On a cold December evening in 1977, as the Tupolev-124 aircraft banked its wings towards Jorhat, Squadron Leader C.K. D'Lima heard a crackle over the radio abruptly telling him to land in Jorhat instead of proceeding to Tezpur, his original destination. Sitting at the back of an aircraft lacking in creature comforts was Prime Minister Morarji Desai. His presence on the plane was strong reason for D'Lima to be worried. The sun was already dipping as D'Lima prepared to land at the rudimentary Jorhat airstrip, which was not prepared for a night-landing.
The TU-124 that crashed in '77. It was a narrow escape for new PM Morarji Desai
Air Chief Fali H. Major (far right) as a wing commander in the mid-'80s with PM Rajiv Gandhi
In May 1950, a Devon aircraft from the squadron took off from Kochi on a delicate mission. On board was the ailing Union home minister Sardar Patel and with him, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the Maharaja of Travancore, who was being persuaded to sign the instrument of accession. Infected by the patriotic fervour of the times, the squadron went out of its way to help the Sardar carry out his mission of persuading princes and kings to swear allegiance to the nascent republic. The squadron pressurised the cabin of a Dakota—considered a technological feat at the time—to ensure that the ailing Sardar could be ferried all over India with ease. A heart specialist was always on board as the squadron criss-crossed the country with the Iron Man. In 1949, Flight Lieutenant K.G. Bhim Rao saved Patel's life by successfully crash-landing a Devon aircraft. The Constituent Assembly gave him an 'appreciation-on-record'—an unprecedented honour, never to be repeated.
Dizzy heights: Jawaharlal Nehru taken to Chushul, the world's highest airfield, in '52. Second from left is Subroto Mukherjee, independent India's first air chief.
Indira Gandhi on a recce of flood-hit UP in '66
The squadron's brush with leaders and vips has generated a special fund of humorous anecdotes. Air Vice Marshal S.S. Malhotra, who had one of the longest stints on the squadron and served as its commander, has vivid memories of ferrying the Shah of Iran twice. "On each occasion, he had a different begum," he recalls. Once, as Malhotra prepared to take off from a small airfield in UP with home minister Govind Ballabh Pant, "the minister rushed into cockpit asking us to stop saying that his 'key man' was yet to arrive". The crew was left wondering who his chabi-wallah was. It finally turned out to be Pant's personal secretary. More recently, a catering assistant on board was overheard inviting President A.P.J Abdul Kalam to attend his wedding. Kalam couldn't make it, but sent flowers and a message delivered by the local district magistrate. The fund of stories will grow and grow as the squadron continues its work, quietly leaving its indelible imprint on a nation's history.