C-119 Fairchild Packet…
Legend has it that after the Korean War the Americans didn’t want to take that aircraft back to the US and offered it to India at a paltry Rs 5,000/- an aircraft; some say, the aircraft were passed on for a mere USD each. A number of them were certainly donated by the US, to address India’s dire need. Does that matter now? Not really!
Packet aircraft remained the mainstay of the IAF’s transport aircraft fleet from the mid-1950s (around the time when its production stopped) until the workhorse was finally given a place of honour in the Air Force Museum at Palam (March 31, 1986). Whether it was to serve the UN in Congo or to airlift relief supplies to Egypt and Hungary; whether it was to land guns and men at Chushul (India-China War, 1962) or to paradrop troops over Tangail (Liberation of Bangladesh, 1971); whether it was to ferry Prime Minister Nehru on a state visit across the Iron Curtain to Moscow or to ship Lieutenant General AAK Niazi from Dacca to Nagpur (1972)––Packet did it all, and did it in style and with élan. The Packet fleet also undertook air maintenance task and paratrooping training as a matter of routine.
A look at that aircraft would make one marvel at its ability to defy the laws of gravity and the Principles of Flight. In appearance it was quite un-aircraft-like––its designers called it a Flying Boxcar. Others, less kind in their treatment of the workhorse, gave it the epithet of Flying Coffin. One wonders, “With not-so-appealing (streamlined) features, how a Packet aircraft used to (at all) get unstuck, let alone get airborne and stay afloat?” Well! Packet aircraft had a wingspan of 110 feet. Its engines were the most powerful engines ever built in piston engine era. They produced 3500 horsepower for a weight of 3350 pounds, that is, more than a horsepower per pound of weight. With that brute power, the aircraft could land at Daulat Beg Oldie, the highest airfield in the world. That was in the years 1962 to 1965––more than half a century before the first C-130J Super Hercules landed there. The great Indian Jugaad of installing a jetpack atop the fuselage gave Packet aircraft the added power needed to achieve marvellous feats. Interestingly, Packet was the only aircraft, which had both, piston engines and a jet engine to provide thrust.
My first acquaintance with the aircraft was in February 1982 when I flew for an air experience. And, before I could get the real feel I had boarded the aircraft a second time, for my first parachute descent. In the following 35 years, as a Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) I have jumped from nearly a dozen different types of transport aircraft of the IAF––from the vintage Dakota and the Caribou to the state-of-the-art Special Operations aircraft, C-130J Super Hercules. But the memory of the jumps made from Packet aircraft is indelible.
As the mind perambulates between now and those days, I recall that it was the magnificent men who flew that machine that really made jumps and life so memorable. I feel that Packet used to fly not because of its overly powered engines, but because of the willpower of the men in blue. Volumes can be written about those memorable days and those heroes. Today I’ll recall just one.
They called him Throttle Dutt.
As the name suggests, he was indeed throttle-happy––ever eager to hop into the cockpit and fly off. Rex Raymond, his course-mate thought, that nickname suited SK Dutt also because of his resemblance to the thin (read, “slim”) shaft of the throttle of a Piper Cub aircraft, which they flew as youngsters. We, the Parachute Jump Instructors (PJIs) knew that if there was an airworthy aircraft on the tarmac and Throttle was around, we’d get our fill of jumps––he would stop only after the task was completed.
Whenever Wing Commander SK Dutt dropped us, we would land in the Drop Zone, evenly scattered on either side of the centre; his name spelt confidence. He would often come to our crew room and, over a cup of tea discuss almost everything under the sun. He was a voracious reader. No wonder, some of his buddies called him Professor.
That day I was anxious about the jump; I had reasons to be in that state of mind. It was my first outstation jump as an independent spotter. Wing Commander GJ Gomes, our Chief Instructor at the Paratroopers Training School had detailed me to take charge of the Skydiving Demonstration at the ASC Centre at Gaya. It meant that I would be required to work out the release point depending on the prevailing winds and advise the pilot to drop the jumpers. To achieve that, I would be required to lean out of the open door of the aircraft in flight and advise the captain on the intercom to steer the desirable course, with last minute corrections. Skill of the skydivers apart, a good understanding between the pilot and the spotter was the key to pinpoint drops.
