The battle that lasted two-and-a-half minutes

Two-and-a-half minutes. That’s how long it took to create history,

immortalise legends, and craft a nation’s destiny.

———— xx ————- 

“The mind wanders, reaches for the stars;

Floats above tepid earthly passions;

Unlocking the inner child’s eye, content;

Seeks higher cause, beyond human fashion.”

A year after I hung my uniform, I went back to my fighter squadron for a reunion, in Nov 2015. Given a decade spent with the Indian Air Force, I was pleasantly surprised to pick out life-lessons during the gathering, many of which I took for granted while in service. Having settled in a corporate setting now, I appreciate the broad applications of these insights, and the value of being a part of this fraternity of fighter pilots.

What follows is a tale of courage, culture and camaraderie – the hallmarks of India’s Air Force. I have kept this close to my chest so far, but, a year down the line, I would like to share these rare pearls, nurtured by the fraternity of a few, for the benefit of the many.

The evening’s pièce de résistance was the recounting of the story of the Boyra Boys and the air battle they fought over East Pakistan in Nov 1971. They were four in all (helped ably by a radar controller on ground), who took on Pakistani Jets in the famous Battle of Boyra over the skies of Jessore, East Pakistan, on 22 Nov, 1971, during the India Pakistan War. They drew first blood for India, and shook the world.

Out of the four legends, two were physically present that evening – Donald ‘Don’ Lazarus and Sunith Francis ‘Su’ Soares. The other two, Roy Andrew ‘Mouse’ Massey and MA ‘Gun’ Ganapathy were very much around, present in spirit, their voices still resonating among us. Their heroics were relived through Don and Su’s narration of the events, and their deep regard for their fallen buddies reverberated in every sentence they spoke.

boyra-boys

From Left: Flight Lieutenant Roy Andrew ‘Mouse’ Massey, Flying Officer KB Bagchi (Fighter Controller), Flying Officer Donald ‘Don’ Lazarus, Flying Officer SF ‘Su’ Soares, Flight Lieutenant MA ‘Gun’ Ganapathy stand in the foreground of the Folland Gnat after the aerial battle.

 

I had read about their gallantry earlier, but to listen to them personally was a surreal experience, as they described sentiments and passions which no media account or handbook could ever summarise. The search for excellence under pressure, the feeling of intimate loss, or the aspiration of a higher ideal seemed to come alive, taking me back to the environment I had left not long ago.

A life-time of training; history is made, but, within an eye-blink

As Don and Su went about describing the exploits of the four Boyra Boys during the battle (which led to the shooting down of 03 Pakistani fighter aircraft), what struck me was the fact that the actual combat lasted for just over two and a half minutes! As the 20-odd year-old Boyra Boys now step in to their 70s, these precious seconds continue to define a large part of their lives, and creating a legacy for the entire fraternity to partake in, in keeping with India’s finest military traditions.(Incidentally, this aerial encounter finds mention among the 05 top air combat situations in the world)

 

sabre-kill

Destruction of a Pakistan Air Force F-86 Sabre Jet at the hands of the Boyra Boys.

 

Age and experience is immaterial; “Every Man a Tiger” 

Besides the time-factor, other significant takeaway was the interchangeable power equations between individuals of the unit. Although the Air Force is hierarchical, in its day-to-day operations there is a lot of free exchange of command and control. Not only is it familiar to see 20-year olds drilling lessons into 70-year old veterans, gladly welcomed, and usually following a few drinks at the bar, but the reverse also holds true.

This ‘leadership equation’ was shared by Su in the form of the complete account of activities of that fateful day, leading to the mission. The first two missions of the day were led by the Commanding Officer of the unit, and reflected a mature and tempered, but ultimately an all too cautious approach. The result being that the aircraft approached the enemy lines too late to engage with the enemy.

