The Panther Fighter Boys take the time to thank Avionics Engineers

It was the early 1980’s. The personal computer era was far in the future, communications were elementary and it was mandatory for young fighter pilots to own motorcycles. Fighter planes, particularly from the Soviet stable, boasted little or no fancy avionics equipment. A working radio and basic navigational equipment was all one could hope for. The day this event occurred was not particularly special. It was one of those lazy, hazy days in the desert. The relentless sun shone down on the baked sands and the temperature in the shade touched 40 degrees Celsius well before ten in the morning. The fighter pilots of the Panther squadron were required to complete their training sorties and retreat to the cool environs of the crew room well before the temperature rose beyond 40 or they faced the prospect of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. That effectively meant that the flying started at sunrise and by the time it was time for elevenses, the flying for the day was done, the debriefs were over and the pilots could retreat to the crew room to discuss the days flying and plan for the sorties on the following day.

That day the squadron had flown simulated combat sorties, with two MiG 21bis aircraft simulating the defender force and two MiG 21bis aircraft under radar control acting as an attacking force. The radar controllers would issue instructions to the attacking fighter pilots over the radio or data link and the attacking aircraft pilots would manoeuvre their fighters so as to get into an advantageous position in relation to the defenders. When the defenders came within range, the attackers would launch simulated weapons, “shooting down” the defenders and giving the graphic radio call “Murder, Murder”. It was up to the defending aircraft fighter pilots to detect the attacking aircraft well in time and manoeuvre their own aircraft so as to foil the attack. The defending aircraft were to navigate on a given “tow line” of which the starting and ending points were identified. The exercise was “live” when the defending aircraft set course and announced that they were “on tow”. If the defending aircraft were able to reach the end of the towline without being shot down, they were considered the victors. On the other hand, if the attacking aircraft were able to intercept the defenders before the end of the tow line and shoot one or both of the defenders down, the  attackers would wear the victors crown. As both sets of  aircraft were normally flying at close to eight nautical miles a minute, time was a major factor in which the attack had to be launched or the defenders were sure to emerge victorious.

The defenders had the advantage of speed and once on tow, could concentrate on looking for the attacking aircraft. The attackers, on the other hand, had to put in an attack in time or the defenders would win by default. If the attackers came in too close, they would be spotted and the attack foiled. If they stayed too far away, they would be outside the range of their simulated weapons and the defenders could simply reach the end of the tow line and claim victory. It was a deadly serious game that all the Panther squadron fighter boys enjoyed immensely. It allowed them to keep their skills finely honed in the intricacies of air combat manoeuvring, locating their adversary and themselves in time and space in a rapidly changing air combat environment. Each of them was acutely aware that it was ultimately their visual spotting skills that would determine the outcome of the dogfight. The pilot able to pick up the adversary first would have the first mover advantage and could manoeuvre along with his wingman to “shoot down” the adversary pair. During the briefings, one of the briefing points invariably was that “Spotting is an art” and it was repeated ad nauseum to the extent that the younger pilots were sick of the statement. Regardless of their healthy skepticism, however, they were all aware of the truth of the statement.

That morning, Cortina formation had been defending and Corvette formation was the attacker force. Cortina leader RV, along with his wingman SK, had the weather gods on their side. Luckily, there was a layer of sheet clouding close to ten thousand feet, forcing the attackers to get below the clouds if they were to have any chance of picking up the defending force. There were no clouds below the defending force and a slight haze layer all but blended the silver coloured fighters in it as they flew on the tow line at six thousand feet, at speeds of close to eight hundred kilometers per hour. Corvette formation, led by DS with Ash as the wingman on the other hand, had no such luck. Their efforts to pick up the defenders had been all in vain. Although the ground radar had been giving them continuous instructions about the distances and clock codes of the defending force, the featureless desert background and the haze had provided excellent camouflage and neither pilot of Corvette formation could make visual contact with any aircraft of the defender force. On the other hand, they themselves were clearly outlined against the cloud cover and it was only when the ground radar reported the defenders turning for them had the attackers been forced to break off the attack, manoeuvre defensively and make a hasty exit from the combat zone to try to save themselves. It transpired that in both the simulated combat situations, the defenders had picked up the attacking force and not only warded off the threat, but managed to turn the tables on the attackers. In one case, they had “Shot down” one of the attackers and in the other case, warded off the threat and made it safely to the end of the tow line. During the debrief, they just could not stop grinning. The attackers had effectively become defenders in both the simulated combat situations and they were not happy about it. Corvette formation leader DS and Ash, his wingman were despondent as they entered the briefing room for the debrief. Traditionally, the formation members who were involved in the missions sat in front and the rest of the squadron pilots sat on the rear benches. The idea was that the debrief would be a learning experience for all the pilots, not just the ones involved in the actual missions.

