On the Brink of War

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.

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