A FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER RECALLS GROWING UP WITH THE INDIAN AIR FORCE.
Enough is said about fighter pilots.
With their black flying boots, blue overalls, rolled-up sleeves, aviators, and nonchalant smirks, they have an air that suggests they could – but never would – strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone. That, in a nutshell, was every fighter pilot I’ve ever met. And with a father in the Indian Air Force, I have met a fair few.
But that’s the thing; being up close and personal with these ostensibly mysterious creatures on a daily basis meant that I didn’t really notice them at all. You don’t notice the banal until it dawns on you that your banal might just be remarkable to everybody else.
The Long March to Earning Your Wings
I’d heard snippets about my father’s life as a cadet while growing up. My father is a quiet man whose only grandstanding involved taking off from the runway at ridiculous angles when he knew his wife and kids were watching. But to be granted a glimpse at life at the National Defence Academy (NDA) is also to understand all those young men, only just edging out of boyhood, but taking on this new world with ferocity.
“There were ‘blanket parades’, Wing Commander VS Kochar told me, “when seniors who were hated were covered in blankets and thrashed, and ‘canteen raids’, to offset what we thought we overpaid Mr Kapoor for Mangolas and other eatables…naturally these weren’t reported, for lack of evidence. Umpteen bikes were stolen… from those hated seniors and dumped all over the place. Khadakvasla Dam was one of those dump sites. Some of them haven’t been traced to date.”
A convivial ex-fighter pilot, Kochar, who served in the IAF for 21 years, he joined the NDA at age 16 and decided in the fourth of his six terms that he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
When air force cadets leave the NDA, they go straight into another year and a half of training, with six months at Bidar, then another six at Dundigal, and the last six at Hakimpet, which is where the real fighter training takes place. It’s also the first glimpse of the bizarrely named places they’ll be stationed at for the rest of their careers. And 18 months later these freshly-brewed fighters, proudly brandishing the first stripes on their lapels, are assigned to different squadrons to begin do the job for which they’ve spent years preparing.
Family Life on the Base
The young fighter pilots of the ’70s would marry while still in their early twenties and bring their brides home to bases in Chhabua, Kalaikunda, and Udhampur. Most of these young women hadn’t a clue what was in store. Back then this meant no telephones, extremely slow post, no television, not even a town. For these young wives it was the biggest leap they’d ever taken. But in as much as the cadets shed their blankets to leap into the unknown, these new brides took their first steps onto unfamiliar bases, swaddled in layers of adventure.
Mona Yadav’s initiation into the IAF came at 30,000 feet: “My first and most vivid memory of the Air Force is flying into the Srinagar Valley right after our wedding, and en route, in the aircraft, the Indian Airlines crew announced, ‘Welcome to the Valley, Mrs Yadav’ on the PA. The Air Force manned the ATC, and my husband was, at the time, the senior-most bachelor on the station.”
My mother, Soma Krishna Pande, was 23 when she was married and moved to the Air Force base in Bagdogra, West Bengal. She recalls her realisation that the base functioned like one large family, with whole squadrons landing up at your doorstep demanding food, costume parties that were the talk of the base, and condoms as commonplace party replacements for balloons. We’d go to the squadron on Sundays for brunch, where the grown-ups would hang out in the sun with their gin and tonics, and the ‘kids’ would be made to watch Top Gun ad nauseam in the briefing room.
Riding 60 kilometres on optimistically named “roads” to reach a beach with nothing but bluebottle jellyfish for company was ‘fun’, and coming home to puerile pranks? Normal:
“Air Force bases are safe,” my mother remembered. “We didn’t lock our doors. Of course once I stepped out for a bit and the junior officers came calling, and finding the house unlocked and empty, turned the house upside down… We came home to find every piece of furniture facing the walls, umbrellas hanging from fans, every painting turned upside down, and my husband’s sunglasses on a sculpture in the living room.”
I was born into the air force. It was home to me and I knew no other life. But for the men and women who grew up in India’s cities, only to be shipped to remote military outposts, the isolation can be severe. Elaine Rati Kochar, the wife of VS Kochar, recalls, “We were very isolated from the outside world, but life inside was full and busy. We had tight circles to stop that sense of isolation from seeping in.”
It is an odd dynamic, a sort of forever-transient family that’s always on the go, running around the country, making new friends, meeting old ones, and all of this by chance and happenstance. The kinships forged are stretched out by distance and new postings, but given half the chance they snap right back together. Home ranged from temporary accommodation in barracks to year long ‘permanent’ residence in houses. It meant not an address, but a sense of familiarity that becomes ingrained at a young age. The incessant movement never bred a sense of displacement, perhaps because all Air Force bases are equipped with identical kit.
A discontinuous life is typical and feels normal until the families and children hit ‘Civvy Street’, where they encounter people who have lived and worked in pin codes that didn’t change like bingo numbers. That is when the contrast in our lives stands out. Friends that last a year, schools that last 10 months, families who unpack while anticipating repacking four months later, power cuts, bad schooling, and an almost absolute detachment from the ‘real world’ that is racing outside of our cocoon. It is a seesaw of advantages and disadvantages. This stop-motion life of the families is needed for India’s military to function optimally and the families do it with aplomb.
The Fear in the Back of Our Minds
“There’s a ‘green period’ in the mornings,” reported my father, Wing Commander LN Pande, “from sunrise to 9.30am. This is when there is minimum bird activity. A bird hit on takeoff is dicey, especially on single engine aircrafts, like the MiG 21, the MiG 27, or the Mirage, because if you eject and you have negative vector, the seat won’t save you. I lost some friends because of that.”
Monica Yadav told me that as a fighter pilot’s wife the stress was always high, but it stayed in the back of her mind. She had to tune out the daily gamble and remain positive. “We all felt that it could never happen to us and maybe that was a good thing.”
Fighter flying is intrinsically a high-risk game. When flying low-altitude at 900 kmph, a bird hit is like a cannon shell. Combat in restricted airspace sometimes entails six aircraft crossing each other at very high speeds, trying to get a missile or gun kill. So despite a very high level of discipline, mishaps do happen. And when they do, soldiers often die.
My mother recalls that in cases of ejections or fatal crashes, it was a norm that the station commander would come and break the news to the family. Once, while posted in a fighter training squadron where ejections and fatalities were more common because of the young trainee pilots, she saw the station commanders car turning into her driveway: “That is the one time when my blood turned cold. I don’t know how I went up to the door when the doorbell rang and I don’t remember opening the door. It’s only when I saw a visiting senior officer, an old friend, who had used the car to come and see me, that I could breathe normally.”
After a fatal crash, the entire squadron would get together along with their families in the evening. It was done mostly to keep up the morale of other fighter pilots; a crash affected everybody in the Air Force station. Everybody would have a drink together and talk about the person they lost, a final toast. “It seemed like a party but there was grief in every heart,” recounts my mother.
The squadron always flew the next day. Whether it was to shake off the edge or to go about their work, one could never tell. I, of course, grew up oblivious of any of this. The children of the air force lead protected lives. By the time we grew up and understood the intricacies of death, we had already been living it for all our lives. It had been part of us.
Author: Juhi Pande
Photographs: the Pande family