That’s how long it took to create history, immortalise legends, and craft a nation’s destiny.
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“The mind wanders, reaches for the stars;
Floats above tepid earthly passions;
Unlocking the inner child’s eye, content;
Seeks higher cause, beyond human fashion.”
A year after I hung my uniform, I went back to my fighter squadron for a reunion, in November 2015. Given a decade spent with the Indian Air Force, I was pleasantly surprised to pick out life-lessons during the gathering, many of which I took for granted while in service. Having settled in a corporate setting now, I appreciate the broad applications of these insights, and the value of being a part of this fraternity of fighter pilots.
What follows is a tale of courage, culture and camaraderie – the hallmarks of India’s Air Force. I have kept this close to my chest so far, but, a year down the line, I would like to share these rare pearls, nurtured by the fraternity of a few, for the benefit of the many.
The evening’s pièce de résistance was the recounting of the story of the Boyra Boys and the air battle they fought over East Pakistan in November 1971. They were four in all (helped ably by a radar controller on ground), who took on Pakistani Jets in the famous Battle of Boyra over the skies of Jessore, East Pakistan, on 22 November 1971, during the India-Pakistan War. They drew first blood for India, and shook the world.
Out of the four legends, two were physically present that evening – Donald ‘Don’ Lazarus and Sunith Francis ‘Su’ Soares. The other two, Roy Andrew ‘Mouse’ Massey and MA ‘Gun’ Ganapathy were very much around, present in spirit, their voices still resonating among us. Their heroics were relived through Don and Su’s narration of the events, and their deep regard for their fallen buddies reverberated in every sentence they spoke.
I had read about their gallantry earlier, but to listen to them personally was a surreal experience, as they described sentiments and passions, which no media account or handbook could ever summarise. The search for excellence under pressure, the feeling of intimate loss, or the aspiration of a higher ideal seemed to come alive, taking me back to the environment I had left not long ago.
A life-time of training; history is made, but, within an eye-blink
As Don and Su went about describing the exploits of the four Boyra Boys during the battle (which led to the shooting down of three Pakistani fighter aircraft), what struck me was the fact that the actual combat lasted for just over two-and-a-half minutes! As the 20-odd year-old Boyra Boys now step in to their 70s, these precious seconds continue to define a large part of their lives, and creating a legacy for the entire fraternity to partake in, in keeping with India’s finest military traditions. (Incidentally, this aerial encounter finds mention among the five top air combat situations in the world.)
Age and experience is immaterial; “Every Man a Tiger”
Besides the time-factor, other significant takeaway was the interchangeable power equations between individuals of the unit. Although the Air Force is hierarchical, in its day-to-day operations there is a lot of free exchange of command and control. Not only is it familiar to see 20-year-olds drilling lessons into 70-year-old veterans, gladly welcomed, and usually following a few drinks at the bar, but the reverse also holds true.
This ‘leadership equation’ was shared by Su in the form of the complete account of activities of that fateful day, leading to the mission. The first two missions of the day were led by the Commanding Officer of the unit and reflected a mature and tempered, but ultimately an all-too-cautious approach. The result being that the aircraft approached the enemy lines too late to engage with the enemy.
Mouse then took over the lead for the third mission of the day, infusing a boost of youthfulness. This change of leadership brought more aggression within the formation, culminating in a high speed low-level dash to the enemy lines, and an approach onto the enemy from the adversary’s side of the border, catching the Pakistani fighters by surprise.
The actual combat, including Don’s quick thinking and fast reflex-action in engaging the enemy, who appeared between him and ‘Gun’, showcased the high level of collaboration and flexibility between the young members of the formation.
Irrespective of their youth, such incidents are hallmarks of the fighter fraternity, which continues to rely on its young leadership to deliver results, irrespective of their relative inexperience (the Commanding Officer had also flown in the 1965 War). In fact, these same qualities have proven worthy in rapidly changing circumstances demanding extreme flexibility and adaptability. Lessons for the modern corporate boardroom are immense!
It’s all about teams; about peer-standing
When prodded about their achievements on the fateful day, none of them mentioned their medals. They only glossed over their team-mates and their peer-standing within the brotherhood. I guess it is true that no amount of externally showered accolades can match a one-word compliment from one of the boys.