The defending force had their “jalebis” ready, basically diagrams of their manoeuvres in three dimensions. The diagrams did look like “jalebis,” a North Indian sweetmeat that consisted of random rings of fried flour. Once they described the manoeuvres they had carried out and their conclusions, the attacking force presented their version of the events. The radar controllers presented their radar charts and the discussions started. Normally, the debriefs were lively events when the defenders and attackers put forth their versions of the events, some pilots who had the “gift of the gab” recovering considerably the honour they had lost in the air! However, this time it was different. The defenders and attackers compared their diagrams, conferred with the radar plots and there was all round agreement about the outcome. One major reason was that DS, or Corvette leader, was preoccupied with his thoughts. The squadron Fighter Combat Leader gave his sage inputs. The commanding officer, generally called WINCO by one and all as his rank was Wing Commander, gave his comments and the debriefing came to an end. The pilots then retired to the crew room to mull over the events.

The environment in the briefing room was invariably formal but it was really in the crew room that a lot of the learning took place. In the relaxed environment of the crew room, with cool glasses of “nimbu pani” that were passed around by the squadron cook Bacchi Singh, the pilots could replay the events of the morning with much more enthusiasm. Using the palms of their hands as aircraft, the attackers replayed the events as they remembered them. The defenders, not to be outdone, similarly described their brilliant manoeuvring. That’s when the brainwave hit DS, Corvette leader. He exclaimed “RV, you and SK were right in our frontal quarter, I should have been able to see you. I wish I knew exactly where to look!” By now the defenders had extracted the last ounce of bragging rights as the victors and decided to be magnanimous in victory, “It’s not your fault DS, said RV kindly. We were in the haze layer and you guys were clear silhouettes against the clouds. Maybe if you had a head up display, you would have been able to pick us up through the full square.” The statement made DS pause. “What’s a full square?” was his next question. RV explained the concept. Modern fighters were being equipped with airborne radars and head up displays. Once a fighter aircraft picked up a target on his airborne radar, he had to merely manoeuvre his aircraft to get the target in his frontal quarters, within the field of view of his head up display. The information from the airborne radar, as well as data from the onboard Inertial Navigation System was fed into an onboard computer, which processed that information in real time to draw a small square on the display around the target. All the attacking pilot had to do, was just look through the full square and he would pick up the target. If the target was marginally off the field of view of the head up display, the square became dotted, giving a cue to the pilot to turn to the appropriate side and once the square went from dotted to full, pick up the target.

For a while there was silence in the crew room. The pilots digested this information. Then Ducky piped up “That’s bullshit, how is that even possible?” A lot of the pilots generally nodded in agreement. The general consensus was that with the fighter at high speed, the target at high speed and relative positions of both changing continuously, how could such a system work? But RV stubbornly held his ground. Not only was such a system possible, it was already being fielded in the West and would soon be available in our country as well, was his view. It was decided to get the squadron “gen man” CB into the argument. His claim to fame was that he was shortly to join a Jaguar squadron and had just returned after going through the ground school for the aircraft he was to shortly start flying. The Jaguar was equipped with a head up display. With the eyes of the entire Panther clan on him, CB held forth on the advanced features of the Jaguar, the benefits of the head up display, on board computers and on board Inertial Navigation System. The obvious flaw was soon pointed out by DS “But it has no airborne radar, so how do you know this full square business works? Show me something in writing!” The point was logical but DS had not accounted for CB’s resourcefulness. Hunting around the squadron library, he came up with a glossy, much thumbed copy of Flight International magazine.

