Long before the CDS and Department of Military Affairs poured the jointmanship glue into inter-service cracks, every service had a distinct way of going about their business. Sometimes contrasting cultures, ethos and traditions intersected to produce ‘humour in uniform’ of the variety not even documented in Reader’s Digest.
Wardrobe Malfunction in a Baggage ‘Party’
Sometime in the 90s. Naval Air Station (NAS) Vizag on the eastern seaboard had just been commissioned as INS Dega, a sprawling NAS with all the trappings of a modern air base except one little detail — aircraft.
A Chetak (Alouette) search and rescue (SAR) flight and a nomadic tribe called ‘shipborne flight’, all totalling less than four aircraft, formed the punch of the airbase. It was a sleepy den, safely outside the reach of Headquarters, Eastern Naval Command (HQ ENC) about 15 kms away. Surrounded by the Bay of Bengal to the east, rolling hills, green cover, and wild boars everywhere else, Dega had more ‘wild life’ inside the camp than outside.
One of the important tasks that fell under Dega’s charter was helicopter airlift for visiting senior officers on tour to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) far outposts at Koraput, Barrackpore, etc; or pilgrimage to Puri Jagannath Temple, north-eastward in Orissa.
Ah! A VIP Visits
A very charismatic & flamboyant Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) from the IAF — let’s call him Blue Force Commander (BFC) — was scheduled to transit through ENC. A detailed itinerary was drawn up that included overnight stay at ENC, a ‘call-on’ the naval C-in-C (White Force Commander or WFC for this story), then depart next afternoon for Koraput. The 321 Flight at Dega was to provide Chetak for BFC+3 — first lady, staff officer and a senior aide. It was a piece of cake for grossly underworked Dega — a Friday drop-off followed by a long weekend.
Enter, the ‘masth‘ trio!
Now, navy has a way of doing things that can put the best star hotels to shame. A ‘baggage party’ (with a lieutenant as Oi/c) was detailed to take charge of the VIP entourage bags. Dega was in a flux then. The Commanding Officer (CO) had been signal transferred due unknown (unnatural?) reasons. The Cdr (Air) — air boss, equivalent of COO in IAF — was standing in. This was before AVSC cadre review & Sixth Pay Commission; most officers retired as Lt Cdr. Relatively obscure Dega was home to many.
A small such coterie of superseded officers running ‘air affairs’ had slipped into a routine that went like this: enjoy few gimlets or beers before Friday lunch; then undo top buttons; retire to the newly-minted air-conditioned aircrew rooms (ACR) for a snooze; outpipe at 1430h to sign ‘air orders’ and ‘daily orders’; pick up bags and ‘secure’ (pack-up) at 5PM. Often, they would beseech the saintly, ever-smiling & eminently likeable ‘officiating CO’ to give them company. Sometimes, he would relent. No visiting 3-star could disrupt this (un)holy nexus. In any case, Dega was a just a watering hole, given the vast Savanna of real estate versus the few oases of responsibility. They didn’t even have a golf course then!
Things went as per script on day one (Thursday). The blue force commander arrived by air force An-32 at INS Dega. They were duly received and seen off to HQENC. By next day, Friday noon, the command team was itching to hit the bar. However, there was a delay because of some unforeseen ‘chemistry’ between BFC and WFC (perhaps they were course mates). When the motorola crackled with news of BFC’s departure by road for Dega, the CO & his deputies were already ‘two down’. Fifteen kilometres at the speed of Vizag roads can accommodate another ‘large’, the command team assessed. Long weekend sentiment was high. Meanwhile, young, smartly-attired aircrew in their blue overalls and Ray Bans waited next to the Chetak on VIP dispersal.
