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A gentleman pilot

IT WAS during the early days of World War II. An IAF aircraft was stationed at Cannanore cantonment airstrip. The then flying officer, a tall young Sikh and his Malayali corporal aircraftsman were getting bored of routine flights. They talked about the corporal's house and relations who were living not far away. The flying officer asked the corporal to get into the back of the aircraft. The pilot took off and made straight to the corporal's house. They flew lower and lower circling the house not once, not twice but many times. Not only the inmates of the corporal's house, but the entire countryside had come out. All traffic came to a halt. The people of this area had seen an aircraft only once before. In 1936, a local boy Ramachandran (later Air Commodore and AFC from the RAF) had obtained his `A' licence from Mumbai (then Bombay) had landed his moth at Cannanore strip. But then he had flown at regulation height.

This time it was out of the world for the people who had only seen birds in the air. While it was all fun and game for the children and even for old folks, it was not so for the British administrator. An official complaint went up and Air Headquarters took it rather seriously initially. But trained pilots were a rare commodity those days and someone decided to forget and forgive.

The flying officer who escaped a court martial was Arjan Singh who, on January 26, 2002, was installed as the first ever Marshal of the IAF. The corporal was the late Air Commodore Bhaskaran, an outstanding engineer of the IAF.

When I rang up the Marshal of the Indian Air Force from Tellicherry to congratulate him, he remembered the incident, particularly when he heard I was speaking from the same place of his escapade more than 60 years ago. Arjan Singh was among the earliest pilots of the Indian Air Force. In 1930, six were selected and sent to Cranwell in England for training. One more joined them. In later years nine more Indians were sent for training and Arjan Singh was one among them. That was 16 pilots, minus one who was disqualified for being too short, that made the total strength of pilots of the Indian Air Force at the beginning of World War II.

Fully Indian

The Indian Air Force was the only all India service which was fully Indian. No non-Indian could be a member of the IAF, unlike the ICS, Indian Army and Indian Navy where the majority were Englishmen. It was the Sheen Committee, which included Motilal Nehru as a member, that recommended this `Indian Service' to form an air arm of the Indian Army. It was at the dawn of Independence, at the recommendation of the first chief, Air Marshal Elmhirst, that the IAF was created as an independent service. In fact it was the main condition laid down by Elmhirst for taking over as the first chief of the service. Arjan Singh, in spite of his height and build, was soft-spoken, but he led from the front. One of the finest pilots of the IAF he was a friend of all, and enemy of none. He obtained complete loyalty and discipline of the officers and men under his command, by his demeanour as a gentleman leader. He continues to be so.

His command of No. 1 squadron of the IAF was considered outstanding. He himself was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and on his recommendation eight others of his squadron got the DFC.

When his squadron moved to the front, Kohima and Imphal were cut off, and isolated. Until the reopening of the Kohima-Imphal road four months later, the entire area had to be supplied by air. Every inch of ground was contested till the besieged four Indian Corps was contacted and relieved. Arjan Singh's squadron itself was besieged and was within the artillery range of the enemy. Under Arjan Singh's leadership, the squadron carried out 1,600 sorties with a total of 2,200 hours of operational flying in about 20 weeks. The ground staff, among them CPL Bhaskaran who had been commissioned by then, remained in hourly dread of attack and capture. The standard of maintenance and the serviceability of the squadron remained higher than that of any other RAF squadron operating on the entire Burma front.

These are stories and achievements that have been forgotten. Many pilots sacrificed their lives in dare devil attempts to save our army and the cause. That included my own cousin flying officer A. C. Prabhakaran. Even the water points from where our jawans collected water had to be protected by the fighter aircraft flying low over them. In war, fighter reconnaissance pilots had to fly as low as possible and there was no threat of a court martial. Arjan Singh's leadership during the 1965 war is well known. Though I did not have the opportunity to be a member of his squadron, from our squadron, the sixth under another distinguished pilot, the late Air Commodore Mehr Singh, we admired the achievements of Arjan Singh and his boys.

Today is a great day for the Indian Air Force. We have a Marshal of the Air Force. Arjan Singh, the gentleman pilot, deserved it more than anyone else.

Wing Commander (Retd.) MURKOT RAMUNNY

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