Wednesday, September 2, 2009


....and finally, "DO NOT FORGET TO CARRY YOUR SWIMMING TRUNKS". After nearly two hours of operational briefing, these words concluded our ferry and operations briefing on 20 January 1987.....

We were based in Gorakhpur and were planned to go to Goa for some Naval co-operation and Air to Ground firing off Dabolim naval air base on 21st January, for a two week detachment. All of us were excited to get away from the cold and enjoy the sun, sand and sea at Goa, besides of course getting our usual professional training of flying over the sea, and with the Indian Navy warships, as also practice some live firing over the range just South of Dabolim. All we carried as luggage was some shorts, some summer and some formal clothing for the Mess, and of course our swimming trunks...weekends were meant for fun.

As planned, on 21st ten of our aircraft took off for the 2 hour 15 minute ferry from Gorakhpur to Goa direct. We landed, were received and accommodated by the Navy in the crew room just below the ATC and my log book shows that we started our training flying immediately; this being a short week; 21st was a Wednesday. Did our usual full day of flying on 22nd. The detachment was going well and we were all looking forward to the weekend. 23rd - we finished our planned first detail and were getting ready to launch for the second detail; sometime around mid-day, as the Navy was practising the Republic day flypast over Dabolim airfield before that and had delayed our take-offs.

Our Commanding Officer (CO) has just walked to the aircraft when the phone rang - I being the closest picked it up and was surprised to hear, "Director Offensive Operations here, please get your CO on line". This is not a normal call.... a normal call comes through the exchange with PAs piping in etc. I informed the Director that "CO had walked to the aircraft", and enquired, "should I call him back?", to which he replied, "Yes". I sent for the CO. He too was surprised to be called back, looked inquiringly at me and took the phone. The conversation was not audible but the message was very clear to all of us there, as the CO kept listening, said "Yes sir", sat down and told the Director that he would call him back in half an hour, after firming up the plan.

The look on his face told us that something serious had come up. I asked him about the destination so that we could get the maps ready, and he gave us the name of a forward base in Punjab - the temperature there on the night of 22nd January was below freezing. Our CO had been asked by the Director to fly with 12 fully serviceable fighters to this base immediately - we had only 10 in Goa. Our CO worked the plan in his mind and called Air HQ and told the Director that none of us had any winter clothing or bedding and thus he did not think it would be right to ferry out immediately, as all pilots and other personnel would fall sick and the whole purpose of the move would be defeated. He suggested that a transport aircraft could be sent to Goa to pick up one officer and one airmen who would be transported to Gorakhpur; pick up winter clothing and bedding from the houses of all the personnel through the night and take-off early morning for the base in Punjab. As soon as this transport aircraft landed in the base, the fighters would take off from Goa. He said that if all went as per plan then the fighters would take off from Goa between 8 - 10 am depending on weather in Punjab - this airfield gets thick fog in the mornings.

Sure enough, an AN-32 landed at Goa at around 3 pm and the crew told us that they were doing local flying at Yelahanka, Bangalore and were told on radio, in the air, to position at Goa straightaway. This transport aircraft was not even allowed to land back at Yelahanka to pick up their clothing; they were not aware of the mission beyond Goa. Fortunately our transport crew always carry an overnighter when flying.

One officer and airmen from our squadron took off in the AN-32, after the aircraft refuelled. We got our maps and briefings ready for departure the next day. Next morning we got a call that the AN-32 was on its way to our destination, with all our needed equipment, winter clothing and bedding.

We took off, as planned - two four aircraft formations and one two aircraft - first formation, Arrow formation,led by our CO. We were pleasantly surprised to find the Bombay ATC speaking in a different tone. Normally civilian controllers donot understand what the fighters do.... fighters take the shortest route due to fuel constraints; these sometimes cut across busy airways, and this fact is not appreciated by civilian controllers, and rightly so. The Air Force positions IAF controllers to assist the civilian controllers manage the fighter traffic during emergencies. We did not know this at the time, but this had been done and that is how, we were given our choice levels to help us reach our destination, without refuelling enroute.

As we kept flying North, it was evident that something was on, as the AF radars were giving pigeons to destination(course and distance to destination), without our asking, so as to minimise radio calls... many different fighter squadrons - Tiger, Panther, Archers, to name a few, from different bases were airborne and we could count the squadrons by their call signs... nearly the entire fighter fleet of the IAF was airborne positioning to war locations. The radar controllers were aware of who was heading where. Radio was crisp, short and professional and everyone was aware that something big had happened and none of us knew what exactly had happened.

There was no way to inform the families - they guessed something was on when they were asked by a squadron officer to get the winter clothing and bedding ready for each one of us, and that someone would come to collect it any time during the night. The last of the stuff was collected at about 5 am on 24th January. My wife had envied me going to Goa; away from the Gorakhpur winter and now she did not know which way we were headed, except that it was cold there. Every fauji family lives through this sort of a thing, and without complaints.... they also serve who sit and wait, for the loved ones to come home. She had grudgingly given me my swimming trunk ..... which I never had the opportunity to use, before flying out of Goa.

............................TO BE CONTINUED.....