Soaring Through The Tranquility Of Aviation : AVM Subhanka S Lahiri

Soaring Through The Tranquility Of Aviation : AVM Subhanka S Lahiri

My contributions are minuscule compared to what many others have made. There was no inferior way I could have executed my duties, so how can that be an achievement?

Such is the humbleness, integrity and genuine simplicity of the distinguished alumnus Air Vice Marshal Subhanka Sekhar Lahiri, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM), Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM), that left us flabbergasted. A graduate of the Department of Electrical Engineering, class of 1967, his passion and diligence paved the way for his service life in the Indian Air Force (IAF) in its Aeronautical Engineering branch. Joining in the IAF as a Commissioned Officer in April 1968 he went up to the rank of Air Vice-Marshal and held various prestigious military assignments, appointments in the process. He is a recipient of Presidential Award of VSM (Vishisht Seva Medal), and AVSM (Ati Vishisht Seva Medal), as a recognition of his distinguished service. He played an integral role in driving the design and development of the safety standards of aircraft operation through the design of a few Pilot Fatigue Monitor and Aviation Safety Management System-related software.

Monday morning is pleased to bring to our readers the journey of this exemplary personage.

[A few terms which might be unfamiliar to our readers are explained wherever necessary. Anecdotes from his career are mentioned in quotes.]


MM: Walk us through your childhood and schooling days. How was life before joining NIT Rourkela (erstwhile REC)?

SSL: I hail from Baripada, Odisha, so most of my childhood and schooling days revolve around that place. I did my matriculation from M.K.C. High School, Baripada and completed my intermediate studies from M.P.C. College, Baripada. I was an average student during my high school days. I used to play a lot of cricket back then.



MM: How did NIT Rourkela happen to you? Was Electrical Engineering the domain that you always wanted to pursue?

SSL: NIT Rourkela happened quite accidentally. I was selected for BHU (now IIT) Varanasi, but my sister's marriage date was clashing with its admission and departure dates. Hence, my family members couldn't permit me to leave that place and not attend the marriage.

Those days you didn't have the cut-throat competition you see now. There were other options to explore, and NIT Rourkela was just at the horizon that time, with promising opportunities. So when it crossed my paths, I didn't think of joining NDA. From the beginning, I had a clear idea of going for engineering, and hence, I joined NIT Rourkela.

I wanted to study electronics, but it was at an early stage those days and not very prominent. Even, NIT Rourkela didn't have Electronics but only Civil, Mechanical and Electrical. I came across Mainframe computers in 1969 or so in the IAF. Ultimately the closest approximation was electrical, and that was my automatic choice. Judging my decision now, I would say that I have no regrets to have made it. I believe strongly in the philosophy that " Never regret what has happened to you since nothing could have happened better."

MM: Tell us about some of your fondest memories at NIT Rourkela that you cherish forever.

SSL: The best thing that I cherish of my college days is my providence to have come across some outstanding professors. I am not talking about the NIT of today but about 'Regional Engineering College, Rourkela' which was then in its infancy and had just started to inch forward. Mine was the third batch of REC. So it was a crucible stage for the institute, coming up in terms of hostels, lab facilities, and faculty residences.

The memories of all these happenings are vivid, but I will never forget the acquaintance with the three personalities that NIT Rourkela provided me. The first being our very own principal, Prof. Bhubaneswar Behera, who has etched deep impressions in me. The second personality was Prof. Dasgupta (Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering) who had come from Wisconsin University in the US. He can be described as an uncompromising personality with knowledge, integrity and punctuality embedded in him. And I fondly remember my saint-like Professor of Advanced Mathematics, Prof. Mishra.

Describing these professors as outstanding would be an understatement. These were the Gurus who have had a significant impact on college life. I don't remember much of what I studied during my college life. Education, after all, is what is left after you have forgotten what you had learnt.

MM: What are the skills you learnt and interests you developed during your four years of stay at NIT Rourkela? How did NIT Rourkela help you realise your vision?

SSL: Professional and some of the organisational skills could be best picked up under the circumstances and the pressure in which we operated. Of course, there are many other skills like management, leadership, team-building skills, and analytical skills that get developed subsequently because of the initial impetus.

Germination of these qualities takes place in the fields provided only by such an institute. Alongside this, I developed a good interest in studying books during my time at NIT Rourkela. The bug for reading was instilled in me by my father, but that took to wings only when I was in NIT Rourkela. Fortunately, that has remained embedded in me, and even today, I actively pursue studies in different fields of interest. Today besides advanced technology and management studies, I primarily study subjects related to Philosophy. I have developed a keen interest in learning and spreading the knowledge of Sanskrit.


