In the summer of 1993, a group of young Sub Lieutenants from the Indian Navy arrived at IAF’s cradle of leadership – the Air Force Academy (AFA). We joined a spirited bunch of air force cadets from 153 Pilots Course, including K Nachiketa who ‘shot’ to fame during Kargil War.

Officially, it was our longing for ‘wings of gold’, the joy of flying, etc that got us here. But truth be told, some of us were shafted so badly standing watches on stuffy Indian Navy ships that Indian Air Force sounded like a Hawai-ian vacation.

After some tug-of-war with commanding officers who didn’t want to part with young officers, few bohemians finally arrived with their suitcases at AFA, Dundigal, about 40 kms outside Secunderabad.

The first shocker was delivered immediately on arrival. Officers Mess was declared ‘out of bounds’! Off we marched to the Cadets Mess – quarantined into a separate block because the first batch of lady trainees were soon to arrive on campus.

Utterly spoilt by navy’s uniformed cooks, stewards and gourmet service, we suddenly found ourselves at the mercy of Non-Combatants (NCs) and Mess No.1 (as the head waiter in any IAF mess is known).

The food in cadets mess was to die for. Or rather, ‘to die of’. ‘Eggs to Order’, the daily morning delight of naval officers, was replaced by eggs ‘done to death’ by an IAF cook at 4AM & served at 7AM. Cold, ‘sunny-sighed up’ eggs fused to melamine crockery were scraped and eaten before rushing for morning briefing.

Tired of fleshing out small shreds of meat off bony ‘rogue-an gosht‘, one of us asked Mess No. 1 after one week, “hello, yahan chicken wicken nahi milta?” (Hello, don’t you ever serve chicken here?). The head waiter had a hearty laugh & shot back “zaroor milega, Sir. Passing out parade ka intezar karo!” (Oh, surely you’ll get chicken. Just wait for the passing out parade!). That set the tone for what was to follow!

Naviators from 153PC! RiP, Sanjeev Dutta (2nd from left)

The Kiran Mk1 (HJT-16) presented a steep learning curve for ab-initio trainees. With an unstick speed of 105 kts, cruise / aerobatics speed 180-240 kts, and threshold speed of 95 kts, the little jet streaked miles ahead before you could stammer “k..k..kk…kkiran”. For naval officers used to ships sailing majestically at 10-15 kts, this presented some unique challenges.

Our Qualified Flying Instructors (QFIs) taught us to always remain ‘ahead of the aircraft’. The AFA maxim was ‘even a monkey can fly if given unlimited sorties’. But AFA doesn’t have the luxury of time. You clear solocheck in the 27th sortie or go home.

Going home meant being shipped back to the same gangway you bolted from, and standing graveyard watches (midnight to 4AM). For AF cadets, it meant grounding for life. Not an attractive option given our big plans. So we gave it all we got.

The pre-solo phase at AFA is an intense struggle for survival against man (QFI, CFI, CI) and machine (HJT-16). Memorizing checks & procedures, keeping your head while struggling with oxygen masks, ejection seats, blackouts and redouts (physiological effects of ‘g’ forces), navigating with million-maps & road-river crossings, relentless barrage of instructions and esoteric ground subjects consume every waking minute. Add to this, the odd instructor with a mercurial temperament and your ‘Hawai-ian vacation evaporates faster than a drop of JP-5 on aerofoil!

There is something to be said about IAF’s Qualified Flying Instructors (QFI). Those were pre-Su30MKI days when MiG-29 ‘Baaz’ and Mirage 2000 ‘Vajra’ ruled the skies. The QFIs were drawn from the best; young swashbuckling pilots from fighters, transports and helicopter streams. They are flying ‘gurus‘, combining the best of flying and teaching skills. The sight of Sqn Ldr Eslin DCouto or Sqn Ldr Narmdeshwar Tiwari in flight suit & leg restrainers, Ray Ban Aviators, sporting a MiG29 or M2000 squadron badge & a ‘9g Club’ patch was enough to make young hearts miss a beat.

There was also the odd ‘angry young man’ who would hammer the trainee into submission with cross-cockpit Kung Fu strokes. Flying is a dangerous game when you have less than 24 flying hours to go solo on a jet trainer. Not every instructor has infinite patience. Although physical violence was proscribed, cadets did sometimes come back with upper arms blue or ‘Hanuman face’ from having their oxygen masks thumped. Of course, there was no question of touching the naval officers.

The writer after his first solo!

