It all started on the 26th September 1971. A war appeared imminent and our 112 Helicopter Unit was on daily standby, dawn to dusk. I, a Flt Lt then , was one of the four flying instructors in the Unit. I was summoned by CO. Sqn Ldr Naresh Kumar( Retired as Air Marshal).
“You are to move tomorrow morning to Tezpur, ” he had said . Apprehending a desk job during war, I had demurred but my “but – sirs” were not listened to and I returned, crestfallen, to a cup of milky, sugary tea in the crew room. I thought of the several reasons why I must continue with my flying Unit. Firstly, I was fresh out of nstructional tenure. I had very little experience on (Alouette) Chetak helicopter. Soon after, getting my hand in, the CO sent me to the examining board (AEB) for getting categorized and rated on type to enable me to start flying training. I was given D/White recommended B/Green for want of flying hours on Chetak. If I stayed with my flying Unit I would soon acquire day and night hours on Chetak and get upgraded. Secondly, I was assigned to fly some missions in Bhutan which would earn me the Videsh Seva Medal. Thirdly, why me?
Taking courage, I walked into the CO’s office again. Gave him my reasons and
requested that I be permitted to continue with unit and that someone else be deputed. He heard me and said, “An aircraft will pick you up at 0800 hrs tomorrow”.
Resigned to my fate, I asked, “Sir, what is my assignment and for how many days must I pack?’ “Pack for four –five weeks. Carry your bedding and you will be given your task in Tezpur”. To carry four –five weeks baggage meant to stay orever!
Ours was a training unit as also responsible for helicopter support to West Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan sectors. In addition to normal aircrew complement, we were four instructors. AF and Army pilots came to us from Helicopter Training School for type and operational training before moving on to other Chetak Units.
With morale in my boots, I conceived a war in which my role would be pushing files in some office while other pilots and instructors saw action. Where had I gone wrong to deserve this? To me it appeared that I was being sinned against .
Promptly next morning at 8 a.m. a Dakota stopped on Bagdogra tarmac. With ngines running, I was waved to step on board. The OC of 115 Helicopter Unit, Sqn Ldr Mehtani was waiting at Tezpur to receive me. For a Flt Lt like me, it was VIP reception indeed. “Let’s go to meet the AOC” said he. I was expected. Without preliminaries, the AOC, AF Stn. Tezpur asked me if I could fly the Chetak alone. He went on to say “Mama” Mehtani has a helicopter ready for you. Take it to Dimapur. You will be further briefed there. You will get complete maintenance support for the Chetak on immediate priority. Questions? Carry on.
In the Helicopter Unit, I obtained a map, VHF and NDB frequencies, signed up for the machine and for the first time flew it alone to Dimapur. On switching off at Dimapur, I remember that the rickety jeep that rolled up, refused to start again. Having woken very early, been on the move whole day, hungry and tired, I cursed and pushed the jeep into restarting.
AF Dimapur was commanded by a Flt Lt who had a staff of about 15 airmen. Their role was to provide support to Dakotas (from Jorhat) doing air-maintenance of troops in forward locations of Nagaland. I was given a cot in the ramshackle ATC building. Food, spicy and oily, came from the airmen’s mess. Rest of the creature comforts matched the cot and food. I was told that Stn Cdr Jorhatwould brief me further.
The Stn Cdr AF Jorhat, Gp Capt Chandan Singh landed in a Dakota on 28 Sept 1971. He was accompanied by Sqn Ldr CM Choudhary, a Bengali speaking Dakota Flying Instructor. Chandan Singh quietly climbed up to the flying control and lay down on a bench. In hushed tones, I was informed that it was his day of total fast.
A short while later, he told me to train three Pakistani pilots on the Chetak; that my pupils were defected Bengali pilots of Pakistani Air Force and that they had escaped Pakistani persecution and along with Airmen have been assembled at Dimapur.
I was introduced to them . They were Badrul Alam, Shahabuddin Ahmed. The third pupil, Sqn Ldr Sultan Ahmed joined a couple of days later. By then a maintenance team led by Flt Lt Ramakrishna had been assembled. They were handpicked.
