ITW Coimbatore - Portal To The Sky!

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'A' Squadron of the 51 Pilot's Course at ITW Coimbatore in October 1947. Seen in the photo are Wg Cdr Atmaram (sitting, center), Sqn Ldr Idris Latif (sitting, 4th from right). The author, as Flt Cdt is standing middle row rightmost. 

Medicals in Delhi

There I was, in the Air Force that I had set my heart on, on 24 October, '47, in Coimbatore - 40 miles from my home town of Ootacamund, at the foot of the Nilgris Mountains (Blue Mountains). My life in the Air Force started in Initial Training Wing, Royal Indian Air Force - ITW RIAF. I arrived a few days late because I had received the "call letter" late. Thanks to that I missed all the ragging that had been done to the earlier arrivals. We were the very first post-Independence Course - 51st.

I very nearly didn't make it to ITW, on my own volition!! I had been the only one selected from my batch at the Air Force Selection Board in Dehra Dun. There was a hold up in the process of selection because we had to go to Delhi to the Central Medical Establishment to clear the Medical Exam and there was a break down in the railway system due to some heavy rains and land slide somewhere. Two people from the previous batch, R.P Sinha and Dave', and I could not go immediately. Two days later we were told that the main route was still closed but there was a diversion via Agra and Tundla, taking longer time. The three of us set off and it was a long journey.

During the journey one of us had the brainwave to check up our pulse rate to see if we were all right. We had a vague idea that the 'correct' pulse rate was 72 per minute. To our horror, my pulse rate was only 54 and RP's was 90!! We determined that we were both going to fail the medical and the consensus was that we might as well go home. RP was particularly keen as he only had to stay on the same train and it would take him to Patna, his home town. I pointed out to him that we had free tickets to go to Delhi and the money for staying there. So we might as well go and see Delhi and, in passing go through the motions of the Medical Board. In my heart of hearts there was a great disappointment because I had spent six years in The Prince of Wales' Royal Indian Military College (RIMC), in Dehra Dun, where all the cadets were groomed to join the Armed Forces and I had set my heart on joining the Indian Air Force. My suggestion to go to Delhi was agreed to and we went and, of course, we passed the medical. RP retired as an Air Commodore and my pulse was still 54 when I retired and I was told that it was a good thing to have a low pulse rate. With the stress of retirement it occasionally shoots up to 60!!

I was a very trim 125 pounds, extremely fit and confident because I was from THE RIMC; I was exactly 17 1/2 years old, the minimum age specified for admission; I had performed outstandingly in Senior Cambridge Exams and I had done plenty of drilling in RIMC and I played all the games. Somewhat Macarthuresque. But soon I realized that all this didn't give me any great advantage, not even an early graduation from the drill square, which you had to pass if you wanted to 'book out' from the camp to visit the town!!

I signed a document to say that I was joining the Royal Indian Air Force as an Officer Cadet and that I would be trained for nine months and commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the Air Force. Further, I would be paid the same as an AC2, Aircraftsman Class II (7 rupees a day) during my training and that I would be given free food, uniform and housing. What more could one ask for. How I wish that we had had the sense to keep a copy of that document in front of us and later on sue the Air Force for breaking the contract - we will come to that some other time.

ITW described

I.T.W. was the place where, in army parlance, we did 'square bashing' and learned the basic knowledge about aviation and the Air Force. We didn't have a mighty Training Command, like today. The formation in charge of Air Force Training those days was called No. 2 Training Group, in Bangalore, with Air Commodore Narendra as the AOC. I believe there were only about four Indian Air Commodores in the Royal Indian Air Force, at that time, that being the senior most level reached. We had subjects like Principles of Flight, Principles of Aircraft Engines (entirely piston engines as Jet engines were new even in Europe and USA), Customs of Service (including how you dressed, paid courtesies, ate etc), The Air Force Act, Disciplinary procedures (such as courts martial), Workshop Practice et all. All this was supposed to be done in three months. But as luck would have it, we were held up in Coimbatore because there was a hold up in the further stages of flying due to the disruption of the Partition of India. In the division, training bases and training aeroplanes got in short supply and it took a lot of time to sort it out. In the process, we were held up at every stage of our three stage training. The other two stages were Elementary Flying and Advanced Flying. Since we were held up in Coimbatore, the next course, No. 52, got combined with us and we were then onwards the famous 51/52 Course. The combined strength of the courses was 128!! I wonder if this record was ever beaten.

