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This month’s column is something that is dear to my heart, both as a mechanically obsessed fanatic while also being a very proud Indian. The internal combustion engine has to rank as one of the 20th century’s greatest inventions and one which changed the world, for the better or worse, and I always tend to side on the better angle because it helped bring the world closer and that too so very quickly.
The first throes of powered flight were made possible thanks to the internal combustion engine and this brings me to the second fascination for me – aviation. However throw in the nationalistic spin on the ensemble and we are looking at one of the legends that helped create the Indian Air Force no less! I don’t know how many Indians are aware of Harjinder Singh, the technical genius who was right there at the formation of Squadron 1 and 2 of what was then known as the Royal Indian Air Force and whose legendary skills – jugaad included – helped to keep the spindly Westland Wapitis airborne while fighting the ferocious tribes in the North West Frontier Province, giving the first batch of Indian pilots more air time than the RAF boys with utmost reliability as well.
It was my absolute affection for the Supermarine Spitfire, the Rolls-Royce Merlinengined single-seat fighter aircraft that helped win the Battle of Britain during World War II that saw me pick up a huge tome titled Spitfire Singh penned by Mike Edwards. I am sure that it was my lucky day because I had never known about Harjinder or how this Hawai Sepoy (with a formal engineering degree no less) forsook promotions and an active career in mainstream engineering to help ace pilots like Jumbo Majumdar, Subroto Mukherjee and Aspy Engineer, to name but three, to outshine their Brit counterparts in all departments of the game be it in Burma or on the Chinese frontier.
“Indians will not be able to fly and maintain military aeroplanes. It’s a man’s job; and all you have done is bring the greatest disgrace on yourselves.”
Spitfire Singh is a book for every Indian to read and not just because of Harjinder Singh. It speaks volumes about what dedicated Indians and that to sons of the soil can achieve, in adversity and in times of scarcity. When he had enlisted in the engineering section of the RAF in the early 1930s, there burned a fire within Harjinder and his close friend Jumbo Majumdar to think about an Indian Air Force. This duo worked tirelessly to impress upon their Brit handlers, the need to set up such a force and how galling it must have felt when the British head of the RAF tasked to set up an Indian arm had this to say: “Indians will not be able to fly and maintain military aeroplanes. It’s a man’s job; and all you have done is bring the greatest disgrace on yourselves.”
These words instead of having a numbing effect did quite the reverse as Harjinder rallied his boys and had each of his antiquated aircrafts perform better and more reliably than the even more modern and superior machines entrusted to the RAF! Against the odds, Harjinder and his band of brothers created the engineering backbone of the Indian Air Force. In fact, in the action in Burma, Harjinder’s team never lost a single aircraft entrusted to them, taking their outgunned Westland Lysanders against the far superior Japanese Mitsubishi Zeroes and Kawasakis, and coming out unscathed but with loads of kills credited to them!
“Harjinder was never a pilot but he learned to fly on the sly, a gentleman cadet, helped by the intrepid pilots who trusted his engineering with their lives!”
Harjinder was never a pilot but he learned to fly on the sly, a gentleman cadet, helped by the intrepid pilots who trusted his engineering with their lives! He went on to make his own aircraft and also went on to completely resuscitate a disabled Spitfire, which he made on his own and flew all across the country. Tasked with heading the engineering side of the IAF after independence, he laid the foundation for what is the fourth largest air force in the world. In fact, it is because of Harjinder’s capability that the IAF remains the only air force in the world to have manufactured two aircraft on its own – the first two of the Hawker Siddeley HS 748 transport planes plus also one advanced flight trainer at the IAF’s Kanpur engineering base. Sadly politics got in the way of the advanced flight trainer being scuttled for a HAL-designed machine and then the HS748 program being handed over to HAL as well.
He was a man for whom the nation and his friends took precedence over self and was among the first to quite clearly tell the infamous Krishna Menon that the MiG-21 was a horrible aircraft! Again politics came into the picture but that aside what has been truly shocking is that Harjinder’s story has never been told, let alone be celebrated! I don’t know why our own are hesitant to be told about the exploits of humble people like Harjinder and that is what I find disgraceful and shocking as a proud Indian. If you ever are interested in aircraft, in the early days, the formation of the Indian Air Force, the trials and tribulations after independence and which has from there emerged as the bedrock of one of the best in the world, you would do good to read this fine book about one of India’s greatest unsung heroes!