It is no wonder that ‘Su’ remains the most popular of the lot, despite getting no kills during the battle (although he spotted the adversaries first, his duties within the formation meant that he had to let the others go for the kill, while he watched their backs).
A sip of immortality with the Sabre Slayers
Distinct from the battlefield action, the most significant lesson was driven home not in 1971, but in November 2015… and not by a fighter jockey, but by a lady in attendance. It was absolutely incredible to see Mrs. Massey fill in Mouse’s shoes at the reunion with her now husband – 33 years after Massey’s passing (Massey was martyred in a flying accident in 1983, 12 years after the Battle of Boyra).
Realising the power of storytelling; why this evening will live on forever
Recalling such experiences may be extremely personal, but is also crucial in carrying forward the collective esprit-de-corps of the unit, the service, the nation, and its people. Mouse, Don, Su and Gun who flew the air battle in different jets were hardly separated by a few metres, but their experiences are quite distinctive, each worth its weight in gold.
It is these experiences that drive home the ‘value of each’. And these, in turn, continue to shape the fraternity into perpetuity. Having studied the squadron diaries and war-books, in which each of these experiences have been captured, I can’t help but balk at the oft-repeated ‘none is indispensable’ quip. Moments like these immortalise the characters within and elevate their experiences into legacies, to be passed down through time and across generations. Sometimes, even across frontiers.
Respect, regard is sacrosanct
“We may be from different countries, but our spirit is the same.” This was a very important lesson driven home by Don that day. For, given the small size of our fraternity, paths tend to cross in mysterious ways. To realise that the pilot whose aircraft was shot down, would head the Pakistan Air Force 26 years later is serendipity indeed!
What a grand gesture it was for Don to pen down a congratulatory message to a one-time foe, Flt Lt Qureshi (who was his victim over Boyra), wishing him the best for his assignment as the Chief of the Pakistan Air Force in 1997. That he received a befitting acknowledgement from the other side was the ultimate icing on the Boyra saga… nobility in its purest form. Probably it is this single virtue that defines the life of a fighter pilot.
“One for all, All for one”
In this life that seems so full of exuberance and adrenaline, it is sobering to realise that at the end of the day, there is no desire to conquer, but only a craving to excel and soar above earthly emotions. The competition is always with oneself, never really with another. Given a chance, a fighter pilot would prefer to spend an evening with a guy he shot down earlier in the day; complimenting him, quizzing him and also revelling in his returned compliments. For, theirs was not a bloody brawl, but a form of ballet, choreographed by training but executed by pure instinct, and ingrained by countless lessons of jesting and jousting. This is truly the glue that binds the fraternity, driving home its close-knit dependencies on each other. It is emphasised well in the following anonymous quote:
“Whenever we talk about a pilot who has been killed in a flying accident, we should all keep one thing in mind. He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgment. He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That his judgment was faulty is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every instructor, supervisor, and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment, so a little bit of all of us goes with every pilot we lose”.
After the evening’s festivities got over, and as we prepared to disperse and go our own separate ways, I couldn’t help pausing and breathing-in the moment one last time.
“Dawn peeks from a distance, the revelry has wound down;
The dew glistens, marking out spots on the grass, where Gods trod not long past;
It was a privilege to have walked alongside legends;
To have sipped immortality, even if for a heartbeat;
Collecting memories to last a life-time, rekindling a dying spirit;
Ready to plod among shackled mortals, confined within their shrinking four walls.”
A year on, as the nation debates the civil-military divide in different avatars, there is a tendency to lose bits of ourselves wading through these muddy waters; but for the faith and affection of the fraternity that keeps us pushing hard, lighting up our smiles, and guiding us towards our north star.
[Sabre Slayers: The F-86 Sabre was a Pakistani fighter jet deployed during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. It faced off against Indian fighters like the Hunter and the Gnat. The Gnat’s impressive record against the Sabre resulted in the moniker, ‘The Sabre Slayer’.]
This article was originally published on indiainterrupted.wordpress.com
The author is a former fighter pilot and is now part of the corporate sector. Views are personal.