Our course consisted of very disparate people from all over India, from all strata of society. The minimum educational standard was matric or equivalent but we had people who were graduates, one had done three years of medicine (!!), another had done one year of medicine etc. The age range was from 17 1/2 (two others besides me) to 22 (McKenzie and Dotiwala). Though we talked in English, it sounded as though we were speaking in Bengali to Punjabi to Tamil.

The 'camp' consisted of a little more than two acres of walled area one side of the Avanasi Road, with another few acres across the road where the Officers Mess, playing fields, Parade Ground and Medical Section were located. We were housed in long dormitories, about 20 per dormitory and they were amazingly airy - mainly because they had no walls, so to speak!! They were constructed during World War II to last about 3 to 5 years but were still in use when I visited the Station, as the Vice Chief, in 1987!! In the front was a verandah with a three foot wall and the back had a wall with windows. The roof was the typical baked tiles of the villages of southern India. If you had the urge to urinate, there was a small room at the end of the verandah with a large sawed off tin barrel you could relieve yourself into. It was labeled 'The Head', a naval term, I believe, because the barracks had been with the Navy sometime before it became the ITW RIAF. Once in a while sweepers would come and take the container and empty it out somewhere - we never did find out where. This is what was called 'Dry Sanitation'!!

If you wanted to do the big job, you took a long walk to the back of the lines of dormitories near the back wall to cubicles where you had deep holes dug in the ground and had wooden covers over them to squat on. They had partial doors for privacy but some of the doors were missing. The holes were really deep as one could make out from the time it took from the 'bombs release' to the splash made!! It was very high class as everybody had his own personal empty beer bottle to take water to clean up afterwards. There was one cadet who felt that he needed two bottles - very fastidious, I think!!

We had a good dhobi system at least. For bathing there was this community shower system behind the dormitories with cubicles. The showers probably had shower heads once upon a time but now they were just spouts of water that came as a cascade. Most of the cubicles had no doors and some of the 'mamma's boys' had a tough time getting used to people watching them when they were bathing!! But we all learned soon and were one big happy family. But it was certainly a far cry from today's elite Air Force Academy at Dundigal or the National Defence Academy. It was poor by the standards of R.I.M.C. but none of us really complained and took it as perfectly acceptable and the price we had to pay to be pilots in the Indian Air Force.

We had a big dining hall, again a 'temporary' tile roofed building, with long tables with benches - and there was plenty of food. But everybody was not used to the niceties of sitting in western style and eating with fork and knife, though most made out they were familiar.

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Joy Ride in a Dakota (HJ205) while on an outing to Bangalore – to kill the time waiting for next phase of Training.  This was the first air trip for most cadets.


There was one classic case of a cadet in the previous course from Andhra, who came and sat down. He saw the big rice dish in the middle of the table. He picked it up and put it in front of himself, made a hole in the middle with his hand just as he would at 'home', picked up the donga of 'sambhar' and poured most of it into the hole, mixed it up well with his hand and proceeded to eat with his hand, oblivious to the horror stricken faces around him. When he had wiped out the rice, he was the proud owner of a hand covered with rice and sambhar. He picked up the jug of water and discretely washed his hand under the table!! He then walked out nonchalantly leaving all wondering where he had come from. It is to the credit of the Indian Air Force that not only did it make an officer of him but also a pilot!!

We had, at the other extreme Jaywant Singh who came from a Royal family in Gujarat and Doon School. He and Sankaran Nair had appeared for their Senior Cambridge Exams and appeared for the Air Force entrance Selection Board, as was permitted. They had been selected and admitted and they were supposed to produce their Senior Cambridge 'pass' certificates as soon as it was received. They both received 'failed' certificates even before they joined but they reported for duty anyway. Nobody ever asked them for the certificates and they went on to becoming officers and Jaywant a pilot. Jaywant was the most absent minded person you could meet. On one memorable morning parade, the inspecting officer asked him as to why he had not shaved and he looked hurt and said 'Sir, I did shave'. Sarcastically the officer asked 'Did you put a blade in the razor'? Then it suddenly dawned on him, 'Oh my god, I didn't'.

We had Bysack from Bengal, who came from the Army. He had joined it as a 'water carrier', probably the lowest 'Trade' in the army. But he had worked his way up and was a three stripe 'Havildar', when he joined us, rightfully proud of himself. He arrived in his army uniform and wore it for many days till he got the Air Force uniform.

