A Matter of Time

May 9, 2024by Rajeev Hora0

A fighter pilot’s reflexive wit to the rescue, Sri knew he had survived one more time!

Making the ‘Time over Target’ or TOT, is almost like religion in a strike squadron. It sure has to be, given the fact that almost every other day, lives depend on getting it right. For those who may be unaware, a low-level coordinated bombing mission at 200 feet may have strike elements going over the same airspace with a difference of just 10-12 seconds.

For that to happen successfully, the strike planning and map-making starts a day earlier. Next day, it may not be unusual  for the pilots to wake up at 5 AM and reach the squadron ops room an hour later. The day starts with the traditional Time Check (to the second), so that everyone is on the same page. First the Met brief, next the ATC & Systems brief, followed by the Strike sortie brief.

A quick bite and last minute check on the weather before proceeding to the flying clothing room. Donning an anti-G suit and other special gear is part of the routine, Thereafter a brisk walk in unison towards the flight line or blast pens, exactly half an hour before the planned take off. Start-up, taxi and take off, dot on time.

A close to 50 minutes navigation at the planned height, overflying predetermined waypoints, depending on enemy defences. And the coup de grace, the final run in from an Initial point towards the designated Target. On target On time! Bombs away!

Mission accomplished. Now a high-speed scoot to reach back home. If intercepted by enemy aircraft, ‘engage to disengage’ to come back home safely and live to fight another day. Repeating this routine three or even four times a day including at night, is almost like ‘business as usual’. Also, it is not only the pilots but the entire eco-system of maintenance, ATC and admin services which makes it happen.

Time and timing reminds me of (circa 1984-85) Flt Lt Srivastava or Sri as he was popularly called in the squadron. An absolute professional, he never had a problem in making his TOT in the air. However, making it in time for the morning briefing was a tough task for him. Despite clocking Formula 1 timings on his favourite Jawa on the taxi track, he would often land up 15-30 sec late at the doorstep of the briefing hall.

Entering a briefing room after the doors have been shut is considered a mini crime especially if the base AOC or COO is present. In this case, Sri’s repeat offences became embarrassing for Sqn Ldr Puff Khanna, the Flt Cdr. Reaching his limit boiling point, Puff finally summoned Sri for a dressing down in his office.

Quite a sight it was! With Sri standing in attention and Puff putting on his strictest demeanour for enforcing discipline. He upbraided, the youngster, “Sri, I am absolutely fed up with your late arrival in the briefing room.” And then continuing in a shocking display of displeasure, he said harshly, “Bloody Sri, sometimes I wonder if you will make it in time for your own funeral?”

Sri didn’t flinch one bit at this remonstration and replied absolutely straight faced, “Ah, it won’t matter then Sir. I will be ‘Late Srivastava’ anyway!

Puff could not hide his rare smile at the quick repartee but thundered nevertheless, “Buzz off Sri.”

A fighter pilot’s reflexive wit to the rescue, Sri knew he had survived one more time!

Such steadfast precision and timing is always an admirable quality and says a lot about the men in uniform. Punctuality is however definitely not the sole preserve of the military and a way of life for many other people. Such individuals value not only their own self but also have a deep rooted respect for other people’s time.

The late revered industrialist JRD Tata, himself an acclaimed pilot, was one such stickler for punctuality. As the story goes, he had once been invited by the Minister of Industries for a meeting in New Delhi. JRD flew down from Mumbai and reached the Minister’s office 5-10 min before the appointed time.

The Minister’s PA made him comfortable in the office and informed him that the Minister was out somewhere and would probably be back soon. At about 15 minutes past the appointment, he queried again about the Minister’s schedule. Once more, he was given a noncommittal answer.

At this point, JRD got up and very politely said, “When the Minister comes back, kindly inform him that I have gone back to Bombay. Now if he wishes to meet me, I will be very happy to receive him in my office.”

Without any further ado, JRD was on his way out. The aftermath of the incident is not known, but then that was JRD.  A man of rare character indeed!

Talking about great character, there are people at the other end of the spectrum as well. Not long ago, we had a situation in the country wherein dozens of flights were delayed because of widespread fog and visibility much below safety minima. As a result, an aircraft from a leading airline could not taxi out although the boarding had been completed a few hours back.

Tormented by the distressing experience of a such a long wait, the ‘not quite a gentleman’ got up from his seat. He walked down the aisle in a fit of rage and literally slapped the pilot who was making a public announcement to placate the irritated passengers. The pilot was caught off-guard by the horrific development. The offender was duly handed over to the law enforcement agencies after his ‘moment of so-called glory’. Subsequently, he was probably let off rather lightly.

Going by my personal opinion, the guy should have actually been whipped in public. However, in a Jesuit vein, I forgive him for he knows not. Not only he, but the public at large also has no clue about the time, effort and money that goes into ensuring an ‘On Time Performance’ (OTP) by the airline. It may sound crazy but some of the planning process for making that happen with a very high degree of probability, starts more than five years earlier.

Aircraft acquisitions, HR recruitment, marketing, training, network planning, regulatory compliances, daily shift operations, safety regulations, customer services, emergency response and maintenance infrastructure. All this and much more has to come together in clockwork fashion while battling external factors like weather, natural calamities, union problems, medicals, technical issues and air traffic limitations.

The public takes safety and punctuality for granted and very rightfully so. How the airlines make it happen is none of their business. But with so many variables, it is literally a superhuman effort out there at the front end and behind the scenes. Frankly speaking, the city never sleeps so that the customer can reach back home in time to sleep!

After all this, when irate and unruly passengers behave nastily with airline staff, it actually leaves an awful taste in the mouth. The staff have no choice but to put on their most empathetic, smiley-best behaviour while flurries of expletives are hurled at them. The irony is that very often passengers themselves reach the airport late and desperately want to be accommodated after the cut off time.

 But then the customer is king and atrocious behaviour is tragically becoming a fundamental right in the country!

Feeling quite distraught at times,
Horax (Casper)

Postscript: Capt R C Srivastava or Sri is a very high ranking official in the civil aviation industry today. His amused message on reading the blog is shared below:

Factually – it was (late) Gajji who remarked from the sidelines …”Bloody Sri, you will be late for your funeral also” which invited my repartee.
And how reputations stick ….. no matter the reformation. In older age, it is my turn to get cheesed off if others land up late at dispatch or sim bfg or class or an office meeting ….Karma!!  😁 Sri

First published at seekmediation.com on 09/05/24
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