Memoirs of an IAF Technical Signal Officer - 4



July 1965 to July 1969 - Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) 

I reported to Gp. Capt. Srinivasan, who headed three teams, two to develop the UHF airborne trans-receivers in parallel, and one for the Identification Friend or Foe equipment.   Each team had an Air Force Tech/Sigs officer responsible for the project.   We were seconded to Bharat Electronics Limited for the tenure of the project and operated under their rules and regulations.   We also had access to all of their specialised facilities, laboratories, and environmental testing facilities.   We could also rent civilian accommodation and use BEL coach facilities for commuting to work.

I was assigned to design and develop the thermionic valve version of an UHF airborne communication trans-receiver; our team was given three years to complete the project including flight tests.   The team was made up of young civilian technicians and engineers with various skills and experience - an electronics engineer with one or two years experience, a radio technician with about ten years experience and a mechanical engineer recently graduated.   Other members of the team joined later as work progressed and needs became evident, these were - a mechanical fitter, Sheriff, a genius with mechanical fabrication and improvisation, and two girls who did wiring and soldering and so on.

A second team headed by a Sqn. Ldr., also Tech/Sigs, was assigned to design and develop the solid-state version of the airborne trans-receiver.   This was to be the preferred equipment but expected to take a little longer to achieve.   I was a little disappointed at first to be assigned to what was essentially a back up project, but was consoled that I had many years of experience with equipment based on thermionic valve design and would have a good chance of success.

Our team spent the first few weeks studying and getting to grips with the assignment.   I decided to try to build two basic prototypes, one at 220 MHz and the other at 400 MHz, both highly simplified, without any complicating factors such as any moving or tuning parts.   Our basic aim was to discover whether we had the essential abilities needed for the task, and if not, then to discover and highlight to the authorities areas that we might not be able to achieve.

We took as many short cuts as possible, cannibalising components and sub-assembles from any existing communication equipment that we could lay our hands on.   We managed to complete tentative designs and build simple prototypes in about six months, which passed our basic bench tests.   We then rigged up a test set-up out doors to check performance over a few hundred metres; the equipment successfully met the test.   We were highly encouraged with the quality of the communication.

After this, our work proceeded mostly according to plan.   We discovered that we could accelerate many targets that we had originally set because we had all become far more knowledgeable in the technology and provision of components.   We began to know the international market place to find shortcuts to help the project, and components with improved specifications.   The project began to come together very well.   The one problem that stands out in my memory almost thirty-five years later as being unexpectedly stubborn was the band pass filter for the Intermediate Frequency Amplifier.   This amplifier stage plays a significant role in determining the selectivity, signal bandwidth, and distortion and needs to be wide, flat with steep attack and decay characteristics.   Tuning the four-stage filter proved to be beyond anything, we could do.   Therefore, I began researching the problem even travelling to Bombay on a working holiday visiting centres such as the Bhaba Research Institute and the Philips establishments in Bombay and Poona - all to no avail; perhaps in the limited time I had at my disposal I did not get to the right experts.

I then remembered that my old engineering alma mater had one of the most extensive engineering and science libraries I had ever seen, developed mainly during the Directorship of Sir C. V Raman.   The library had radio and wireless journals from the very earliest days.   I began to go through these journals beginning from the first issues. I discovered that in the years before and during the First World War most of the work done in radio was by amateurs and ham radio enthusiasts.   Among the papers published one name stood out, unfortunately long forgotten, otherwise I would like to pay tribute to him now.   This person, an American enthusiast, published regularly; each article was of a high quality of a standard far above the other contributors.   I found the answer to my problem of how to tune a four-stage band pass filter; it was a simple, ingenuous solution needing only standard laboratory equipment.   After that, everything was plain sailing.

A short digression    During one of the long train trips that I had to take, I travelled alone with an Italian nobleman who was on a visit.   We had many long talks, on a variety of subjects, when to my amazement he began to press me to accept a job in his organisation - he wanted someone to control and distribute money for various charitable projects.