Mouse then took over the lead for the 3rd mission of the day, infusing a boost of youthfulness. This change of leadership brought more aggression within the formation, culminating in a high speed low-level dash to the enemy lines, and an approach onto the enemy from the adversary’s side of the border, catching the Pakistani fighters by surprise.

The actual combat, including Don’s quick thinking and fast reflex-action in engaging the enemy, who appeared between him and ‘Gun’ showcased the high level of collaboration and flexibility between the young members of the formation.

Irrespective of their youth, such incidents are hallmarks of the fighter fraternity, which continues to rely on its young leadership to deliver results, irrespective of their relative inexperience (the Commanding Officer had also flown in the 1965 war). In fact, these same qualities have proven worthy in rapidly changing circumstances demanding extreme flexibility and adaptability. Lessons for the modern corporate boardroom are immense!

It’s all about teams; about peer-standing

When prodded about their achievements on the fateful day, none of them mentioned their medals. They only glossed over their team-mates, and on their peer-standing within the brotherhood. I guess it is true that no amount of externally showered accolades can match a one-word compliment from one of the boys.

It is no wonder that ‘Su’ remains the most popular of the lot, despite getting no kills during the battle (although he spotted the adversaries first, his duties within the formation meant that he had to let the others go for the kill, while he watched their backs).

A sip of immortality with the Sabre Slayers*

Distinct from the battlefield action, the most significant lesson was driven home not in 1971, but in Nov 2015….and not by a fighter jockey, but by a lady in attendance. It was absolutely incredible to see Mrs. Massey fill in Mouse’s shoes at the reunion with her now husband – 33 years after Massey’s passing (Massey was martyred in a flying accident in 1983, twelve years after the Battle of Boyra).

Her presence is a testimony to the fact that Mouse continues to live amongst us, in our thoughts and actions. Observing the present generation going to great lengths to take care of Mrs. Massey endorses the strength of these familial bonds, and also the immortal ties within the fraternity. Kudos to ‘Sandy and the boys’ at the Swift nest.

 

mousey-and-gun

The Gods who departed for home early… way before their time. Massey (left) was martyred in a MiG 23 accident in Nov 1983. Ganapathy (right), beset with personal family problems, called it quits, while still in service.

 

Realising the power of storytelling; why this evening will live on forever

Recalling such experiences may be extremely personal, but is also crucial in carrying forward the collective esprit-de-corps of the unit, the service, the nation, and its people. Mouse, Don, Su and Gun who flew the air battle in different jets, were hardly separated by a few metres, but their experiences are quite distinctive, each worth its weight in gold.

It is these experiences that drive home the ‘value of each’. And these, in turn, continue to shape the fraternity into perpetuity. Having studied the squadron diaries and war-books, in which each of these experiences have been captured, I can’t help but balk at the oft-repeated ‘none is indispensable’ quip. Moments like these immortalise the characters within and elevate their experiences into legacies, to be passed down through time and across generations. Sometimes, even across frontiers.

Respect, regard is sacrosanct.

“We may be from different countries, but our spirit is the same.” This was a very important lesson driven home by Don that day. For, given the small size of our fraternity, paths tend to cross in mysterious ways. To realise that the pilot whose aircraft was shot down, would head the Pakistan Air Force 26 years later is serendipity indeed!

What a grand gesture it was for Don to pen down a congratulatory message to a one-time foe, Flt Lt Qureshi (who was his victim over Boyra), wishing him the best for his assignment as the Chief of the Pakistan Air Force in 1997. That he received a befitting acknowledgement from the other side was the ultimate icing on the Boyra saga…nobility in its purest form. Probably it is this single virtue that defines the life of a fighter pilot.

