Personal Histories: Sushil Sabharwal

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|Memoir|

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

A CEASEFIRE BETWEEN India and Pakistan had been brokered by the United Nations, effective midnight 22-23 September 1965. Forces of both sides on the ground, however, remained vigilant and confronted each other — eyeball to eyeball, sometimes as little as 40 ft across a canal — exchanging strings of the choicest Punjabi abuses.

United Nations (UN) observers arrived soon in their white jeeps, to verify claims and counterclaims of ground positions, violations of human rights and atrocities upon prisoners of war. These worthies would meet commanders of both sides alternately to resolve various ticklish issues.

Since the shooting part of the war was over, my role as an Air Observation Post (Air OP) Pilot became, predominantly, Information Reporting. This involved flying sorties in the early mornings and late afternoons to report any unusual developments. All flying was done over territory under our control along the general frontline held by our formation. In addition, sometimes VIPs had to be flown from one headquarters to another for conferences or visits. For the younger reader, a point to note would be that helicopters made their debut in India after 1965. They came only in 1971 to the Air OP — just before the next round with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh.

Soon after the shooting was over, however, our battered fleet of fiber-and-aluminum-tubing light observation aircraft of British origin (1950s vintage) was spluttering to a stop. Our enterprising Squadron Commander rushed through a proposal with the government to take over Pushpaks — the high wing basic trainer of flying clubs in Punjab. The Pushpak was a much smaller aircraft and far less sophisticated than what we were used to, but it would have to do. Since these were trainers, they were fitted with dual controls — two sets of rudder pedals on the floorboard, and two sets of flying wheels, which came out of the instrument panel.

On October 7 (according to my flying log), I got a phone call at my landing ground, telling me that a UN mediator had to be rushed to Amritsar airfield, where a UN aircraft was waiting to ferry him to Lahore.

I took the bag from him and requested him to cross his legs Indian fashion so his feet were off the rudder pedals

Major General Bruce MacDonald of the Canadian Army arrived at the landing ground. He was a portly 6’2” and his head and shoulders were well above the wings of the aircraft. The doors to the cockpits of these aircraft are located under the wings and he had to bend almost double to come aboard. He first placed his bulging leather bag on the seat and tried to get in himself. The flying wheel, however, got in the way. He then pulled out the bag and got onto the seat, extending his legs full length so that his feet rested on the rudder pedals but the right arm with the bag still remained outside. Try as he might, he could not put the bag on his lap! I took the bag from him and requested him to cross his legs — Indian fashion — so his feet were off the rudder pedals. After putting the bag on his lap, I requested him to bear with me while we flew and keep off the flying wheel and the rudder pedals. He was visibly peeved. As I was strapping him in, he asked, “What do you call this thing?” I answered. “And where is it manufactured?” “Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Bangalore” was my brief reply. I closed his door, swung the propeller to start the aircraft, and strapped myself in beside him. The sortie to Amritsar was uneventful and we landed smoothly at Rajasansi Airport. I had already spotted the white Caribou aircraft with bold UN markings next to the terminal building and taxied right up to it. I came round and helped him get out of the aircraft, in reverse sequence – seat belt, then bag and then himself. He looked relieved as he uncoiled himself, and said, “Thank you for a nice sortie!”

I often think about those Pushpaks and about Major General Bruce MacDonald’s ordeal.

Sushil Sabharwal is 72 and lives in Dehradun. He retired as a Major General in the Indian Army.

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