It was a summer morning with gentle breeze flowing, and greenery all around, at Newton Air force mess, UK in 1987. I was part of NCC Youth Exchange Delegation, it was going to be our first day of flying Gliders on foreign soil. While all of us were anxious to fly the glider aircrafts, I was vexed about meals. All preparations were non-veg and I was a hardcore vegetarian!
As, I looked around a pretty girl, standing by my side said “I am Nancy, What will you have sir”. Startled, I said, “good morning, am a veg and there seems nothing for me in your Menu.” She smiled and said, “Of course, we have Eggs and Fish in the Veg spread” . I was taken aback, but she was my only hope then, and I did not want to go hungry for flying, so I asked for boiled potatoes if possible. “Surely sir, will serve you boiled potatoes.” Her concern for my state, made me quite comfortable to fly that morning. By then flying briefing was announced. I headed towards the briefing room, only to be told that my sortie was slotted as the last one for the day since I was late for the briefing. The instructor, Group Captain Jim seemed a terrible person because of his strictness. I could just stand and see gilder’s taking off under tow of a power glider and ascending to 800 odd feet’s before detaching tow and then a flight time of about 16 -20 mins turning into thermal conditions, against Rohini gliders in India which generally offered a flight time of 3-7 mins. I was watching out of the crew room, and heard a voice, “how’s it going sir, Groupie Jim is a strict man , hope he did not pull you up for being late, enjoy the grilled potatoes with pepper and salt Sir” –Nancy was standing with a tray. “Well Nancy so nice of you, you are really caring.” “No sir, it’s my job to ensure that everybody is well fed before they fly”.
As my flying turn came the gliders looked classy in their red belly and white top canopies. Groupi Jim was my instructor pilot in rear cockpit; he did not exchange any pleasantries and asked me to rattle out pre- flight checks and emergencies. I was bang on and made no mistakes. He then gave me additional points about R/T procedures etc. We took off and Jim’s said, “Unless you rely on yourself you won’t be able to fly this machine. All your! To my horror, the glider had already started rolling with front power glider towing and speed increasing every second, luckily take off detaching the tow cable and flight were good, but landing was hard. As the cockpit canopy opened on the parking bay, Jim said, “You fly well cadet, see you doing a solo soon.”
As we all assembled in crew room for debriefing, I realized everyone had a good joy ride except for me, as they were talking of the green top country side view and the river down curves and gush.
In evening we all assembled at the mess for drinks and snacks followed by dinner. Of course before I could look for Nancy she was in front, with her cute smile greeting me with potatoes. “Sir don’t worry these are your French fries. What’s your drink? Phew, I didn’t expect this welcome. I wanted to talk to her for her graciousness was killing me, but she won’t budge as it was her time on job and not to talk informally.
As days passed, I was cleared for solo and was flying solo, but Nancy refused to meet me in working hours, however she took care of my meals. So I confronted Nancy one morning during breakfast and asked her to meet sometime the same day. She said, of course today is my half day at work, will meet you in the evening for a drink. I was a bit confused as how can a waitress be allowed in officer mess to have a drink informally.
That evening , I was sitting alone on a corner table of mess lawns , all my fellow cadets kept enquiring why was I not joining them, I excused myself as I had a guest. After 20 Mins she walked up to me and said hi, she was looking so different and beautiful , that she did not look any bit of waitress who had cared for me. As the conversation flowed, I realized Nancy was an officer’s daughter with a strong sense of dignity of labor and was doing the job of a waitress for her pocket money. She was a science student and intended to fly in the RAF one day. I offered her a glider joyride if Groupi Jim permitted, as a gratitude for the care she took of me, and as a precursor to her ambition to fly one day. Well, she gave me a very naughty smile but then expressed excitement at the offer and asked me to try to take permission from Jim.
Next day was heading to the glider, I saw Groupi Jim and said, sir I have a request, what’s the matter are you not feeling well? enquired Jim. I said, sir Nancy the stewardess; she took care of my Veg meals so well that I need to repay her debt. She is keen to fly, so I want to take her along for a sortie. I added she made me realize what the dignity of labor and dedication to job is. Hmmm said Jim, I will fly her on your behalf. I said but sir, today before we leave the base for good. He said sure, it’s a commitment. And he called for Nancy to strap up, I felt happy. As I walked for my penultimate sortie in UK, I was surprised to see Nancy, strapped up in front cockpit and waving at me, I looked around – Jim spoke, your sortie… take her around, express your gratitude to her yourself. My joy knew no bounds.
As we rolled for takeoff under tow, Nancy seemed excited. As aircraft was gaining height, she was enjoying the view and expressing her desire to fly often. Nancy was very jovial and I expressed my gratitude in air, she expressed her heartfelt thanks for the flying experience. I realized it was time to land as we were on end of circuit turning for finals. She firmly said “Controls with me”, I was shocked and thought it’s gonna be suicidal, if she persist on landing. she added, I am qualified Glider pilot License holder with 250 sorties on this type of aircraft, and Jim is my father. I called ATC for Jim on radio, “it’s true” said Jim. “Controls with Nancy” were my word, stunned at attitude displayed by Nancy, and the way the machine was brought down gently without any bumps or panic, probably it was the best touchdown till then I had experienced.
By Cdr Sanjeev Deshpande(Retd)
Story Published in Quarterdeck Magazine 2017 – https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/node/16514