The most suave, savvy individual was Eduljee, who had reached dizzy heights of a Warrant Officer in the IAF and RIAF by the time he joined us. Like most Parsis, he was from Bombay and he must have been brilliant to have reached that kind of rank at such a young age. Unfortunately he couldn't get past even the ITW!!

We had a Sergeant Upretti who was in charge of drill and overall discipline, for both A and B flights. He could never pronounce many of the names. So, Lafontaine became Leftane' throughout our stay and D'sa became Desai. Iype Kovoor from Kerala had such a thick a British accent that you could slice it and when he was asked his name by the sergeant, his reply sounded like 'Ipe Core' with his accent. The sergeant thought that he was being made fun of and yelled 'Double around the parade ground!!'.

Another memorable event was when one of the trainees developed a small boil on his scrotum. He asked people around what to do. Prem Pal singh, who retired as an Air Marshal, with an air of authority asked him to apply Sloan's Liniment, knowing full well the outcome. He even loaned him his Liniment bottle. Next there was a shriek and continuous wailing and last seen the victim was sitting, naked, on one of the fire buckets, which was full of water, cooling the part on fire!!

All this is not to say that we were a bunch of hicks. Majority was sophisticated, well educated and highly motivated wannabe aviators. To prove that I must tell you that there was a non functional Spitfire parked in front of the class rooms. I believe it was flown into Coimbatore and towed into the station or dismantled and assembled in situ. I think I was the only person on the course who didn't get his picture taken in full uniform and peak cap, sitting in the cockpit and sending it home. We had some great sportsmen and athletes.

The Station Commander was Wing Commander Atmaram (he retired as an air commodore many years later and was my Station Commander in Poona when I was a Pilot Officer in No.4   Sqn), a very short benign gentleman. The Chief Instructor was initially Sqn Ldr Idris Latif (later our Air Chief) but soon he was succeeded by a terror of a man called Sqn Ldr Kashinath Baburao Joshi. He had started his military career in the army and then changed to become a pilot in the Air Force. His ambition was to get all of us riff-raff toughened and reach the great heights of army discipline and drilling. His very mien was forbidding. During arms drill practice, he would ask a trainee to give him the rifle. It had to be thrown to him and he would demonstrate the correct action and would throw it back so hard that it would knock down most trainees trying to field it. If you couldn't grab it properly and still be standing, one had to run around the parade ground with the rifle held high above the shoulder, a very painful exercise as we could all vouch.

Click to Enlarge LEFT: Field Craft Training on the downs of Ootacamund. Done as an outing during the time the course was extended in ITW

RIGHT: Morning Parade while on Field Craft Outing to Ootacamund.

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We had the two young squadron commanders. We used to hang around them in adulation as they were the first fighter pilots we had come across. There was a world of difference between them in that the one gave the impression of a care free dashing fighter pilot, because he said he didn't fly with his 'Flying goggles' on and the other said he did and it was important that you wore it. We saw them as the 'Daring young men in their flying machines'. We used to have 'dining in nights' three times a week to teach us the niceties of mess life and etiquette in the mess as well as 'civilized' eating habits. It started with a gathering in the 'very airy' Ante room, which had a bar and the squadron commanders would stand there with their elbow on the bar and there would be an adulatory crowd of wannabes around them. One would have a drink and the Other declined more often than not. This made the former still more a 'Dashing Aviator'. Years later we found that they were not in the forefront of flying.

I didn't smoke or drink but I found a number of the cadets did both. I analysed that smoking was a waste of time and money but drinking seemed to improve ones approach to life and thought that one day I may drink. I had a major hurdle to overcome in this. I came from a family where nobody had ever smoked or drunk. In addition I had an elder brother, all of one year older than me, who was in the merchant navy and was held up as a paragon of virtues, including being teetotal!! More about that later.

One of the cadets, Terence D'sa, reported sick early in our training. He was from Bombay. The medical officer was a Flight Lieutenant and Terence, in the easy going familiar style of Bombaywalas greeted him with 'Hi! Doc'! Poor guy, he learned the hard way how officers are addressed by cadets in the Air Force.

I got admitted into the small hospital attached to the unit, I think for some small ailment and I found one of the cadets whom I hardly knew visited me every day. On the first day itself, he asked me if he could have my whisky and cigarettes.  Only officers, and officer cadets, in the hospital had two whiskies and a packet of cigarettes   It was still British style and apparent given to them daily as part of the 'ration'!! He, K.S. Nair, was an ex-airman and knew this windfall and also knew that I didn't smoke or drink and decided to benefit from it!!

