Love & Jet Fuel!

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 😉

Kaypius after his first solo! Love is in the air!

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 & me! He got the wisdom, I got the white hair! (Pic taken during his daughter’s wedding reception 22 May 2019)

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.

One of 153PC’s happy casualties of ‘Love & Jet Fuel’

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!
Raring to touch the sky with glory AFTER award of ‘Wings of Gold’

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!


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at Views are personal.

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)

13 thoughts on “Love & Jet Fuel!

  1. Very nicely done KP. Have always respected the flyboys… being a pilot is everyone’s dream but realised by only a lucky few … God bless and blue skies

  2. Awesome Sir! Loved reading this. You are one amazing writer.. Your book will be a best seller. You must do a TEDX show..

    1. Good read KP. For me it was Summer of 92..148 PC.
      Unfortunately for us beauty was yet to step into the portals of Academy so, all the love was between Gurus, pupils and Wings. And off course Sangeet Cinema during few of those outpass.
      Shank Sir n me share the love for Ibexes as our first Squadron.
      God Speed and Happy Landings.

  3. Thanks KP. Took me back almost 60 years. Glad that the Mess No 1 was your equal in sense of humour.

    1. Thanks for taking me back to the glory days. Some of my best years were spent in various cockpits. I really wish for those days to come back. But if wishes were horses……. I am especially impressed by your ability to remember the details and the names. Very well written, buddy!! Was indeed an honour to be a part of 153 PC along with you.

  4. Your account vividly brought back so many memories of a tumultuous yet fun time. Shared it with my son, an aspiring commercial pilot, to describe how we learnt flying the fauji way.
    Thank you sir and keep it coming!

  5. Very interesting to read about the young trainee pilot training of early 90s. God bless and safe sorties to all gutsy flyboys and girls.

  6. Thank you so much sir..fir an absolutely wonderful account of your travails in the AFA, hope you continue to touch the sky with glory..
    Blue skies…all the best sir, salute to your skills in the air as well as with a pen

  7. Kapius
    Thnx for bringing back memories. Yes I did not Tain at AFA, but trained others. However, I did see the conctruction taking place while we trained at FTW.

    I did have a wonderful time in the IAF, yes flew a lot, didn’t really about career courses.

    I do follow you n Sameer. I wonder if he your course.

    We are settled in Sec’bad just 2 km from the earstwhile FTW.

    For the past 15 years hardly ever missed a CGP.

    Sir you write well. Keep up the good efforts.



  8. As usual very beautifully written! The last lines “Love & jet fuel – two things that still gives people like me a reason to get out of bed each day” touched my heart. Everyone should have a purpose like this in their life.

  9. Beautiful kaypius. Take a bow. I just went through my first solo days; where my instr was not so sure of his decision and I was brimming with full of it. The freedom, the feeling of control of the ac, instructors confidence and the almighty’s hand on you was a heady cocktail in those years. Thanks for taking down the memory lane . Love your writing.

  10. Very well written. Deep insight and touching. You have covered all aspects in detail. Took me back to AFA days @ 133 PC, the first batch to go directly on Kirans. Have fond memories of the time spent at officers block in Cadets Mess. Although, could not make the grade and was not privileged to earn my wings but that how life goes. Thanks for a lovely article.

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