On the cover was the picture of a Mirage 2000. The article inside described in detail the avionics equipment the aircraft was equipped with. The Panther fly boys were fascinated. An airborne radar to pick up targets at long range, a head up display to transition to visual, an Inertial Navigation System to keep track of where you are and where you wanted to go, an autopilot to keep the aircraft on track while the pilot was free to look around visually for emerging threats, it was a dream machine. DS grudgingly agreed that the concept of transitioning to visual using a full square on a head up display was not only possible, it was already on a fighter aircraft. “Who designs these things?” he asked admiringly. “Avionics Engineers”, he was told. “From the bottom of my heart,” he said, ” I would like to thank Avionics Engineers.” As he looked around at the young, animated faces around him, there was a murmur of agreement from the gathered Panther fighter boys. They were the tip of the spear, ready to respond in an instant if the nation made a demand on them.

Anything that gave them an edge in the world of air combat was most welcome – even if it involved thanking Avionics Engineers !


Rover takes the Bus home

The advice given by Akhil was very specific. Do not even try to drive to office in your own vehicle. The distance is just too much and the traffic is maddening. Add to that the problems of finding a parking space and the issue was pretty much settled as far as Rover was concerned. He would apply for a bus pass and commute daily by the bus. It was not an ordinary bus, with regular passengers. It was referred to as the officers bus and was the preferred mode of travel of Air Force officers residing in the suburban locations of New Delhi from their homes to Air Headquarters in the centre of New Delhi. The passengers were an interesting mix of specialities – the majority were pilots. Fighter, transport and helicopter pilots on staff assignments, test pilots in the plans and procurement branches, instructor pilots in the training branches and several pilots in the personnel branch. The other major group were engineering officers assigned to the various technical directorates at Air Headquarters. Almost all the officers were of the rank of Wing Commander and above – well versed in the nuances of equipping, training and executing the myriad tasks involved in conducting Air Force operations.

Akhil was also very clear on which bus to choose. “Choose the one driven by Abdul. In the crazy traffic of New Delhi, it is an education to see how smoothly Abdul drives, without getting perturbed or upset.” That was why Rover was sitting in the officers bus on a warm sunny evening in May,  heading home from work. As the clock struck six in the evening, Abdul reached up and in accordance with his daily ritual, switched on the radio set which was preselected on All India Radio. The six ‘o clock news came on the air and the announcer dispassionately announced that the Indian Air Force had lost two fighter aircraft that day over some place called Kargil. There was pin drop silence on the bus. No anguished cries or loud discussions, no reactions at all. The Air Force officers, air warriors all, were alone with their thoughts. Some glanced at the officers seated next to them, but it was not a widespread reaction. The majority of the officers had been in operational flying squadrons prior to their current assignments and their hearts went out to the young aviators piloting the two aircraft and their families. On the one hand, the officers prayed that the pilots were safe. On the other hand, they were hardened veterans and knew the risks involved in leaving a stricken aircraft using the ejection seat, assuming the pilots were fortunate enough to have the time to eject. Rover’s calm countenance did not give away the fact that he was seething inside. He had been flight commander of an operational Mirage 2000 squadron in the recent past and the faces of the young pilots who had served with him flashed before his eyes. It broke his heart to think that two pilots, just as these, had been piloting the aircraft that All India Radio was reporting lost. Rover wished there was something he could do about it.

He did not know it at the time, but his wish was soon to be granted. All his life, he had served as a fighter pilot – there was little he had not been involved in. Starting his operational career in the East Indian state of Assam, he had been flying training missions in the deserts of Rajasthan, high speed low lever flights over the canal lined green plains of Punjab,  training himself and his younger pilot colleagues over the dacoit inserted banks of the Chambal river, he took great pride in the fact that he always brought his craft and his wingman back safe to base, to fly and fight another day.

The irony was that it was as a staff officer, posted to Air Headquarters to fly a desk, that the bugle blew and Rover was soon going to go to war.