Kilo Flight and the Birth of the Bangladesh Air Force
Air Cmde C M Singla, Vr C (Retd)
September 1971; with the war clouds looming I was a flight lieutenant and one of the four flying instructors with the 112 Helicopter Unit of the Indian Air Force located at Bagdogra, West Bengal, which saw itself on dawn to dusk standby daily. Ours was a training unit, essentially providing operational training to air force and army pilots out of the Helicopter Training School before they moved on to their Chetak units; but we also provided helicopter support for sectors in our proximity. On the 26th of the month I had a summons from our Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Naresh Kumar. I was to move to Tezpur, Assam, the next morning. Hardly inclined to leave my flying unit and take up an assignment that could very well see me behind a desk while the war went on, I tried sounding my protests; but they fell on deaf ears. “An aircraft will pick you up at 0800 hrs tomorrow” was the unresponsive verdict I received. There wasn’t even a word on my assignment; I was ordered to pack for 4-5 weeks and carry the bedding as well.
At 8 a.m. next morning I was promptly taken on board a Dakota. At Tezpur I was personally received by Squadron Leader Mehtani, OC 115 Helicopter Unit. A VIP reception indeed but a no-frills one as I was escorted to meet the Air Officer Commanding of the station who asked brusquely if I could fly the Chetak alone. “‘Mama’ Mehtani has a copter ready for you”, he said on my affirmative response. “Take it to Dimapur. You will be further briefed there. You will get complete maintenance support for the Chetak on immediate priority. Questions? Carry on.” In the Helicopter Unit, I obtained a map, VHF and NDB (Non-Directional Beacon) frequencies, signed up for the machine and for the first time flew it alone to Dimapur, Nagaland. On switching off at Dimapur, I remember that the rickety jeep that rolled up refused to start again. Having woken up very early and been on the move whole day, hungry and tired, I cursed and push-started the jeep back to life.
AF Dimapur was commanded by a flight lieutenant who had a staff of about 15 airmen. Their role was to provide support to Dakotas of AF Jorhat doing air-maintenance of troops in forward locations of Nagaland. I was given a cot in the ramshackle ATC building. Food that was spicy and oily came from the Airmen’s Mess. Rest of the creature comforts matched the cot and food.
I received my further briefing from the Station Commander Jorhat, Group Captain Chandan Singh, who landed in a Dakota the next day, 28 September with Squadron Leader CM Choudhary, a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) on Dakota who spoke Bengali, for company. I was tasked to train three Pakistani pilots on the Chetak. Two of them, Squadron Leader Sultan Ahmed and Flight Lieutenant Badrul Alam, were defected Bengali pilots of the Pakistani Air Force and the third, Captain Shahabuddin Ahmed, was a civilian pilot. A hand-picked maintenance team led by Flight Lieutenant Ramakrishna had been assembled to give us necessary support. My brief was to get cracking immediately and make all my three trainees operational within a week. This left me with far too inadequate hours for the task if I were to follow the IAF syllabus for day-and-night conversion. Ignore the rules of the IAF, I was told, complete the task. I got going pronto, grabbing writing material and commencing the preliminary ground training. I could have hardly imagined then that that day, 28 September 1971, would come to be recognized as the Raising Day of BAF, the Bangladesh Air Force.
I flew round the clock with them. Their age, mature fixed wing flying habits, distressed state of mind and barely acceptable living conditions made teaching and training a formidable task. Their attempts at hovering resulted in moving all over, frequently blocking the only runway. It was difficult to make them reduce speed on finals. Nevertheless, we went on with no let up, and bordering on exhaustion, I was able to report on schedule that each of them was now comfortable flying by day and night.
