March 1961 – INS Vinkrant is commissioned into the Indian Navy as India’s first aircraft carrier. This warship plays a crucial role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
Commodore Medioma Bhada (retd.), ex-pilot on INS Vikrant narrates a faux pas during an air sortie and the wit and presence of mind he uses for course correction.
On board INS Vikrant in the Bay of Bengal, December 1971
Our Mission was to destroy a target in the Chittagong harbor. A formation of four Seahawk aircraft armed with rockets took off from the aircraft carrier early in the morning. The formation was lead by our Squadron Commander, Cdr. S. K. Gupta, affectionately called Gigi.
I was fortunate to be included as one of the four pilots and, being the junior most, was No. 4 in the formation. Our Mission was to fly low upto the target, to avoid enemy radar, thereafter to pull up and carry out a rocket attack and immediately leave the scene of action. As a ruse, we were instructed to fly in a different direction before heading back for the carrier. We had to maintain strict Radio Silence throughout the sortie.
The Cardinal Mistake
As the formation approached the target, the Leader waggled his wings to indicate that he was pulling up for his attack. A few seconds later he was followed by No. 2, then No. 3 and I, as No. 4 was the last in the attack. All actions were done with clockwork precision and I had the target in my gun-sight but, all the training, practice and drills notwithstanding, I made a cardinal mistake. I used my forefinger instead of my thumb. As a result I fired the 20 mm guns instead of releasing the rockets. An unforgiveable error!
By the time I realized it, I had already crossed the minimum height for pull out from the dive. I had no choice but to abandon the attack with all my rockets still slung under my wings. Meanwhile, the other three aircraft had left the scene of action and were well on their way back. I could not break radio silence to inform the Leader. I also realized that landing back on the aircraft carrier with live rockets could be extremely dangerous for the ship.
In that split second I took a decision to turn back and complete the mission by carrying out a second attack on the target. I accomplished this successfully, in the face of anti-aircraft fire. There was absolutely no sign of the rest of the formation but I followed the earlier briefing and, to my great relief, sighted the Carrier, on schedule. Simultaneously, I heard the Leader break radio silence indicating the position of the formation which was orbiting on one side of the ship. I quickly positioned myself and slipped in as No. 4.
Thereafter, it was all “Operations Normal”. The four aircraft were recovered on board the carrier as programmed.
Except for the fact that the Radar Operators on board the carrier had observed that a “straggler” was late in joining the formation, none was the wiser of the incident. In the euphoria of the successful attack, no one bothered to investigate the “straggler”. I later confided in Gigi and narrated the whole incident. Nothing was said. Nothing was ever recorded, until this moment, 46 years later.
A Post Script
Later, learning about this grave error, Vice Admiral John C. DeSilva, former Vice Chief of Naval staff wrote thus:
Yes, I clearly remember the day. I was the Gunnery Officer on INS Beas, an anti aircraft frigate working with the Vikrant formation as one of the escorts. That morning we were the Plane Guard. We got the flying programme and all hands were excited and tense with the quick developments in the last two days.
We were at Action Stations. I was at my position on the Gun Direction Platform. As the sortie took off many of the crews of the gun turrets and signalmen came out on deck and counted the aircraft. Then as the sortie disappeared into the distance we got back to stations and kept waiting. Bhada and Co. may have been busy but, for us, ever vigilant for counter strikes, it was the longest 40 minutes ever, waiting for that first strike to return.
Then as the carrier turned into the wind for launching and recoveries for the next sortie, we got back into plane guard station and were looking out for the returning sortie. First the radar reported a blip – Friend or Foe – opening to three, all positively identified as friendly. Sigh of relief.
But where’s the fourth? Gloom! The message had already spread through the whole ship, even reached the boys in the magazines, engine room crew, et al. Only three have returned. It was morale shattering. Then a few moments later the fourth appeared. Joy unlimited. Hugging and backslapping and shouts of Joy. All four have returned safely.
We would not come to know the result of the strike till after the War, but every man was confident that we had socked it to them. Well Done White Tigers!
Commodore Medioma Bhada (retd.), now in his late seventies, served the Indian Navy for over 30 years. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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