 

flt-lt-qureshi

The then Flight Lieutenant Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi, taken POW, after being shot down by Don

acm-qureshi

Air Chief Marshal     Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi   The 15th Chief of the PAF, 1997 – 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“One for all, All for one”

In this life that seems so full of exuberance and adrenaline, it is sobering to realise that at the end of the day, there is no desire to conquer, but only a craving to excel and soar above earthly emotions. The competition is always with oneself, never really with another. Given a chance, a fighter pilot would prefer to spend an evening with a guy he shot down earlier in the day; complimenting him, quizzing him and also revelling in his returned compliments. For, theirs was not a bloody brawl, but a form of ballet, choreographed by training but executed by pure instinct, and ingrained by a countless lessons of jesting and jousting. This is truly the glue that binds the fraternity, driving home its close knit dependencies on each other. It is emphasized well in the following anonymous quote:

Whenever we talk about a pilot who has been killed in a flying accident, we should all keep one thing in mind. He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgment. He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That his judgment was faulty is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every instructor, supervisor, and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment, so a little bit of all of us goes with every pilot we lose”.

After the evening’s festivities got over, and as we prepared to disperse and go our own separate ways, I couldn’t help pausing and breathing-in the moment one last time.

 

“Dawn peeks from a distance, the revelry has wound down;

The dew glistens, marking out spots on the grass, where Gods trod not long past;

It was a privilege to have walked alongside legends;

To have sipped immortality, even if for a heartbeat;

Collecting memories to last a life-time, rekindling a dying spirit;

Ready to plod among shackled mortals, confined within their shrinking four walls.”

 

A year on, as the nation debates the civil-military divide in different avatars, there is a tendency to lose bits of ourselves wading through these muddy waters; but for the faith and affection of the fraternity that keeps us pushing hard, lighting up our smiles, and guiding us towards our north star.

                                       — Anshuman ‘Neil’ Mainkar, Swift – 2011/12

    (deeply indebted to Su, Don, Sandy, SWarm and the entire Swift family)

 

*Sabre Slayers: The F-86 Sabre was a Pakistani fighter jet deployed during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. It faced off against Indian fighters like the Hunter and the Gnat (pictured here). The Gnat’s impressive record against the Sabre resulted in the moniker, ‘The Sabre Slayer’.

 

Don and Su’s narrative has been captured in a 15-min long YouTube clip. It provides a visual feel of the evening’s high point, and offers a brief ‘guards-down’ insight into the closeted fraternity. (Some of the jargon is decoded below)

S. No Timeline Description
1 00:01 Fighter Controller is an officer monitoring the activity in air on a ground-based radar scope, and is responsible for directing own fighters towards adversary aircraft

 

2 00:07 Approach of the adversary is mentioned in terms of ‘clock codes’. For an aircraft flying in the air, a call of 6 ‘o clock would imply a threat coming from the rear of the aircraft. In this case, 1 ‘o clock and 10 nautical miles (18 km), would imply that the adversary was approaching from the front, but slightly offset to the right.

 

3 00:18 R/T (radio telephony) stands for two-way communication process that links aircraft with each other and with ground controllers (like the radar officer).

 

4 02:02 Range pattern – is essentially a race-course pattern flown in the air, usually over an ‘Air-to-Ground’ gunnery range.

 

5 02:28 Scramble – emergency launch of aircraft already ‘prepared and ready on ground’ in response to an aerial incursion by the enemy.

 

6 05:06 Murder – a call signifying an enemy kill/hit

 

7 06:15 Switches on – cockpit armament switches to ‘on’ – to make the aircraft weaponry ‘live’ and ready to fire.

 

8 07:00 That image can be seen above.

 

9 07:15 a.       10G signifies the gravitational force acting on the pilot – A 02 kg head would weigh 20 kgs at that force.

b.      Dropping Tanks: external fuel tanks impose limitations in manoeuvring, which can be dangerous when engaging with the enemy. The practice, therefore, is to drop them before entering combat.

 

10 09:24 a.       Pigeons – direction and distance to home-base, usually provided by the ground ‘radar officer’

b.      SU – Surveillance Unit, a ground-based radar unit, which monitors and controls airborne activity.

 

 

Featured Image Courtesy: The Week.

