Flying Tales : The Day I Intercepted My Flight Commander
Group Captain Umesh Shashtri
No wonder they say ‘Flying is a great experience, as it’s also a great leveller’.
This tale harks back to my Flying Officer days, while on posting to 17 Squadron operating MiG21 M ac. I had achieved my ‘Fully Ops’ status and was a leader of 2ac formation. I had also completed my Night Strike syllabus and was cleared for Flight Testing on the ac. This was pretty much as far as a Fg Offr could get. For any higher qualifications one had to be a Flt Lt in rank, and that stripe was still 6 months distant.
The upside was that due to my being a formation leader. I was getting a whole lot of flying. But the downside was that I was pulling a lot of Op duties on the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform). For the non-aviators, ORP is an AD duty, where a Section of two ac are parked in Blast Pens next to the RW, armed with missiles and guns loaded, ready to be Scrambled (launched off at short notice) to address any Airspace intrusion detected by own AD Radars. Sounds very high vaulting, but in reality a boring task!! Squadrons go for months without a single scramble.
Left to me, I’d rather be on the Flying Programme, where flying the sortie(s) is guaranteed, instead of being in the dungeon next to the ORP, waiting for the hooter/ tannoy to sound. But alas, subaltern level officers do not such decisions make, and one had to just hunker down and like it, as there was no way out of it.
A ROUTINE DUTY
So there were we, on a chilly January morning, with me as the leader of the section and apna Uday ‘Kolu’ Kolhatkar as my ‘wingman’. Reached the ORP at Sunrise-45 min in the light swirling fog. A routine Ground run to test the engine and systems, a Radar and missile-lock check, and we set up the ac in readiness for the scramble. Went in to the ORR and reported to the controlling Radar Unit (SU) of our readiness. After a check of communications and tannoy hooters, we settled down to Wait and Watch. The SU would Watch, while we would Wait!!
After a light breakfast, Kolu decided to catch up on his beauty sleep. Off came his flying boots, his G-suit went onto a peg on the wall, and he wrapped himself up in a blanket. With the Sunflow heater at full blast creating a warm cocoon, he was soon in dreamless sleep….the picture of a hard pressed Fg Offr catching up on some well earned rest.
I tried to read a book. In them days there were no TV/ VCR Combo where one could review some coloured ‘Combat Films’ and the only way to kill time was to play chess or Scrabble, or read a book. Soon however, inactivity, tedium and the warm room, coupled with the sleeping form of Kolu the Gentle Giant, I too dozed off. By now Kolu was just a step short of complete hibernation.
Quite without warning, there was a blast on the tannoy!! The sound of the tannoy is designed to wake the dead. I was up on my feet, looking expectantly at the hooter, waiting for the next stage, which is to raise the alert level from Standby 5 to Standby 2, requiring us to be in the cockpit, strapped up and able to get airborne within 2 minutes. But, he had other plans.
The voice of the SU Controller came over the speaker, ‘Msn 201, SCRAMBLE SCRAMBLE SCRAMBLE, initial vector 360, climb to 2km, contact BUNKER Control on Channel 7! Msn 201 SCRAMBLE!’
Ah! At last, I thought to myself, as I started to launch myself towards the door. A glance back at Kolu, and lo and behold!! There stood 6-footer Kolu in his socks, trying to decipher what had just happened…….a comic sight. Sleeping beauty had a bemused look on his face as he came to grips with the real world. His quandary was, ‘Now what?’ He had to figure out whether G-suit, or flying boots were to come on first. He got his boots on in a flash, but the zipper of his G-suit was stuck!! Damn. I yelled just one word……..RUN!!
And I RAN. All the dummy ORP Scrambles with seniors paid off that day.
Reached the aircraft…….ground crew were already swarming about…… starting aggregate was running……. up the ladder and into the seat……. battery gang-load switch ON, throttle forward to Idle and hit the starter button to get the Turmansky R-11 turbojet going……..strap up, on went the inner helmet and outer bone dome……. indicate to the airman on the step ladder to close the cockpit……..I was quicksilver that day! Things happened so fast that those 45 seconds (needed for the engine to reach idling and be ready to move) seemed like eternity.
