Air Forces in most countries, barring a few, employ only the officer cadre to serve as pilots. Whether by design or not, in most countries only pilots get to reach to the very top. The Indian Air Force also chose to follow the pattern of using only the Officer cadre to fill up pilot appointments.
The very fact that in war aircraft are required to operate at the border and attack targets deep inside enemy territory, it goes without saying that in the Air Force only the officer cadre ‘faces the bullet’. The only small exception are the few Flight Engineers, Load Masters or the Tail Gunners of yore in transport aircraft employed in operational commitments of para-drop or in the carpet bombing role. Multi-role helicopters and gun-ships may also carry a Flight Engineer, depending on the requirement.
But the hub of activity, the action and the excitement is always with the main fighting arm, the most dynamic being the fighter and bomber squadrons. The need for quality servicing and technical expertise, speed, precision timing and sensitivity of the equipment being handled by the ‘airmen’ (those below Officer rank) in a fighter squadron is truly remarkable.
This heady cocktail is the source of inspiration and pride to the individual, not to mention the jubilation on the success of a mission over enemy territory. It is the last – ‘the success of a mission over enemy territory’- that brings out the dedication and commitment of the men on the tarmac. The level of excitement that accrues on the tarmac is palpable. As the men scramble to-and-fro between trenches, bunkers and hardened shelters to service the fighter jets, the excitement is infectious, as each tradesman, whether it be ‘Airframe’, ‘Engines’, ‘Instrument’, ‘Electrician’, ‘Radar’, ‘Safety Equipment’ or ‘Armament’, is infused with a sense of priority and the need to get it ‘just right’.
Urged on by the technical officers, the beehive of activity around an aircraft, especially if it has just returned from a mission and is scheduled to be made ready for the next, could be mind-boggling to an outsider witnessing the proceedings. While each tradesman derives infinite satisfaction with the successful completion of the mission (where his contribution to ensure his system has proved flawless, plays a very important role),
the ‘Armourers’ possibly have a special bond with the enemy! Hand written with chalk or paint, in English and/or Hindi, slogans like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, ‘Bhutto, this is for You’, ‘Iski kamaal dekho’, ‘ Tikka Khan murdabad’ , ‘Death to Pakis’ (and a few rather explicit ones), are inscribed on live bombs. Needless to say, returning with a bomb ‘hang-up’ (undelivered due to whatever reason) is a big disappointment and a blow to their enthusiasm.
In stark comparison, the ‘Ops Room’ at an AF base and its corresponding ‘Ops Room’ in the radar units has another kind of buzz and an atmosphere and activity level so specific to their requirement. An Ops Room is designed with a transparent glass wall at one end which has a diagrammatic representation of the local area map with the airfield at its centre. Concentric circles, each scaled to indicate 5/10 Kms emanate from the centre point. All this represents the ‘Situation Board’.
A bank of 10-12 telephones on tables spaced out along the sides of the room receive information on incoming raids from different sources like Mobile Observation Posts (MOPs), Army formations, Railway Stations, Police outposts and finally the Radar units.
Before the age of the technology explosion, the plotting of the movement of the incoming raids was done by young airmen, specially trained to develop an uncanny ability to stand behind the glass wall and write details of the raiders in ‘reverse flow’, so that the Chief Operations Officer overseeing the defence of the airfield and presiding over the Ops Room is able to read, make an assessment and take appropriate decisions to activate his defensive measures with all assets under his control. The hushed but swift movement between the tables and the spider-web of wires and cables, in almost deathly silence save for the man under immediate control, is an art form.
So where are these men? Not heralded, not acclaimed, given no recognition save for a Certificate of Appreciation handed down from the Commanding Officer and a smattering few Commendations from the C-in-C. Where are these men whose burning desire was to make sure those machines of war remain air worthy at all costs? Where are these men who yearned to see the aeroplanes return safe and the bombs delivered to teach the enemy a lesson?
Why do we not hear stories about them – those unsung heroes who toiled day and night, behind the scenes, taking turns to use a bed because there was always a shortage? Where are the stories about those who displayed unstinting dedication and were happy just to get a ‘Shabaashi’ from the Commanding Officer and an opportunity to have a drink with the Officers at the bi-annual ‘Rum Punch’? Perhaps the limitation of the educational background and the overshadowing by the culture of the Officer fraternity has curbed their visibility.
But let it be known that in the hearts of all the Officers there is a place they occupy – those airmen (and now ‘Air Warriors’) who gave their blood, sweat and tears to see the hero return safe. In this fiftieth year of the Indo-Pak War of 1971 let the unseen warriors also share the limelight with those who they supported so selflessly and may their contribution be a part of folklore of every war.
“The razor blade is sharp, but can’t cut a tree; the axe is strong but can’t cut hair. Everyone is important according to his / her own unique purpose ….
Never look down on anyone unless you are admiring their shoes …”