Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal

Padam Vibhushan, Padam Bhushan, DFC

16 Jul 1969 - 15 Jan 1973

Pratap Chandra Lal was born in on 06 December 1916, into a family of Allahabad-based lawyers. He had an early interest in aviation, and became the youngest Indian to earn his Amateur Pilot's license at age 17, in January 1934. Having qualified for a diploma in journalism at King's College, London in 1938, Lal expected to return to full-time study of law at the Inns of Court in the fall of 1939.

However, the outbreak of war in Europe precluded his return to England. As part of Britain's efforts to strengthen India's defence in such perilous times, the government decided to expand the Indian Air Force (then one squadron of Wapitis). Consequently, everyone in India with a pilot's license was invited to join. PC Lal arrived at the training establishment at RAF Station, Risalpur on 12 November 1939. An acute shortage of navigators in India (both RAF and IAF) led to Lal being recruited as a navigator, with the provision that he would later be trained as a pilot. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force in Karachi during May 1940. Three months later he was posted back to Risalpur as a navigation instructor. During his tenure there he instructed both RAF and IAF pilots. In January 1941 he was posted to No. 3 Coastal Defence Flight based at Calcutta. Two months later he was recalled as Navigation Instructor to No. 1 Flying Training School at Ambala.

It was during his tenure at Ambala, that Lal earned his 'wings' flying Audaxes and Hawker Harts. Early in 1943, Lal was posted as flying and navigational instructor to the Operational Training Unit at Peshawar where he oversaw the conversion of two RAF Squadrons and the IAF's No. 7 and No. 8 Squadrons to Vultee Vengeance dive bombers. In October 1945, PC Lal earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for undertaking hazardous recon flights deep into Japanese held territory.

In 1946, Sqn Ldr Lal received a permanent commission in the IAF. He was thereafter promoted to Wing Commander and sent to Calcutta to take charge of the Inter-Services Recruiting Office in August 1946. This stint lasted a mere five months, and in December that year he left to attend a senior commander's course in the UK. Upon his return, he was promoted to Group Captain and appointed in 1947 to the post of Director of Planning & Training. In 1948, he relinquished training responsibilities to Group Captain (later Marshal of the Air Force) Arjan Singh. In May 1949, Lal was sent to attend the RAF Staff College for a year. He returned to India in June 1950 and was shortly promoted to Air Commodore.

In November 1951, PC Lal led the Indian Air Force team that helped bring King Tribhuvan of Nepal to safety in the face of abortive palace coup. Between 1953 and 1955 PC Lal worked as the Military Secretary to the Cabinet. In October 1954, PC Lal went to Europe as the head of a team to evaluate new aircraft for the IAF. He became the first Indian to fly supersonic, in a Mystere IVA and to fly the Gnat. In 1957, PC Lal was deputed to the Ministry of Civil Aviation as General Manager of the Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC). During his six years there he oversaw its successful evolution as a corporate entity.

On 24 November 1963, he was posted as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Air Command. And on 01 October 1964, he moved to Air Headquarters as the Vice Chief of the Air Staff. He served in that capacity during the war in 1965. For his contributions during the war PC Lal was awarded the Padma Bhushan. At the end of the war he was appointed to head Training Command with the rank of Air Marshal. This was to be a short stint, and in late 1966, he was deputed to head Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, as Managing Director. During his three years at HAL, PC Lal was instrumental in overseeing the establishment of the production lines for HAL's new MiG-21 and Gnat fighters, and the HS-748 freighters. PC Lal took over as Chief of the Air Staff on16 July 1969.

Upon taking office, Lal was determined to ensure that the Indian Air Force contributes more decisively to the outcome of any future war. Early on during his tenure, PC Lal made it a point to visit various army units in order to understand their needs for air support. In the winter of 1971, PC Lal found himself leading the Air Force in a war against Pakistan. The Air Force was involved at every stage of this intense conflict which led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. 

In 1972, PC Lal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan for his leadership of the Air Force. He retired from the IAF, on 15 January 1973 as the IAF's most successful Chief and its most highly decorated officer. After his retirement from the Air Force PC Lal continued to serve in various advisory capacities to the Government of India. Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal passed away in 1982.

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