A 'crash survivor', VIP pilot

A 'crash survivor', VIP pilot

Independent India was in its crawling infancy. So was Indian aviation in 1951, as the British legacy refused to back out in a hurry. Small town Mangalore had never seen an aircraft at close quarters. But changing this with dramatic relish, a metallic bird in the sky descended on an untarred strip atop a hillock in Bajpe on December 25, 1951. Flying a Douglas DC-3 Dakota with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru onboard, Wing Commander Vonthibettu Prabhakar Hegde had just made history!

As hundreds watched in absolute awe, Wg Cdr Hegde neatly touched down on the strip, an apology for a runway with a length of 1,800 ft. On a pan-Indian election tour, Nehru stepped out, waved to the excited crowd, turned back and addressed his pilot. “Its very good landing here in very difficult terrain. I must congratulate you,” he told the young commander. Those words still remain fresh in the memory of Wg Cdr Hegde, now resting as a 86-year-old veteran of aviation history in his Bangalore nest.

His memory sharp, intellect shipshape, Wg Cdr Hegde recalls that remarkable landing with much pride. He was the first man to make that audacious landing on a strip where there was not one ground staff. “The strip was dug up just for my landing. It was a smooth landing at 150 ft from the edge. A mechanic in the plane helped after touchdown.”

Nehru’s chosen man

Hegde was Nehru’s chosen man, and for good reason: He had earned a formidable reputation already as an Indian Air Force pilot, having flown into challenging airfields in Jammu & Kashmir. Poonch and Kargil had been his playground against an enemy lurking close. “For me, the Bajpe strip was not at all difficult at that time,” recalls the veteran.
Hegde’s Nehru connection endured till the latter’s death. It appeared fitting that Wg Cdr Hegde piloted Nehru’s last flight from Bhubaneswar to New Delhi. Nehru died four months later.

World War II  flights

Joining the Royal Indian Air Force as a flight lieutenant in 1944, Hegde’s tryst with flying had a very British vintage edge. “I was part of the combat squadron in Burma against the Japanese,” reminisces the veteran. He was in command of his Spitfire aircraft, a deadly World War II machine. Soon, he ventured out higher, piloting the big fighters of his era: The Hurricane, the Mosquito, the Lancaster bomber and the Liberator. “I have flown 23 types of planes,” he says, wearing an aviator smile.

“Flying is risky,” Hegde is convinced after an IAF tenure lasting 24 years before voluntary retirement beckoned in 1968. But he chose to dive in, took on formidable challenges, survived air crashes and had no qualms about letting both his son, Harsh Hegde and grandson, Tanay Hegde emerge as civilian pilots.

Kashmir operations were always laced with danger. Flying close to the border, he  was aware of the lurking challenges. But one sortie left him precariously close to death. “I was flying a Dakota DC-3 down the Baniyal pass, close to the Peer Punjab pass. We were briefed that it was under our control.” Hegde soon realised that it was a  miscalculation, as the aircraft came under intense machine gunfire. The skilled aviator ducked and escaped with only six bullet hits. “One bullet was right under my seat.”

Life in the air was getting more exciting. Hegde would soon encounter the accident of his lifetime, which earned him the permanent tag of a “crash survivor.”

It was 1963, and Hegde was beside a test pilot, a Scotsman, flying a Scottish aircraft, the “Twin Pioneer.” Taking off from an airstrip in Jorhat, Assam, the aircraft’s engine was switched off to test its manoeuvrability. “But the plane couldn’t gain height. Engine restart failed. The aircraft eventually hit a hillock and exploded. The test pilot and two IAF pilots were killed,” recalls Hegde, who was thrown out of the plane, but landed miraculously without injury.

Decades later, living alone in his Bangalore home, Wg Cdr Hegde cherishes one defining moment in his illustrious career: Winning the Clarkson Trophy in Britain in 1949, beating 60 other pilots from the Commonwealth purely on the merit of his navigation skills. That trophy occupies the pride of place in his room, alongside the Vir Chakra bestowed for his exploits in Kashmir Valley 63 years ago! 

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