Few names from the history of the Indian Air Force evoke such awe and inspiration as that of Air Commodore ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO. Commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 01 August 1936 at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, U.K., Mehar Singh was posted to the sole Squadron in the Royal Indian Air Force — No.1 Squadron then based in the North West Frontier. He went into action immediately against the frontier tribesmen, and quickly made a name for himself, surviving a forced landing on one occasion, and flying a hundred hours in a single month on another!
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Mehar Singh, then a Squadron Leader, raised No. 6 Squadron at Trichinopoly on 01 December 1942. The squadron was formed with the merger of the Coastal Defence Flights and equipped with Hawker Hurricanes in the reconnaissance role. The unit flew its first operational sortie in November 1943 as part of the Second Arakan Campaign, and under Mehar Singh's leadership, earned the sobriquet ‘Eyes of the Fourteenth Army’ (the 14th Army was the British Army in Burma commanded by Lt Gen William Slim).
No. 6 Squadron’s Hurricanes, flying in the approved tactical recce pairing of Leader and Weaver, became a popular sight with the forward troops, who used to call them different names ranging from the ‘Arakan Twins’ to the ‘Maungdaw Twins.’ The squadron’s achievements were recounted in Slim’s personal narrative of the Burma Campaign — “I was particularly impressed with the conduct of the squadron led by a young Sikh Squadron Leader… they were a happy and an efficient unit.” At the end of the Squadron’s tour, Mehar Singh was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the only such award to an Indian Air Force officer ever.
The call of duty beckoned again in 1947, after Independence, during the invasion of Kashmir. Mehar Singh, now an Air Commodore, was AOC No.1 Operational Group and in charge of command and control of air operations in India. As was typical, he led from the front, flying many of the pioneering and daunting missions himself. He never risked his men for tasks that he would not carry out himself first.
One of the first assignments on Mehar Singh's task list was the relief of Poonch, which at the time was an isolated garrison, cut off from motorable roads due to enemy incursions. Mehar Singh personally flew a Harvard aircraft into the newly constructed airstrip at Poonch, before repeating the feat the very next day, this time flying a Dakota transport. Soon after, Dakotas started bringing in supplies, evacuating causalities, and later flying down the mountain howitzers of the Hazara Mountain Battery for the defence of Poonch. Mehar Singh also undertook the conversion of Dakotas into bombers. The Dakotas were modified to carry 500-pound bombs in their cargo bay and the cargo handlers were trained to roll out the bombs out of the door onto targets below.
Mehar Singh's flight to Leh in Ladakh has been well chiseled into the annals of Indian Air Force's legend. When the remote district of Ladakh was in a danger of being cut off and overrun by a Pakistani force from Skardu along the Shyok Valley, a decision was taken to fly troops by air to Leh, which had an airfield at an altitude of 11,540 feet. Flying an uncharted route, over hills and peaks ranging from 15,000 feet to 24,000 feet, Mehar Singh flew the first Dakota to Leh, landing at the highest airstrip in the world on 24 May 1948. He was accompanied on this pioneering flight by none other than the commander of land forces in the Srinagar Valley sector, Major General KS Thimmayya, DSO.
Mere months after the Leh landings, however, Mehar Singh decided to resign his commission. Defence Minister Sardar Baldev Singh relieved Air Cmde Mehar Singh in September 1948, but his association with the IAF was not quite at an end. In 1950, when the Republic of India instituted gallantry awards, he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), becoming the first recipient of the award from the Indian Air Force.
On 16 March 1952, Indian aviation suffered the most tragic loss, when Mehar Singh was caught in severe weather outside Delhi while flying a Beech Bonanza. The crash claimed his life just four days short of his 37th birthday.
[Adapted from Bharat Rakshak/Jagan Pilarisetti]