I Looked down at the register and tried to comprehend what I was being asked to sign for. The cover of the register declared the document to be ‘Cartridges 12 Bore’ / ‘Issues Register’ . Apart from the first column which declared the serial number of the entry, the other columns designated the name of the person issued to, the number of cartridges authorized, the number of cartridges issued, the date of issue and a column for the recipients’ signature. The names column was pre filled with the names of many instructors. The columns for cartridges authorised and issued were filled with the number 100. There was a column for ‘Authority’. Along the top row of that column a reference to an entry in the Station Routine Orders, which declared a session of clay pigeon shooting at the small arms range, was quoted. At every other row in that column, a ditto had been inserted. The register was thus complete barring the signatures of a few instructors.
For the sake of my readers who are wondering why an instructor in the Flying College should suddenly be needed to shoot at ‘clay pigeons’, let me explain the background of this process. During the early days of the first world war, when airplanes were first used for warlike activities, it was found that it was nearly impossible for a pilot to fly an aircraft safely and also wield a gun to shoot at someone else at the same time. So, for some time the airplane designers attempted to put an additional crew member in an aircraft as a ‘gunner’. The results were not very encouraging. Then German designers experimented with the concept of fixing a gun to the body of an aircraft and allow the pilot to fire that gun while pointing the whole aircraft at the target. The possibility of the bullets hitting the aircrafts’ own propeller was overcome by clever adjustment of the rate of fire where the bullets passed through the gap between two blades of the propeller without hitting the blade. This ‘fixed gun’ design was better than the older ‘free gun’ system. How ever, the probability of hitting another flying aircraft from a fixed gunned aircraft was still rather low.
Even when the second world war began, the theory and techniques of shooting at a moving aircraft in the air from another moving aircraft had not progressed much. A metallic ring and bead fixed in front of the pilot was all the help the designers could provide. When British scientists came up with the idea of a reflector sight, where a ring and a bead was painted on the sky through a reflector glass, it was hailed as a path breaking innovation. However, with a ring and bead sight, the pilot had to estimate where to aim his bullets so that the target aircraft flew there to meet the bullet as it arrived. Learning to do this ‘laying off’ to aim needed a lot of practice. Some one in the Royal Air Force thought that if a fighter pilot did a lot of duck shooting when the ducks were flying, his ability to estimate the Laying Off will increase. So, the fighter pilots were authorised a certain number of cartridges to practice duck shooting. Since ducks are not found every where and in all seasons, a technique was developed to throw a ceramic plate high up in the air to represent a flying bird to be shot down. The sport of clay pigeon shooting became a part of the fighter pilots training in the RAF, and it was imitated in the IAF.
In course of time, technology progressed. Gyro stabilized predictor gunsights (GGS) came about, Ring and Bead sights and estimation of lay off distances became a thing of the past. In 1955, where my story is situated, firing with ring and bead sight was still practiced, but only because the PAI (Pilot Attack Instructor) blokes wanted to force it down the gullets of joe pilots. No one seriously wanted to use the ring and bead sight in preference to the GGS (Gyro Gun Sight) even though both were available in the Vampires and the Toofani. The need for practicing clay pigeon shooting had disappeared. No one had however informed the government about this development of technology and change in preferred tactics. The bean counting babus continued to supply each fighter pilot with 100 ‘cartridges 12 bore’ every year innocently.
Trying to shoot at an object flying in the sky is a challenge that I was willing and eager to try. I was however faced with a peculiar dilemma at that moment. I had been trained not to verify a false statement. Since the indicated date of clay pigeon shooting had already gone by without my taking part in it, certifying that one hundred cartridges were issued to me (and by implication having thus consumed them) was in my view a statement I could not sign. I left the register unsigned. Somewhere in my subconscious mind, my ethics was readying itself for a jostle.
A day or two later my Chief Flying Instructor sent for me. I was required to see the Commandant, the CFI informed me. I got out of my flying suit, put on my normal khaki uniform and presented myself at the Academy HQ. The adjutant ushered me in to the Commandant’s room and withdrew. The Boss Man motioned me into a chair in front of him. I sat down.
The Commandant was an old timer. His Service Number indicated that he was amongst first three hundred or so officers to have joined the Air Force. A soft spoken person who was a gentleman to the core. ‘was there a problem a few days ago about not signing a register?’. His question was soft and gentle. I knew immediately why I had been summoned. I had anticipated such a happening and was not perturbed. I explained my problem with not being able to affix my signature to an incorrect declaration. I was soft in my reply but was deliberately not apologetic in my tone.
The Commandant looked at me in silence for a few moments while the fingertips of his hands drummed on each other. After a while, he spoke to me. Every thing that happens in the Air Force is not out of a book of rules. We have traditions and protocols that are handed down and followed in our daily life that are nor written down in our rule books. Live Bird Shooting on the Airfield is one such tradition that many of us follow. For fighter pilots, learning to shoot a bird in flight is a part of his professional training. You are therefore authorized to use service issued ammunition and gun to practice shooting live birds or clay pigeons. Some of us who are not covered under the live bird shooting authority however happen to be fond of live bird shooting as a sport. A tradition has grown over the years where senior officers who are fond of the sport of live bird shooting are indulged by the organization. They are allowed to shoot birds within the airfield area with cartridges and guns belonging to the service. Some cartridges are therefore saved during normal firing practice for this indulgence.
There was an akward silence between us for a few minutes after the old man completed his monologue. I understood that within our day to day existence there were some grey areas where the rule book and the reality of life were in a sort of conflict. I understood why I was being asked to sign for cartridges that I had not actually used. At the same time I remained uncomfortable with the idea of signing an incorrect statement. I looked back at my boss with this confused dilemma writ large on my face.
After a few moments, the old man nodded gently. Very softly he said that he understood my point of view. I was not required to sign for the ammo. I could go back to the armory and enter a ‘CANCELLED’ annotation in the register against my name. I was relieved and grateful to the boss for his understanding.
I did not discuss my visit to the Commandants’ office with any one. However, it seemed to me that the matter had become common knowledge.
No one ever asked me for an inaccurate certificate to be signed again. I was happy that in this jostle ethics had won.
PS: This is a very old tale. Some time after this incident, the practice of clay pigeon shooting for fighter pilots was discontinued and the authority for issue of cartridges for this purpose was withdrawn.