Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis, PVSM, AVSM, VM, ADC, Indian Airforce

Air Chief Marshal(Retd) Anil Yashwant Tipnis

The 18th Chief of the Indian Airforce, Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis PVSM, AVSM, VM, ADC was also its most popular. After the IAF's sensational success during Kargil in 1999, he also became the most photographed IAF chief ever. An exceptionally gifted pilot and keen sportsman, Tipnis embodied all the qualities of a true leader.

Watching planes flying above his Pune house, the three-year-old boy added another ambition to his dream list. To fly a plane. Earlier, like most boys his age, he wanted to be a train engine-driver. But then as he grew up, his father, an Army officer, moved to Delhi, he began cycling all the way to Palam airport to watch the planes take off, make loops in the air. So it was only natural that when he was 15, he would go to the National Defence Academy. It ran in the family too: his elder brothers had chosen the Army and Navy, he had the Air Force. And 38 years later, the top job.

On December 31, 1998 when Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis took charge amid the usual pomp and ceremony, the spotlights were turned elsewhere. Newspaper front pages and television screens featured the sacked Navy Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. For Tipnis, all this was just another coincidence. Though an "average student'' all through his years at the National Defence Academy (NDA), he was a "natural'' in air -- initially with the hand-gliders and then with almost every aircraft in the IAF inventory. Judged the best pilot on more than one occasion, awards and trophies followed Tipnis -- the Mazumdar trophy for flying at the Jet Training Wing, the Narona trophy on graduating as a Pilot Attack Instructor and the sword of honour for being the best Fighter Combat Leader(TACDE).

Commissioned in 1960 as a fighter pilot, the tall 20-year-old was still a Cheeko (with no facial hair). In 1962 the Chinese attacked India with a huge army. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru refused to utilise the services of the IAF, fearing a massive Chinese retaliation. Nehru urgently sought American help to protect the Indian skies. However later it became known that the majority of the Chinese airforce had been grounded at the time, due to lack of aviation fuel. Asked what would have been the outcome had the IAF been deployed in similar situation(as Kargil) during the 1962 Chinese aggression, Tipnis said, ``things would have been much different, without a doubt''. He said that he was a young flying officer with a squadron of Hunters based at Ambala ready to go into action at Chusul in Ladakh and was disappointed like others on the decision that the IAF would not join the battle.

When MiG-21s were brought in, the best pilots from the Gnat and Hunter squadrons were roped in to go to Chandigarh. Young Tippy too was bundled off. "I did not want to go. I was happy at Ambala. Because I reached a day late Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh (then a young wing commander) was fuming. I told him I was not keen to join the MiG squadron. He said okay, go back. But by then I had seen the MiGs. They were good. And I said, `Sir now that I have seen the planes, I would like to stay on','' Tipnis said. Tippy became the best student, everwilling to learn. And the quality stays. Even today as he flies the state-of-the-art Sukhois or the Mirage-2000s or the MiG-29s, he is willing to learn a thing or two from the young pilots and offer a word of advice to them. Advice based on experience of sweating out in peace to avoid bleeding during war.

It was during war that Tipnis got married. Kutch was where trouble erupted in 1965. He was put on alert. He flew to Mumbai on May 11, got married on May 12, went to Lonavala on May 13 for a one-day honeymoon and was back in Chandigarh on May 14. He says his brother, a Navy officer, had it better. He flew from INS Vikrant to Mumbai, got married the same day and flew back. His aircraft had a small board hung in the rear that said: `Just married.'

But life has not been a bed of roses for Tipnis. His wife Sheila, who was a magnificent woman, was down with kidney ailment. Tipnis sought advice from the best doctors, spent all his meagre savings, even withdrew his provident fund, shuttled between hospitals. He took her to the erstwhile USSR for treatment, first on leave, then on leave without pay, finally he ran out of leave so the IAF posted him in Moscow. But within 15 days, his wife died.