“For your navigation phase”, the Station Commander ordered. “I want to see you over Jorhat ATC at midnight tonight”. I took off with a trainee on the pitch-dark night with 8/8 low cloud ceiling. About half way to Jorhat, it started pouring. The Chetak has only basic instrumentation with air-driven gyros. Flying blind without a visual horizon was bad enough, but entering clouds, even in the plains, with zero instrument landing capability had resulted in disasters in the past. I kept reducing my altitude and speed, maintaining heading. Naturally instead of the trainee I had the controls, yet I suddenly saw tree branches rushing past the copter. I had descended below the canopy of trees! That was enough; I did a gentle 180 and safely retuned to Dimapur in the pouring rain. Not surprisingly, I was pulled up for not being seen and heard over AF Station Jorhat at midnight.
We barely got a day off to rest when on 08 October I was summoned to Jorhat. One Chetak had been brought in by transport aircraft. Its serial number is recorded as 364 in my log book. It had two Mystere fighter aircraft’s rocket pods mounted on either side. They carried 7 rockets each, capable of being fired in pairs or salvo. The selection switch for pair and salvo as also the firing switch were mounted on the captain’s control column. A side-firing twin barrel machine gun was mounted on the floor. The sliding door on the left was removed. The Station Commander flew with me on its copilot’s seat to Dimapur.
Armourer Fitters were flown in and so were loads of rockets. I was asked to teach my trainees to fire rockets by day and night accurately. Such a thing had never been done in the air force and I had no clue; and I told the Station Commander as much. Harmonization of the pods, gun sights, ground attack tactics and target practice were unprecedented and had to be improvised. “Who will guide me Sir?” I asked. “You will learn”, he said smiling. “I am confident.” This was first of the several pioneering flying tasks that were to be entrusted to me later in my career.
We now had two Chetaks – an armed one and a passenger version. We were issued a sten gun each. We practiced firing it and then were handed over two loaded magazines each to carry with the weapon while flying. The rocket pods were synchronized, ring and bead gun sight installed. On test flight I noticed that with the extra load and aerodynamics burden the helicopter handled sluggishly. During night I found that the gun-sight was mounted very low and was so bright that I could not see a target through it. These were rectified despite the resource crunch and a rheostat on the stick gave the realigned gun sight operational viability.
Since we needed targets to practice firing RPs (Rocket Projectiles), a Dakota was made to drop three parachutes with bundles of hay under-slung. The parachutes flung over the dense jungle canopy were to make targets for us to fire at; unfortunately all three parachutes went clean through the canopy of trees. The plan was devised by the Station Commander. Now asked for suggestions, I came up with an idea that three airmen could para-jump on to the neigbouring grass-topped hill slopes and nail their parachutes down. But then it was unsafe for para-dropped men to land on steep slopes. Neither could we land a copter on such slopes. So I went into low hover and had the airmen jump out; and once they had nailed the parachutes I picked them up from a very low hover. We now had excellent targets. I found myself enjoying the game; free of rules, regulations and red tape. I evolved the aiming procedure, elevation of commencement of dive and the height above ground for release of rockets and procedure for pulling away. We soon burned and re-laid several parachutes and I reported that all my three pupils could now fire RPs with reasonable accuracy by day.
Squadron Leader Sultan Ahmed and his countrymen were now asked by the Station Commander to design an emblem for painting on the armed Chetak and give the helicopter a name and number. This was an exciting moment for them and after lively deliberations they chose that the helicopter’s vertical stabilizer be painted with a red roundel having a map of Bangladesh superimposed on it in green colour. They chose EBR (for East Bengal Rifles) as the call sign of the copter. The IAF roundels were removed overnight and the armed Chetak donned the Bangladesh Colours. By all accounts it was the first aircraft of the BAF and in all my subsequent log book entries IAF Sl. No. 364 stood substituted by EBR.
My mission accomplished I was ordered back to Bagdogra on 15 October. Back to routine I found life boring. On 27 October I was on an assignment flying some VIPs around Barrackpore and Dum Dum airport in Calcutta when my CO telephonically ordered me to take an Indian Airlines flight and get back to Bagdogra. I was needed back at Dimapur. Though other instructors had volunteered I had been asked by name. I was back at Dimapur on 01 November.
