THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS!


The Indian festival of lights or “Diwali” is celebrated with great pomp and show all over India. And all people of various faiths participate. It is a time for great joy and happiness as it signifies the triumph of good over evil, epitomised by the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana.

Homes are decorated with fancy lights, and crackers are exploded to enhance the levels of happiness. Well, many years ago, I “celebrated” this festival in a very different manner while flying a Gnat!

The Hawks were then operating from a base in the East, North of the mighty Brahmaputra River. Post the 1971 war, there had been some changes in the squadron line-up, notably the arrival of Squadron Leader Choudhury, an avid mountaineer, and the inimitable Squadron Leader “Crow” De. Both these gentlemen were poles apart in their demeanour, with Chou being a smiling and generally quiet guy.

Both came in as the Senior and Junior Flight Commanders respectively. Crow being the more vocal, and, having been posted in from a squadron, which had been once commanded by the legendary Wing Commander Johnny Greene, took over the role of “Armament Training Officer”.

Crow would spend endless hours in giving lectures (nay sermons) on the virtues of the Gyro Gun Sight (GGS) fitted on the Gnat. He would call us “primitive” since we had been used to employing the “Fixed Cross” for armament delivery. Slowly but surely, he made valiant attempts to change our mind-set. To his credit, he succeeded to some extent. But more often than not, the Gnat would disagree with his sermons and invariably ensure that the GGS would not work satisfactorily forcing us to go back to the “primitive” fixed cross!

After a year of good flying and training hard, the test of our capabilities in the form of “Squadron Combat Efficiency Meet Eastern Air Command’or the SCEMEAC’73 was on ourheads. The month was November and the squadron got down to brass-tacks of weapon delivery and “Cine Evasive” exercises.

Live weapon delivery in the form of machine guns (Front Guns) and T-10Rocket Projectiles(R/P) was conducted over the Air to Ground Firing Range located at Dulongmukh, which was at the foothills of the Himalayan Range close to the Subansiri River. Having practised regularly, I was part of the squadron’s 4aircraft R/P team.

It was 13 Nov ’73. A four aircraft R/P mission to strike Dulongmukh Range was planned. Crow was the leader, Flight Lieutenant Malkani the number 2, the CO, Wing Commander Indru Shahani Number 3, and I was the number 4. The formation took off at 10 seconds interval and joined up in tactical formation soon after.

We were armed with 2xT-10 R/Ps each. After short navigation at a low level, we were to fire the R/Ps at the designated target at Dulongmukh Range. The navigation to the Initial Point (IP) was uneventful and Crow gave a crisp call of “Attack formation Go” and “Switches Left”. This meant we were to trail behind at 1000 yards behind each other, put on the armament switches and the attack would be on the target to our left.

Each one of us fired our first rocket and lined up for the second attack. As I fired my second rocket and pulled out of the dive, I noticed that the “Bingo” light had come on. “Bingo” light indicated I had only 250 lbs of fuel. The nearest Air Force airfield was Jorhat and for that, I needed at least 500 lbs of fuel!

I gave a call to my leader (Crow) “Flamingo 1 from 4. Bingo Light on, landing at Lilabari”. Lilabari was an unused civil airfield about 5000-6000 feet in length. But that was my only option—except, of course, to eject. Crow had some problems with his Radio Telephony set and I heard him say “Can’t hear you. Flamingo channel Echo go,” indicating to the formation to change radiofrequency.

Return to base was to be at the medium level, individually, since fuel was at a premium. Left to fend for myself I turned towards Lilabari, not very far from my position. Taking a grave chance, Indru, my subsection leader, turned back to assist me.

Then the Diwali began! Along with the Bingo light, the Generator failure light came on, followed by the low fuel pressure light, and then the

inverter “doll’s eye” turned white. The “Doll’s Eye” was a magnetic indicator that would be black if the inverter was working and flip to white if it failed. When I lowered the landing gear the three red lights glared at me indicating that the landing gear had failed to lockdown, and the hydraulic failure light came on.

Along with the hydraulic failure there was an audio warning mechanism. When one cancelled the audio warning, an amber light would glow. So now another light came on! Since the “hydraulic failure” meant I must  “split the tail” (the act of disconnecting the elevator from the ‘all-moving’ tailplane) another light came on.

The cockpit was now fully lit up. Except for the Fire Warning light and the Oil Pressure doll’s eye, which remained black. Only the crackers were missing! Sensing my nervousness at the landing at Lilabari, the Gnat decided to show some mercy.

Slowly, the hydraulic pressure built up and the system’s warning light went off. The landing gear came down with a thud and when three green lights illuminated, I heaved a sigh of relief. And then, as if by some miracle, one by one all lights including the Bingo light went off. When I announced this to the CO, he asked me if I could manage to reach Jorhat. I said I would try.

I gingerly turned the aircraft towards Jorhat. I had to cross the Brahmaputra to reach the airfield at Jorhat. So, I added a couple of thousand feet to my altitude ‘just in case I had to eject’! The CO returned to base while I converged onto Jorhat. Just short of crossing the River, the “Diwali” started again, in the same sequence! But, by now I was confident that the “failures” were due to some electrical malfunction, and continued to make an uneventful landing at Jorhat.

That evening, dressed in my anti-G suit, I was the “Guest of Honour” at the Officers’ Mess with pilots of a Hunter Squadron hosting me to a round of drinks!

Air Commodore Ashok Chhibbar, AVSM

Air Commodore Ashok Chhibbar, AVSM was commissioned in the IAF as a fighter pilot in Aug 1969. Apart from commanding a fighter squadron and two airbases, he has been Air-I of an Operational Command and Deputy Commandant of Air Force Academy. He is a regular contributor to the Air Force Flight Safety Magazine and has authored two books – Raindrops, and The Accidental Pilot. He is settled in Pune.

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