MM: You joined the Indian Air Force as an Aeronautical Engineer and got commissioned in 1968. What was the motivation behind joining IAF?

[IAF has three branches: Flying, Technical (Aeronautical Engineering in Electronics and Mechanical branch), and Ground Duty Non-Tech.]

SSL: I joined the Indian Air Force after a short stint of about one year in the corporate industry. The primary reason for joining IAF was because I was quite impressed by the sense of dedication and a purpose that one can see in people from the Indian Armed Forces. One could observe the difference in consciousness level between the people from the defence forces and others.  

I got the exposure about IAF because of proximity to a  friend of mine. Another one of the close friends, who was in the SCB Medical College at that time, had a defence background. He also was quite an aggressive pusher to kindle my interest in it. After that, I joined the armed forces and never looked back.

MM: Throw some light on your training days in the Air Force Academy (AFA) and Air Force Technical College (AFTC).

[ Today, AFA is the place where cadets selected for IAF are trained for one term. Cadets from technical branches are then taken to AFTC for further training.]

SSL:  These days training was first done in Air Force Academy, where we were given Basic Military Training and basic knowledge on all the branches of IAF.  However, in our time we join the  Air Force Technical College Bangalore directly. AFTC, though the main one, is only one of its type to train personnel in  Aviation, Communication, Radar, Electrical, and Armament technology and associated fields. The specialisation is imparted in four branches at AFTC. Students from friendly foreign countries also join here. Along with the technical teaching about aircraft, they also imparted military ethos to fresh engineering graduates. One is groomed into an officer and a gentleman.

The officer cadets were given rigorous training in aircraft systems, radars, communication devices, weapon systems, and other technical particulars of IAF. It gave us both theoretical and practical hands-on experience. We were also made to visit electronics labs and specialised R&D establishments, aviation, electronic industries and front line fields. Some luminaries and senior officers used to deliver talks.   The training was tough, but our passion and interest drove us through it. We had to follow a rigorous schedule and several other rules. Every task had a fixed time duration within which it had to be completed, and one ought to follow that. Overall it was excellent learning for me.



MM: As a Wing Commander posted in a flying unit, your innovative skills and leadership qualities had brought you the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) in the year 1983. What were the major tasks executed under your leadership?

[Vishisht Seva Medal is a decoration of the Indian Armed Forces awarded to recognise distinguished service of a high order, awarded by the President of India.]

SSL: One does not get an award for only one job well done, but maybe one job stands out. I was posted in one of the units in the eastern part of India. I was given the position of a senior engineer to manage the servicing of the  MiG-27 and MiG-21 Type-77 aircraft that we had in our unit in those days. We were a team, and we did all our work together. My team produced some outstanding results, which saved a lot of foreign exchange. I was just a figurehead on the top, instructing them to execute tasks in specific ways.

It was in two different locations, around 200 kms apart, in the eastern sector. Two aircraft had met with separate isolated accidents. The damaged aircraft was left there because they were declared as unusable. I happened to know about it and surveyed these two aircraft, and I realised that the front portion (fuselage) of one aircraft and the rear portion of the other aircraft could perhaps be utilised and formed into one airworthy aircraft. I believed that their functional parts can be integrated. Somehow I got them carted back to our base so that they could be studied in depth for the non-standards of modification and manufacture of these old Russian aircraft had to be closely studied. After the extensive restoration, repair and changes that we made, the aircraft had to be tested and certified by different agencies. These were done. All the boys did a wonderful job, working day and late into the night. I still remember it was within 54 days that the aircraft was fit for flying again and subsequently took part in various exercises.

MM: You were appointed as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of 5 Base Repair Depot (BRD), Sulur. How did you feel to be given this great an appointment? Brief us through some of your major contributions.

[Air Officer Commanding is a title given to Air Force officers who hold an appointment to command Wings, Base Repair Depots, Equipment Depots and Air Bases.]

SSL:  Role of an AOC is challenging. In the IAF, these kinds of appointments don’t mean the same as being an MD/CMD/Director of a company wherein the responsibilities are significantly less, and you aren’t responsible for the men placed under you. In the Indian Armed Forces, when you are given an appointment like that of an AOC, it is your responsibility to take care of the men under you, what facilities they and their family are getting, rather than only extracting work out of them. Their health and mental welfare, medical facilities, entertainment, housing, children's education, everything else is the Officer-in-Charge's responsibility of that particular division, section and base and following hierarchy. You have to look after the welfare of everyone you command, and this is very important; for you can’t expect someone to put his full dedication in the work if he is facing some personal difficulties. A small mistake and negligence from a senior officer can lead to loss of a pilot’s life, and an aircraft which costs a lot. You can’t take that kind of risk, and these boys keep the aircraft flightworthy. Overall you get a job with a lot of administration besides your primary engineering job of delivering properly tested products.

