The late Biju Patnaik’s dare devilry as a pilot has been eulogised in all his biographies. These legendary exploits have given him a near mythic status. For his flying skills, Jawaharlal Nehru called him “India’s buccaneer.”
It is a pity that the person whom every Odia is proud of has been often misquoted and absolutely wrong references have been made of his aviator days. He has been variously described as a fighter pilot in many of the official biographies, a fact which is totally wrong. Biju babu never flew a fighter aircraft, he was a transport Pilot. As a transport pilot, he can be attributed to saving many more lives than he would have taken as a fighter pilot.
His evacuation of the Indonesian Premier Sukarna from the Dutch onslaught is also another story which is far from the truth. In fact, he had rescued Muhammad Hatta, the then Vice President and Premier Sutan Sjahrir. He has been credited to making the first landing at Srinagar on October 27, 1947. This too is absurd, Biju Babu was nowhere near Srinagar on that day and the first landing was done by Wing Commander Karori Lal Bhatia. Biju Patnaik did fly many supply sorties later on and ferried troops and arms which helped in reversing the tide against the tribal invaders. His Kalinga Airlines and the Dakotas he flew are another forgotten aspect of the glorious aspect of Indian aviation history.
His contribution as a contract pilot with the transport wing of the Royal Indian Air Force is commendable. Biju Babu has entered the Hall of Fame of Pilots for flying improvised aircraft in the “Hump” operations to the Chinese nationalists, the most difficult air operations in the World War II. One in every three planes of the supply missions crashed. In fact wreckages are still discovered every year in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. More than half the pilots who participated in these operations lost their lives. Biju Patnaik apparently did the runs with a death wish; he brazenly survived all the hazardous missions and was never shot down. I can say this with conviction, as I have been researching Biju Patnaik, the pilot since the last few years.
I had first met him as an awestruck cadet pilot at the Government Aviation Training Institute, formerly the Orissa Flying Club, at Bhubaneswar aerodrome in 1980. Biju Patnaik would often come to the hangar and regale us with his flying stories. I would even skip my flying sorties to hear him. I used to go to Naveen Niwas and spend time with him. I would timidly approach the gate of Naveen Niwas, and if Biju babu used be in the lawn, I would stand there until he took notice of my presence. With cautious temerity I would go nearer, most of the times he would shoo me away. At times he would grumble ‘sabu dinoi palai asuchi’, (he comes the every other day). His factotum would chase me away, many a time he would change his mind and call be back.
I recollect that he would be sitting on a wicker chair on a small grassy mound in his garden. His orderly would bring a telephone set with a long wire that extended to his house and place it on a small stool near him. I remember the umpteen times I sat at his feet, he would give me tea and biscuits and at times he would be reminiscent and told me many stories, but I am sure many more remain unsaid. Biju babu would read the newspapers and intermittently tell me some anecdote of his flying days that he remembered. If he found something interesting in the papers, he would ring up some party man and discuss the matter.
He told me many flying tales, most of which I still remember. The umpteen times he landed with the Dakota’s fuel gauge at zero was the lore of pilots of his days. Half a dozen times he had flown long distances with just one engine. Twice he had landed with a damaged undercarriage.
I remember one story that he had told me. Biju was in the cockpit, all revved up for takeoff, when he saw a grounds man gesticulating to him. He was pointing towards one of the engines and indicating that there was something leaking from it. To make a check, the engines would have to be stopped. Biju Patnaik indicated the grounds man to collect the liquid in his cupped hand and reach it to him in the cockpit. He told me that a leak could be any of the three, fuel, oil or water. The man collected the liquid, climbed a stool and passed the liquid to Biju Babu in the cockpit, who too took it in his cupped hand. And then he tasted it with his tongue. He did not tell me what he found the liquid to be, but he did tell me that he took off without any hitch.
The story of his Kalinga Airlines and the sixteen Dakotas he owned is the matter of a book that I am writing which I hope to finish in his birth centenary this year. Just tracing the journeys of his Dakotas makes such interesting history. Nearly all of them crashed in different parts of the world, some were scrapped, one crashed Dakota is kept at an memorial in Indonesia.
When a journalist had asked Biju babu on his 79th birthday, the sort of death he wished for, he had replied, ‘I would like to die in an air crash rather than from prolonged illness. I would like to die instantly, just fall down and die’.
By Anil Dhir