Sometime early 1971, I was christened with four bottles of beer and ‘passed‐out’ of the Air Force Academy (at Dindigul), not because of any ability to fly, but simply because I had a sum total of 54 hrs and 15 mts in my pilot’s log book and had not distinguished myself by crashing either the HT2 or the T6G Harvard. There were dark ominous war clouds on the horizon and perhaps the IAF was short of pilots, those who would do it, and die, with or without any ability to fly. I cannot find a single good reason now, why my instructors in AFA made me drink four bottles of beer to ‘pass‐out’. Beer or no beer, I was ready to go to war and pass‐out because I was just turning from a teenager into an adult, testosterone by itself was enough as an intoxicant.Perhaps it was my singular talent those days, which helped my instructors to decide that I was ‘transport pilot material’. I could hold back four bottles of beer without puking, I only passed out. But when I was asked to do aerobatics, I would puke continuously and leave a yellow contrail behind the aircraft. So it was that I was given a kick and told to go and ‘shovel shit’ in the esteemed transport command with ten other compatriots because they puked after two to four bottles of beer each even though they did not leave contrails behind aircraft. You see, the prerequisite for becoming fighter pilots those days were ability to drink 2 bottles of beer without passing out and ability to do aerobatics without leaving yellow puke trails that ruined the ozone layer. The IAF was a very environmentally conscious service those days. So the ten of us were then put on a train and sent to Transport Training Wing (TTW) at Yelahanka in the fervent hope of IAF that we would one day do it and die, with a wing and a prayer. The fighter pilot instructors in AFA heaved a sigh of relief, ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish’, they perhaps muttered after we left.

‘I say chaps, it is Hell of a Hanka’, remarked ‘Dee-Kays’ after a very long truck ride from Kempagoda to Yelahanka. I felt like a convict being shipped out to ‘Kalapani’. Yelahanka was so far away from civilisation that there was no hope of finding a GF in the neighbourhood. GFs and frequent firing of our front guns were upper most in our dubious juvenile minds those days. Becoming an officer and a gentleman, or contributing to the war effort, these were perhaps the farthest thought.

As soon as we got down from the 3 ton truck, we were made to ‘fall in’ by the venerable Chief Ground Instructor (CGI). ‘Get rolling’, he commanded, putting an end to all juvenile dreams of GFs and front guns. Front rolling on public road was good for removing all trace of ego. We were later to learn that the sum total of what we were to do as Co‐Pilots, was to retract the undercarriage and put the flaps up in a Dakota Mk‐III. The CGI played an extremely important role, the most significant of which was to make us retract our dreams of GFs and front guns, just like undercarriage and flaps, during our stay as cadets in ‘Hell Of A Hanka’.

The Cadet’s Mess resembled a juvenile correction home, or perhaps a prisoner of war camp, with barracks and cubby holes, two of us stuffed like sardines in each hell hole. There were no amenities whatsoever, neither for sports, entertainment, recreation, nor any sensible way to convert juvenile delinquents to officer and gentlemen. The process of conversion was to be done purely by coercion and punitive action, basically under the care of two CGIs perhaps chosen because of their distinctive character trait of sadism exceeding Marquis de Sade.

‘What is TCRL?’, was the introductory question of our initiation to the mighty Dakota Mk III, the work horse of the IAF. After the piddly HT2 and T6G Harvard, the Dak was a huge menacing monster, enough to make me feel crappy when I went near it.

‘TCRL…….errr, something to do with Tits, Cunt and Roving @@@@ ?’, proffered ‘Dada Govil’, perhaps still dreaming of firing front guns while all our such ambition had already retracted along with our undercarriage.

‘Get haunching, all ten of you’,  commanded the CGI making us do ‘bunny hops’ right there on the national highway to Nagpur. Collective punishment was to ensure development of camaraderie and spirit de corps. Come to think of it, whatever we did ‐ we did it altogether. Taking ‘Panga’ and getting punished was our raison d’etre and only source of entertainment.

‘TCRL is Transport Command Reference Datum Line’, said the venerable CGI afterwards, drawing a vertical line way ahead of a Dak’s nose, on a roll down black canvass chart, with the sectional drawing of a Dak. TTW had class rooms with benches but no blackboards in our time, just roll down black canvass charts, on some of which one could write with a chalk stick. I have often wondered, right through my laborious long service career in IAF, about what was the significance of a TCRL and why it was about ten feet ahead of the Dak’s nose. I think it was one of those dark secrets of the AF, told only to CGIs in transport command. Perhaps the US CINPAC (C‐in‐C Pacific) who owned the 7th Fleet in Manila Harbour had threatened them not to reason why and only do or die. Everyone was scared of the CINPAC and 7th Fleet those days in 1971.

