The Indian Air Force is one the most coveted if not the most envied armed forces wing of our nation. With their motto being ‘Touch the Sky with Glory’, the Indian Air force has never failed to deliver. The Indian Air Force (IAF), was formed on 8th October 1932 by the British as an auxiliary air force with just 4 Westland Wapiti aircrafts and 5 Indian pilots at the Drigh Road Airfield in Karachi, now in Pakistan.
With war approaching the sub-continent (Second World War) the Indian Air Force played a very important role in thwarting the Japanese advance into Asia. The air force, its pilots, officers, engineers and ground staff put in a monumentous effort in making the air force what it is today. They laid the foundation of a flamboyant, skillful but disciplined force whose legacy continues to grow with every passing day. From the dizzy heights of Siachen to the small atolls of Maldives deep in the Indian Ocean- the Indian Air Force has been deployed in some of the most challenging terrains in the world.
So, on this 8th October the foundation day of IAF, we at Coffee Bytes decided to ask a few questions to Retd. Air Marshal J.N. Burma, PVSM, AVSM, VSM and his experience in the air force and what message he wish to give to the younger generation about flying high and doing your duty for the country.
What motivated you to join the air force?
Well, that question takes me back to 1962 when the Chinese betrayed us and attacked India. The subsequent reverses and our valiant retaliation had galvanised the Nation and left a lasting impression on me like never before. The whole Nation was in a frenzy of patriotism and in the eye of that storm was an impressionable young lad of 10 years, me. (Gleams Air Marshal Burma). I observed first hand as my mother and her friends were busy collecting donations of knitting and warm clothes which could be donated to our troops locked in combat in the freezing heights of the Himalayas. Our house like many others across India was caught up in a flurry of activity and probably this event the Sino-China war of 1962 sowed the seeds of joining the armed forces as a career officer. I was studying here at Sainik School, Bhubaneswar at that time which acted as a catalyst and I donned my first uniform on 4th August 1963 and remained in uniform till 30th December,2017. The leadership of my first Principal Wg.Cdr. Zutshi and the visit of Late Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh who then was Chief of Air Staff gave me the goal of joining the Indian Air Force, these two men greatly contributed to the tradition of cadets from the Sainik School, Bhubaneswar joining the air force.
Can you tell us a little about your career and the challenges that you faced during your career?
A career in uniform amounts to a challenge every day of our lives. I have held prestigious appointments both as an Air Traffic Controller and Administrative Officer. I have been Senior Air Traffic Controller at three air force stations, Chief GCA Controller at two stations, commanded Transportable GCA Squadron, functioned as Joint Director Operations (Air Traffic Services) and Director Operations (Air Traffic Services) at our HQ. I have been posted at frontline bases like Pathankot and Tezpur apart from Yelahanka and Pune bases which form the backbone of our defense. Later on I took over as Command Non-Technical Training Officer at HQ Command IAF. Thereafter I was posted as Senior Officer-In-Charge Administration at HQ Eastern Air Command from April 2004 to May 2005. On 1st August 2006, I was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal and appointed as Air Officer in-charge of Administration. As Air Marshal I remained as Principal Staff Officer at Air Headquarters for a record period of six years. After retirement from the IAF, I served as an administrative member of the Principal Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal. Quite a CV isn’t it. (Laughs Air Marshal J.N.Burma)
We agree, I am sure, there is more to it, Sir. Odisha has given the Indian Air Force some very good pilots in the past. Do you think there should be more Odia youth in the Air Force?
Of course and without a doubt there should be more Odia lads in the air force. You are very right, see some of the finest pilots of the country have come from Odisha who have made a mark in the IAF. Let me share an example of the famous Sahu brothers, the elder Sahu died during the 71’ ops while trying to force-land a MIG-21 on the airfield in an attempt to save the lives of Delhites, it was never attempted before. His daring act saved many lives on that day but he died during that action. Despite the fact that he died in this operation it is the greatness of this State and his family that his mother let her second son become a fighter pilot who too perished in a crash. Apart from that we had Ghanshyam Mitra from right here in Bhubaneswar who studied at Sainik School, Bhubaneswar, who died while he was commanding an NCC Air Squadron when the glider gave way. There have been so many who have been awarded gallantry medals for exceptional service to the IAF and as I said earlier there should be more Odia lads who should join the air force. My deep lament is the fact that sadly very many aren’t coming forward and this is an area we must concentrate. I would like to point out one thing here- The Sainik Schools are places where young kids are turned into officers but sadly the impact of these schools in sending good officers to the forces is not living upto the expectations and policy makers must concentrate on bringing about a sea of change so that we are gifted with better officers who can contribute to the Armed Forces.
Do you think there is a disinterest amongst the Odia youth to join the Air force? How can we overcome this?
See, I think there is no disinterest as such. We need to make the youth aware of the Indian Air Force and the career prospects. See, the Air Force isn’t just about flying there is a plethora of things that one can learn and choose from the Indian Air Force. Youth of this state think that there is a lack of opportunity. Well, let me set things clear here, per se you want to join the Air Force so it’s a very simple procedure. Either you join the National Defense Academy or have a pilot’s license and join directly or through the Air Force Academy. The procedure isn’t that difficult there are a set amount of parameters and with the ease of the digital age that we are living in now the youth can access information about these things on their fingertips. The Indian Air Force is a place which is as diverse as any other wing of the Tri-Services in terms of employment especially for people inclined to adventure or what your generation calls as extreme sports.
Sir, my next question is a little about civil aviation and I am sure you could provide our readers a suitable answer to this.