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AntifragileInterrupted – Air Travel and Beyond

url(Picture Courtesy: Nassimtaleb.org)

“But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder

 

The collective ‘MH’ will also be associated with shocking memories. What a year for the seemingly safe mode of ‘air travel’?

For one, it shattered the umbrella of safety rendered by the strictly regulated and controlled global aviation community. The risks involved with air travel when construed as a product of ‘probability and consequence’ seem set to rise – as a result of increasing aberrations beyond the control of contemporary air traffic regulation.

While the Ukraine/Russia spat plays out publicly, what is certain is that this danger is not isolated to the Ukraine/Russia border areas. The post-cold war proliferation of advanced weaponry into numerous battle zones around the world is on an upward trajectory, as recent incidents of aircraft downing in Eastern Ukraine or the firing of rockets in Gaza indicates.

The airlines, predictably, responded by changing their air-route after MH-17 accident. But planes regularly have to fly over other sensitive areas including Afghanistan, the Levant, Eastern Africa, and the like. Other options for airlines include flying higher or equipping themselves with countermeasures – flares and chaff and jammers (to disrupt missile directing radars). Expensive as these measures are, cheaper alternatives like painting the underside of aircraft are not practical because at cruising altitudes of 10000m (33,000′), missile crews don’t rely on visual identification anyway.

Then of course, there are passive means involving interaction with and receiving updates from security experts based in the conflict zones, tracking and monitoring weapons systems by way of human and signal intelligence methods. There are many other options, but it can be safely assumed that these exercises will make flying more expensive in the future. This is the cost of fragility within the system.

A rather rad thinker of our times, Nassim Nicolas Taleb, of Black Swan fame, talks of a new ‘antifragile’ theory in his book of the same name. I agree with him, when he argues that as social interaction, networking, competition for space and resources, in context of dwindling resources and increasing premium on the supply side of things, are likely to increase the seemingly one-off aberrations amidst our daily lives…whether they be related to environmental nature-led events or deliberate acts by human forces (while climate-change is human-led, it is a cumulative change that is not purpose-driven and deliberate to the extent that conflict-related events are).

What is significant is that all these aberrations, from seemingly benign ‘stuck in traffic’ issues to life and death situations have a cumulative impact on society…the result being impatience, intolerance and at the extreme end, fear psychosis.

To counter this fragility that is creeping into our everyday activities, Taleb prescribes an ‘Antifragile‘ approach. Essentially, he wants us to practice ‘defensive driving’ in every aspect of our lives, personal and professional, and get better while we’re at it. And to me, this makes a lot of sense.

The failure of predicting ‘market crashes’ is a case in point that proves human fallibility in the area of predictive analysis, in spite of a great many people hinging on the outcome of market-driven interaction and the huge amounts invested in it. It is my opinion that risk considered primarily as a product of probability and consequence needs to be revised for modern day aberrations that make it very difficult to zero-in on the ‘probability’ of events, for instance in the case where seemingly ‘safe’ air travel can turn into a shocking accident within the blink of an eye.

In fact, a newer definition of risk talks about the ‘effect of uncertainty on objectives’ essentially implying that we need to talk about ‘preventing surprises’ and not try to rationale ‘unwanted events’ because the latter is difficult to define and impossible to manage. Also the latter lulls us into a false sense of security, while the unknown realm of ‘surprises’ keeps us on our toes.

As the 9/11 Commission Report brings out, the hijack-cum-crash was beyond the ‘unwanted events’ scenario of the authorities at the time. Retrospectively, it was universally decided to secure the cockpit doors – an obvious, but unfortunately retrospective afterthought in the aftermath of the tragedy. And that is where Antifragile plays a big part – it makes us think beyond the norm, invest in surprise-prevention – by addressing potential events that have no precedence and encourage a ‘safe yet effective’ culture in spite of illusionary costs.

Internalizing such behaviour in the face of recent events begs the following questions of us:

To what extent are we ready to forfeit individual freedom towards the collective good ?