I was asked to start straight away and make all three of them operational within a week. Somewhat taken aback, I told Chandan Singh that if the IAF syllabus for day and night conversion was to be followed then seven days and nights will not add up to adequate hours. He told me to forget all rules of IAF hereafter and get on with it.
Without any delay, I took my pupils by hand, got some writing material and started preliminary ground training, then and there.
The Bangladesh Air Force considers this date i.e. 28 Sept 1971 as its birth date.
I flew morning, afternoon, evening and night with them. Their age, mature fixed wing flying habits, distressed state of mind and barely acceptable living conditions made teaching and training a daunting task. Whilst hovering they moved all over and frequently blocked the only runway. We had no working hours. Airfield services were available to me for the asking. But it was exhausting to make them reduce speed on final approach. Despite the odds, I was able to report to Chandan Singh on schedule that my pupils were now comfortable flying by day and night.
“For your navigation phase, I want to see you over Jorhat ATC at midnight
We barely got a day off to rest. On 8th Oct 1971, I was summoned to Jorhat. A Chetak had been brought in by transport aircraft. Its serial number is recorded as 364 in my log book. This Chetak had two Mystere Fighter aircraft’s rocket pods mounted on either side. They carried seven rockets each, capable of being fired in pairs or salvo. The selection switch for pair /salvo as also the firing switch were mounted on the Captain’s control column. A twin barrel machine gun that was side firing was mounted on the floor. The sliding door on the left wasremoved. Chandan Singh flew with me on the copilot’s seat to Dimapur.
Armourer Fitters were flown in so were loads of Rockets. Without preliminaries, I was told to get my pupils to accurately fire rockets! I took the Gp Capt aside. Told him that it had never been done in the Air Force and that I had no clue. Harmonization of the pods, gun sights, ground attack, tactics practice targets etc were unprecedented, original, revolutionary, etc. “Who will guide Sir?” I asked. He smiled and said, “You will learn, I am confident.” This was first of the several pioneering flying tasks that were to be entrusted to me in my career. We now had two Chetaks – an armed and one passenger version. As part of preparation, we were each issued a Sten Machine gun. We practiced firing it and then were handed over two loaded magazines and a gun each to carry while flying. The rocket pods were synchronized, ring and bead gun sight installed. On test flight, I noticed that the helicopter handled sluggishly- what with extra load and aerodynamics burden.
During night, I reported that the gunsight was mounted very low and it was so
bright that I could not see a target through it. Resources being no constraint, there were rectified and a rheostat on the stick gave the realigned gun sight operational viability.
Chandan Singh discussed the need of a target to practice firing rockets . He came up with the idea of parachutes. He said that next morning I was to fly high over the nearby dense jungle. A Dakota would come and drop three parachutes with bundles of under slung hay. The jungle canopy being dense, the parachutes would cover trees. I could fire atthem and they would be replenished when required. The Dakotas dropped the parachute on target, on schedule. From my helicopter, I observed that all of them went through the canopy of trees.
Chandan Singh arrived a while later and asked me for suggestions. I proposed that some neighboring hill slopes were covered with grass. I could hover low over the slope since high gradient would not permit a landing. From thehover, three Airmen ould jump out with a parachute, hammer and nails. I would fly overhead and pick them up once the parachute was spread and nailed. Returning to Dimapur a short while later I reported that we had a clear and safe target for day and night firing. I got a prompt go ahead. I was now really enjoying the freedom from rules, regulations and red-tape.
I evolved the aiming procedure, elevation of commencement of dive and the approximate height above ground for release of rockets and procedure for pulling away. We soon burnt and re-laid several parachutes and I reported that all three of my pupils could now fire rockets with reasonable accuracy by day.
Chandan Singh now asked Sultan Ahmed and his countrymen to design an emblem for painting on the armed Chetak. He also asked them to give it a name/number. This created a lot of excitement and heated discussion among them. Finally, they decided that the helicopter’s vertical stabilizer is to be painted with a red roundel having a map of East Pakistan superimposed on it in green colour. Also that the call sign of thehelicopter would be EBR for East Bengal Rifles. Chandan Singh concurred. Overnight, IAF roundels were removed and the armed Chetak donned
Bangladesh colours. I believe it was the first for Bangladesh Air Force! In all my subsequent log book entries IAF serial number 364 stands changed to EBR.