By the time the motorcade arrived at the VIP apron, the send-off party was already “happy”. The delay meant minimal time for pleasantries, a quick handshake, boarding, start-up & quick take-off. I occupied the Chetak’s centre seat as co-pilot. My captain — an army aviator on exchange posting — helped board the VIPs as I advanced the FFCL* fully forward, spooling up to full RPM. We had to do Vizag-Koraput-hot refuelling-Vizag by 20 mins before sunset — a close cut. (*FFCL = fuel flow control lever on the Chetak)
The command team — officiating CO [actually the Cdr (Air)], EXO and Lt Cdr (Flying) — stood at rapt attention, right arm raised in smart naval salute, waiting for the bird to leave so they could return to their shenanigans.
Oops! Wardrobe malfunction!
There was a small problem. The baggage party hadn’t fetched up yet. The Staff Officer to BFC had poked me in the ribs couple of times, but I thought he was just trying to act funny. After he continued to whisper above the din of Chetak’s Artouste engine, I relayed his concerns to CO Dega in sign language. His right palm still stuck to the peak cap in crisp naval salute, CO twitched his head in what looked like “just get the hell out; we’ll send the bags.”
Funny, because the standby chopper was only on paper. I knew it, having seen that bird’s plumage opened for 25-hourly inspection. Maybe he had plans to paradrop the bags, I thought. In any case, such decisions were way outside my “pay band”, as people today would put it.
We quickly got airborne. The decorated air marshal occupying the front-facing third seat, sharp as a crack fighter pilot, gestured with a ‘carry bag’ signology “where are the bags?”. My captain nodded nonchalantly “all is well, all is well” in classic 3 Idiots-fashion. The BFC seemed unconvinced as we turned right & set course north by north east at 90 kts. The Chetak is a very noisy machine.
The army pilot-in-command (PIC) was crystal clear in his posting brief: “I am here to enjoy the beaches, fish fry and navy ball. All naval duties must be the headache of naval dopes“. He asked me to radio Vizag tower & sort out the blue force commander’s problem.
“Tower, Chetak 420, fife miles out, confirm baggage has arrived“, I punched out a radio call I knew would be met with stony silence.
When the going gets tough, a good hostage negotiator buys time. After an infinitesimal pause, ATC replied: “420, tower. Say again your last?”.
We picked up more momentum northwards. My PIC looked like Buddha incarnate.
I knew the time for beating around the shrubbery was over. I broke the bad news on radio: “Tower, 420. Please relay to command, Victor India Papaa asking for bags“. The air traffic controller’s radio squelched with some ah, er, ohh, followed soon after by a wicked call “420, tower. Confirm you want to rejoin?”.
By then, the command team had returned to ARR, devoured customary Friday fish fry plus ‘veg bonda‘ and were just starting to unbutton for the siesta. The CO’s motorola again crackled with bad tidings.
BFC by this time had realised he faced a major wardrobe malfunction should this ship proceed towards Koraput. He may pull through the night on borrowed HAL pajamas, but what about the first lady?
He returned his ear defenders to the hook, put on his VIP headset and thundered “where are my bloody bags? Turn 180 and get back to Vizag, you A#$@*!”$!”
The army PIC’s reverie finally broke. A screeching 180-degree turn followed and, within minutes, the VIP Chetak was returned to the ramp. The same “hic hic hurrah” trio was back at rapt attention, heels clicked together, palm raised in naval salute — in this case, probably to shield from fire & fury of the BFC who was now almost boiling over in 35°C with 80% rH.
Navy guys aren’t known as charmers without reason. The hic hic trio calmly led the BFC into ACR, even offering him a gin-tonic to beat the heat. I don’t know what transpired as we were waiting next to the aircraft. Shortly, the baggage party arrived, huffing and puffing. We loaded, embarked the VIPs & stormed out of Dega into the forests of Koraput. On arrival, blue force commander presented us a neat air force necktie, probably to hang ourselves.
