It’s hard to be civilian again, believes RK Sharma, who retired as group captain from the Indian Air force’s (IAF’s) transport wing last year. Having changed 14 stations in the 30 years of his service, he says he was always at home in the forces. It’s being a civilian now, living in his apartment in Dwarka, Delhi, that makes him feel “totally out of place.”
“Wherever I was posted, our new neighbours used to ask us for tea and sometimes meals for at least a week. But it doesn’t happen in civilian life,” says Sharma.
Now, he can’t turn the clock back, but tries to relive those good old days by waxing eloquent on flying over the picturesque valleys of Kashmir and the wilderness of Leh. “A transport pilot plays a very important role by delivering supplies and equipment to various IAF stations. We have delivered food items to our bases in mountainous terrains where it takes days to reach by road,” he adds.
Yes, it’s exciting. “One doesn’t keep doing the same thing. When I was commissioned as a young officer at the age of 21, I used to carry supplies over Assam and its neighbouring areas. Later, I underwent six months’ training before wearing an instructor’s hat and trained several batches of transport pilots. This assignment was followed by a new role of an examiner who oversees the annual flying tests which every officer must pass. After that, when I was a senior ranking officer, I was given the entire transport squadron to command,” he says.
Transport pilots also double up as administrators for the forces. Apart from their flying duties, they have to manage units such as ‘messes, etc.
If you compare a transport pilot with his counterparts in other wings, then the fighter pilot gets the best deal. “They get preference at the time of promotions to the senior positions when pilots from all the wings vie to reach the top slots. As a matter of fact, fighter pilots stand better chances to get promoted,” says group captain (retired) PS Arora.
But that’s because of the higher risks the fighter guys face and everyone accepts that. For Sharma, the service offered him multiple opportunities to showcase his skills. “Even if I didn’t fly fighter aircraft, I did my share of daredevilry when I flew a Dornier 228 plane at a height of more than 25,000 feet while it doesn’t go above 15,000 feet in normal circumstances,” he says.
Unlike in the commercial aviation industry, there are no simulators in the IAF, and the entire flying takes place in real time. But when it comes to preparing for wars, the IAF switches to mock situations. Every year, it puts transport pilots in war-like situations and the best performing team is felicitated by the chief of air staff with the title ‘Best Transport Squadron’, which is an honour one cherishes.
As a transport pilot, one must make provisions for one’s second career because the retirement age is determined on the basis of rank. You retire at 54 if you are a group captain and it increases by two subsequent years with each level you ascend. Re-starting a career at 54 is fraught with risks which is why many officers quit at the age of 50 or before and join a private carrier where they can be paid four times more. However, “irrespective of the money, a private job can never give the same quantum of pleasure which a defence job gives. It’s an incredible experience to fly for the defence of the nation,” says Sharma.
What's it about?
A transport pilot is a flying officer in the Indian Air force (IAF) who carries cargo, arms, food supplies and people from one Air Force station to another. These pilots play a very crucial role in peace as well as war. They are the lifeline of air force logistics
7.30am: Briefing of the mission
9am: Follow meteorological forecasts with the ATC (air traffic control)
9.30am: Check the aircraft and fulfil administrative and operational requirements of the mission
11am: Fly for the mission
11.30am: Follow up with colleagues on radio for a status check
Noon: Landing at the mission venue which involves dropping supplies/ arms or to carry out an operation
3pm: Fulfil remaining post-landing formalities
5pm: Fly back to the station
6pm: Get ready for party at the mess
. During the last year of training, officers are paid around Rs21,000 a month
. After they become commissioned officers, a flying officer draws Rs50,000 (including flying pay and transport allowance for major cities) as gross monthly
emoluments, and after he gets promoted to flight lieutenant he earns Rs54,000
. At the rank of wing commander, he earns somewhere around Rs87,000 which jumps to around Rs93,000 as an air commodore. The top bosses in the IAF earn
a little more than Rs1 lakh per month
. Besides monetary compensation, pilots are also entitled to a whole lot of perks, including accommodation, insurance cover, medical facilities and loans to buy a
house, car and computer
. Profound passion to fly
. Tech savvy
. Daredevilry is imperative and one must always be ready to take up new challenges
. Leadership qualities are important. These come in handy when one rises up to command a squadron.
. Besides the right aptitude, you have to meet the physical criteria.
For details, visit http://careerairforce.nic.in/career_opp/caropp_officer_phystd.html
How do i get there?
There are overall four entry points to become a pilot in the IAF: three in permanent commission and one in temporary commission. They are as follows:
National Defence Academy (NDA): It is meant for 10+2-pass candidates who have studied physics and maths in Class 12.
Combined Defence Services Exam (CDSE): It is meant for graduates who studied physics and maths at the 10+2 level.
NCC entry: It is open only for first-class graduates who studied physics and maths at the 10+2 level and who possess senior division air wing NCC ‘C’ certificates.
Short service commission entry: It is open for first-class graduates who studied physics and maths at 10+2 level.
Note: Women can enter through the short service commission only. The maximum age to apply is 23 in all the above categories, except in the NDA where the upper limit is 19 years
Institutes & urls
. Transport Training Wing, Yelahanka (Bangalore)
Pros & cons
Good lifestyle, thanks to clubs and numerous sports facilties available at Air Force bases
Even after joining the IAF as an officer, you might not become a pilot if you don’t qualify some exams which can change the entire course of your career
It’s narrow at the top
A recently-retired group captain talks about life in the IAF as a transport pilot
You have worked as a transport pilot and now are a pilot with a private carrier. What difference do you see between the two?
Apart from the salary, the nature of work is very different. In the Air Force, everything is done for defence or military purposes. Landing at treacherous places such as Ladakh is a different experience altogether. At times you get to indulge in joint exercises with foreign forces while with a private carrier, it is only the passenger’s comfort and safety that is vital. The Airbus, which I now fly, is relatively modern and it is also quite exciting to fly the aircraft.
At Air Force stations, officers enjoy evenings in clubs and they get numerous perks and facilities, including accommodation. Would you call this lifestyle opulent?
If officers spend time in the clubs, it doesn’t happen only for enjoyment. Instead, it is done to strengthen professional harmony. Those interactions and meetings bring them closer at a personal level. Of course, they enjoy also at the same time, but fun is not the only reason for which they go there.
Why did you take retirement from the force at the age of 46?
Had I continued to serve the force, I would have retired at the same designation at 54. At that age, it’s difficult to find a job in the private sector. The IAF can’t promote every officer because the hierarchy is like a pyramid which is narrow at the top and only a few can reach there.
Competition gets stiffer because transport pilots have to contend with fighter pilots as well as helicopter pilots.
However, there is no doubt that I still cherish my time in the IAF and if one keeps getting promoted, there is nothing like the Air Force.
What all assignments have you carried out in the service?
I have performed a lot of activities such as ferrying load, routine courier, training paratroopers of the army and dropping supplies for people in areas with fractured road connectivity.
The cons of the career?
Growth is one thing which the Air Force can’t offer to everyone, because of the limited vacancies.
Group captain PS Arora (retired) Interviewed by Vimal Chander Joshi