I often used to fly to AF Tezpur where word of my activity reached IAF’s No 28 Sqn. located there. My one-time squash partner, Flt Lt Manbir Singh called me
over. He said that Dacca was their target and whether I could get first hand and accurate intelligence. My pupils willingly divulged details of ack-ack gun locations, fuel dumps, etc. These exchanges took place a couple of times. Manbir said that the details obtained were valuable and somewhat different from those provided by HQs.
Another incident is worth mentioning, Flt Lt Ghoshal brought in an otter aircraft with rocket pods mounted under each wing. One of his pupils was Flt Lt Shamshul Alam. On being sent solo one morning, Shamshul failed to return beyond his fuel endurance time The entire camp anxiously waited for his news. He returned a little after sunset safely. I was told that he flew right across East Pakistan to Calcutta, was given fuel and returned!
After dinner, the next night, Sultan Ahmed loaded his revolver, and called Shamshul. We feared the worst. In the ensuing hush, noise of the insects sounded deafening. They walked off to a dark part of the runway. Expecting to hear a gunshot any moment, no one spoke till they returned.
On 15 Oct 1971, I was told that I had successfully completed my assignmentand that I was to return to my Unit in Bagdogra. I was also made aware that I was instrumental in creating a deadly air element of Bengali Freedom Fighters.
My log book records showed a return to what now appeared to be very boring circuits and landings and having to ask permission from ATC to take off and land
every time ! On 19 Oct 1971, my Army pupils were Captains K Singh and Dullat.
On 27 October 1971, I was flying VIPs around Barrackpore and Dum Dum airport
in Calcutta when my CO asked me to take an Indian Airlines flight and return to Bagdogra. He told me on phone that I was needed at Dimapur immediately. Further that this time, whilst instructors had volunteered but I was asked for my name. On 01 Nov 1971, I was back in Dimapur.
I was told that some night missions are being planned and that I was to learn and teach night firing of rockets to myPAF Bengali pupils. Night firing was not to be guided by phase of moon. Ability to fly and fire in dark nights was a requirement.
The only operational limitation would be visual sighting of the target on a dark night. By end of Nov 1971, we were operational by day and night.
On 01 Dec, I was asked to fly to AF Jorhat by myself. Chandan Singh discussed that a night strike is to be launched within a couple of days from an abandoned airfield near Agartala. Could my pupils navigate, strike accurately and return? I said yes to all except that returning to an un-illuminated pinpoint on a dark night without having any homing device could be disastrous. I also suggested that even if I had a hand held radio set, we may not be able to lead them in should their course steering go wrong in the likely prevailing strong winds. He responded by saying what if we had a lit up petromax lamp covered by a perforated tin. Will it suffice, more so if we cover and uncover the lamp repeatedly. I felt strongly that it would work. On 2nd Dec 1971, alongwith my pupil I flew to Kailashahar – an abandoned airfield on Eastern border of West Pakistan. The strike was to be launched from Taliamora. Chandan Singh also arrived during the day with complete ground support. On the night of 3rd Dec, Sultan along with Alam got airborne with a full load of rockets and fuel. Their checks and procedures were well imbibed and got them to keep the navigation lights on ! They were so visible. I got on the hand-held set and got them switched off. They then became invisible – hough remaining very audible. Their target was Narayananganj fuel storage tanks. They were not expected and therefore received no opposition. Mission was accomplished. On return, locating the helipad and landing went without a hitch. Early morning, I retrieved our element back to Dimapur. War with Pakistan was declared thaday, the 4th Dec 1971. By then our Kilo Flight was quite well organized with manpower, spares, ammunition, tentage and mobility. On 6th Dec, Chandan Singh directed that now that war has been declared, I was to fly all armed missions as pilot-in-command. We were given Pakistani currency and personal
weapons. I moved both our helicopters, i.e. armed and passenger Chetaks to Kailashahar. Hereafter, we lived in tents and food was ‘managed” from closest
Ground attack and close support missions started right in earnest. Chandan Singh was directing my flights and flew with me as a passenger from time to time, to gauge the enemy status and our efficacy.
