2010-02-28 00:14:06 UTC
GOA?S BRAVE SONS IN THE SKY
VALMIKI FALEIRO recalls three more instances of the
brave sons of the soil, who laid down their lives for the nation,
at times beyond the call of duty. All they left behind were
edifying stories of gallantry and cherished memories?
The recent demise of 39-year-old Oswald Manuel Francis de Abreu would have
touched any Goan heart. Native of Chorao, the Goa born-and-bred "Ossie," as he
was fondly known, was Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force (IAF.) More
specifically, he was Flight Commander of the 222 ("Tigersharks") Squadron based
at Hasimara in West Bengal.
As he left home this Feb. 16, little would his wife Janice and kids Nadia and Nathan
realise that they would never see him alive again. Barely had Ossie taken off in the
Russian-made MiG 27 when the aircraft's engines were on fire. It crashed within
moments, with the pilot, within the precincts of the air station.
Yet another life of those brave - but largely unsung - men, from foot soldier, sailor, to
fighter pilot who defend the nation, was snuffed out within seconds. Heaven would
doubtlessly be kind to Ossie. And, hopefully, to his surviving family here on earth.
Ossie was not the first Goan IAF pilot to die in a crash. But not a single Goa-based
newspaper deigned to cover this angle. Reason I decided to write. Let's look at just
three instances - one high profile, the others lesser known - of IAF pilots of Goan
origin who laid down their lives for the nation.
But, before that, a brief background on the flying branch of the IAF. It is the most
glamorous in the service. Only a small percentage of the IAF's personnel are in its
physically, mentally and emotionally demanding environs. Yet, the number of pilots
and other officer ranks Goa - particularly Catholic Goa - gave the nation is far above
its proportionate population.
The hierarchal officer ranks of the IAF, from juniormost to the top: Flying Officer,
Flight Lieutenant, Squadron Leader, Wing Commander, Group Captain, Air
Commodore, Air Vice Marshall, Air Marshall and Air Chief Marshall (the chief of
staff.) Though Goa has given an army chief of staff, Gen. Sunith F. Rodrigues, but
none in the air force, it has its fair share in the top ranks: like Air Marshall CS Naik,
Air Vice Marshall Erlich Pinto (who died in a helicopter crash with about a dozen
high-ranking officers in J&K), Air Vice Marshall Pereira and Air Commodore PK Pinto.
Over to the valiant stories of another Wing Commander, one Squadron Leader and
one Flight Lieutenant. The last first.
The patchy but tempestuous electoral politics of Jinnah's Pakistan threw up an
incredible verdict in Dec-1970. The Awami League, a political party based in the then
second-fiddle wing of the nation, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), won a majority in
the national elections. The thought of Awami leader, Sheik Mujibur Rehman, being
leader of the nation was absurd to West Pakistan, where the seat of government
was. Pakistan was then, as often down her history, under a military dictatorship.
Sheik Mujibur was invited for talks in the West. The impasse continued. Thinking
future Bangladeshis, particularly at Dacca University, were restive. Students began
learning to make Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs.) The Pakistan ruler, Gen. Yahya
Khan, visited Dacca, confabulated with his men there, and, sozzled and barely able
to climb the steps to his airplane at dusk, ordered Gen. Tikka Khan ("Butcher of
Bangladesh") to crackdown on East Pakistan. The date: March 25, 1971.
That night, dozens of Pakistani tanks surrounded the Dacca University and opened
fire. The Molotov cocktails of the students were no match. The repression in East
Pakistan led to thousands - the initial trickle - pour into India (West Bengal.) India's
resolute Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, set up camps for the refugees.
Over the months, the refugee ranks swelled into the millions. Indira saw opportunity.
She went on a whirlwind tour, influencing world leaders (some of who visited the
refugee camps in W.Bengal) and prepared for action.
Yahya and his men copied Israel's blueprint of the Yom Kippur war - which began
with a pre-emptive aerial strike at the enemies surrounding Israel. Indian intelligence
learnt of Pakistani plans to bomb several airfields across north India. The IAF quietly
moved its aircraft to safer locations, and even placed dummy ones on the tarmac.
December 3, 1971. Pakistan strafed several Indian airfields (and the dummy planes!)
Indian ground, sea and air forces went into immediate offensive - both at East and
West Pakistan. Within the first hours, Pakistani air force in the East was decimated
and substantially depleted in the West - in a reverse Yom Kippur on Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi would have known that war would attract adverse world opinion.
Military objectives had to be achieved in the quickest possible time, before calls for
ceasefire reverberated across the world. Time was of essence to secure the political
objectives of the war. India's armed forces would have to work overtime.
Andre Rudolph da Costa, native of Tolecanto-Velim, was Flight Lieutenant in the
No.7 ("Battle Axe") Squadron, flying Hawker Hunter fighters based at Baghdogra in
northern West Bengal. On Day 1 of operations, he achieved his tasks in the
destruction of the East Pakistan air force. On Day 2, he returned to base after
successfully completing the last of his hectic missions of the day.
Then fate intervened. Either the indisposition of a colleague who requested him to
take over his sorties, or unexpected calls for air cover from the army now deep within
East Pakistan - one will never know which - made Andre take to the cockpit again.
