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The Witty General - A True Story from a War Ship

    

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This true story happened in 1989 when we had an Army General embarking our ship and living with us for a month on that ship. This is a true life story of that witty General of the Army, who did not want to break the army customs and traditions. At the same time, he did not want to break his Officers heart. So, the General gave up a luxury he was rightfully entitled, to keep the morale of his men as high as he could, in the given circumstances.

I was just out of the flying academy and finished my helicopter conversion. As a young pilot, I had the opportunity to go onboard a ship with a helicopter. We were supposed to live on the ship with our helicopter. We were two pilots, the other being my Flight Commander and a frew ground crew necessary to service the helicopter on our month long ship embarkation, deep into the sea and completely cut off from the outside world.

We landed on the ship that evening. The landing deck is at the rear of the ship. After landing, we folded the helicopter’s main rotor blades to reduce the length and breadth of our helicopter, so that it fits into the helicopter hangar on the ship, just ahead of the landing deck. We secured our helicopter in the hangar.

The time was already 8:00 pm by the time we finished securing the helicopter inside the small helicopter hangar. The two of us were given a small 5 feet by 8 feet cabin, with two bunks one over the other, to live for the next one month. There was a small table and one chair on one side of the entrance door. The other side had some cloth hangers and a cupboard. Obviously, I had to take the top bunk being the junior officer.

The two of us settled down, took a bath, changed and went into the dining hall which is called the Wardroom on board the naval war ships. We had embarked on this ship many times before. But, on that day we had a lot of new faces on the ship.

Most of them were from the army because it was an army exercise. It was nice interacting with all of them in the Wardroom. We were all chatting fairly loud and happy. I noticed a Colonel sitting silently across the dining table.

As I looked at the Colonel, he asked, “Do you know that our General is also onboard?”

 I replied to the Colonel proudly, “Yes Sir”.

I continued eating my dinner without any change in expression on my face. Actually, it did not make a difference to any naval Officer having dinner, that there is a General onboard the ship. It looked as if the army guys were expecting us to be surprised and become scared or something which visibly did not happen as expected by our army friends onboard.

We were in the Navy and the Army General was not going to do anything to us. So, why should we be bothered at all even if there is a General on the ship. All that mattered is the Captain of our ship.

For the army, which is a very highly disciplined service, high ranking Officers being present in the unit is a constant reminder for them to be extra disciplined. But, in the Navy, the pilots are used to taking the Admirals around from one ship to other or from the base to the ship and back far too often.

I had even Army Generals flying with us twice before. We were quite used to sitting and talking to the Admirals we fly in our helicopter on the intercommunication system. So we respect their rank, but was never scared even when they sat next to me.

The army officers were expecting us to come to attention the moment they told us that the General is aboard our ship. But when none of the naval Officers showed any change of expression, the Colonel too looked puzzled.

I saw the Colonel’s confused expression and said, “Sir, The Flight Commander and I have embarked on this ship with the sole purpose of taking the General in our helicopter everyday from the ship to the airbase and back to ship, for the next one month during this exercise at the foreign country, which we will be entering tomorrow morning.”

I did not want to embarrass him more by looking at him again. Other Officers were watching a movie on the LCD screen. Since I had to fly the next morning, after dinner, I went back to my cabin to sleep.

The next morning I was up at 5:00 am as we were told that the General wanted to be flown to the base at 07:30 am. The flight briefing was at 6:30 am. After that we went to have a quick breakfast in the Wardroom. Promptly, the Colonel was in the Wardroom, sipping tea after breakfast.

The Colonel was in an excited state. He said, “Hey youngsters, quickly have your breakfast in 5 minutes. The General will be on the deck to board the aircraft exactly at 07:25 am. And by 07:30 am sharp, I want you to be airborne.”

The two of us looked at each other. My Flight Commander smiled at me. I decided that the Colonel is not going to order us around.

I said, “Sir, please do not worry about anything. We have been flying with Admirals and even Army Generals from our ships. We take off and land at exact timings which are promulgated by the Ship. We are under the Ship’s Command and we take orders from the Captain of our Ship. Of course you may request the Captain, if you want any changes in the take off and landing timings even if it just 5 minutes in advance in take off time.”

