and that time came on the night of 3rd December, 1971 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced on the radio that 11 of our air bases have been struck on the Western side and the very next morning, our missions started. Halfway down, I remember, the US sent the USS Enterprise towards the Bay of Bengal. Our Commanding Officer (CO) Wg Cdr Badhwar, (he was like Rambo) said, “Bring on the Americans, we’ll take them on”! The josh was as high as ever! Those aspects of the war are still so crystal clear in my mind, where people were just waiting to go in and participate and do their job for which they had been training all along.
Oh, I must narrate to you an incident that took place in Agartala. The local population there were so supportive that everyday truckloads of fruits and vegetables, chicken and eggs would come in from the people of Agartala for the Forces operating from the Agartala Air Base. One day our Commanding Officer asked the men how the josh was to which one of them replied, “What sir everyday chicken we’re getting. No mutton sir!” (laughs) The war becomes a lot easier to fight when every aspect is also taken in stride along with humour.
You were the Deputy Commandant of the Air Force Academy, Dundigal. How would you describe your tenure?
It was a very interesting tenure in the sense that I had been to the AFA earlier as an instructor and the Chief Flying Instructor. It was a proud moment for me to come in again as the Deputy Commandant wherein I was not only in-charge of the flying training but also the training of the flight cadets who were joining the technical, administrative, logistics, accounts streams. It was a very challenging appointment which was made easy because I had a great team to work with. The Chief Instructors under me were excellent at their job. We made sure that the cadets who passed out from the Academy never forgot the training given to them.
I recall one incident where one of the lady cadets for the flying branch was apprehensive of flying with a male instructor. Unfortunately, at that point in time, we didn’t have any female pilots as instructors. There was no choice but to fly with the male instructors. Her mother came down to the Academy and we had to explain to her and her daughter and make them understand the situation. The end result however, was that she flew extremely well and later on went on to marry a helicopter pilot! (laughs) You were awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal in 2001. Please shed some light on that.
I was posted to Air Force Station Hasimara in West Bengal as the Air Officer Commanding of that station. As Napoleon once said “Give me lucky Generals”, I was lucky enough to have all wonderful people who served with me and carried out their jobs professionally with dedication and commitment. We transformed Hasimara Air Force Station into the Number 1 station in Eastern Air Command! We were the best in operations, flight safety, administration, non-public funds, in almost every field and the credit goes to each and every person who served with me in that station. But, as is the norm in any organization, if the organization does well that means the boss (CO) has done well,and that’s how I was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal.
President Narayanan pinning the AVSM (2001)
I think a major portion of the credit for my award goes to people who served with me. (smiles). In all my appointments, my aim remained the same – I always ensured that the Air Force flag flew high! People below me learnt that loyalty, honesty, integrity play an integral part in being an Air Warrior. These were the kinds of things that I would tell people and try my level best to lead by example so that my subordinates always felt that if this man can do it, why can’t we? I would like to believe that I was their role model. (laughs)
Assuming command of Air Force Station Hasimara (31 May 1999)
Talking about being a role model to others, we would like to know if you considered anyone in the Air Force to be your role model.
Right from the time I was a Pilot Officer, I was always looking out for the positive aspects of my commanding officers. I would try to put those aspects down in my mind so that if I ever got a chance to be in the same positions, I would imbibe their teachings into my own practice.. All my Commanding Officers and my Flight Commanders truly contributed towards me reaching the position from where I superannuated. They left an indelible mark on me that shaped my career. If I have to name some people, I would say my first Commanding Officer in a fighter squadron was Wg Cdr Ravi Badhwar who, according to me, was professional to the core. Later, Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa motivated me to learn things about interpersonal relations in the Air Force. Late Air Marshal Jayakumar & Air Marshal Pratap Rao (I served as Staff Officer to both) shaped my thinking as far as dealing with subordinates was concerned. They taught me how to be firm yet compassionate.
What were some of the things you learnt about yourself during your years in service?
One of the most surprising things I would say was the transformation that took place in me as I graduated from being a junior officer to a senior officer. As a junior officer, I was more of a maverick. I was someone who did not want to follow rules and I did things that were not expected of a “normal person” in the Air Force. I had this whole notion of “my life, my rules” in my head. As I became senior in service and as I gained maturity and experience, I altered my thinking. I would sit and think about all aspects before coming to a conclusion. This helped me improve my interpersonal skills which, in hindsight, perhaps made the transformation so smooth that I didn’t even realize the transition!
Is there anything that you did in particular for good luck?
I have never been superstitious in my life. I never believed in any kind of superstition. However, one incident I must narrate which took place at the Air Force Station in Suratgarh where I was the Station Commander. Friday the 13th is thought to be a very unlucky day for quite a lot of people but since I never believed in this superstition, I would make it a point to fly on Friday, the 13th.
Something strange happened in Suratgarh. It was Friday, the 13th, the weather was not too good but within the parameters where I could fly. I asked for an aircraft to be prepared to fly and I went to the main aircraft and did my checks and was strapped up in the cockpit only to realise that the aircraft would not start. We waited for the startup cycle to whine down and try again but it just wouldn’t start! I came out of the aircraft and decided to take the standby aircraft. Post the routine checks, the second aircraft too just wouldn’t start! Seeing this, my 2i/c (Second-in-command), the Chief Operations Officer, climbed up the ladder and told me to come out and said that I wouldn’t be flying today. For me, it just didn’t make sense! How can both the aircrafts not start? This incident remained etched in my mind and probably after this I never flew again on Friday, the 13th. That much for my tryst with luck! (laughs)
Do you have any message for the youth of this country and, specifically, Defence aspirants?
Serving the Armed Forces of any country, especially in India, is an honour. The kind of pride that one feels on donning the uniform of the Armed Forces is unmatched. The opportunities that are there to see the country, and the world, and to interact with people of varied backgrounds is tremendous. The challenges that are present in the Armed Forces along with the adventure and the responsibilities is something to look forward to. If you want to experience a disciplined life, see the country progress, see the way things happen, you need to be part of an organization which gives you that kind of an opportunity to express yourself in the buildup that is required for the country. The foundation that has been laid down by the Armed Forces is something that one would never forget.