I had lined up the skydivers on the tarmac at Gaya Airport and had just completed the pre-jump briefing, when a smiling Throttle Dutt and Squadron Leader Venkiteswaran (the pilots) arrived and signalled us to emplane. They wished me good luck and were about to board the aircraft when Captain Anil Kumar, one of the jumpers walked up to Throttle Dutt and said, “Sir, Khajuraho will be on our way when we fly back to Agra after the demonstration jump…” Then, with wickedness swirling in his eyes, the young officer added, “How about flying a little low over the temples. May be we’ll get a glimpse of the beautiful statues.” He laid extra stress on ‘the beautiful statues’.
Throttle chuckled equally slyly and nudged him towards the aircraft ladder as if to say, “Son, first go and do a good jump.”
The demonstration went off very well. All the skydivers landed in the designated target area in front of the spectators. Wing Commander Gomes was pleased; the crew complimented me when we reached the tarmac after a lavish lunch and fanfare, which are synonymous with such demonstrations. Incidentally, with that jump I completed another century of safe landings. Very soon we were airborne again, heading for Agra. There would be a refuelling halt en route, at Allahabad.
Partly the fatigue, and partly the odd beer or a gin and lime cordial that people had downed at lunch, started taking its toll. Wickets fell one after the other. Within minutes of our departure from Gaya, more than half of us were asleep; the other half were fast asleep. None kept track of time. The chit-chit in the ears caused due to the aircraft’s descent and the mild thud associated with the landing, jostled people from their deep slumbers. Rubbing the eyes and trying to get the bearings right, someone asked, “Allahabad? How much time will we take to refuel?” That question went unanswered as more and more people got up and started looking out of the windows. Sleepiness and the fogging caused by their breaths on the cold Perspex conspired to keep them from getting their dead reckoning. It actually didn’t matter because: Throttle Dutt would ensure our return home by dinner.
As was customary, people waited for the Captain of the aircraft to come out of the cockpit and deplane first. Then, they would form a beeline to the nearest rest room. The fastest would get relief first. “Guys!” Throttle Dutt said as he clapped twice and drew the attention of the people still shuffling restlessly in their seats. “I am giving you exactly one hour and fifteen minutes,” he looked at his wristwatch and continued,” It is three now. Be back by four fifteen. We are in Khajuraho; the temples are not far. You can have a look as I get the aircraft refuelled.” He exchanged a meaningful glance with the young officer who had made the suggestion at Gaya Airport.
Throttle Dutt had chosen to refuel at Khajurao instead of Allahabad––it was his way of keeping the morale of the people around him high without, of course, compromising operations. Four thirty was the closing time for that less used civil airport. For the next ninety minutes Throttle would have a tough time handling the airport staff.
It took the greater part of a long minute for the import of Throttle’s communication to sink into the heads of the jumpers. And when it did make sense, they got into action; they couldn’t afford to waste another minute. It was precisely a three-minute, all male striptease inside the aircraft, at the end of which men were in smart casuals. They couldn’t have gone out in the streets in overalls and dungarees.
In the next few minutes two scores of crew cut men were out in the narrow streets invading the sleepy little town of Khajuraho. They caught hold of any means they could––cycle rickshaw, auto-rickshaw, tonga and some even jogged to reach the tourist attractions.
Meanwhile at the airport…
A worried air traffic controller begged Throttle Dutt to clear the tarmac. He said there wasn’t enough space to accommodate an Air India B 737 aircraft scheduled to land in a while. Throttle assured him that he would move his aircraft further back and create enough space on the tarmac for the incoming B 737. Then, Throttle got into the cockpit, started up the engines and used reverse to create manoeuvring space for the B 737 in full view of a spellbound Airport Staff. It was a sight, they had never seen––they had never seen any aircraft, let alone a massive one of the size of Packet, moving backwards under its own power.
And although that act of reversing the aircraft on that small manoeuvring surface impressed the controller, it did not allay his anxiety. He now urged the crew to get airborne by four thirty; that was when the watch hours at Khajuraho Airport would cease. Throttle assured them that we’d leave in time.
Back at the Temple site––they went; they saw; and they felt conquered! How the jumpers felt after their visit to the Temples could be the subject of another piece. Suffice it to say that they did not talk about it. Perhaps, how Throttle Dutt made it possible for the bunch of those curious men, and the effort it took to reach the heritage site, was more interesting and memorable than the beauty and the artwork people got to witness there. Period. The entire lot was back at the airport in time for the take off. They lined up and got into the aircraft hurriedly. Throttle Dutt gave an impish smile to a beaming Anil Kumar as he climbed the ladder to take off for Agra.