A woman becomes a mother when she has a child to call her own. The mother thereafter, takes pride in every achievement of the child, big or small, throughout life. Her children forever remain special to her. A flying instructor is almost comparable to a mother, in this aspect. A pilot in the Air Force becomes an instructor when he has his pupils. A true-blue instructor will always take pride in each of his pupil’s achievements. When the fraternity compliments his pupils, the instructor’s heart swells with pride and he makes it a point to tell the world, “He was my student.”
This bond is even stronger when taking pupils at a foundation stage into consideration. These cadets who join the Air Force Academy have no clue about flying, however they have only one dream— to become pilots.
The flying instructor is their coach, their trainer, their mentor— their everything. Even for the instructor, their pupils are everything. The basic stage is when the cadets learn the fundamentals of flying. The pupils learn to fly the aircraft solo, and when the pupil goes solo, the instructor is as excited as the pupil. Both of them are working towards fulfilling the dream of wearing those wings; the journey challenging, difficult, and at times frustrating. The instructor and pupil share a special bond because each of them is completely transparent in front of the other. The instructor can see the pupil’s anxiety, vulnerability and confidence levels soaring and dipping as the stage progresses. The pupil can also observe the mood swings and other idiosyncrasies of the instructor; the pupil expected to remain tight-lipped.
From June to December 2002, Vikas Upadhay was my pupil in Air Force Academy. Before the pupils were to join AFA, the Flight Commander would allot three pupils to each instructor. I was sitting with the Flight Commander, A.K. Verma, and I just happened to take a look at the list with the details of all the pupils allotted to our squadron. I told A.K. Verma that I wanted to fly with Arpit Kala and Pritam Santra. I’d found their surnames to be different and interesting amongst the list. A.K. Verma, being the noble soul that he is, agreed to my unique reasoning. He thereafter told me to take on Vikas Upadhay as my third pupil. This time his logic was, you must also have a guy with a typical north Indian surname!
Upadhay— nicknamed Upi— was a quiet, sincere and hardworking cadet. He wasn’t the hottest guy when it came to flying skills, but his attitude towards everything was just out of the world. He was a bit low on confidence and struggled to cope in the initial days. He was extremely upset when he failed his first solo check and insisted that I fly him his extension. The rules did not permit this, hence he flew two sorties with some other instructor. Upi was visibly disturbed in those two days.
After the sole hitch in his basic stage, he became more and more comfortable with the machine. In the first few days, as an instructor full of energy, I spent most of the time shouting in the cockpit, pushing him to perform better. As he had failed in his solo check sortie and had received a warning, I realised he needed to be treated differently. He was an emotional young boy who took most things very seriously. As it is, his confidence was not very high, and I realised that me pushing him to perform was becoming counterproductive.
I decided to adapt a different strategy for Upi and started separate debrief sessions for him. Kala, Santra and Upi used to come for debrief together and once I was through with Kala and Santra, Upi would sit alone for his debrief. He required encouragement and was sensitive to being given feedback in front of his co-pupils.
Flying training takes a toll on pupils and some of them start to nurture some idiosyncrasies themselves. The weather, aircraft, sector and many other variables constantly affect one’s performance. One tends to get unnecessarily superstitious. Some wear the same overalls for the first sortie and solo check. Some try to manage the same aircraft. As I got to spend time with Upi, I realised that below the transparent map case, he was carrying an inland letter.
Whatever phase of training, I always saw that he carried it, tucked nicely under the map for no one else to see. Half way through the stage, I casually enquired in passing about the letter. Upi mentioned that it was from his family. We never discussed anything further than that. As the time for passing out came closer, I insisted that Upi join helicopters. I knew he needed a multi-crew environment. I also knew that with his remarkable attitude, he would soon be the workhorse in helicopters.
He wanted to join the fighters and in his polite way tried to reason out with me. Once I spent a few hours explaining the issue at hand to him, he took the decision in his stride. I believe he had immense faith in me and trusted me completely. We said our goodbyes and wished each other luck in December 2002, and thereafter I was generally aware of his progress in his professional and personal lives.
Many years later in a station in the north, I was Flight Commander of a unit and Upi was the work horse of another unit. My assessment of Upi’s professional acumen and other environmental factors was bang on. He was a young Squadron Leader; the work horse of the unit; having the best attitude in the unit. He was always there for his juniors, taking up their problems as his own. He was also a force multiplier for his Flight Commander and Commanding Officer. Every time anyone would praise Upi, I would butt in the conversation and claim him to be my basic stage pupil.
On the personal front, he was a married man with a daughter. His wife, Tejaswini, was a lady officer in the technical branch and was Senior Technical Officer in my unit. Both of them were doing great professionally as well as a family. Even in that tenure, Upi displayed the greatest respect for me. I knew he had matured into a fine professional, having his professional opinions on most matters. Whenever we discussed some of the professional matters, Upi used to be cautious of what he was saying. I don’t think it was due to under-confidence; it was just how Upi was— gentle and respectful. I left the station and thereafter was always proud to hear of his professional progress.
Today, on October 6, 2017, I came to know that there was a helicopter crash near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The helicopter was on a routine air maintenance sortie near the Indo-China border and it crashed, fatally injuring all six occupants. Every time I hear of an Air Force aeroplane/helicopter crash, my heart skips a beat. I know it is someone from my fraternity who has laid down his life while serving the motherland. News of this crash made me more nervous and my heart skipped several beats.
Today, as I am forced to digest the news that Wing Commander Vikas Upadhay was the Captain of this helicopter, I am reminded of every moment that I spent with the great guy. I can see every debrief in front of my eyes; I see his attitude full of helpfulness, commitment and concern for the unit. I remember telling his Flight Commander, “I am envious of you, because you got a gem with you in your unit.” I see Upi’s face, quiet and composed.
I know he is already in heaven, and to the guys out there I just want to say, “A great soldier joins you today. His attitude will spread joy and happiness. A new workhorse has arrived.” Good bye and good luck Upi; you will remain a special pupil, always.
Author : Nitin Welde
Air Force Veteran. Gallantry Award from President of India. Leadership Coach. Motivation and Facilitation expert. TedEx Speaker. Siachen Pioneer. Proud Soldier