On another occasion on a flight to Delhi, I was seated next to the Canadian Embassy official responsible for emigration; he suddenly asked me if I was interested in moving to Canada, as they were looking for people like me!   I was completely happy with my situation, enjoyed living in India, and did not give it another thought.

We carried out flight trials on a Fairchild Packet transport aircraft in Hindustan Aircraft Ltd., I knew most of the authorities there, so arranging the modification, installing an U H F aerial externally, was done on the basis of long friendships with the seconded Air Force officers in charge of various departments.   I remember that Sqn. Ldr. Tilak, a test pilot at HAL, captained the aircraft.   About three of us from our BEL development team flew as passengers, operating the equipment under trial.   The trial was an outstanding success achieving ranges of over two hundred kilometres and the speech had a bell-like clarity.

I then arranged a trial on a MIG fighter at Hindon, near Delhi.   This was a far more difficult test to arrange, I am grateful to Gp. Capt. S.P. Singh (our old friend from 2 E D Bombay, 1952) who was now Chief Signals Officer, HQ Operational Command who managed to get the necessary authorization for us.   This trial too was a great success.

We had achieved success in a little over two and a half year's work.   We had also carried out environmental testing in BEL.   We spent the rest of the six months left for the project on refining component layout, improving airflow for improved cooling, and determining thermal hot spots and so on.   On completion of my tenure, I was posted as Chief Technical Officer to a large static radar unit near Delhi.

Some personal comments   I began the UHF project in 1966 with great enthusiasm, I would at last be able to exercise some of the mathematics and engineering I had studied more fully.   After a few months though I began to realise that although I was the senior technical officer with proven successes in earlier projects and courses that I had undergone I had been relegated to working on the valve version, which was secondary to the solid-state version allocated to another officer.   From odd remarks and indications, I began to realise that I had been the victim of another's personal ambition.   I became a little bitter, though still enthusiastic over the task in hand.   I now realised that my true vocation was in direct hands-on engineering design work.   I also realised that after the current BEL tenure ended, I would be back again in one staff appointment or desk job after another; especially as I could confidently expect another promotion in the near future.  The family would again be torn apart.  This opened my eyes to other options that might exist.

Living as civilians and among civilians during this tenure, three of our neighbours were American and British engineers, another two were foreign senior administrators on government assignments.   We gradually became close friends and often heard them saying that I was wasting my time here in India, with far better prospects abroad.   I rejected such advice without hesitation, but I began to reconsider my options by 1969.

My eldest, Peter was approaching fifteen and had already been to about nine different schools, located in various states, as we moved from place to place.   Each state had its own education policy and syllabi varied enormously, especially the regional language.   Although he was a serious student, his performance was adversely affected.   This experience was repeated for the other two children though to a lesser extent.   Any change in school now would be disastrous, so I began to realise that for the sake of their education, and for the next ten to twelve years of service left to me, we would not be able to live together as a family.   I did not like what I saw before me.

God works in mysterious ways, a month or so before my tenure completed, we got news that an Australian emigration embassy official was arriving in Bangalore from Delhi with the express purpose of interviewing suitable emigrants who would easily integrate with others in Australia.   This visit by an Embassy official was most unusual, and as far as I know, had not occurred before, or repeated again.   We applied, and were interviewed as a family.   We received information a few weeks later that our application was accepted.  

Leaving India seemed to be the most obvious way of solving all our domestic problems: in a new country we could live together as a family, the children would have stable education.   Life in India at that time had many uncertainties for the young; if one's academic results were not adequate enough for an executive post, the alternative was a life of want and drudgery.   Salaries for most non-executive jobs were just enough to get by, and provided just enough to live, certainly nothing like the way to which they were accustomed.  On the other hand, in Australia (or Canada and America), almost any occupation paid enough to support a comfortable lifestyle; similar to that they were accustomed to.