I flew three missions on the night of 6th Dec 1971. On the first night of my attack sorties, I realized that the only way I could become aware of coming under fire from enemy rifles and machines guns was when I looked directly into flashes of fire being emitted from their barrels. Also that the muted thuds that I heard were direct hits on my Chetak and not because of colliding with bats. Operating from Kailashahar, I engaged targets in Kalaura, Maulvi Bazar and Shamsher Nagar.
Next morning i.e. 7th Dec, I looked at the bullet holes. The bullets had gone through and through our fragile cowling. There was no armour plating of any kind
for the vital engine installations, pilots or the gunner on helicopter floor.
I told the technicians to number each bullet hole and also paint the name of the place where we were hit. This was done, but later, when the helicopter started taking frequent and several hits, the exercise was abandoned. In the first few sorties, I remember handing over my allet and watch to our engineer, Ramakrisha – just in case! Later on when the frequency of flights increased, I discontinued the practice. Also, Pakistani currency was always carried, but the Sten gun, being cumbersome, was tied to the respective pilots seats.
Also, we established helicopter airworthiness norms early. After the bullet holes in the machine and manageable vibrations, Ramakrishna and his team would do some patch repairs. Then hewould ask me “Will you fly her?” “Yes”, I would say. “Then she’s serviceable”. Despite several bullet holes in the cowling,main and tail rotors, we never grounded the helicopter and flew it every day. So much so that Army personnel used to come to our camp to look at the flying sieve.
I flew eleven missions on the 7th Dec. For the first day flight, I was given fighter cover. Soon after getting airborne we established radio contact. But after a few
minutes the fighter escort lost visual contact with me – which could not be reestablished despite our mutual effort. Perhaps it happened because he was high and fast and I was low, slow and in camouflaged colours merging with the green earth. This effort was given up hereafter. But, a couple of days later, I was assured and highly relieved to know that our air force had established complete air – superiority.
Operating out of Kailashahar abandoned airfield in Manipur, I attacked enemy ositions in Darbart, Brahmanbaria, Daud Kandi, Narsingdi Road, etc. By 7th night, there were signs of Pakistani Army retreating from Kalaura. I was given a location by our Army on a river bank where en-masse crossing of retreating Pakistani Army by boats was expected. Sure enough, the river water was clogged with boats of different sizes. I hit the biggest boat with a pair of rockets – only to realize that Army transports and troops were nowhere near and the crowds on board appeared
to be civilians. My co-pilot confirmed this. We aborted the attack and reported
this. To this day, I regret harming civilians that night.
Dates and matching them with salient and memorable events have got mixed up over the years. IV Corps of our Army was pushing westward. Their formations
were to move on hamshernagar- Maulvi Bazaar axis as also on the Kalaura – Sylhet axis. I had already supported their advance.
Airborne one night, I was surprised to hear on radio, “Singla Sir, how do you read me ?” “Loud and clear,” I responded, “Station calling?”, “This is Fg.Offr Saikia, your pupil in Bidar”. I remembered him from my instructional days on HT-2. He directed me to Bn HQs in Sylhet. Chandan Singh was on board as an observer. Saikia, the forward air controller embedded with an Army Unit confirmed my direct hits on the target. Intensive action followed. My helicopter EBR took several hits.
Early next morning, Ramakrishna said that the damage to the machine was beyond permissible limits, but if I shall fly her, she is serviceable. Rockets were loaded and I took off. Shamshernagar airfield in East Pakistan was now with our Army.
One afternoon, special heliborne operations were launched. Gorkha Bn officers and men were flown into enemy territory by Mi-4 helicopters in waves. On landing, the helicopters and soldiers came under heavy enemy fire. I expended all my ammo loaded and came again ahead of next wave. But light was fading and I was very apprehensive about hitting our own soldiers. Firing at a distance from the landing zone did not really help our men and machines. Despite the vulnerability
of our limited number of soldiers in the LZ, further induction was stopped as it got dark. That was when Chandan Singh was threatened.