From Sea Water to Barley Water
Few moons later, young Kaypius was deputed as liaison officer (LO) to another visiting dignitary, again a 3-star air force C-in-C on a routine visit to Vizag. The BFC & graceful first lady were put up in VIP-1 of ENC Officers’ Mess. I discharged my duties, glad that he was a man with minimal requirements. My bubble broke around midnight when I returned to the mess cabin after a long itinerary, including command reception (cocktails), ‘two down’, etc.
The duty quartermaster (QM) knocked on my door with increasing urgency. I thought I was dreaming till the knocks became more persistent and loud.
“Sir, aapko C-in-C sa’ab ne bulaya hai“, the middle watch QM informed me as I rubbed sleep out of my eyes (Sir, the C-in-C is calling for you).
“Kya? What? Itni der raat?”, (What? So late in the night?), I grumbled.
“Pata nahi, Sir. Suna hai saheb ke family ko koi problem hai“, the QM replied.
Naval sailors have a delightful way of addressing wives as “family” — for eg, “Sir, mere family ko pet dard hai” means “Sir, my wife has stomach ache”.
I got the drift. I quickly got back into red sea rig (dress No. 6B), rushed to VIP-1, gently knocked on the door and whispered, “Sir, your LO here. May I help you?”.
A hot request served cold!
A visibly distraught BFC opened the door, looking dishevelled in a non-CSD dressing gown — standard supply in all guest rooms. “My wife is experiencing severe stomach ache. Get me some barley water fast‘, he ordered in a deep, desperate tone.
Those were days before Google & smartphones. For all my tender years, I had never heard of barley water. I had seen or consumed coconut water, tap water, mineral water, even tonic water. But I had never heard of barley water. The only thing that came to mind was a Bob Marley cassette in my collection that could provide comfort for an empty stomach, not upset stomach. I gulped at this unusual request.
But as a LO, you never say no. “Right away, Sir”, I replied while BFC shut the door on me, rushing to comfort the first lady who seemed to be in much agony, as I could figure from a string of chaste mallu moans including “aiyyo, inde devame” (oh my god)
It was well past midnight. The only people awake at that time in INS Circars were the duty QM & some disinterested DSC jawans manning the main gate. None of them had heard of barley water. It was a desperate situation. I dialled the officer from HQ coordinating the visit — the Command Communications Officer (CCO) of ENC. He picked up his home landline after interminable rings, heard me out, and gave me a mouthful about how young officers today were utterly useless, then slammed the phone with a “UCM” dictat.
Still no barley water.
By then, my smart duty QM had alerted the duty steward in WFC’s retinue staff who knew exactly where, at that unearthly hour, “barley water’ may be available in sleepy-town Vizag. Within the hour, the situation was restored to “ops normal”. BFC & spouse slept like babies, thanks to naval ingenuity and ordinary sailors with deep resources.
The couple had an uneventful departure next morning from INS Dega where again the ‘hic hic trio‘ saw them off!
My ‘UCM’ with CCO was largely a non-event, because by then it was “raat gayee, baat gayee” (gone the night; gone are the problems). He gave me a lengthy lecture on how married men need to be “ahead of the curve”, “don’t declare Mayday at drop of a hat”, yada yada. He told me ‘barley water’ was only a litmus test for ‘Kaypius’ whose wedding was to be solemnised a month later. “Tomorrow, if your wife is pregnant, she may ask for tandoori chicken at 2AM. Who will you call? Your father-in-law??”, he posed, as I squirmed uncomfortably in my buckskin shoes.
In 24 years of married life, some of that advice has proven handy for me. Even the ‘do-nothing-and-problem-will-eventually-solve-itself’ approach administered by hic hic trio to the BFC at Dega sometimes worked wonders.
So the next time you are transiting through a naval base, remember to carry your own bags and barley water! Keep your pajamas up and your colic down!
Shan nau Varunah!
(This is a fictional spoof. Any resemblance to persons, names or events is purely coincidental!).
–The author is a former navy test pilot who has flown over 4400 hours on 24 different aircraft. He calls himself ‘full-time aviator, part-time writer’ and maintains a diligent blog at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org”