Although I was forty-three years of age at the time, I thought that I had a good chance of obtaining employment as an engineer abroad.   In case conditions in the new country were not welcoming, or if I had problems having my engineering qualifications recognised, I thought that I was still young enough to develop an alternative career and still be able to provide my family a comfortable life.

The obvious disadvantage was that once I resigned the die would be cast.   There would be no turning back, also life could become quite unpleasant, and many of my contemporaries would see my resignation as little short of treason.  In addition, I would be leaving a secure well-paid and rewarding job with high prospects for promotion for a very uncertain life in a strange country, where we had no friends, or family network to support us.   Further, I would lose any claims to pension or other benefits; in fact as things have turned out, this would be a considerable sacrifice as the pension for officers of the Armed Forces have been multiplied and their benefits enhanced in many ways over the years.

Alternately, if I stuck it out, I would be certain to prosper in the Air Force; I was relatively senior in the Tech/Sigs branch, well positioned to reach somewhere near the top rung of the Tech/Sigs branch, with the rank of Air Marshal not being impossible to achieve.

Left to myself I would have stayed on in the Air Force where I was very secure and happy, and I would have taken my chances with future postings somehow turning out to be to our benefit, allowing us to live together as a family.   Mary, my wife, however was most adamant about my leaving the Air Force; she had always been the realist in the family and always looked at circumstances as they presented themselves, without using rose tinted glasses.   Two of our three children had only seen me when they were some months old, and I had spent as much as a year away on courses during critical periods of their life, she had had enough.

With many misgivings, I put in my resignation; now there was no turning back.  Once I resigned, we reinforced our decision and strengthened our position by considering every other available option as well.   My brother was now a Canadian resident living in Ottawa, and some of our closest friends were American residents.   We felt quite sure of a strong network of support and guidance if we decided to move to either of these countries so we applied for permission to emigrate to both Canada and America also.

July 1969 to February 1970 - Chief Technical Officer of a Static Radar Station

I spent almost nine months at this radar station; it used the latest radar and radio equipment of its time.   There was a history of interference problems in the VHF air/ground communication.   This was  used for controlling fighters sent up to intercept enemy aircraft during exercises.   This was due to the powerful civil aviation transmitters located nearby.   It, on occasion, could become so bad that communication could be totally lost.

The radar equipment was very stable and well maintained, so I decided to spend my time trying to analyse and remedy the cause of the radio interference.   I spent some time on the VHF radio transmitters themselves, but after tweaking every adjustment possible I still was not satisfied that I had solved the problem.   We then began to work on the aerials themselves.   These were mounted on a high steel tower and one of the signals officers working with me must have spent his childhood in Kerala climbing coconut trees.   He was utterly at home at the top of the towers, sometimes having to swing from point to point on the horizontal struts, all done without a safety harness of any kind - he refused to wear one saying that it hampered his ability to work.   I think we finally solved the problem, anyway, during my time there we did not suffer any untoward incident.

The atmosphere in the Officer's Mess was somewhat strained; the others were not comfortable knowing that I had resigned I was persona non grata.   However, most of the officers treated me politely enough although a little distant.   I was fortunate to have the Commanding Officer, Gp. Capt. Sawhney, personally befriend me, he tried to do what he could to help me to get my resignation accepted; talking to friends in high places who could help.   In the meanwhile, he and his family made me welcome to their home.   I am also greatly indebted to Sqn. Ldr. Hande and his wife, they made a special effort to befriend me and help my morale, which was low then.   I was a frequent guest at their house and I do not know how I would have survived without the warmth of their hospitality.