The main thing was the ground subjects, with which I had no problems but there was stiff competition between me and McKenzie for the top slot. Close behind were La Fontaine and Dotiwala. None of us were graduates. Apparently the graduates came from colleges which didn't do much good to them because our teacher for English, Sqn Ldr D.N. Seth, would ask them a question or give them a task, which they would flunk and he invariably asked them, with unerring accuracy, 'you must be a graduate'?

Breaking rules

One balmy evening about ten of the cadets decided to break bounds or 'climb the wall' (literally) as it was known and visit a movie theatre. Instead of going out through the gate, where they would be stopped, they put on their civilian togs and climbed over the back compound wall of the camp. To their luck the Station Commander decide to do the same, without climbing the wall and he recognized some of the caballeros. He came back early and had a reception committee waiting for them. There was an enquiry and most of them were sent home, a couple of good students were kept back.

I remember that Sankaran Nair was one of them. One of those sent home was my friend and class mate from RIMC, S.V.Giri, who had joined No. 52 course. He went home, resigned to his fate and planned to join a college or something. He was told that if he couldn't learn discipline in the RIMC, he was beyond redemption. I wrote to the Principal of RIMC, Mr. Catchpole (a real life Mr. Chips), who had a lot of influence in Army Hq because of the bevy of generals there from RIMC, and got him into the IMA. He eventually retired as a Lt. General!

We also had on our course a copy cat 'Black Shirt'. Those of you born later than 1940 may not know this character created by Bruce Graeme, I think. He was a 'gentleman burglar' who went around at night in black clothes and committed the most audacious burglaries and some of his loot was given to the poor a la Robin Hood. We had Ambrose Ryder. He was a very fit, handsome Anglo Indian entrant from Madras. He had been seen wandering at night in black clothes around the 'billets' but no serious notice was taken though there were a number of complaints about missing valuables. It was not linked. As I mentioned earlier, our 'billets' were very 'open'. He would go home, on every occasion he could, back to Madras, no doubt carrying the loot!! Suspicions of his activities and some other standard short comings caused 'termination' of his cadetship. It was submitted to the authorities that his luggage should be searched as he was leaving the camp. And Lo and behold, many items of others belongings tumbled out. It was decided not to hand him over to the civil police!!

We had the occasional party for some special day or the other and there would be dancing. It so happened that there was an internment camp for Italians, in Coimbatore. It also so happened that young girls from there were invited for the parties and they were allowed to come. Apparently this had been the practice for a while as the War was over long ago. There were some very good looking girls and those cadets who danced, mainly Anglo Indians, Parsis and a few others, had a great time and people like me, who didn't know dancing, sat on the side with our tongues hanging out!!

I decided to show off my gymnastic skills by doing some handsprings in front of my course mates. It didn't strike me that in RIMC we did it on a thick coir mat and here I was doing it on the hard concrete floor of the dormitory! So!! I injured my left knee, which swelled up with what was referred to as 'water in the knee' and for two months I was limping around with a crepe bandage and undergoing heat and physical therapy.

But I had to get back on parade as the 'Passing out Parade' was coming up and I had to march up to receive the Ground Subjects Trophy, which I had won. There was only this one trophy at ITW, as far as I can remember. The reviewing officer was Lieutenant General Rudra. I wonder what his appointment was!! I have a feeling he was the GOC in C Eastern Command, if there was one then. This was the only time I beat Guy McKenzie in Ground Subjects during training. He beat me at EFS and AFS. But again we came together in the Flying Instructors School and I managed to beat him one last time. Not only was he a very bright student but his calligraphy, drawing and chart making was like print!!

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Passing out Parade at the ITW. Maj Gen A A Rudra was the reviewing officer.

We had 21 days vacation. I had spoken to my father, who had spoken to his friend the surgeon in Ootacamund about my knee problem. He put me in plaster till the day I was leaving for the Elementary Flying Training School in Jodhpur. The swelling seemed to have gone down but my muscle had got wasted and I was hobbling around.

And then, Elementary Flying Training School! Here I come!!

Mrs Shanta Raghavendran and Air Marshal Raghavendran (Author) visit the billets at Coimbatore four decades later! -

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