Now, that the Jharsuguda airport has come up. Do you think Odisha has a huge potential in aviation in general keeping in mind the geography of Odisha and our strategic position to East Asia and the Malacca Strait?
See, coming up of a new airport- a civilian airport at Jharsuguda is definitely a step in the right direction. Spurt in civil aviation in this state is needed but I would like to point out one very important thing here that Odisha does not have full-fledged flying airbase. Surely, the youth would be motivated in other parts of the state since the Jharsuguda airport has come up and as far civil aviation is concerned it’s a matter of the government, its not a defense oriented question lad. But as far as aviation itself is concerned. Let me put it this way as far as a child is concerned there would not be a single child who would not have seen an aircraft in the sky or in pictures not thought to himself that ‘I would like to be a pilot someday.’ See, that is the spark that sets off a chain reaction. So the thrill of flying is there but the real thrill comes in operational flying, I mean flying fighters or transport aircrafts or helicopters. It requires a different kind of motivation and a different kind of personality. The pilot is someone who can sacrifice anything just to be in the cockpit, flying that machine up there in the sky. Back in our time we could apply only after matriculation but now a child can apply right after the 12th grade. So looking at our youth population if we could invest more into aviation at school level through projects, fairs etc than Odisha definitely can be a hub for aviation. Our state’s youth have the potential, I am sure of it.
How has the air force changed over the years?
Of course, the air force has changed from the time I have joined to the time I left. IAF has changed in its complexion and entirety. You must recollect that during the 62’ operations the air force was not used at all! It is unthinkable today, our air force was treated in 62’ as an tactical air force meaning to assist the ground forces. Though that process is history now. Look around the world today airpower and air superiority are deciding factors. You see, a decade later we have battle of Longewala where we picked off enemy tanks and decimated the Pakistani armour spearhead by decisive use of the air force and later even in the Kargil conflict where with modern precision missiles we could do severe damage to the enemy and dislodge them from points and peaks sucessfully. With capable aircrafts you can decisively tilt the fortunes of a war in your favour and with multi-role jets like SU-30 or the Rafale, no enemy is beyond reach they can perform ground attacks, have air superiority or even engage in strategic bombing runs, deep inside enemy territory.
Do you think women have a major role in the air force today?
Of course, women have a major role in the air force. See, women constitute 50 % of India’s population how can I, you or anyone ignore their role in society let alone in the air force. Women are at par with men and have proved themselves in every field and I am proud to say that ours’ is the first service to have commissioned the women in the Air Force and now they are flying fighters, I would also like to add here that we have had women Air Marshal too in the force. See lad, we have reached a stage where we need to understand that man or woman, we are all humans and all of them make damn good warriors. We are a young nation and of that 50% are women and we are proud that they are serving with us.
How can the Indian Air Force play a major role in regional security (South East Asia) and should Odisha be a part of that role?
See, this is a question which has to be addressed at the highest level. Threat assessment is carried out as you must be aware at very high level and all the three services sit together, NSA other intelligence agencies, the Chiefs to name a few all sit together apart from stakeholders in the government to make a policy or rather a doctrine on how to defend our nation. Directives come from the top but I would point out that as far as the ground realities are concerned there is no doubt that a nation needs to be defended and from all quarters. Today, looking at the operational readiness and capability in the kind of hostile environment we are living in not to mention the attitude of China and of course with Pakistan with whom we are perennially locked horns with along the fact that you can never say in future who will turn against you and from where threat can arise. Threats are there from all sides. See, its no more safe like in the good old days when we grew learning that on one side we have Himalayas and on the other we have the expanse of the Thar desert and especially in the East we have the Bay of Bengal, we are well protected coupled with the fact of Aircraft operational radius was limited but since the Second World War all of that is history. With air to air refueling, aircrafts of higher caliber and the emergence of multi-role fighters, no boundary of a nation is safe unless you defend it. Primarily with the Eastern sector there is a gap which needs to be filled in and in my personal opinion I strongly believe that a full fledged airbase is necessary in Odisha. Our state is strategically located, has enough resources and has huge coastline so having an air base in the state is a win-win situation. Secondly the state has a huge airspace available which can be used for training our pilots and operation crews. Odisha unlike other states where civil and armed forces jostle for airspace our airspace has sparse civilian traffic making it an ideal location for training flights. With such an airbase, if made in Odisha it would be a great motivation to youngsters. Watching fighters taking off or landing would motivate youngsters to join the IAF. The base would act as a motivation for youth in the state and act as a symbol of confidence in modern Odisha.
What lies in store for the future with regards to the IAF?
We are an extremely potent force as you may have read in the newspapers whenever we are pitted against any other force we have come out with flying colours. Our Garuda commandos just to cite an example have won accolades in military exercises all over the world. I must tell this that during my tenure, Garuda commandos had won this military exercise against commandos of the United States and our Chief asked this 20 odd something lad “So you went to the states so what is your opinion about their forces? What is lacking?” This fellow our air warrior barely in his 20’s replied “Saab hum mein koi kammi nahi hai. Bas unka weapon de do mujhe.” He made it quite clear that day to us that we are a potent force and yes, we do need the top of the shelf weaponry, that’s just it. The nation must give our warriors the latest weapons and should not ever compromise with equipment. We must give these boys the best, we need allocation of resources for our upgradation and modernisation.
And with that said, our interview ends with a courteous exchange of pleasantries and giving us a real peek into our Air Force through the eyes of Air Marshal J.N. Burma whose illustrious career proves that if we have the grit in us then we can surely soar high and the time has come for our state to be equipped with an airbase so that it can act as a catalyst to regional security and the nations security against threats, where ever they arise.