My initial resignation was rejected; I cannot remember now whether the rejection had any explanation attached to it, but I immediately sent in another.   Mary, unknown to me, had also sent in an application in the form of a personal letter to the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal P. C. Lal

I also began lobbying various contacts and friends who had now become senior in rank and held important positions.   They all told me that I had gone about my resignation the wrong way, I should have lobbied first and after setting up a favourable atmosphere and obtaining informal approval, to then only to put in the formal application.   Anyway, something worked because my resignation was approved in early February 1970, after almost nine dreadful months; I was quite scarred and took years to get over my antipathy.  

It took me a couple of days to clear the unit, and visit Meerut, where all our financial records were maintained, to get my superannuation entitlements cleared.   Meerut, fortunately, is not far from Delhi - I knew that if I did not take this opportunity, but relied on letter writing from Bangalore where Mary was then, that it would take months and many letters to sort out my financial affairs and receive payment of the money that I had contributed regularly every month.

I must confess that when I handed over my Identity Card to the Adjutant on leaving, I felt strangely insecure; I was now on my own.   It brought home to me how protected one is as part of a large powerful - and mostly - benevolent organisation.

Just as I was leaving the single officer's quarters in the Officer's Mess, the Mess Secretary gave me quite a handsome memento, something apparently standardised as a going away gift to every officer in the unit.   It was a bronze eagle mounted on a pedestal with a plaque inscribed with one's rank, name and period spent in the unit.   He explained that there was some disagreement among the officers about presenting this to me formally, so he gave it to me privately.   This attitude pretty much summed up my experience ever since I tendered my resignation nine months before.   I could not get out of Delhi fast enough!

I travelled back to Bangalore the cheapest way I knew, I realised that from now on there would not be any monthly pay cheque.   I bought an Air Conditioned 3rd Class ticket; this provides reclining seats for each person and protection from the heat and dust for the small surcharge.   I met a young Australian couple sitting not far from me and we became quite friendly during the two-day journey.   I mentioned that we were planning to leave India but had not yet decided which country to go to finally; I told them that we had a strong network of friends and relations in America and Canada with employment assured on arrival.   However, we were concerned over the many reports of drug abuse in schools and colleges there and worried that this may be a danger to our children who were in the age bracket most affected.   My two new friends told me enough about Australia to convince me that it was young, open, free, and ideal for anyone ready to start a new life.   I explained that my wife was against going to Australia because of what some of her British friends had said of the culture, they said they were would be happy to visit us at home after they completed their tour of South India and talk to Mary, I readily agreed.   I myself was convinced that Australia was a country with great opportunities for anyone who was genuine and ready to work hard.

Two weeks later, they called over one evening and spent hours talking to Mary describing the country and its culture.   Peter, one of the two Australians, had spent a year studying in Benares University and during this time came to know India and its people well; he could talk with some understanding of Mary's fears and concerns.   Looking back, I can see how God was with us all the way, helping us make the right decisions, using a young Australian couple as His angels!   This thought would surprise them, but there is no doubt that they played a vital role in our lives by their generosity in taking the time to visit us and give us advice on what we needed to do when we got to Australia.

Leaving India

I left India a few weeks later, alone, with $8 that I was permitted to purchase with Indian rupees, plus an additional $100 dollars that I was also allowed to buy on the undertaking that I returned the dollars later.   For this privilege, I was made to pay double the exchange rate, the additional amount being kept as a surety!   We were permitted to ship furniture and household items but not Indian Rupees; we had to leave all our savings behind in India.   

I had written to Peter Van-Ross, the young son of friends we had made in Bangalore who had immigrated to Sydney a year or so before.   Peter agreed to meet me at the airport and help me over the initial few days.   When I arrived at Mascot, the airport at Sydney, I was greeted by Peter, his sister Rosemarie and cousin Edwin; I shudder to think what I would have done had they failed to turn up.   Looking back, I appreciate how vital this was for me at that time; a bed for a few nights, companionship and advice on the many challenges ahead in this new strange life.   Peter also lent me some money for taxis and expenses as I began my search for a job.   I was extremely lucky and within a week found the ideal engineering position that would utilise my engineering knowledge and experience to the full.   Peter and his family, the Fritchley's, continued to keep an eye on us till we were firmly established, something we deeply appreciate.

