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Commander Y N Singh - The Pioneer Naval Aviatior

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Commodore Y.N.Singh, the pioneer aviator of the Indian Navy, who retired from service in 1969 as a Commodore, was in his twenty first year when he was commissioned in the Royal Indian Navy on May 1, 1943 as an Acting Sub-Lieutenant. He had already completed his training as a direct entry Cadet and Midshipman at Dartmouth and had served on board a Royal Navy cruiser, the Enterprise. Even before he was commissioned, he had applied for becoming an aviator but his application was turned down as the RIN authorities did not at that time contemplate setting up an aviation wing. His knowledge of naval aviation was thus restricted to the short air course undertaken as a part of the Sub-Lieutenants' courses conducted at Lee-on-Solent.

The opportunity to become a naval aviator presented itself to Y.N. Singh under interesting circumstances. He was serving in a Royal Navy destroyer which was sunk by German bombers off the coast of North Africa, an action in which he played an effective part for which he was promptly awarded the Oak Leaf. On repatriation to the UK in October 1943, Singh was Mentioned in Despatches and selected by the British Admiralty for flying training at St. Eugene in Quebec, Canada, because 'England was chock-a-block with operational commitments', along with a batch of officers from the Royal Navy and the South African Navy, and later shifted to Kingston on Lake Ontario where he flew Harvards.

He then returned to Yeovilton in Somerset, England where he qualified in flying Wildcats and Hellcats as an operational pilot. On January 16, 1944 he became a Lieutenant and was posted to the British Eastern Fleet based at Trincomalee for operational flying. The air station from where flying training sorties were launched was Patlam (later renamed Ratmalana) near Colombo and the aircraft Singh flew from the air station and the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ameer were Hellcats. The Ameer was an escort carrier with a squadron of Hellcats operating off Trincomalee where Singh had his baptism of fire and was thus the first Indian to have become a naval aviator and to have taken off from and landed on an aircraft carrier, that too in actual battle conditions.

In 1945 an armada of ships of the Eastern Fleet set off from Trincomalee for an invasion of occupied Burma and Singh was about to be bloodied in war when, while the ships of the Fleet were sailing across the waters east of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the bomb fell on Nagasaki in Japan. The fleet stopped its onward move and began circling around off the Andamans when there were several Kamikaze attacks on British ships by Japanese aircraft and one of the cruisers escorting the strike force was severely damaged. Singh was involved in a dogfight with one of these aircraft while flying a Hellcat but came out of it unscathed.

Singh had been sent by the Admiralty for flying training, not with the intention of initiating the creation of a Fleet Requirement Unit for the Indian Navy or for the acquisition of an aircraft carrier. His flying conversion was considered to be the first step towards developing an inter-service organisation for conducting combined operations against the Japanese in the Bay of Bengal for it was considered that a qualified naval pilot from the Royal Indian Navy would be ideally suited in an advisory capacity at the Combined Headquarters in this theatre. But by the time his services were available for this purpose, peace had descended on South East Asia.

Unfortunately for Singh, the Naval Headquarters in India came to know of his flying training only after he had returned to India, when the authorities realised the full administrative implications of this specialisation without their approval. The officer was thereafter pressured for a considerable period, even after the War was over, for contributing towards the cost of his flying training, which had been duly debited to the Royal Indian Navy account by the Admiralty!

After Independence, Singh worked at Naval Headquarters and assisted in compiling the requirements of the aviation wing for the first plans papers for independent India's Navy under Commodore Martin St; L.Nott, Commander (later Admiral) A.K. Chatterji and Lieutenant Commander (later Vice Admiral) N. Krishnan with Wing Commander (later Air Chief Marshal) P.C. Lal as the technical adviser. As mentioned earlier, at this time, the Government had accepted in principle the acquisition of as many as six aircraft carriers for the Indian Navy for which a Fleet Requirement Unit had been sanctioned.

During this period, Singh continued to fly at Palam and Amritsar but the aircraft he flew were Spitfires, Marks VIII, IX, and XIV of the Indian Air Force. He was soon sent back to Yeovilton in England for a refresher course in flying, followed by an instrument flying course. He then underwent a helicopter conversion course at Gosport and became the first Indian to qualify as a helicopter pilot, years before the Indian Air Force deputed its first batch of pilots for helicopter training. He soon added another first to his credit by bec oming the first Indian to qualify in flying an amphibious aircraft when he flew a Sea Otter at Lee-on-Solent.

Another important assignment for Singh was his appointment to the newly commissioned naval air station, as its first Commander (Air) and the Commanding Officer of the Fleet Requirement Unit (FRU). He led the formation of Sealand aircraft which flew past Bombay harbour on October 10, 1953 when President Rajendra Prasad reviewed the Indian Fleet, the first such review after Independence. He then landed his aircraft on water between rows of ships formed up for the Review, taxied his Sealand to the flagship, INS Delhi, and was presented to the President and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. While taking off, Singh had a few anxious moments caused by a harbour craft crossing his path but he managed to take off after taking suitable action.

Singh later served as the Commanding Officer of Garuda and supervised the construction of the air traffic control tower and setting up the School for Naval Airmen, the Naval Air Repair Organisation, the Photographic Unit and the Safety Equipment Section.

Before the commissioning of the Vikrant, Singh, who was the senior most officer in the Navy's Aviation Branch and was now the carrier's Commander (Air)-designate, was sent to England for an attachment to HMS Albion for six weeks to study the functions of a carrier's Com mander (Air). On completion of this attachment he joined the work-up team of the Vikrant and supervised the completion of the ship and the installation of all aviation facilities inciuding the flight deck, the hangar, the maintenance workshops and landing and launching equipment. It was Commander Singh who, along with Commander John Treacher, ensured an accident-free training schedule.

Y.N. Singh's name will find a pride of place in the annals of the Navy for having been the Service's first aviator, the first carrier pilot, the first carrier pilot to undergo the baptism of fire in actual action conditions and the first Indian helicopter pilot.

Warming up to the reminiscences of his career in the Navy, especially in the Aviation Branch, in December 1987, when he was in his 66th year, Commodore Singh, whose photographic memory has not allowed even the minutest details to be erased, recalled with pride:

"I remember that my views were quite clearly laid down before the Naval Staff that aviation was an integral part of the Navy and the aviation officers were an integral part of the Executive Branch. Another thing that I felt very strongly about was maritime reconnaissance which should be under the command and control of the Navy. I am glad that both these have since come about."

Admiral Sir John Treacher, who retired as the Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff of the Royal Navy, feels that Commodore Singh adequately fulfilled the expectations as Commander (Air). He says:

"Commander Y.N. Singh who was Commander (Air), had one of the most difficult appointments. Without previous carrier experience, his job was to lead his group of bright young airmen into an unknown and very testing environment. He had to accept that much of what would normally have been his responsibility was carried out by the head of the work-up team but, as the programme developed, he gradually took over and by the end was able to play his full part."

Y.N. Singh later headed the Communist Party (apparatus) in his home area in Bihar!

Copyright: Indian Navy - Blue Print to Blue Water - Rear Admiral Satyendra Singh (Retd)


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