Waved off the ground equipment and crew, and eased forward out of the blast pen. Quick glance in the rear view to check lateral alignment and I was powering out onto the runway. Looked right to check if Kolu was likewise on the move, but no signs of him as yet. No time to wait, and over the RT, called up the ATC.
“Msn 201 Alpha scrambling down RW 31”, trying hard to sound cool, but in reality adrenaline was pumping!!
“Msn 201 cleared scramble RW 31, initial vector 360, BUNKER Control Channel 7”, came the DATCO’s voice, another good friend Fg Offr Santosh Joshi.
A quick check on the roll using the FACT pneumonic…… F Flaps (set), A Airbrakes (In), C Canopy (locked and sealed), T Trim (pitch trim neutral), and then it was Full afterburner, accelerating to 320 kmph and up, up and away……. undercarriage up, heard the satisfying CLUNK of the wheels locking up….speed 400 commence a gentle turn with 30 degrees of bank from heading 310 to 360…. switched over to Ch7 to contact the SU.
“Bunker MSN 201 Alpha, airborne check, climbing to 2km”.
“MSN 201 identified, climb to 2 km and accelerate to Mach 1.3” came the excited response.
Oh oh!! There sure was some fire on! Time to break the news to him that the formation wasn’t exactly a formation yet.
“Aah, Bunker MSN 201A, Bravo is not yet airborne”.
“Roger 201 Alpha, maintain 2 Km, and accelerate to maximum speed, turn left heading 340”.
Now, that was an interesting turn of events. Heading 360 from Bhatinda would have taken me east of Ferozepur. But 340 meant I was being vectored at a closing angle towards the IB, and towards a point south-west of Ferozepur. Quickly checked weapon switches, missile heating switch ON, gun master ON. I was feeling like Rambo on the move.
A little later, “Right heading 360, target right 1 o’clock, 18 km”.
“Roger looking out, no contact as yet”.
“1:30, 12 km”.
“1:30, 8 km, slightly below your level”.
“CONTACT!” Now I was getting really warmed up. Eased in a bit to the right, padlocked my vision onto the dark dot rapidly getting larger on my windscreen, and eased off the power to drop speed to the intruder’s. The ac appeared to be in a gentle left turn westwards towards the IB, then altered heading in a NE direction. As I closed the distance to about 2 km, I thought the silhouette of the target looked familiar!!
Closed into a range less than 1 km, and I could clearly discern the as to be a MiG23, obviously a friendly ac. So I announced on RT, “It’s a Type 24, friendly”.
Type 24 was the generic RT code for the MiG 23 family of ac.
“Roger switches SAFE, close in and identify markings”, so I closed in further into ‘fighting’ formation (250m range). By this time the pilot of the ‘23 had spotted me, and started to turn away in a shallow turn, still maintaining speed at around 750 kmph. No evasive manoeuvres, rather he rolled out on a heading of 060 or so.
“MSN 201 A identify by tail number”. (Each aircraft has a identifiable number, usually painted on both surfaces of the tail plane, as well as on the wing lower surface). So I eased into close formation, holding station at around 8-10 metres, and read off the number.
“Sierra Kilo 4-1-7” I called. Immediately the controller asked me to lead the aircraft to Halwara, and gave me a heading of 120.
So now, following the SOP for AD interception, I moved ahead and to the right of the ‘23, rocked my wings, indicating ‘Follow Me’ and turned onto heading 120. Initially he turned to follow, then went off left onto heading 060. Now we were over a point where 120 would take us to Halwara, and 060 to Adampur. Both of these were MiG 23 bases.
“Not so fast Buster” I said to myself. This guy is gonna go where I ask him to. So once again, I caught up with him, rocked my wings, and turned towards Halwara. Again he made as if he’s following, and then turned away towards a NE-ly track. Slippery customer, I thought to myself.
