When Indian Air Force Pilot Refused to Fly Jawahar Lal Nehru


The date of refusal was November 26, 1961 and the passenger involved was Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru, the Prime Minister, with an entourage of other VIPs. It was on the first transport aircraft to be built in India, the Avro 748 which was put together from imported major sub- assemblies by the Indian Air Force.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) manufacturing an aircraft for its own use was in itself a unique event, perhaps first in the world. Despite, the lack of experience our technicians and engineers did a very good job.

I flew the aircraft on its maiden flight on November 1, 1961, with the Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon and AVM Harjindar Singh, the father of the project and host, watching from the control tower. With hardly any testing done, the flight was uneventful.

Since elections were due soon, Krishna Menon decided to blow his trumpet. The Prime Minister was asked to inaugurate the aircraft and ‘dedicate it to the nation’ on November 26 at Palam. By then, not all systems had been installed and production tests had not been completed. But as is our wont, there were many cynical and adverse comments rife about the aircraft within IAF and Indian Airlines (IAC).

In view of this, I decided to show off a really major safety feature of the aircraft: coping with one engine failure during take off.

For the Inauguration and to watch the flight, Prime Minster, Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru and guests were seated near the Blue Hangar by the side of Runway 27, about three hundred yards away from it and also down to the right from the dumb-bell. Others present were Krishna Menon (naturally), Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Marshal Aspy M Engineer, several other ministers, secretaries and some senior IAF officers.

A special invitee was Sir Roy Dobson, Chairman Hawker Siddeley Group which had by then acquired AV Roe & Co. Most pilots, not otherwise engaged, from Air Hq Communication (Comm) Squadron were seated in the rearmost row. Sqn Ldr CV (Chandu) Gole was to provide the commentary

Gp Cpt Kapil Bhargava

After being sent off ceremoniously to fly the aircraft, my co-pilot Sqn Ldr RD Sahni and I boarded the aircraft, started both engines and lined up for take-off at the 27 dumb-bell. During the take off run, as we reached decision speed, I feathered the critical right engine which was on the side of the spectators. Pilots of Comm Squadron all stood up in alarm perhaps thinking that the aircraft was about to crash. We took off, climbed to 500 feet, turned around and right in front of the guests re-started the engine.

Only then it became clear to the spectators that stopping the right engine was a deliberate act for display. The rest of the show was good but perhaps over-praised by Chandu. My hope was that both IAF and IAC would recognise that extreme safety was built into the turbo-prop aircraft, the certification requirements for which had evolved from the dangerous failures of engines on piston engine transports.

After landing and switching off close to the spectators area, we were met at the bottom of the steps by the PM. I was introduced to him by Krishna Menon. Pt Nehru gave me a tight welcoming hug with a huge smile on his face and said, “Yes, I know this chap” (Like hell he did! It was just a political comment). In the next few minutes all senior people climbed into the aircraft and all seats got occupied with Pt Nehru in the front row. He whispered to Krishna Menon who came up to the front door where I was standing and asked if the PM could be given a ride.

I was horrified at the idea of carrying the PM and others in an unproven aircraft which had not even finished the essential production tests. I told Krishna Menon that no flight for the PM or any other passengers was possible. I suggested that he look at the people seated in the aircraft, the safety of which was yet to be ensured. I said half the Government of India, many Governors, Ministers, Secretaries, etc were present. There was no way I would risk flying them in the aircraft which was not yet ready to carry passengers. I explained that the IAF took extreme care to ensure safety of its passengers. I did not mention that I was not even qualified to carry any of them anyway.

His only comment was that I had been flying it and showing it off. Iexplained that I was a test pilot and it was my job. It was limited to testing the aircraft till it got ready to be used in service.

Krishna Menon turned away and spoke a few words to the PM. Theconversation was so short that I knew he never mentioned even the smallest part of my explanation. All he could have said in those few seconds would have been, “The pilot refuses to fly us”. Anyway, Pt Nehru immediately got up from his seat and in a visibly angry huff without once glancing at me walked down and out of the aircraft. The CAS followed him and Krishna Menon. As the CAS passed me, he said in a soft undertone, “Well done, Bhargava”. I then knew that I was not about to be tried by a Court Martial.

My display had an interesting fallout. I heard from some kind people that Sir Roy Dobson, immediately after our touchdown, said to Pt Nehru that it was the finest display of a transport aircraft he had ever seen, surely an exaggeration meant for currying favour and promoting his own business. The result was that two months later on Republic Day 1962, I was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (VM) for courage and professional skill. The medal had been instituted only a year and eleven months earlier. Mine was among the first 12 or 15 VMs for IAF. This had its own tale.

. Young officer, Group Capt. Kapil Bhargava

All early decorations were awarded in the Rashtrapati Bhawan by the President himself. My wife and I attended the investiture in April 1962. As is the custom, after the ceremony, we were ushered in for a cup of tea with the President. Soon after the two of us sat down in front of a small table, two cups of tea appeared. We were facing President Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. Seated on his right was Pt Nehru.

Almost before I took the first sip of my tea, the President asked me, “Since when have the Bhargavas been a martial race”. My reply was instant, “Since Parashuram, Sir”. Pt Nehru bursts out laughing but the President went quiet and never said another word to me. Fortunately for me Pt Nehru was gracious enough to ask how the Avro 748 was doing.

Obviously he had not forgotten the refusal. I explained that we had completed tests on it and the aircraft was fit for passengers. But we did lose the main passenger door the first time we pressurised the aircraft. By then the involved design fault had occurred on five aircraft around the world with an air hostess being sucked out as the aircraft was heading for Lima airport of Peru. I hoped that he realised the significance of IAF not risking its passengers.

It was time to leave, though we were kept back for a few minutes extra for two other awardees to join us. As we came out, the Naval officer escorting us told me, “Sir, you have upset the President”. I was horrified and asked him how. He said that my reply was that the Bhargavas were martial people since Parashuram. I said that I did not think that it was a rude or offensive reply. It was very much a part of our mythology. He explained that all that was well but the President was also a Bhargava. He never thought that he was from a martial race. I knew of him as a very gentle person.. He was a teacher, a philosopher and was devoutly religious. I had read most of his exposition of the Bhagwadgita. But it was a realisation too late.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to make amends.

Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava

Indian Air Force(Retd)

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