The Fighter Jockey

May 15, 2023by Rajeev Hora0

During combat, it was always the second attacker we were more bothered about. He was the one who would conceal his entry and creep in unspotted.

However strong may be the urge, there are a few things you should never do. One of them is to ask a retired fighter pilot about his combat exploits on a late Saturday evening. You wont be able to wriggle out of his seductive web for hours. Plus you would have only yourself to blame.

Of course, the old joke that “How do you come to know that there is a fighter pilot in the bar?”… never goes stale. The straightforward answer being that “You don’t need to find out… He will come and tell you.”

Most fighter pilots have a nickname, something they get anointed with as soon as they join a combat squadron. For instance, my squadron-mate hailing from the Haryana heartland is actually ‘Sangwan’. But his nickname ‘Sangy’ has stuck on for the last forty years. In fact, he gets a bit offended if he is addressed otherwise.

“Combat really used to be the in-thing once upon a time”, the haloed veteran Sangy claims. “Well at least before these rather unexciting BVR tactics came into existence.” For the uninitiated, BVR stands for Beyond Visual Range.

BVR tactics entails the major part of maneuvering to take place at very far distances with the help of radar or other networked systems. The missiles are supposed to  be fired 40-100km away at times, much before the opponent can be visually spotted. Almost like playing video-games though definitely not that simplistic.

The earliest fighter pilots in fact started off shooting at each other with hand-held pistols. Very soon, they graduated to shooting with integral guns fitted in the nose compartment of the aircraft. That was really the fun era of aerial combat where everything was happening at such close quarters. As the capability of the weapon systems improved, the combat tactics had to be accordingly redesigned and re-practiced.

The next quantum jump took place with the advent of the close combat missiles. The combat volume continued to open up with increasing capability of the sensors and kinetics. Group combat in the missile era also had its peculiar dynamics and challenges. Since most of the warring stuff was happening within the visual bubble or just outside it, this kind of skirmish continued to be very exciting. The adrenalin was still getting pumped.

Sangy continues, “The maneuvering would always commence on picking the first attacker or bogey as we called it. But during combat, it was always the second attacker we were more bothered about. He was the one who would conceal his entry and creep in unspotted as far as possible.”

“But Sangy, please tell me how come you were so good at spotting the second attacker in the air? Much farther and much earlier than the others.”

“Ah! That is a skill I acquired on Gurgaon roads during my growing years.”

A bit puzzled, I ask, “You mean?”

“Well on these semi-urban roads you don’t know where a vehicle can suddenly appear from? Having a tractor-trolley coming dead opposite to you with his head-lights off on a one way lane is the norm and not an exception. Same goes for buffaloes and cyclists. Yeah, you can say that my finely-honed survival instinct came from there. As in combat, lookout and gut-feel is utmost vital.”

 Sangy goes into a side lane of reminiscences,“Oh! How I loved those tractor-trollies. My father had one and I used to take it around very often as a teenager.”

 I ask, “You mean without a license?”

 “HaHaHaHa!”, he bursts out laughing. “Who ever drove a tractor trolley with a license or a number plate? The most versatile multi-tasking piece of art that ever hit the Jatland roads. Absolutely akin to a multi-role fighter. And what sense of power you derived from taking it out for a spin? Ditches, boulders, marshlands, dusty lanes. Nothing conceivable could ever stop its march.”

 Even the traffic policemen would look at me with respect as they murmured, “Choudhary ka beta jawan ho raha hai.” Literally meaning, “The Headman’s son is growing up”.

“Of course, I have had many a near-misses. On the road I mean. Except for the day I was taking three of my bosom friends to the local market. This son of a  **** in a mini-van came out of nowhere and hit me from the side. It was a real bad one. I knew I was going to get into serious trouble with my father. But before I could make peace with my guilt, all my mates had already climbed down and taken on the two hoodlums in the attacker vehicle.”

 “I was initially standing aside innocently like a bystander. And then it suddenly dawned on me that my formation members needed reinforcements. My entry into the arena turned the equation on its head and we came out unqualified winners. What a classic 4vs2 melee it was! It was my first exposure to combat. Very early in my baptism process, I had imbibed the basic requirements of ‘superiority of numbers’ and ‘offensive spirit’. And of course not to forget camaraderie and team-spirit.”

 I prod Sangy further to decodify a mystery which had eluded me for long, “But how did you always manage to edge out your opponents in combat even with the same class of aircraft?”

“Horax, the key attribute which matters when all things are equal is ‘brinkmanship’. And that skill you acquire at every traffic square irrespective of the fact whether the traffic lights are working or not. As in life, you have to take that extra bit of risk if you have to come out ahead. Believe me, the ‘Khatron ke Khiladi’ serial was actually conceptualized in our backstreets.”

A longish ‘hummm’ emerges from my throat. I have finally understood a critical life lesson after four decades of worthless contemplation.

Sangy asks me mischievously with a twinkle in his eyes, “You wanna see a picture of mine in those hey days before they packed me off to boarding school?”  Overtaken by immense curiosity, I reply, “I would love to Sangy.”

Sangy slowly flips through his iphotos album. He picks out a scanned B&W picture of a teenager standing next to a Rajdoot mobike with a couple of older boys beside him. With an unusual mix of embarrassment and pride, he points out, “That’s me in the centre with the gamcha tied around my head. The gamcha as you know is the most versatile garment ever invented on earth.”

 I couldn’t agree more. In the absence of a helmet, the gamcha must have provided young Sangy with a cloak of invincibility all along. It somehow reminded me of the hachimaki headbands wore by the Japanese Kamikaze pilots. Shaking my head in disbelief, I exclaim, “Wow! I never could have imagined that could be you! God has indeed been your savior all along Sangy”

 My flippant fighter jockey riddles me his impish riposte “Horax, now that you have brought God into the picture. Do you know the difference between a true fighter pilot and God?  Don’t know?……I will tell you…….” “God does not think that he is a fighter pilot!”

The joke is rotten but we both have the heartiest of laughs. Bar-man Swamy apologetically announces bar-closure time. We part ways and I head back home with a joyous heart. But why am I getting the heady but sinking feeling that I have been taken for a ride all evening?

On a tractor trolley of course!


For once speechless and stumped in combat,
Horax (Casper)


First published at on 15/05/23
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