One of my major contributions was the completion of a challenge of annual calibration of Test Equipment used and operated in airbases at different corners of India and their repair. IAF has got Air Force Stations all over India and they had a large number of electronic test equipment for testing the on-board ones. There was a range of aircraft sorted according to their age. We couldn’t simply reject an aircraft because it was old, as it is impossible to keep on buying new ones considering the economy of India. In those days, the new aircraft was Mirage-2000, IL 76 and  Su-MK30I, and of course, the older generations continued. As a result, the level of technology was quite high in one end whereas it was old on the other end. The test equipment is always a generation ahead of the test equipment they were meant to test.   So, the test equipment had to be calibrated, prepared, certified and given for use, to match the wide range of aircraft that we had. No agency in India was ready to undertake this job because all the calibrations of test equipment had a validity of one year only. In the end, IAF had to take up this job to make this possible.  IAF built two labs which were EMI-EMC (Electromagnetic Interference and Compatibility) protected and these huge carriages (each of the size of a bus) were carried by aircraft from one base to another, where these two were energised and operates for 15 days before it is relocated at the next nodal point. All AFS within a  certain radius used to bring their test equipment to the centre which we calibrated and certified.  While all this happened, the boys had to stay away from their families for months and there was a plethora of problems with families and their children that my officers needed to address. Indigenisation of these foreign test equipment was another task that had to be done simultaneously which can save millions of dollars. All these were the challenges that we could  undertake and complete.

college team

MM: Your distinguished service of an exceptional order had brought you the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) in the year 2003. Please shed some light on the efforts and contributions that went into it.

[Ati Vishisht Seva Medal is a decoration of the Indian Armed Forces awarded to recognise distinguished service of an exceptional order, awarded by the President of India. It is higher in precedence to VSM. ]

SSL:  The work and contribution as an AOC have brought this award. In my case, this test equipment work mentioned earlier was a high point; it involved a lot of computerisation, communication and coordination. My boys worked till very late into the night almost daily. They were responsible for making it a success because it was a challenge beyond belief.

We also did set up Dornier (German origin) aircraft overhaul lines as well. That was also a very well recognised effort from our side. IAF could not keep aircraft on the ground for that long a period, and something had to be done to increase utilisation rate. Our officers and men did an excellent job in a brief period in setting up the overhaul line and stocking up needed spares. The efforts were well appreciated, and other government agencies like the Indian Coast Guard and Indian Navy wanted to utilise our facilities.  

MM: How do you see your time in ASTE?

[ ASTE, Aircraft and System Testing Establishment Bangalore is only of its kind in Asia]

SSL: Before being posted at Sulur, between 1983 -88, I was in ASTE. I happened to be in an Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) which validates the weapons, aircraft, everything after which it is inducted into IAF for usage. The establishment is the only one of this kind in Asia. I was very fortunate to have been there. We got exposed to extensive ranges of aircraft under one roof and the various types of technology that different countries adopt. It was a period of intense learning under most able personalities.

MM: You were also an alumnus of Defense Services Staff College (DSSC). How did the training there help you improve upon your capabilities?

[DSSC is a tri-service institution of the Ministry of Defense, India, which trains officers for command and staff appointments.]

SSL: It is a prestigious course which everyone from the Armed Forces aspires to undergo. They teach a lot of things over there which is extremely beneficial and essential in higher positions. Students from all the friendly countries like Germany, America, England, come to take the course. From India, Indian Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel get into the college. We learn how to write a complex staff paper and other essential things like how you plan and execute a complex operation where the risks are unknown yet lurking, as in a war. It was a rich learning experience for me.


Cricket match

MM: In your three-decade-long journey and association with IAF, did you ever think of changing paths? Was there any pressure to handle the responsibilities of such esteem?

SSL: I never thought of changing my paths after joining IAF. Satisfaction is a very subjective term, and you need to find out what satisfies you better.  

In my tenure in IAF, the pressure was always there, but the attitude “Never say die” was also there.

It is something which you can’t escape when you are a part of the Armed Forces. Nowhere else you will find this amount and such kind of pressure, where you not only have the responsibility to produce results, but you have to look after all the plans, your men, their welfare, etc. The pressure that we carry is not a typical 9-5 job kind of stress; it exists 24*7.

MM: Serving in the IAF, is there any particular moment or memory that stands out for you? What was the biggest challenge you ever faced?