To what extent are we capable of assessing dangers pragmatically, without letting the psychosis ‘monster’ loose in our minds ?

To what extent are we prepared to skew the cost-benefit dynamic in favour of security as opposed to potentially wasted effort ?

An introspection on the above lines is likely to provide an honest appraisal of our ability to confront future risks and challenges.

— RIP to the departed souls of 9/11, 26/11, MH-370, MH-17……..and to those who are likely to leave our midst while we plod towards the perfect solution.

Tigertourisminterrupted

Cheers

Cheers

Already time to get on the blog? But, I guess that’s part of starting something new. One suddenly has so many things to contend with – like the interesting couple of new assignments I am presently working on. On that, may be later.

Plus, my mac has a new keypad. A slight change in the configuration, but for conventional typists like me (my old keypad had to be replaced because a few letters had smudge marks from over-typing, covered under Apple Care) that could mean wasted time.

As I contemplate our recent adventures at Ranthambore on the journey back to Delhi, I’ve decided to present my take on our experience…..with the ‘tiger’ operators of Sawai Madhopur and with the tourist services accorded by the Government of Rajasthan.

The trip contingent included five, including Ahaana, our 20 odd month old cub. It was planned online, courtesy the Govt. of Rajasthan website. Accommodation was arranged at RTDC (State Govt.) ‘Classic’ category ‘Castle Jhoomar Baori’, a quaint ‘hunting lodge of yore’ nestled atop a small hill, overlooking the tiger habitat. We chose it for the location and the food and we weren’t disappointed. ‘Government’ has its privileges, in this case a view, which no other resort in or around Sawai Madhopur can boast of.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

It also boasts of a Tripadvisor – Certificate of Excellence…the ‘Michelin-par for the course’ of the Indian tourist scene. From the reviews on Tripadvisor, it is evident that people have not rated it highly (even with the certificate to boast of, it comes a lowly 12 out of 17) and for obvious reasons – Quality of Service. If only people understood the actual reason for this. ‘Customer is King’ doesn’t exist in the Government Services Scene…and I don’t mean to extoll the virtues of the private sector, while lambasting the ‘culture’ of government. ‘It’s different’ is all I can think of, and I’m sure you’d agree based on the following idiosyncrasies we had to contend with:

1.         What you pay online is not the ‘total’ sum. You are supposed to pay taxes at checkout. Fair enough, even if one considers that no mention of the ‘taxes’ is tantamount to ‘hidden’ fairs in these days of ‘all inclusive’. It is possible that savvy advisors suggested this ploy to bait those still in two-minds about the place. Tourists, beware….and please read the fine-print, like we almost forgot.

2.         While professing ‘strictness’ for timings and rates, the staff nevertheless likes its ‘Baksheesh’, so much so that we found a couple of people lingering rather uncomfortably, not to mention the sudden improvement in service, if only for a fleeting instant. Upshot – do what your conscience tells you, but if you’re going to pay him, let him earn his keep. There is too much ‘kharcha’ without the ‘khatirdaari’ anyway in State-run establishments, IMHO.

3.         While I’m on timing, it is worth mentioning that our request to stay on in our rooms for a couple of hours after checkout (Noon) met no sympathetic ear. With no one to occupy those rooms, we did feel a little slighted, but then one can only sympathize with the operators, considering their own predicament in entertaining their special guests, due to arrive later. TIME is of the essence…keep track of it and stick to schedule.

4.         Another issue worth mentioning is the ploy for charging extra-lunch fees. Check-in at Noon implies ‘lunch’ on the house. But what if one checks in at dinnertime? In that case don’t expect that the lunch you missed would be adjusted forward. This ‘implied’ suggestion can by way of the manager when I called to confirm my booking prior to arrival. “Sir, its 1300h. We’ve already prepared lunch for you.” While I understand the operator’s lack of concern for wasted food, a single phone-call to confirm our plans prior to preparing the lunch would have sufficed. That there was no lunch in the first place was confirmed when I went about completing my departure formalities at the Reception, on the day of our departure – the bloke gave the same line to another arriving party due to arrive later in the day. Important lessons for the future – Read the fine print, discuss all your issues well in time and then ‘decide’ if you’re up to the task.