The Colonel seemed to understand, that he cannot be giving us orders whilst on the ship where he is a guest. He walked off immediately from the Wardroom. We finished breakfast, sat reading some magazines. At 8:00 am, the two of us got up and walked out from the Wardroom to the helicopter deck.

When we reached the deck, we found the Colonel with three more officers lined up in front of the helicopter. Strictly due to safety reasons, only five people are allowed on a helicopter deck of a small ship during the take off and landing of helicopters.

One guy is the aircraft marshaller, the next two are on duty to remove the chocks and lashing that attaches the helicopter firmly to the deck till we are ready to take off, and the last two men wear a fire suite and stand ready to douse fire and rescue the pilots and passengers, just in case the helicopter crashes during take off or landing. No one else is allowed on the helicopter deck unless the Captain of the ship permits.

I went straight to the Colonel, saluted him and said, “Sir, may I request permission to brief you.”

The Colonel returned my salute and said, “OK, start. You have 30 seconds.”

The Colonel and his team of Officers waiting to see off the General were standing in attention. That morning, the ship was rolling and pitching badly. And that made them lose their balance every ten seconds.

I said, “Sir, only these five men with specific aviation related duties to perform on deck are allowed to be on deck, during helicopter operations from the ship’s deck like hover, take off and landings. Reception and seeing off teams are strictly forbidden due to risk to their life in case of an accident of the helicopter during take off or landing.”

I paused to allow that to sink into him and continued, “Sir, during landing, the reception team comes out to the deck only after the aircraft has landed and its rotor blades have stopped rotating. Similarly, whilst taking off, you may salute the General before we engage the helicopter rotors and leave the helicopter deck immediately after that. Unless you move off the deck, I will not be able to engage the rotors and that would end up in the General getting delayed.”

I paused a few more seconds and said, “Sir, lastly, no loose articles like head gears are allowed on deck. Please remove your Cap and send them inside the hangar. If it flies into the helicopter rotors or gets sucked into the aircraft engines, then the helicopter will become unserviceable.”

The Colonel’s expression changed. I did not know if it was because a junior Officer was giving him orders or because he was being denied an opportunity to Salute the General. In the Navy we Salute without wearing a Cap. But, in the army, one cannot Salute if one is not wearing a Cap. So, I understood the dilemma the Colonel was going through at that moment.

I said, “Sir, we are just hopping across from the anchored ship to the air base, a very short distance of one kilometer. Do you really need to do a see off the General?”

The Colonel’s face brightened up. He said, “Oh, this is a normal procedure and the General expects it. We have to see him off from the ship and also receive him at the airbase. I have a problem. We are only three officers. So, once you take off with the General on board the helicopter, please land only after you see the reception team lined up on the airbase to receive the General. They will take some time. So, I request you to keep the General in the air and show him around the base.”

 said, “Sir, no problem. We will keep the helicopter for some time in the air. We cannot promise anything because I have to take clearance from the Air Traffic Controller at the base. This being a foreign airfield, they may not allow me to circle around the base for long. Nevertheless, we will try.”

I then went and manned the helicopter, started up the engines and waited. The General came exactly at 07:25 am. The Colonel and his team gave the General a smart Salute. The General shook hands with them and then came into the aircraft. I helped the General to his seat and helped him strap up.

Then I walked back to my pilot seat on the other side of the helicopter. As I started walking, I indicated to the Colonel to leave the deck as we are going to engage the rotor blades. I saw them leave. I strapped up on my seat and the other pilot engaged the rotors.

That is when I saw our small speed boat taking off at full speed from our ship towards the port jetty. There were some people in army uniform also, in addition to the naval personnel on the speed boat.

We got airborne as planned, at 07:30 am from the ship and headed towards the foreign airfield. As promised, we flew slowly and showed the General around. After 15 minutes, the General was getting restless. He had work and meetings to attend after landing.

The General gestured with his hand and said, “What is the delay in landing?”

The General was wearing an ear defender to cut out the helicopter noise, and thus was not on the radio or intercom system.

I shouted politely so that the General can hear me, “No delay Sir. We thought the General would like to see the airfield from air.”