SSL:  I don't remember any particular anecdote right now, there are so many to have an account of each! If I start now, your next slot of 40 minutes might pass (laughs).

Speaking of challenges, there were technical, management, decisions making and leadership challenges. I wouldn’t like to mention any of the challenges I had faced because they are not at all comparable to the bigger ones that others might have encountered.


MM: In your opinion, do the students at NIT Rourkela get enough guidance and exposure to aspire to serve in the Indian Armed Forces?

SSL: I don’t have much idea about it as what is being done these days. However, they should be given more exposure. You need two hands to clap. The institution must invite and, the members of the Air Force, Army and Navy must oblige. They must send representatives to colleges so that the students can know about its functioning.

Today’s (24.01.2021) newspaper stated about a woman flight lieutenant who'll be part of IAF tableaux and another who'll lead the flypast the Republic Day Parade 2021! Can you imagine, up to what height today’s women have reached? It’s a proud moment for us, Indians. One of the many reasons for doing these things is to influence children and young ladies' minds that they can do this as well.

I happen to be a Director of newly established Sainik School in Mathura. I have been trying to tell them that we must inculcate the value system in our students. All our conducts must be value-based.  

MM: You have contributed to the development of the Aviation safety management system, which is being used by the Business aviation operators in India. Comment on the improvements in the safety standards that the aviation sector has witnessed.

SSL: Safety in the aviation sector is a crucial subject. I must not say that I have contributed much to safety. That would be claiming something that cannot be claimed. In a small way, we developed software, and I was driving the development and design which was made to monitor the fatigue level of the people engaged in flying such as Fixed-wing pilots, Air hostesses, helicopter pilots etc. For this purpose, there are some international organisations, with two leaders primarily, one  ISBAO based in Montreal, Canada and another at MITRE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Research Establishment) funded directly from the government. They do a lot of research and develop various gadgets and software. Today, the devices you use for travelling from one place to another have developed in due course of 20 to 30 years as they go through many simulations, modelling, trial and development. Thus, these two institutes test your calibre and levels and then authorise you to operation, test and develop software. I underwent these training, cleared them and then was entitled to access certain things such as inspection of an organisation and do a gap analysis. I did this in India as well as outside. 

We developed the software to monitor the fatigue level of the pilot, helicopter pilot and the air hostesses. They kept on working and sleep accumulation leads to your decision-making abilities being adversely affected. NASA has done a tremendous amount of research and study, and many papers have been published, we learnt from that, and the DGCA (Director General for Civil Aviation) prescribed rules. We developed that software which is now being used by the business aviation sector. Some companies are reluctant to use it as it costs. Therefore, it becomes a difficult decision for the authorities to divide between safety and profit.

MM: How active are you in the activities of NITRAA, and according to you, how can the alumni help the institute in a better way?

SSL: Frankly speaking, I am occupied these days learning from three classes and teaching in four classes each week. This takes up so much of my time that I am unable to participate in any other extra-curricular activity. My cup seems full right for now. Last time I went to a NITRAA meet, I met with Mr N R Mohanty, ex-Chairman HAL with whom I had worked together while in IAF and he was in HAL. We have known each other well in that sense. He is also currently busy with an NGO and not being able to give time to NITRAA. However, there are younger generations who keep on meeting.

I am looking forward to visiting NIT Rourkela provided the COVID-19 situation is out and hope we’ll meet there.

MM: What is the achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?

SSL: I don’t think I have made many contributions to talk about. There was no inferior way I could have executed my duties. How can that be an achievement? My contributions are minuscule compared to what people have done, and if there is a drop of selfishness in that contribution, then it is of no use.

MM: How do you feel about being conferred with the Distinguished Alumnus Award by your alma mater this year?

SSL: I feel very nice about it (laughs). So, I am looking forward to coming to college, and I hope that COVID-19 will not hamper again to stump out the visit.

MM: What shall be your final message for our readers and the entire student fraternity of NIT Rourkela?

SSL: You must join the profession in which you have an interest in. You must understand that every one of us has some uniqueness and must find its best environment to flourish. As we advance, we must identify the unique thing that makes us different from the rest of the people, and that is the one you must excel in. If Sachin Tendulkar had been asked to be a footballer, he would have been miserable at it. I won’t motivate you to join a line which I think is good, but it may not be good for you.  You must follow your Swabhava and Swadharma.  This is the responsibility of the parents first, then the teacher and then the individual himself. That will make one what he uniquely is.


Team MM congratulates Air Vice Marshal Subhanka Sekhar Lahiri, AVSM, VSM, for his achievements and conveys our gratitude for his contributions in the IAF and the aviation industry which will for long be a source of inspiration to all the aspiring students.




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