He was clearly not meant to be there. After destroying several enemy targets in the
Rangpur Sector, the intrepid pilot attacked a supply train south of Lal Munir Hat
bridge, when he and his leader came under severe anti-aircraft fire.
Both pilots managed to fly their badly damaged Hunters across the international
border to India. While Sqn Ldr SK Gupta ejected safely over the Baghdogra airfield,
Andre's aircraft went out of control, killing him just inside Indian Territory. He was
among IAF's first fatalities in the war. He was awarded a Vir Chakra (posthumous.)
Andre's parents were settled in Hyderabad, whence he was selected as a fighter pilot
and commissioned in 1963. Andre was married, had a toddler son and an infant girl.
His widow and children are now settled in Canada.
IAF's Sqn Leader ML Fernandes was native of Sirlim. He was flying back a brand
new transport aircraft from the USSR in 1985 when he and the machine disappeared
without a trace over Gujarat. Unfortunately, precious little is known about this event.
There were, alas, no olive leaf laurels for Fernandes (as in Alfred Lord Tennyson's
"Home they brought the warrior dead.")
Let's go across to November 4, 1977. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, with his son
Kantilal Desai, Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh PK Thungon, another politico,
and John Lobo, the Siolim-origin former Director of Intelligence Bureau and CBI (as
head of the PM's security now), were headed from New Delhi's Palam airbase for
Tezpur in Assam, on a six-day visit to the Northeast.
As politicians are wont, they arrived hours late, delaying scheduled takeoff. Thungon
would years later publicly admit, "I advised them against flying to Tezpur after 2 pm.
Light and weather conditions in the Northeast are not conducive to flying at that hour.
But these people (the PMO) insisted and we took off from Delhi."
They did that in an 11-year old IAF Tupolev-124K "Pushpak Rath" (floral chariot.) A
crew of five was captained by Wing Commander Clarence Joseph D'Lima, native of
D'Lima Vaddo, Socorro-Porvorim. The other crewmembers were Wing Commander
Joginder Singh, Sqn Ldr Mathew Cyriac, Sqn Ldr VVS Sankar and Fl. Lt. OP Arora.
All five were from IAF's elite Communication Squadron established in 1947 as the
official carrier of presidents, PMs, cabinet ministers and service chiefs.
When the flight approached the Jorhat-Rowriah area, local Air Traffic Control radioed
bad weather and instead of proceeding to Tezpur, asked Clarence to land at Jorhat.
It was about 7.30pm. It was dark. The Jorhat airstrip was rudimentary. It had no night
landing facilities. Worse, the weather was already bad. (A Board of Enquiry later
established that both onboard altimeters were not functioning reliably.)
Clarence aborted the first landing attempt. On the second approach, metres from
touchdown, the aircraft plunged in a sudden atmospheric 'down draft.' It grazed a
treetop, severely damaging its nose landing gear.
Clarence decided it was dangerous to risk the life of the country's Prime Minister by
attempting a landing on the hard surface of a runway with a damaged nose wheel,
which first touches the ground when landing.
Risking his own and his crew's lives, Clarence decided on a nose crash-landing in a
soft, wet paddy field at Tekelagaon, some 25 kms. from Jorhat airbase. The cockpit
would take maximum impact on touchdown, while the cabin would be relatively safe.
A belly landing would have equaled risks (of a touchdown explosion) for both crew
and passengers. Clarence clearly decided risking himself and the crew, but not the
passengers. And averted possibly the worst VVIP disaster in Indian aviation history.
Clarence and his co-pilot Joginder deftly brought the aircraft down. Even before it
would have halted, all the five valiant IAF men must have perished. (See picture of
the wreckage, courtesy Outlook India.) For them, the "floral chariot" turned death
chariot. All the VVIP passengers survived.
Smoke emitted in the cabin as the fuselage came to a halt. The jet came fitted with
automatic fire dousing, but with the cockpit itself gone, the system was immobilized.
Quickly throwing open emergency doors, John Lobo, the six-feet plus man of strong
build, grabbed the Prime Minister like a father would his child in peril, and, wading
through the slushy soil, deposited him a safe distance away. He returned to the
wreckage, now a potential bomb waiting to explode.
Kantibhai had fractured his leg in the impact, and in any case his seatbelt was
jammed. Lobo yanked him out, seatbelt and all, and deposited him near Morarji.
(Incidentally, the day Wing Cdr Oswald de Abreu was buried at Panjim, John Lobo
attended the funeral of his brother, Bishop Ignatius Lobo, in Belgaum.) Meanwhile,
Flight Lt. PK Ravindran and Corporal KN Upadhyay manning the cabin, helped
evacuate other passengers. They then walked to Jorhat to help rescue a Prime
Minister stranded in a dark, wet and lonely paddy field in one corner of India.
Five had died to save the life of one Prime Minister. Yet, not even an Ashoka Chakra
(the national award for bravery during peacetime.) All that the gallant IAF men got
was a condolence resolution adopted in the Lok Sabha!
(With thanks to Frenny D'Silva, widow of Wing Commander Xavier D'Silva, ex-Velim,
Bismark Martins of Baga-Velim, cousin-brother of Flight Lt. Andre R. da Costa, and
my school chum Raju Fernandes, ex-Tolecanto-Velim.)
The above article appeared in the HERALD (Goa) edition of February 28, 2010