by AVM Arjun Subramaniam (Retd)

From IAF’s Tezpur base, rookie fighter pilots in the early 1980s went on to hone their air combat skills in MiG-21 squadrons

The Hawkeyes or the 108 Squadron of the Indian Air Force flew into the sunset a few weeks ago. Equipped with the MiG-21 M or the T-96 as it is commonly called in the IAF, the photograph of the Chief of Air Staff flying the last sortie made me nostalgic.

The winter of 1982 saw me scrape through my MiG-21 operational flying training (MOFT) syllabus in Tezpur, Assam, which was for almost three decades, the hub of advanced fighter training in the IAF. Flying the oldest version of the MiG-21 in the IAF, at the time called the T-77 Close Formation, almost proved to be my nemesis had it not been for a benevolent flight commander who gave me a couple of extra sorties to iron out my inconsistencies in maintaining station.

Had it not been for him, I may never have flown fighters. From Tezpur, rookie fighter pilots in the early 1980s went on to hone their air combat and gunnery skills in operational MiG-21 squadrons that comprised three variants — T-77, T-96 and BIS.

Six of us from the 128th pilots’ course shivered our way into MiG Alley, a row of damp, grey, single-storey and single room accommodation in Air Force Station,

Adampur, in the first week of January 1983. We were attached to No. 108 Squadron and happy to be part of what was then, and is still one of the largest and most active fighter bases in the IAF.

The 108 squadron at the time was just recovering from a bad patch and was commanded by a typical ‘seat of the pants’ and happy-go-lucky fighter pilot with excellent leadership skills, both in the air and on the ground, Wing Commander Ashley Rodrigues. Complementing him as flight commander was a stern, meticulous and no-nonsense Anglo-Indian, Squadron Leader H.O. Robey.

The next six months were a tough grind as we honed our skills under the watchful eyes of a committed bunch of flight lieutenants and squadron leaders. From that bunch of Hawkeyes of 1983-84, I guess I was the last to call it a day from the IAF.

As we grew in confidence and approached our Day Ops status (the first milestone in a fighter pilot’s early career), the competition between all of us intensified, particularly when it came to proving ourselves in air combat and air-to-ground firing. As the healthy competition intensified, so did our risk-taking propensity and the severity of the mistakes we made in the air and on the ground. This is where the mentoring, monitoring and a timely rap on the knuckles from the senior flight lieutenants and young squadron leaders ensured that any suicidal tendencies were nipped in the bud.

I still remember the crisp winter mornings in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, in December 1983, or maybe January 1984, during an annual air-to-ground weapons training detachment; all of us were happy to be away from the sub-zero temperatures at home base and were thoroughly enjoying our firing. One incident from this detachment will follow me to my grave and still gives me the shivers and relates to what is called in fighter pilot language ‘target fixation’.

This is a condition wherein, a pilot gets so engrossed in tracking a target on the ground while in a dive that he loses track of his relative proximity to the ground, violates the minimum height for pull-out and often digs a hole in the area around the target at speeds of over 850 kmph and finds himself in a coffin. The only difference at times is if there is an alert Range Safety Officer who yells out on radio ‘pull out’ and this, at times, jerks the pilot back into reality, or if there is some external stimulus that restores situational awareness and elicits the appropriate psychomotor response that averts disaster.

In my case, it was the day after I had fired a couple of good rockets and wanted good gun scores as well and wanted to go in real close and open fire, confident that I would be able to pull out in time. By this time, I had transgressed the firing window and should have pulled out of the dive. But I chose to continue, with my eyes fixed on the square cloth target for a fraction of a second more before I squeezed the trigger till I heard a scream, ‘Subbu, pull out’.

Luckily, I yanked back at the stick and pulled out with almost 8 Gs, blew the target off, not with my bullets, but with my exhaust wake and landed back, drenched in sweat and trembling, but glad to be alive.

Fighter pilots across the world have a special affection for their first squadron, and so was it for me with the Hawkeyes.