Night missions were being planned and I was to learn and teach night firing of RPs to my Bengali trainees. Night firing was not to be guided by phase of the moon. Ability to fly and fire in dark nights was to be mastered. Visual sighting of a target on a dark night posed a severe operational limitation. Nevertheless by end November we were operational day and night.
On 01 December I was asked to fly down to AF Jorhat by myself. Group Captain Chandan Singh wanted a night strike to be launched within a couple of days from an abandoned airfield near Agartala. Could my trainees navigate, strike accurately and return? I said yes to all except returning. Returning to an un-illuminated point on a dark night without necessary device could be disastrous. Even if I had hand held RT set we may not be able to lead them in should the course they were steering go wrong in strong winds that were likely to prevail. He suggested that we lit up the point with petro-max lamp covered by a perforated tin. Would it suffice, more so if we cover and uncover the lamp repeatedly? I felt confident it would. On 02 December I flew to Kailashahar – an abandoned airfield in Tripura bordering East Pakistan – along with my trainees. The strike was to be launched from Teliamura. The Group Captain also arrived during the day with complete ground support. On the night of 03 December Squadron Leader Sultan and Flight Lieutenant Alam got airborne with a full load of rockets and fuel. The checks and procedures, well imbibed, got them to keep the navigation lights on making them absolutely visible. I got on the hand-held set and got them switched off. They were now invisible – though remaining very audible. Their target was the fuel storage tanks at Narayanganj. They were not expected and therefore received no opposition. The mission was accomplished. On return, locating the helipad and landing went without a hitch. Early morning, I retrieved our element back to Dimapur.
War with Pakistan was declared that day, 04 December 1971. By then our miniscule unit, designated Kilo Flight, was quite well organized with manpower, spares, ammunition, tentage and mobility. Now that war had been declared, on 06 December the Station Commander gave instructions that I was to fly all armed missions as pilot-in-command. We were given Pakistani currency and personal weapons. I moved our two helicopters, the armed and the passenger Chetaks, to Kailashahar. Thereafter we would live in tents surviving on food from closest army units.
Ground attack and close support missions started in right earnest. Group Captain Chandan Singh was directing my flights and flew with me as a passenger from time to time to gauge the enemy status and our efficacy. I flew three missions on the night of 06 December. On the first night of the attack sorties I realized that not until we were looking directly at the muzzle flashes of enemy rifles and machineguns would we have the inkling of being under fire. And the muted thuds that we heard were direct hits on our Chetak, I learned, and not colliding bats. Flying from Kailashahar, we engaged targets in Kalaura, Maulvi Bazar and Shamsher Nagar.
Next morning I looked at the bullet holes. The bullets had gone through and through our fragile cowling. There was no armour plating of any kind for the vital engine installations, pilots or the gunner on the copter’s floor. I told the technicians to number each bullet hole and also paint the name of the place where we were hit. This was done, but later when the machine started taking frequent and several hits the exercise was abandoned. On the first few sorties, I remember handing over my wallet and watch to our Engineer, Flight Lieutenant Ramakrishna – just in case…. Later on when the frequency of flights increased I discontinued the practice. Also, Pakistani currency was always carried, but the sten gun, cumbersome as it was, ended up being tied to the respective pilot seats.
We also established the helicopter airworthiness norms early. After checking the bullet holes and manageable vibrations of the machine, Ramakrishna and his team would do some patch repairs. Then he would ask me, “Will you fly her?” “Yes”, I would say. “Then she’s serviceable”. Despite several bullet holes in the cowling, main and tail rotors we never grounded the copter and flew it every day; so much so that army personnel used to come to our camp to look at our flying sieve.
I flew eleven missions on the 07 December. For the first day’s flight I was given fighter cover. Soon after getting airborne we established RT contact. But after a few minutes the fighter escort lost visual contact with me which could not be re-established despite our mutual effort. Perhaps it happened because he was high and fast and I was low, slow and in camouflaged colours merging with the green earth. The effort was given up eventually. But a couple of days later I was assured and highly relieved to know that IAF had established complete air superiority over East Pakistan.
