Air Fighting Instructor Course
At the end of the Fighter Refresher Course the CO sent for Suri and me and told us that we were to stay behind and take the "Air Fighting Instructors' Course". This was a great honour. The course was identical to the "Fighter Leader Course" in U.K. It was extremely intensive and involved a month's very hard work. It would be far tougher than the one we had just done. The rest of the squadron flew on to Ranchi which was not far away for a few weeks to hone the skills that they had acquired.
Five out of the nine on the previous intake had been failed but there were to be fourteen of us and each man brought the aircraft that he was accustomed to fly. Suri was one of the best flyers in the squadron, he was quiet, private and reserved. He and I flew our Hurricanes. There were two Americans from the USAAF who brought their twin boomed Lightnings, two from the Navy with their Seafires. The remainder, Canadian, New Zealanders, Australian and British brought their Spitfires.
The Commanding Officer of The Air Fighting Training Unit was the much admired Wing Commander Frank "Chota" Carey. The "Chota" nickname meaning 'Small' was no measure of the man. He was famous throughout the Air Force as the best singles pilot there was and would put on a flying display at the drop of a hat. To see him let a pilot get on his tail and then to see him reverse the situation in less that a couple of turns filled us with delight and awe. He was gracious and witty. The first time we met he said "Now there's a man I can look in the eye". We were equal in stature at least!
When the opportunity arose we used to enjoy dog fighting with our various aircraft. Inevitably the Lightnings with their superior diving speed would try to 'jump' the Spitfires and Hurricanes and we would out-turn them with ease. They naturally had to face considerable teasing when we accused them of being afraid to stay and fight but it would have been fatal for them to do so. It just was a different way of fighting and much favoured by the German Messerschmitt 109s.
The days were all too short for the amount that we had to pack into them and the system of flying one half of the day and ground studies the next half day returned. It was, perhaps, natural that considerable attention was paid to our ability to pass on the skills that we were learning and one of the salient points was to be a lecture that we were to give in the third week of the course on any subject that we wished. Suri and I were well aware that the "Indian" part of the Air Force was not known to the others and that there was a certain amount of prejudice, particularly from the British contingent. Hurricanes were regarded as "Has beens" by some until they saw what damage can be done by four 20mm Hispano Suizas.
Suri and I shared a basha (Bamboo hut) and I gradually got to know him very well. He was, by nature, extremely shy, the iron reserve was just a means of reserving his privacy and I was greatly flattered by his gradual friendship as we became firm friends. When a singles pilot is sitting in his plane, with helmet, goggles, oxygen mask etc: it is difficult to recognise one another. This is the main reason why so many of us sported colourful scarves. The other reason is that at ground level one can be perspiring profusely only to feel the chill at altitude. Sneh solved my problem by tearing two saris in half so that she had one half and I the other giving me two scarves of silk chiffon approximately 1metre by 1.5 metres. Although the size may seem excessive, it was such fine material that it took very little space and was perfect in heat or cold. One, my favourite, was mainly black with a paisley design in red and in spite of my being protective it was eventually stolen from me whereupon Sneh gave me her half retaining only a strip of a few inches. It was still with me at the end of hostilities and the two halves are now in my sock drawer.
One of the opportunities to enjoy oneself came during the low flying exercises. Today we so often hear of complaints from the public about the R.A.F flying too low and frightening the horses, pregnant cattle, rattling windows, ruining Sunday sermons; you name it. Low flying is one of the most important skills that an operational pilot can have and it takes constant training to get the required split second timing. This does not apply to any other low flying which is strictly forbidden. However, it is most exhilarating. It is not much fun sitting at the controls and flying straight and level but close to the ground all speed is exaggerated, forbidden fruits are sweet and all that.
The first question at a fatal accident is usually had he a girl friend any where near? We all had friends who had had ended like that but 'it could not happen to us'! Operational flying was another matter. The lower the better and in an effort to succeed I had my second prang. A Hurry bird wing span was 40ft (Spit 37') so if the wingtip were to be placed on a perfectly smooth surface in a 90° bank, the most vulnerable bit, (the pilot!) would be 20 feet up. Smooth surfaces are hard to come by but if in a bank we would try to lower the fuselage at the same time as bringing the wings level. (Not forgetting the prop!) Much of this is a direct copy of a letter home dated 15 VIII '44:-
A Spit could never have taken such punishment, the wing would have parted company at once. The following is my letter of explanation to the C.O. Please remember that this was the form required and used in all such communications!!!
This explanation was accepted with no further question. The wing was changed and I was soon flying dear old 'B' again. The letter copy is still loose in my logbook. It was difficult to write with those old steel nibs. (My writing was always atrocious anyway.)
My choice of subject for my dissertation was to be "India". I was aware that it was controversial in the extreme. India's demand for independence was a constant source of irritation and the crass ignorance of those in the armed forces as to the aspirations of the country created an impenetrable barrier. I genuinely thought that such light as I could bring upon the subject could only be beneficial but I was told that I would not be allowed to speak on the subject. My anti establishment feelings all but burst out but I did not want to fail the course. The chief instructor came over to us in the bar that night. He bought us a drink and tried a few explanations.
He turned to Suri and said that as I had been in India less than two years and that the feeling was that I could 'inadvertently' cause offense and what did Suri think about it. Suri looked him straight in the eye and said "But he knows how it feels to be an Indian Sir" "He will still have to choose another subject". There was little time to prepare, I chose Denmark as my subject as I had been living there during the first half year of the war. I was asked, "just to give some idea of my subject" if the instructor could glance at my notes. I was dead-pan as I handed them over. They were in Danish.
Suri had paid me a great compliment; only to have it betrayed a few days later. We were fooling around and I grabbed his hat and set off with him in full pursuit. I dummied and pretended to throw it over his head, changed direction and threw it ahead intending to catch it but it was falling to the ground. He was so close that to bend down would invite a push from behind that would send me sprawling: I kicked it intending to catch it again. I realised at once what I had done but it was too late. He was dark and speechless with the insult. I turned to apologise but he was incoherent and mumbled something that made no sense. Something like "Don't take for what I am" and walked out. He was utterly inconsolable. I had committed the unspeakable sin. I had put my foot to the hat that he wore on his head. He walked out and never touched the hat. I was so deeply sorry and remembered that when I had picked up Sneh's sandals she was so sad that I had utterly demeaned myself. Suri never forgave me. Perhaps I did understand how it feels to be an Indian but my instincts did not.
Four of the fourteen failed the course. Surprisingly, they did not fail me. There was a feeling of loss, I do not think that Suri ever looked me in the eye again.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002