Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Now that's called leadership

It was in the early sixties when I met Wing Commander A Suares for the first time. He was the Commanding Officer of a Canberra Bomber Squadron of Indian Air Force, a very prestigious appointment. I was posted there as a navigator. We had heard numerous tales of gallantry of our CO. Amongst his chest-full of decorations were two Vir Chakras. We were proud to be working with him.

Behind the gentle and pleasant exterior of Suares was hidden a very resolute and bold interior, exposed only when necessary. On such occasions we were awe-struck by his spontaneous leadership qualities.

It was a refreshingly clear winter day. Bubbles of spotless white clouds floated in the blue sky. Our CO ordered the whole squadron to fly a practice mission. The squadron was to take off in two flights (groups of aircraft), the Flight Commander was to lead the first flight and Suares the

After thorough planning and briefing the squadron took off and proceeded to the mission in two flights. On completion we returned and landed safely. Satisfied that the mission was successful, we were returning to our residence, when almost suddenly the weather turned foul. Dark smoke-like fog had rolled in from one side over the runway and within minutes the entire area was covered with thick dense fog, reducing the visibility to almost nil, in Air Force parlance 'Poor Visibility'.

Soon we heard the sound of the Canberras of the second flight returning after their mission. Sensing the gravity of the situation we headed towards the Air Traffic Control (ATC) Office. When we reached there, we found that the Senior Air Traffic Control Officer (SATCO) had already rushed in and was in his seat controlling the aircraft. We waited anxiously on one corner, watching. The SATCO transmitted on radio telephony, 'SIERRA 1 (the flight leaders call sign), the visibility is 300 metres. You will hold on and await further instructions'. On checking the weather of the airfields where the aircraft (ac) could be diverted, it was found that there too the weather was grim.

With systematic instructions from the SATCO all the ac were spaced 1000 feet above each other, Suares being the lowest, awaiting further instructions.

Silence of a few minutes, which seemed like hours, was finally broken by the calm and collected voice of Suares- "Permission to carry out a circuit and land". The SATCO again reminded Suares the visibility was 300 metres. Knowing Suares' flying ability he finally permitted him to make an attempt.

Seconds ticked past. Then we heard the faint sound of an ac coming gradually closer to the runway. Suares was unable to align his ac with the runway on three attempts, but carefully correcting himself every minute with the assistance of the SATCO on radio telephony, he finally did it on the fourth attempt. We heard the ac approaching the runway very low and
finally the screeching sound of the tyres of the ac wheels touching the runway surface. Though we could not sight the ac yet we were relieved. But our relief was short-lived. Suares did not stop his ac. He accelerated and took off again and informed the SATCO that he would make another attempt.

He made three more perfect low-level circuits close to the runway, landed smoothly and took off.

We stood amazed. He was demonstrating to the other pilots who were in the air with him, that it was indeed possible to handle the ac perfectly, even in such low visibility. After his fourth take-off, he transmitted to the other ac, 'It is easy. Make a few approaches; align yourself with the runway and land. I have done it four times." The SATCO smiled at us and said "Son, that is leadership" and got on to his job of controlling and assisting the remaining ac.

The calm and courageous demonstration of our CO rejuvenated the entire flight of ac and gave a boost to their confidence. Emulating Suares, one by one all the ac landed safely. Suares was the last to land. Indeed, this was true leadership.

Some are respected, but there are some who are admired. Wing Commander A Suares was a leader of the rare brand who was loved, respected and admired for his distinct leadership abilities.