In the meanwhile, Kolu was being controlled to join up. As the ‘23 turned towards Adampur a second time, Kolu at a blistering 1.2 Mach flew between me and the ‘23!! At a very close range, he spotted us and to stay in the vicinity, he heaved his ac into a near vertical climb!! His entry was the most dramatic one on the scene!! Gave us a right scare, he did, as he crossed on a path perpendicular to ours, at almost our level or perhaps 100-200 metres above us and passed behind me but right in front of the other ac!!
By now, some identification had apparently happened, and we were asked to allow the intercepted ac to go where he wished, and we were to only shadow him. So I stuck to the ‘23 in a loose patrol formation at around 5-600 metres at his 4 o’clock, while Kolu trailed along at a sedate distance.
But we weren’t done yet!!
Abruptly the controllers voice crackled in our headsets.
“MSN 201 Alpha (that’s me) remain with Type 24, Bravo (Kolu) break off, head North for another intercept”!
Wow, I thought. Sky is really live today.
Now Kolu again prepared to go supersonic as he turned North. But in very short order, it all settled down. We were both broken off from our intercepts and vectored towards an off Base recovery at Halwara. But on checking fuel states, we both had enough fuel remaining to make it back to own Base (Bhatinda).
What Really Happened That Day?
Well it was a comedy of errors, which could have had serious repercussions. In a nut shell, the sequence of events was:
1. MiG 23 MF from Adampur was airborne for a Range (Weapons) sortie over Sidhwan Khas range (SKR), which lies south of Adampur, NW of Halwara.
2. The pilot was in touch with the Radar (SU) at Amritsar. As he approached the Range he descended, and went below the Radar horizon (off the scope).
3. Due to prevailing low vis conditions he was unable to spot the Range, which is understandable as it’s a tricky place to find. In his manoeuvring to spot the Range he drifted westwards, bringing him towards the IB.
4. He was picked up on radar scope of Barnala SU, where there was no info of his movement. So he was declared as a ‘U-track’ or Unidentified track, and since he was a right over Ferozepur (11 km from IB) when first detected, we were Scrambled from Bhatinda.
5. He started a gentle climb, by which time I latched onto him.
6. By now, he was painting on the radar scope of Amritsar SU, and shortly afterwards I joined him. So one track became two ac.
Then Kolu came haring in at supersonic speed and did his crazy manoeuvre!! Two tracks became three!!
7. In all this, he (MiG 23) had declared himself unsure of position, but Amritsar didn’t connect the dots.
8. Barnala told Amritsar of our scramble, but they were busy by then with one track, then two, then three…..so they told Barnala ‘stand by, we have a situation!’
9. Now Amritsar pressed the panic button, and scrambled the ORP off Pathankot. That section was headed south where the melee was taking place.
10. And when Barnala picked up the second ORP Section, they took them as ‘Hostiles’ and so turned Kolu Northwards towards them.
11. And seeing all this jhamela happening, the PAF didn’t know what to make of it, so they launched four Mirage IIIs ex Lahore as an Area CAP!!
It was a hair-trigger sit that day. A total of nine ac (5 IAF, 4 PAF) were airborne, milling around in the airspace within 50 km of FZR, all because one MiG 23 lost his way!!
Two days later, I was at the ADCC at Ambala, for an enquiry into the episode. And there in AVM PK ‘Babi’ Day’s office I met the hapless MiG23 Pilot, who happened to be a the man who initiated my training on MiG21s, with whom I flew my first dual check in Tezpur on a MiG21 trainer. A Cat A QFI who was my Flt Cdr when I was undergoing training.
There was I in flying overalls, having flown down in a fighter, while he had to face the ignominy of being in full uniform, as he was on the mat. I felt acutely embarrassed at this turn of events. When I said so to him, he said with a humility that truly took my breath away, ‘Umesh it happens. Flying is a great leveller, we all make mistakes. Don’t worry. This will pass!!’
And it did. He went on to command a Squadron, later two Stations, and rose to be an Air Vice Marshal himself. Some great lessons in flying for the likes of youngsters like me.
– Errare humanum est.
– Flying, as indeed life itself, is a great leveller.
– And no matter what, remain humble!!