Operating out of Kailashahar, we attacked enemy positions in Darbart, Brahmanbaria, Daud Kandi, Narsingdi Road and so on. By night 07 December, there were signs of Pakistan Army retreating from Kalaura. I was given a site on a river bank by our army where Pakistanis were expected to cross en masse. Sure enough the river water was clogged with boats of different sizes. I hit the biggest boat with a pair of rockets – only to be shocked to find they carried no army transports or troops; the crowds on board appeared to be civilians. My co-pilot confirmed this. We aborted the attack and reported the fiasco. To this day I regret harming those civilians that night.
IV Corps of our army was pushing westward. Their formations were to move on Shamshernagar – Maulvi Bazaar axis as also on the Kalaura – Sylhet axis. We had been supporting their advance and during an intense night mission my helicopter, EBR, took several hits. Early next morning Ramakrishna said that the damage to the machine was beyond permissible limits, but she is serviceable if I shall fly her. Rockets were loaded and I took off. Shamshernagar airfield in East Pakistan was now with our Army.
Soon heli-borne operations were launched, commencing one afternoon. Gorkhas were being flown into enemy territory in waves by Mi-4 helicopters. On landing the copters and soldiers came under heavy enemy fire. I expended all my ammo loaded and came again ahead of the next wave. But light was fading and I feared of hitting our own soldiers. Firing at a distance from the landing zone did not really help our men and machines. Despite the vulnerability of our soldiers in the landing zone further induction had to be stopped as it turned dark. Any amount of explanation that attempting further induction could claim lives of soldiers as well as air crews in accidents would not pacify a Gorkha officer who desperately wanted reinforcements. Exasperated, Group Captain Chandan Singh had to tell him off saying, “All right, SHBO (Special Heli-Born Operations) will not happen now. You can pull out your pistol and shoot me”.
By second week of December IV Corps was racing westward. One morning about 0600 the Group Captain had me flying him over Sylhet air field to ascertain whether it had been vacated by Pak Army. Orbiting overhead, the airfield looked deserted; so he asked me to land at the dumbbell of the runway. I was approaching to establish hover and was perhaps 10 feet above ground at 10 knots forward speed when a machine gun opened up from a bunker nearby, its roof visible barely 2 feet over the ground. I managed to pull away of course… or else I wouldn’t be telling the story. The fool could have taken us alive along with the copter if only he had waited! I suggested a salvo of 14 rockets to take care of the bunker, but was asked to hurry back; perhaps to report and prevent a disaster! We ended the day with a pleasant dinner with fish in the menu, paid for by Pak Currency, as my co-pilot had me land near a river where the fishermen had kept their day’s catch alive.
On 16 December, the day of the surrender, I flew into a desolate Dacca airfield with Squadron Leader Choudhury. Joining the many scavenging whatever they could from the assortment of stuff strewn around on the potholed tarmac, I too picked up a belt of Sabre aircraft cannon shells. At Dimapur it was broken into smaller length and shared. I still have my piece.
We flew back to Agartala at night and talked with a big feeling of relief. Our comrades in uniform had broken a big threat into two and created a new nation. On 18th December I was instructed to return my trainees to Dacca as also to handover the bullet ridden, armed Chetak to them and fly back in the other Chetak. I shook hands with Squadron Leader Sultan, Badrul Alam and Shahabuddin Ahmed in Dacca – the capital city that was theirs now. Shahabuddin wrote his Dacca address on a Pakistani currency note and invited me home. I still have it. Squadron Leader Sultan, by consensus among the three, refused to hand over the sten guns. We spent the night in an Officers’ Mess in Dacca. Next morning Sultan saw me off with a crate of Scotch.
For our role in the war, I was awarded “Vir Chakra” and Sultan, my co-pilot, “Bir Uttam” by the free Bangladesh Govt. We thus formed a unique crew to be decorated by two different nations.