Today is World Pilots’ Day. A good day to remember the instructors who helped folks like me get here. Without whom, many dreams of getting the coveted wings would have remained a mere flight of fancy. In this post, I remember my earliest days in aviation.
Passing solocheck is vital to any military pilot’s aspirations. Air Force Academy (AFA), Dundigal, is perhaps the toughest route to become a pilot, especially if you’re flying jets (Kiran, HJT 16). There’s no instructional duty greater than the QFI’s who turn raw recruits into a ‘pilot prospect’. Mine was Sqn Ldr Turwant Singh, an IAF transport pilot. It was customary to have a few naval QFIs also on campus. But naval trainees were usually not allotted to them, possibly to avoid a “white on white” situation!
Turwant would go to extreme lengths for his pupils. Every ounce of work put in by the pupil would be matched by Turwant with a pound of his own sweat and toil; handwriting tens of sheets of instructions, briefs, debriefs, sketches, etc. He had a messianic sense of purpose. His pupils were his “bachhas“; he was the mother hen, keeping us safe from the myriad threats that loom over a trainee in basic stage of flying training. But all that stress could never ever draw a hint of temper or the use of intemperate language from him. To be sure, use of such “strongarm tactics” was not an uncommon “instructional technique” some instructors wielded against the norms of AFA.
Turwant was humility and professional conduct personified. How many instructors you know would take you for walks around the sprawling AFA campus, drawing runway & threshold markings on the ground, climbing trees & ledges with us, just to explain “perspective” for a landing approach? He would then end the day with a sheaf of handwritten material explaining every detail of next day’s sortie? I don’t know if they make QFIs like him anymore.
But that was Turwant with his two young naval Sub Lieutenant pupils. He possibly had among the best of the lot, but he never let his guard down nor allowed us the luxury of complacency. If I were to encapsulate Turwant’s wisdom in two lines, it would be: “Flying will come naturally to you if you work hard. The only “born pilots” are roosting in trees or resting in heaven.”
Yet, despite his best efforts, Kaypius failed his first solo check. It just wasn’t my day. Though Turwant had great expectations of me, I couldn’t show the examiner the mandatory three safe & consistent takeoff, circuit and landings required to pass solocheck. My co-pupil breezed through. Turwant paced on the tarmac for both of us to return from our solo checks in the scorching heat of Dundigal. One look at examiner Sqn Ldr PR Singh (our Flight Commander) & Turwant knew I hadn’t made it. I was exactly four sorties away from being returned unceremoniously to a naval gangway minus the wings of gold.
It was one of my lowest moments, but not lower than what Turwant himself must have felt that day. We were his first pupils after he graduated from Flight Instructors’ School (FIS), Tambaram. His eyes were misty as he held me by my shoulders & said, “KPS, it’s not the pupil’s fault. You both are one of the most hardworking trainees I could have ever wished for. Mujh mein koi kami reh gayi hogi (there must be some shortcoming from my side). I’ll do everything I can to get you a better instructor. You will not only fly, you’ll soar. Trust me.”
Turwant’s silent ‘hand of God’ was behind me as i went through two extension sorties with Flt Lt Shankar. “Shanks” had the unique record of zero groundings — none of his pupils ever failed their solocheck. His approach was simple yet clinical. Write down the whole sortie five times, down to the most minute detail. I filled up couple of note books in those two extension sorties spread over a couple of days. The progress check that followed with Chief Flying Instructor Wg Cdr TK Chatterjee was a breeze. TK was a reserved person, but I managed to elicit a micro-smile from him that day!
Rest is history, though not all milk and honey. I never met Turwant again (he passed away early of a heart ailment). That remains a big regret. Shanks is like a giant oak under whose benevolent shade I continue to grow. We reconnected through my blog few years ago — one of the small rewards of writing. Between these two IAF gold-standard instructors, they managed to make a pilot out of flightless bird Kaypius. I am eternally grateful to them and the services.
In aviation, you’re never too far from a type rating, test or check ride. I met many more sterling instructors during my journey as an aviator. But your pre-solo instructor occupies a special place in the heart. Any monkey can fly if given endless sorties. But to make one within the limited sorties & killing schedule (no pun) of Academy — that’s the high bar of military flying training. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who seek glamour without hardwork.
So here’s raising a toast to all you pilots and, most importantly, the instructors who trusted you with their life AND trusted you enough to not kill yourself. They give you the keys to your first plane & the first solo. Keep them close to your heart.
Fly ye ever so high, they’ll always remain right up there — in your life and in your log book.
Happy World Pilots’ Day!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @realkaypius. Views expressed in this article are personal. I would love to hear from you!