He brought up his three daughters, his eldest daughter donned the mantle of Mother to the other two. Tipnis went on to become a good pilot, a better administrator and a still better father. When he was sent to France on the Mirage 2000 project, his eldest daughter decided to get married and settle in the United Kingdom. That was when Tipnis felt a little inadequate -- on not being able to advise a young girl on her marriage. He returned home and took over as the Air Officer Commanding in Gwalior. He was the top man at the air base without the first lady. And it was where he met Molina, who had lost her Army officer husband. She had 11-year-old son. They decided to get married and soon the air base got a first lady.

Tragedies came back to haunt the Tipnis family. The boy died of fever. "Any other man would have collapsed. But Tippy is a complete man,''says a friend of his. True, it was more than what anyone could bear. "Both of us realised that life does not pity anybody. Nature's ways are like that. She told me that we had to count our blessings. The pain remains,'' Tipnis says. But there was more pain to follow. Their youngest daughter lost her husband in a car accident in the US. Both Tipnis and Molina think the armed forces came to them as a family in their hours of grief.

While he battled pain in his personal life, Tipnis was considered to be outstandingly lucky in his public life. He had done stints abroad, completed his National Defence College course was posted as Air Officer Commanding and became the Vice Chief of Air Staff. His colleagues say that the sufferings in life has never affected Tipnis the officer. He leads by example. If there is a new aircraft Tipnis has to fly it first. He says he never wants young officers to say, "You old hog, technology in your times was different.'' There are more lessons for his junior officers to learn from him: to keep fit, he climbs up 5 flights of stairs to reach his office at Air Headquarters everyday.

Though a perfectionist, the CAS is not a hard taskmaster. "Somebody could smile at me and get away with murder,'' he says. Tipnis himself feels he is very lucky. And why not? He was planning to play golf all day after retiring, when the government increased the age limit to 60 years and appointed him the Chief of Air Staff on October 31, 1998. He succeeded Air Chief Marshal S. K. Sareen on Dec. 31.

Former Air Chief S.K Sareen and Tipnis during the take-over ceremony

"I had not dreamt of reaching this position when I joined the Air Force. Now that the responsibility has been bestowed on me, I would strive to do my best," Air Marshal Tipnis, dressed in a light-blue shirt and grey trousers said as he accepted greetings from Air Force personnel and mediapersons soon after the official announcement regarding his appointment to the top slot of India's Air Force was made on the morning of October 31, 1998.

"A yellow aircraft flying over our house everyday in Pune probably inspired me to join the IAF," Air Marshal Tipnis, recalled. "I am the second person from my batch of Barnes High School, Deolali, to join the Air Force and I am sure my school would be proud to see one of its pupil at the top," he said in an emotional tone. Asked about the favourite aircraft he had flown, Tipnis said, ``I have three daughters who always ask me who's my favourite. I like them all. I have flown various kinds of aircraft. Give me an aircraft and it becomes my favourite,'' adding that, "there is nothing like flying in the air which gives immense pleasure."

Even as a clutch of Press photographers and video-cameramen clicked endlessly for a memorable 'shot', the Air Chief-designate posed on cue, walked around the well-maintained back lawn of his residence, obliging requests from all and sundry along with his petite wife, Mrs Molina Tipnis. "I have been warned by my children not to pose awkwardly," Air Marshal Tipnis quipped while facing flash lights from photo-video crew in a semi-circular formation even as he shared a 'ladoo' with his wife.

ACM Tipnis and wife

"What better gift could I have given to my wife, Molina, on her birthday" Air Marshal Tipnis said. His wife, standing next to him, while acknowledging this, remarked "What more could I have asked from him on my birthday." She felt it was like ``a dream'' when she heard of the news about her husband. ``I am too happy for him,'' she said. As he walked up the red-stoned stairs of the lawns towards the foyer followed by the eager flashlight carriers, the Air Chief designate remarked that at least he was being made to feel like a Hollywood star, for a change.

