It was in early June 1971, another day of low serviceability and the seniors hogging all the flying. It was early Saturday afternoon and we were all at work after lunch as there was the perennial inspection coming up.
The ground crew were about to tow the only serviceable aircraft to the hangar. Sqn Ldr AV Kamat (Kamy) was the Flight Commander of 10 Sqn. and he had been my Flt Cdr earlier in 220 Sqn, in Poona where we were flying the Vamps. I begged and cajoled him to let me do a sortie as the Station was operational. He relented (then regretted), but I don’t want to jump too far ahead of a very eventful afternoon.
He said ‘no farting around’ and briefed me for the sortie. I was to climb to 20K in the Local Flying Area (LFA) and inform ATC that my compass was u/s and I was unsure of my position. ATC took over with all ‘josh’, the squadron was informed (no SFS those days) but Kamy Sir was super-cool, as I had been briefed to do just that.
I was given one identification turn after another and had been at it for quite some time when I got fed up and transmitted for a homing. I was last steering 120 and no homing was forth coming, ATC had a glitch in their equipment at the right time. I had no clue as to where I was and asked the SU for pigeons. They last had me painting on a WNW heading, away from Jodhpur, but when I needed them, they said ‘no joy’.
That upset my joy even further as I had been doing some serious Instrument Flying (IF) while doing the procedure and had no clue as to where I was. That’s what two engines are for and I climbed up to 30K and boldly switched off one engine. Speed was dropping rapidly and with throttle to the gate on the other engine, I was OK, but still lost. Don’t quite recall how long I had been airborne, but the fuel gauge was OK as I had Matra full when I got airborne.
The biggest shame of all was my ego – fighter pilots don’t get lost – use the Radio Compass – but how, as most of them never worked and even if mine did, I was not sure of how to tune it. It was the same type I had seen navigators fiddle with when we were doing ‘bounty’ hours on Daks. Panic, ejection, but most of all Kamy Sir’s wrath awaited me.
Guardian angels are not for fairy tales alone, Flt Lt Deepak Sonpar had gone to the SU to get his leave signed by ‘kalu, mota’ Mishra commanding the SU. The controllers were now in panic as well. He took over, though he was not on duty, and the first question he asked me was the course I was steering and to my horror it was showing 120. The E2A compass is not the best of instruments (especially in the HF), my many compass swings had shown me that.
He asked me the position of the sun, I responded 1030. He immediately asked me to do a visual 180. After about what I estimate a couple of hours (less than 15 minutes as computed later), I saw the Air Field. What relief!! Started a power dive from 30K towards the AF and switched on the other engine as well. When I came overhead I had enough fuel left to ‘fart around’ and cockily asked for permission to carry out aerobatics overhead. Kamy Sir’s voice came on R/T and asked me to come for an immediate landing. No probs, I switched off in the dispersal and wrote “compass U/S” in the F 700. (It was still showing 120).
I have never seen an angrier man than dear Kamy. I narrated the whole incident to him like it was no big deal and how I had used my airmanship to get up to 30K and switched off an engine etc. That was the last straw – he asked me what the fuel flow meter showed and I had no clue as I had not looked at it. (The HF consumes more fuel at full throttle one a single engine than it does for range rpm on both engines), how was I supposed to know that!!?
The next dose was asking to come for aerobatics when the whole station was getting ready to retrieve a lost ejected pilot. When the SU had me painting, I was heading speedily towards Pakistan, guardian angel or not, you cannot beat fate, I was there six months later!! If Deepak Sonpar had not come to ‘kalu, mota’, for leave……..
When I think about it now, it all seems very amusing, but both Kamy Sir and I had to land up in Pakistan as guests of the State, before he spoke to me again. He was a fab Flt Cdr and his positive attitude in the camp, despite severe injury, was the epitome of what Tom Wolfe calls ‘The Right Stuff’, he probably got inspiration from pilots like Kamy Sir. May his soul rest in peace.
PS. When ground power was applied, the compass was ‘A’ OK. Made matters worse!! However, I insisted it was not. I think it was Pinky Rao or Vincent Ravinder who carried out a compass swing and the compass got stuck at 120. I stood vindicated on that count, however, my subsequent airmanship prowess had already spoken volumes.