A Gorkha officer approached him and asked why the induction was stopped. Chandan explained the situation to him. The officer lost his cool. He yelled, “My
boys are dying. They need reinforcement. Commence flying now!”, etc. Chandan Singh coolly explained thatsuch an exercise in pitch darkness would result in helicopter accidents killing not only the aircrew but also all the troops in them. But he would not be pacified. Chandan Singh told him, “All right. SHBO will not happen now. You can pull out your pistol and shoot me”. Then the officer turned away and we could breathe again.
It turned into second week of Dec1971. By now, the IV Corps was rapidly advancing westward. One morning at about 0600 hrs Ramakrishna came to my tent and said that Chandan Singh was sitting in the helicopter and wanting an immediate take-off. I said that I did not know and to please load up and tell him that I shall be there. As I approached, he said that we need go to Sylhet airfield. Taking a few minutes to flight plan I took off. He said that we were required to ascertain whether Sylhet airfield has been vacated by Pak Army. Orbiting overhead, the airfield looked deserted. After looking for a while, he asked me to land at the dumbbell of the runway. I was approaching to establish hover and was perhaps at about 10 ft. above ground and at 10 knots forward speed when a machine gun opened up at us from a bunker next door whose roof was barely two feet above ground. Obviously, I got away to tell the tale! The fool could have taken us alive along with the helicopter if only he waited! I suggested that a salvo of 14
rockets would take care of the bunker,but was asked to hurry back. Perhaps to
report and to prevent a disaster! Returning to base one evening, my co-pilot, Akram I think, said that we buy fish for dinner, that Pak Army had vacated the sector and that we have Pak currency . I readily agreed. He asked me to land in a field next to river. He stepped out with the sten gun. I kept the rotors running. People started running away, but were summoned in Bengali. I observed that the fishermen kept their catch alive in small fenced portion of the river. Some were pulled out and paid for. All of us had a pleasant addition to our menu for dinner.
On 16 Dec 1971, the day of the surrender, I flew into Dacca with Sqn Ldr Choudhury. The airfield was one desolate patch of potholed ground. Things were strewn around all over. There was no owner, no security. People were loitering around, selecting items and bagging them. What did I take? I still have it. I picked up a belt of Sabre aircraft cannon shells. At Dimapur it was broken into smaller lengths and shared.
We flew back to Agartala at night. We chatted with a big feeling of relief. Our
comrades in uniform had broken a big threat into two and created a new nation. We wondered how the politicians would handle this hereafter; about the direction the newborn nation would take and of its relationship with India. On 18th Dec 1971, I was instructed to return my students to Dacca, to handover the bullet ridden armed Chetak to them and fly back in the other Chetak. We shook hands with Sultan. Badrul Alam and Shahabuddin Ahmed in Dacca – their new capital city. This was surely the first helicopter acquisition of Bangladeshi Air Force.
Shahabuddin wrote his Dacca address on a Pakistani currency note and invited me home. I still have it. Sultan on behalf of others refused to hand over the Sten Guns. We spent the night in an Officers’ Mess in Dacca. Next morning Sultan saw me off with thanks and a crate of Scotch whisky . My report about retention of Sten Guns was absorbed silently by Chandan Singh.
On 21st Dec, I wound up our Dimapur detachment and flew to Jorhat. On 24 Dec, I returned the helicopter to CO 116 HU at Tezpur. On 27th, I was back in agdogra oing sedate instructional sorties for Fg Offrs Karandikar and Shackleton. It did not take very long to accept the loss of operational freedom and return to omnipotent, omniscience Air Force rules and watchful eyes.
For my role during the war, I was awarded “Vir Chakra” and my co-pilot Sultan the “Bir Uttam” by the free Bangladesh Govt. We thus formed a unique crew to be decorated by two different nations.
For the first and the last time in my career, I was asked to proceed on long leave. Thus ending for me, the December of 1971, which was momentous, fraught with destiny and indeed the beginning of a new era in history.
The author, Air Commodore CM Singla, VrC (Retd) was the Chairman and Managing Director of Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd. He is an A2 flying instructor and was an Air Force and DGCA pilot examiner on helicopters. During his forty four years of flying and managing helicopters, he has operated them practically on every role. An alumnus of Modern School, Barakhamba Road – New Delhi, NDA,
and DSSC, he acquired an MA in English Literature.