Serving with the government, I understand the psyche of the state-tourism operators, and under the circumstances, find their behavior and actions justifiable. But, expecting a different standard of treatment elsewhere, I would argue that the internalization doesn’t arise out of a sense of ‘work-ethos’ camaraderie, but from being able to tune the body’s response clock while straddling the time-zones between the government sector and the private sector. The benchmarks are different and the operator assessment is based on factors beyond the scope of the viewer reviews on Tripadvisor. (The fact that these may be growing apart is not the core issue here, but is reflective of the trends in the evolving service industry in India).

            Not over yet…or, come back later, for there’s more. Now, it’s time for the ‘tiger’ safari saga. Ranthambore is ‘evidently’ well populated with the big cats. With the recent exposé a lá Sariska, who know how many there really are…, I wonder. Anyway, we booked two tours, an evening gypsy ride into zone ‘6’ (Kundali) and a morning canter ride into the main zone (there are five zones – we got zone ‘4’ – the ‘creamy’ zone as our guide put it—-naturally!!).

Entering the Creamy Zone

Entering the Creamy Zone

            We saw no cats at all. Sloth Bear, Blue Bull, Sambhar, Indian Gazelle, Wild boar — the graziers were all there, remarkably calm and composed. Bad news, if you ask me – for the watchers and the cats. Anyway, that was expected. The pure thrill of passing through the tiger’s habitat was enough to satisfy our souls. What irks the senses is the big game that the guides and drivers have on show as they play to a narrative. ‘T-19 was seen on that hill, passing through that way so and so minutes ago’. What gives it away is the frequent reference to ‘the other guide’s later plans’, ‘offers to swap trips between the drivers’…and the mechanical, synchronized proceedings played to an eager audience…. the former soon tire of the game, as they ponder their future plans and the latter resign themselves to a ride sufficiently exciting but not to the level of the hype generated by the ‘tiger’ of Ranthambore. We came away more than satisfied, as our cub rose to the challenge of two back-to-back safaris, braving rain and the early morning elements with ease, waving a friendly greeting to one and all.

            The ‘Safari’ experience needs to be improved, if the quality of tourism is to be enhanced. While one can’t expect a sanctuary-like experience, modern-day technology plus other infrastructure developments can make the experience enriching for all.

1.         First on the list is geo-tagging the big cats. While we thought this to be a normal procedure, that is not to be. As the recent ‘Machli’ incident suggests (the grand empress of Ranthambore vanished for a couple of weeks recently before resurfacing), geo-tagging can help locate tigers, track their movements – providing important seasonal information that could help the conservationists, but also help tourists improve their chances of capturing the beast in action. The only downside I see is that the information can passed on to the highest-bidding poacher, a bright possibility, considering the fact that (as our guide pointed out) ‘The opportunity a guide/driver gets to ply his trade is infrequent (once in 4/5 days), hinting at the competition/lack of alternative opportunities in the local job market.

2.         Also, rampant ‘black money’ access to the park (indicated by the fact that no ‘online’ bookings are available for ‘gypsy’ rides most of the time while our driver offered us an ‘upgrade’ from canter to gypsy for ‘only’ Rs. 1000/-) indicates the flourishing underground economy for ‘all things tiger’ at Ranthambore – from tours, to memorabilia, to ..!!

            For the sake of all, I hope state lethargy and privateering comes to an end….before the reign of the tiger at Ranthambore does !

Every squirrel a tiger !

Every squirrel a tiger !

While we don’t expect much…. indeed, the quaintest things give most pleasure….but one can definitely try to make the experience a little better….everyday….and in everything we attempt.

Looking forward to the next time.