The General seemed to have heard me over and above the jarring outside sounds of the helicopter engines and rotors. I pressed the Press to Transmit radio button.

I asked the Air Traffic Controller of the airbase, “Tower this is Call Sign Army 1, request permission to land.”

The ATC cleared us to land on the runway. My Flight Commander was a sweet gentleman who was allowing me to fly the helicopter even though I was only his copilot. It was a thrilling experience for me and I was flying very carefully and smoothly to ensure that the General is as comfortable in the helicopter as humanly possible. I did a very soft touch down on the runway and quick taxy back to the dispersal.

After stopping in the tarmac area, I unstrapped from my pilot seat, went to the other side of the helicopter, opened the helicopter door and helped the General unstrap and get down. As the General got down, I Saluted him.

The General shook hands with me and said, “Thank You son. It was really a smooth flight.”

The General then went to the reception team about 50 yards away from the helicopter, took the Salute, shook hands with them and walked to an awaiting jeep. We took off from the airfield and landed back on the ship.

At lunch time I looked around for the Colonel. I wanted to ask the Colonel if everything went well in the morning. I also wanted to know why he was insisting on extending the helicopter flying time between take off and landing. What was the necessity? It was very difficult for me to convince the General in the air and even the Air Traffic Controller, as to why I did not want to land. But the Colonel was nowhere to be found. No one knew where he was.

In the evening at around sunset time, we once again took off from the ship’s deck and landed at the airbase to pick up the General back because the General was living and operating from the Ship to avoid any security issues if he stays in that foreign airbase.

The General alighted from his Jeep, took Salute, shook hands with his seeing off team of army Officers and came to our helicopter. I delayed the taxy, the take off and even flew at a slow speed as requested by the Colonel in the morning giving the Colonel as much preparation time as possible for him to be ready to receive the General back on the ship.

What made me wonder was that the army is said to be always ready for war. And yet the Colonel wanted me to keep the helicopter in the air much longer than required. Has the army standards come down or this Colonel was inefficient.

After we landed back on board and secured the helicopter in the hangar we went to the Wardroom. The Colonel was there sipping tea. I also went and picked up a cup of tea and sat next to the Colonel.

I said, “Sir, since morning I have been trying to find answer to a dumb question in my mind.”

The Colonel very seriously asked, “And what is it? Maybe I can answer it.”

I said, “Sir, why did you ask me to delay the landing at the base airfield in the morning and once again delay our landing on the ship in the evening? I cannot find a logical answer to this because, to my knowledge, the Army is a very efficient fighting arm which is always prepared for war.”

The Colonel smiled and said, “Do you remember I told you that we are only three Officers in the team. After we see off the General before he boards your helicopter, we use your Ship’s speed boat to go to the jetty and then our army vehicle drops us at the reception point in the airbase to receive the General when he lands at the airbase. The speed boat takes ten minutes and the jeep takes five minutes. Add another 5 minutes for boarding the boat and jeep. We are not even catering for any breakdowns of the boat or jeep. Yet we need about 15 to 20 minutes.”

The Colonel continued, “I and my two Officers have to reach the airbase after you take off from the ship in the morning to receive him at the airbase. Then we stay put at the airbase and work the whole day. When you bring the helicopter to the airbase in the evening, we are already there at the airbase tarmac, to see off the General.

“Unless you delay the landing on the ship, we will not be able to make it to the ship before the General comes out of the helicopter on the ship’s deck. We have to keep the General’s dignity in front of your ship’s men, and also in front of the foreign public at the airbase”, said the Colonel.

I sat in disbelief. The three musketeers team led by the Colonel himself, were seeing off and receiving the General at the ship as well as at the airbase.

I said, “Sir, I understand and praise your efforts. It must be really tough on you.”

The Colonel said, “Son, I am the Commanding Officer of a unit. Believe me, mobilising my entire unit of 750 men, with all our equipment, guns and ammunition to the war zone, is much easier than seeing off and receiving the General, racing against time and unforeseen problems of jeep and speed boat. It is going to be a daily affair for next month or so. But, as long as you two pilots cooperate with me, I should sail through this smoothly.”

We sat silently and finished our tea and I went to my cabin. A few minutes later, someone knocked at my cabin door. I opened the door and there stood the Captain’s steward.