CGIs and Pilot Nav instructors had a field day with us since most of the flying instructors (QFIs) as well as the Daks were flying their pants off doing logistic support, gun running 303s from Barrackpur to Dhimapur and causality evacuation on the return leg, even in Jun 71, many months before 3 Dec when the Pakis actually declared war. The war with Pakis in the east started as a ‘Lungi War’ as early as 26th May, with the BSF and regular army dressed to kill in a ‘Lungi’. The Lungi is a lovely dress, especially at half mast, good for fighting as well as for fun, but not bullet proof. So TTW was called upon to back load the Lungi warriors to the Military Hospitals in faraway places like Poona, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Bangalore where they kitted out guys whose Lungi came off, with spare balls, to add valour. They were then sent back into the Lungi war ASAP. As I said, we were cannon fodder, not supposed to reason why, just do and die.

In between, when QFIs returned once in a while for rest & recuperation, and ‘de‐sludging’, a transport command euphemism for authorised quota of sex under the AF Act for married pilots, we were given joy rides in a Dak, more often all together in the dickey, mostly to teach us how to put undercarriage and flaps up, the same things that the CGIs had already taught us on ground. My first joy ride in a Dak was with Flt Lt Manjrekar, a very jovial and friendly instructor who took pity and gave me the controls to hold for a few minutes.

The Dak was quite capable of flying on it’s own, without divine or my intervention. But when I touched the controls, it bucked like Rangila, my favourite horse in NDA, and started to roll and yaw, just as Rangila did when I climbed into saddle. Manjrekar laughed and told me to go to the stinking ‘Elson’ compartment (toilet) and stand on my head. As I said, he was a jovial and humorous man. So it was that while the rest of the AF was seriously into playing war games in East Pak, we were measuring the length and breadth of TTW as well as the Dak, on ground and in the air. The most valorous and exciting contribution to the war effort that I did during the 71 war was to front roll inside the Dak while Sqn Ldr Dhaliwal went looking for the 7th fleet all over the Bay Of Bengal, a seven hours forty minutes endeavour, logged against the training syllabus of all ten of us jokers simultaneously.

By end Nov 71, before the war started, we had flown around 89 hrs each in TTW, mostly from the Elson compartment, but sometimes in a class room Dak (with ten cubicles for training Navigators). We were made to wear unwieldy and unserviceable astro compass around our necks, because the IAF and the Nav instructors had a private agenda to make all ten of us into Navigators instead of Pilots. To add to our woes, we were kitted out with a Nav Bag, each weighing about 100 Kilos, containing maps, charts and Jepson let down charts all the way from Yelahanka to Dallas in USA. The Nav Bag was also meant to carry oily Parathas and Punjabi Pickle, wrapped in the latest Kannada newspaper, all of them totally inedible including the south Indian damsels who adorned the pages of the oily newspaper. Everything inside the Nav Bag soaked up the oil and hence it was very difficult to figure out which map or chart was what and hence Jepson was a real ‘let down’, cursed by all.

We took serious umbrage to the ruddy oily Jepson who let us down, and hence did not learn navigation and often plotted the oily navigation charts upside down. That was because our view of the world in the Elson compartment was upside down. ‘Hopeless Idiots’, our Nav leader pronounced one day and we were saved from becoming Pilot Navs, in my opinion a very culturally undesirable crossed breed. So it was that TTW decided to make us thoroughbred co‐pilots, but none of the VIPS were willing or available to ‘commission’ us – they were all hiding in trenches in Delhi expecting bombing raids by the US 7th Fleet. It was not until 7th Fleet returned back to Manila harbour, that Jagjivan Ram, the Def Minister, ventured out of his trench to remove the white shoulder tabs to reveal the piddly little stripe that proclaimed us a ‘Pilot Officer’. Gp Capt Gurdip Singh, the Station Commander, then gave us a typed slip of paper saying ‘Awarded Flying Badge in accordance with regulations of the AF, para 222, wef 22 Jan 72’, but forgot to clarify whether we were officer and gentlemen. It was left to us to prove it ourselves. I stuck the ruddy slip of paper into my log book and decided not to be a gentleman.

‘Make up your mind’, my mother asked me afterwards, ‘Are you a Pilot, or an Officer ?’. She could not believe that I was both. Frankly I was not too sure myself, the minuscule width of the stripe was not commensurate with all the ‘ragda’ meted out by the CGI and the Nav Leader. Before we left ‘Hanka’, after much pestering, Wg Cdr RC Sondhi, the Chief Instructor, gave us another typewritten slip that proclaimed that ‘we were qualified to perform the duties of a second pilot on Dak by day and night’. To the great consternation of the CGI, we immediately went to ‘Ganesh Lodge’ in Kempagoda to let our undercarriage down and to fire our front guns, just to prove to ourselves that we were capable of flying a Dak day and night and could claim our name and fame as a ladies‐man, if not a gentleman.

The very next day we were shipped out, sent by train to Jorhat. When we boarded the train, there was a collective sigh of relief, ‘Wow, we are done with Hell Of A Hanka’. We had no forward vision or foresight. All of us were back in Hell Of A Hanka within a year to do ‘Command’ or ‘Captain’s Conversion’.

Well, that is another story.




  1. kpsusha says:

    Fabulous narrative. This guy cyclic is clever. Exceedingly clever.

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