This memoir is aimed at those who may be interested in my life and experiences in the Indian Air Force, so I will not go into any further details of my life in Australia, except to say that my family and I blossomed in our new country.   Having arrived in May 1970 with little or no money, my wife and I were able to retire, self-funded, in July 1985, fifteen years after arrival.   My work took me to almost every part of Australia including the Moomba desert in the Cooper Basin, South Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and about ten to twelve trips to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA.   The Australian character and culture suit me in almost every way, most especially their egalitarian traditions with respect given only to those who prove worthy.   

God's hand continued to show, the first day at work, while the manager was showing me to my work cubicle, I felt a hearty thump on my back and the words, 'What are doing here, Feg'.   It was John Chapman, who I met in Edinburgh in 1963, while doing the Air Interception Radar course with Ferranti.   The British contingent of engineers employed there immediately adopted me; I did not yet own a car, so they found a suitable pick-up point so that I could travel by bus and train from home to Lidcombe, and then the rest of the way to Ermington by car.   Knowing John and getting the support of his friends smoothed life in many ways.

I spent the next fifteen years of my life working as a Control Systems Engineer on various industrial applications; this included Electric Power Stations, a Steel Rolling Mill, a fully automated sewerage plant, and control of gas and oil wells.   Westinghouse Electric Corp. bought the original Australia company in 1971, so I had the opportunity of working with the foremost engineering talent in the world for a number years.

I mainly worked on large projects; these took three years or more between initial design proposals and completion.   My first assignment was with a software design team in Pittsburgh; my personal contribution then was minimal, but I did contribute to developing the concepts for the operator interface of the computer system under development.   The next year, I worked on the design of the Load Demand Computer for analogue control of a steam power station and did the setting up calculations for this project.   By 1975, I had a good grasp of digital and computer systems employed for control and data acquisition.   I worked closely with design and application engineers in Pittsburgh using the latest technology, much of it straight from the design and development teams in Westinghouse Electric Corp.  

I was encouraged to take every opportunity to complete specialist courses related to control of steam power stations, supervisory control and data acquisition, numerical control, logic system design and finally software engineering.   I spent a full year from 1980 to 1981, in Pittsburgh, doing courses on software used in modern control systems.   My last five years of professional life was engaged in designing, field commissioning and debugging large computer systems for control of steel soaking pits, supervisory control and data acquisition of gas and oil wells and computer control of a sewage farm.

My wife and I both retired about the same time, in July 1985.   We were financially secure and decided that there was a lot more to life than the unremitting work we had been doing.   Since then I indulged myself in courses run by Technical and Further Education (TAFE).   I completed a five-year art course covering drawing, water and oil painting, and oil portraiture painting.   I achieved a 'brush with fame' in my second year when the Prime Minister of the day bought one of my watercolours for a presentation!   I then did a four-year ceramic course with TAFE, the last year devoted to developing and testing new glaze recipes.   We also taught Catechism in the public schools, doing many courses to equip ourselves properly.   In 1995, I went back to working with computers, and have spent the last eight years enjoying the power and freedom of the PC and the Internet.

We bought a new apartment four years ago in a beautiful retirement village called Dalton Gardens, owned by the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary.    The Sisters have dedicated their lives to 'aged care' - fulfilling the mission of their founder, Mary Potter.   Dalton Gardens is in a beautiful leafy part of Sydney, and has been in existence for over one hundred years.    The grounds and trees show the loving care given by the religious order over these many years, God's presence is evident everywhere here.   We daily thank God for having blessed us with a long and rewarding life with many adventures, and has finally brought us home.

I should end by saying that having lived away from India about thirty-three years now; I can appreciate the people and the land far more now than I ever did before I left.   I often think of my days in the Indian Air Force and am proud of having played a small role in its development.