The Captain’s steward greeted me and said, “Sir, Compliments from the Captain.”

I followed the Captain’s steward. He told me to wait and went inside the Captain’s cabin. A few minutes later, I was called in. As I entered the Captain’s cabin, I found that the General was sitting with the Captain. The Captain looked at me and I felt his eyes were piercing me.

The Captain asked keeping calm, “Please explain to the General, why were you flew the helicopter for over 20 minutes, when the distance between the ship and the airbase is just one kilometer, as the crow fies?”

I replied, “Sir, there was some other air traffic over the airfield. As per regulations, whenever a VIP is flying in and around an airbase, all other air traffic is to be kept away from that area. Probably, that is why the Air Traffic Controller of the airbase told me to delay the landing. I took the opportunity to recce the airfield and area around it for the General’s benefit. In the evening also there was some incoming traffic and I had to hold short of the runway as directed by the air traffic controller.”

The General smiled and said, “OK son. You may go now and tie up with the Air Traffic Control at the base. I do not want to get delayed in air from tomorrow.”

I came back to my cabin relieved. I did my best to save the Colonel and his team, who were doing a great job of seeing off and receiving the General, at both places. And I was wondering what excuse I would give everyday for the next 29 days. The reception team requires at least 15 minutes if they have to make it at both the ship and the airbase on time, if everything goes well.

After dinner, I went to the ship’s bridge to find out what the flying programme was, for the next day. On the dimly lit up bridge, I recognised the General was sitting on the Captain’s chair. I tried to avoid being seen and remained behind him. But the General had already recognized me.

The General said, “Son, I did not want to embarrass you in front of your Captain. Now tell me the real reason why you delayed landing twice today.”

I did not have a choice but to tell the truth to the General. I said, “Sir, the flying time from the ship to the base is only 4 minutes. But the Colonel had requested me to extend the duration of flying, so that he can see you off and receive you at both places.”

I felt sorry for putting the Colonel’s next promotion in trouble. But, contrary to what I expected, the Witty General just laughed loudly when he heard me out and I felt a big relief seeing him laugh. I had a good sleep that night.

The next day too the General was programmed to fly from the ship to the air base at 07:30 am. I knew I do not have to delay the landing anymore.

I woke up in the morning as usual at 5:00 am. After my daily routine, I went to the ship’s bridge to attend the flight briefing as per the flying program. I was surprised to see that no one was there for the flight briefing. Only the Officer of the Watch was there at the ship’s bridge.

I asked the Officer of the Watch, “Sir, has the flight briefing time been changed?”

The Officer of the Watch said, “The Captain rang me up a few minutes ago and has said that both the morning an devening flights for the General stands cancelled. I had already informed the Flight Commander about this.”

I said, “Any idea why it was cancelled?”

The Officer of the Watch said, “The Captain said that the General will go to the air base in the Speed boat starting from today morning.”

From the bridge, I went to the Wardroom to have breakfast. As I sat down on the dining chair, there came the Colonel in a hurry.

The Colonel said, “Hey boy, what did you tell the General. He now wants to go in the Speed boat instead of the helicopter since we were reaching the airbase and back to the ship faster than the aircraft.”

I said, “Sir, good that he is going with you from today. That reduces your stress level. No more seeing off or receiving and no more racing against time.”

The Colonel said, “No, No Son. You don’t understand. The General travels alone. I cannot go with the General. Can you take me and my two Officers in your helicopter, so that we can receive the General as he arrives in the jeep at the airbase?”

I reluctantly replied, “Sir, actually I am too junior to take any decision. I only follow orders. I request you to speak to the Captain. It is only 7:00 am and we still have half an hour before the General takes the Speed boat.”

That is when an army soldier knocked the Wardroom, came inside and saluted the Colonel.

The soldier said, “Sir, The General has sent a message to you that from today the General will travel with you and your team, in the speed boat.”

The Colonel asked the soldier, “Did the General tell you the time of his depature to the base?”

The soldier said, “Sir, the General is already in the speed boat is awaiting you.”

I saw the Colonel’s face. It looked as if he has been hit by a bullet. The next moment, the Colonel ran out like a bullet.

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