It was sweets and flowers at his residence during the day. Phone calls, congratulatory messages and complimentary get-togethers. Air Marshal Tipnis looked humble even while expressing joy at the honour. "I shall have to come up to the expectations of my countrymen," he said while perceiving his new role as Air Chief as "challenging."

Air Chief Tipnis with wife at the National PARAM Supercomputing Facility(NPSF)

Air Chief Marshal Tipnis's tenure saw the first deployment of Indian Air Force combat aircraft in action since the 1971 War. When the fighting at Kargil erupted in mid 1999. The IAF was deployed to attack intruders positions in the high altitude areas. Needless to say the IAF acquitted itself very well in these limited actions. Throughout the course of operations, the Air Chief Marshal was deeply involved in overseeing the conduct of operations. Along with the then-Army Chief, General V.P. Malik, he visited the frontline units and forward areas to get a feel of the progress of the operations.

Air Chief Tipnis in Kargil with General V.P. Malik and troops

On October 8, 2000 the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrated its 68th anniversary. The glittering ceremony was marked by synchronised aerobatics by nine trainer aircraft Suryakiran coming in varied formations at the same height and speed. Nine jet trainers alternately changed formations ranging from diamond to wine glass and even formed a replica of Sukhoi enthralling the capacity crowd, including Chief of South African Air Force Lt Gen R J Buekes, the Chief Guest on the occasion.

Air Chief Tipnis with Lt Gen R J Buekes

The Suryakiran's in action

Air Chief Tipnis called for early transition to an aero-space power. The Air Chief indicated that the country's security concerns continued to require "unremitting vigilance". Improvising on the Bhagvad Gita message, he said, "Do your duty - seek no reward, but the joy of doing a job well." He decorated 43 officers with the Vayu Sena Medal at the event

Three MI-8 helicopters carrying the Air Force insignia flew past as the Air Chief took salute at the ceremonial parade conducted by 57 officers, 377 airmen and 48 band personnel. Group Captain Manmohan Sud of the Air Force Communication Squadron, Palam commanded the parade. The Air Force Band attired in colourful ceremonial uniforms performed to the tune of `Northern Border' and `Tiger Hill', virtually recreating the heroic moments as people stood in silence paying homage to the Kargil war heroes.

On October 24, 2000 taking exception to the continuing reports about the poor airworthiness of the Mig-21 jet after a series of crashes in the last few months(the latest in August, killing Flt Lt Shukla), a visibly moved Tipnis said, "I am deeply hurt, the pilots flying these planes are like my sons, I have been flying this jet since 1963 and we will continue to do so, and now I am perhaps the only chief in the world to fly this jet." To prove a point to the concerned people, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis undertook two sorties on the jet straight after flying a Boeing from Delhi to Bareilly. "I had a doubt that you had a doubt that I didn't fly the MiG-21," he said just before slipping into the cockpit of a MiG-21bis, a 1970s technology fighter that forms the mainstay of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Air Chief Tipnis getting ready for a solo flight in a MiG-21.

After a 25-minute flight, during which he carried out five basic aerobatic maneouvres, a beaming Tipnis disembarked to pronounce it as "a very fine aircraft." "There are some misapprehensions about its airworthiness. Let me assure you no aircraft takes to the air unless it is certified airworthy. Even today the MiG-21 is a reliable aircraft. But it is a high demand aircraft with high take-off, descending and landing speeds that require an ability to react fast," he said. He said the jet "is a jolly good aircraft and the training standards of the Indian pilots are of a high order." Tipnis, who last flew a MiG-21 about four months ago, said he always does so "to send a message to the boys'' and "to keep himself current.''

Air Chief Tipnis steps out of the MiG-21 after his sortie.

Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis retired from the Air Force on December 31, 2001.

(Reference: 'The Pilot Perfect' by Gaurav C Sawant, Indian Express 1999)

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