Words of wisdom: Lead from the front and take the high-risk sortie in your life too
“Flying gives you discipline; so fighter pilots rarely drive rash,” says Air Marshal Man Mohan Singh (retd), 88, with a gentle smile. “They’ve had all their thrills in the air,” he says with his feet firmly on the ground while sitting on a garden swing at his home in Sector 18, Chandigarh.
Awarded the Vir Chakra during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, Air Marshal Singh had a distinguished career in the Indian Air Force, which he was set to lead in 1988 but for the political powers that be. “I retired as the air officer commanding in chief of the Western Air Command, which had 40% of the force’s assets,” he says, adding, “You can either bend in the wind or stay firm.”
An avid golfer, traveller, wildlife enthusiast, birdwatcher and dog lover, MM — as he is affectionately called by wife Gaitry — likes to travel light and live in the present. “It’s not about the destination. Enjoy the journey,” he says, sharing anecdotes about driving across the country from Gandhinagar to Shillong. “Retirement is the time to do things you couldn’t do in service. Time has never hung heavy on us,” he says as Toasty, his eight-year-old daschund-fox terrier mix, vies for his attention.
The eldest son of a Punjab Civil Services officer, Air Marshal Singh recalls how the family moved from Sialkot to Jalandhar after Partition. “I was mechanically driven. Machines interested me. I drove my dad’s Dodge though I was underage. I knew everything about the car’s engine,” he says. It wasn’t surprising then that he was picked up by the air force selection board representative who visited Doaba College, Jalandhar, for prospective recruits in 1948. “I appeared for the interview out of curiosity and was selected to be trained at the air force academy in Ambala. I was commissioned as an officer in January 1951 and was awarded the trophy for the best pilot in the course,” he says.
Face the fear
“Flying is not natural and opting for a career in the defence forces requires passion and willpower. It’s not a job. The forces demand physical, mental and psychological endurance,” says the officer whose career underlines adaptability. He was trained on Tiger Moths before he graduated to Harvards and went on to fly Vampires, Hunters and Gnats.
Having commanded squadrons in the eastern sector, including during the 1965 and 1971 wars, he says, “It’s important to lead from the front and take the high-risk sorties. That motivates the team. Whoever says he’s not apprehensive in the cockpit while flying for the first time during combat is lying. Courage is conquering fear. A couple of sorties and it becomes routine.”
“In Bangladesh after three days into the 1971 war, there were only milk runs (routine sorties). I had 20 pilots on the rolls so I ensured all of them got a chance to fly in combat. Later, I found some did 20 sorties, while others did only five. So you can lead by example but you can’t get the horse to drink the water. Only those who do the job rise in the profession,” he says.
Such is his passion for flying and love for the uniform that he says if there’s reincarnation, he will join the IAF again.
“Be strong within and hands-on if you want to rise. You must enjoy what you do,” is his tip to youngsters.
In the air force, personnel are trained not just to fly but also to fight solo. A fighter pilot requires self-confidence, quick decision-making apart from the fitness to withstand the rigour of flying.
“We needed to be in operational readiness to be able to scramble at the call of the radar. For fitness, I used to do the 5BX (five basic exercises) of the Canadian air force five times a week. Playing hockey was a passion, too,” he says. Post-retirement, his fitness routine includes 15 minutes of yoga daily to keep the body flexible followed by four hours of playing golf thrice a week.
“Only Gandhinagar is comparable to Chandigarh as a planned city. Traffic can be easily streamlined here but most drivers are in a rush. There is no consideration for others. Violations such as speeding and jumping signals are rampant,” he says, pointing to the dent on his sport utility vehicle. “If there’s one change I want to see in my city, it’s discipline on the road as it’s in the air.”