Turwant Singh & Shanks were two fine instructors I recall vividly. Turwant spent all his waking hours with his trainees, writing reams of briefs and debriefs, dragging us atop ledges and tables, his hands outstretched like an aeroplane to show us ‘perspective’ (how the runway should appear while on landing approach). He drew detailed sketches of aircraft attitudes for various stages of flight, lost sleep when we missed a manoeuvre, and NEVER ever raised his voice.

Shanks, in his sweet way, was the quintessential assembly line for pilots. With an unblemished track record, Shanks had his homegrown recipe for every trainee at pre-solo stage. It involved writing down the entire sortie, minute-by-minute, at least ten times! Unlike Agarwal Classes advertised those days as ‘ideal for scholars’, Shanks method was ‘flying through imposition’. It ensured 100% success. I was one of the beneficiaries of his genius!

On Cloud 9! The first solo!

The first solo sortie will remain etched in every pilots memory for life. If you show the Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) three safe, consecutive, consistent takeoffs and landings, you are permitted to ‘go kill yourself’ – meaning take responsibility for both yourself and the aircraft. When you open full throttle, release brakes, lunge forward to unstick speed, that ‘hand of God’ is no longer next to you. Admittedly, an eerie feeling.

If you bring back the aircraft without pieces missing, you have a reasonable chance at becoming a pilot. If you don’t, you get two ‘extension’ sorties with a change of instructor. Then follows a ‘progress check’ with stakes high enough to cause a nervous breakdown. Flunk that and you’re up for a formality called ‘suspension check’ with the Chief Instructor (CI) or the Commandant himself. That’s one step away from being returned to the gangway or ground duties.

Miracles do happen. A rare trainee sometimes made a comeback from the suspension check!

The rigorous part of flying training follows where you learn aerobatics, instrument flying, low level navigation, recovery from stall & spin, night flying, armament firing, close formation, etc. At each stage, wheat is separated from chaff. Feel like Tom Cruise? Remember, you are only two sorties away from being shown the door.

Sadly, accidents do happen. Some trainees leave for blue skies before earning their wings; some after. A good day is one where the total number of landings and takeoffs square off.

But when they don’t, AFA had a tradition of immediately launching all serviceable birds back into the skies. This was meant to dispel any fear of flying from creeping into the mind of young hatchlings. The answer to a downed flyer was two more who touch the skies with glory. Whether good or bad, that’s a debate for another day. AFA is an institution for military pilots, not a flying club where you huddle in fear at the mention of a crash. That’s what makes the place so unique.

Romancing the skies cannot be complete without falling in love on ground. In a setting replete with fast jets, jet fuel & young blood, only our instructors stood like an iron curtain between us and pretty girls on campus. When 25-year old naval officers with golden epaulettes strut down the corridors of AFA, romance cannot be far behind! Delightful love stories blossomed in dark corridors or ‘Deepak Rasoi’ – AFA’s coffee shop!

Eventually, like the 1982 movie ‘Vijeta‘, some of us found our lifelong ‘wingmen’ in those hallowed portals. Some like me loved and lost. But no regrets; that was the only time I lost to the IAF, a worthy opponent. Madhuri and me completed 22 years this summer. Looking back, we’ll have it no other way.

Graduation parade, 153PC. Waiting in the wings BEFORE award of Wings!

When the chief guest pins that wing on your chest at the graduation parade, you know you have earned your place in a noble profession. Like they say, not all the gold in the world can buy you these wings. You have to earn the privilege of wearing it each day – through hard work, sound preparation, forbearance, and, above all, the unending quest for knowledge. There ain’t no such thing as an old, bold pilot. In this business, you are only as good as your last landing.

Love & jet fuel – two things that still gives people like me a reason to get out of bed each day. Happy landings and God bless the Indian Air Force

Love & jet fuel! Minutes after the POP, Summer of 94!

Remembering the dear departed from 153PC as on 28 Jun 2019: Blue skies forever.

Indian Air Force: Sameer Nerkar, Shailendra Singh, K Gokul, Guarav Chibber, Shantanu Basu, Sachin Kadam, Vinayak Narayanan, Praveen Kotekoppa, Prasad Shendge, IN Chandra

Indian Navy: Sanjeev Dutta (IN)

Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former experimental test pilot with flight time on 24 types of aircraft and helicopters. He is an alumni of Defence Services Staff College and IIM Ahmedabad. His articles have appeared in national and international media and aerospace journals. Kaypius, as he is known in his circles, calls himself 'full-time aviator, part-time writer' and maintains a blog.