Saturday, August 29, 2009
Recollections of a Vice Admiral
Sunil K. Damle, head of the Southern Command of the Navy looks back at his eventful career, which ends on August 31
By Shevlin Sebastian
Photo: Sunil Damle talks to the writer at his office in the Naval Base, Kochi
On a hot afternoon in 1988, Sunil K. Damle of the Navy flew off in a Sea Harrier from the aircraft carrier INS Viraat during a joint exercise with the Army. Damle was cruising at 800 kms per hour at a height of only 200 feet above the beach near the nuclear installation at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu.
The Army controller gave the order, “Pull up.” As Damle initiated the pull-up, the fighter jet started shuddering and made a loud noise. Immediately Damle knew there was something wrong with the engine. The controller could see flames coming out from the rear of the jet. Following standard procedure, Damle switched off the engine, and then tried to restart. However the engine failed to come to life.
So Damle ejected from the aircraft and landed on the beach itself. Just eight seconds later, the Harrier crashed and blew up. When Damle arrived at the carrier, following a rescue by a helicopter, he was stunned to see the entire ship of 1200 officers and crew waving and cheering at him.
“They were all sharing in the joy of my escape from death,” he says. “That was when I understood the spirit of camaraderie in the Navy. I have never forgotten that moment.”
And he has also never forgotten the way he fell in love with aeroplanes. Damle grew up near a pottery factory in Nagpur, where his father was the Works Manager. He would accompany his father to welcome visitors from Delhi and Mumbai at Nagpur airport.
“I used to get excited by the noise of the propellers and the sight of pilots sitting in the cockpit,” he says. “I would think, ‘If I could be in their shoes, how nice it would be!’ I felt that only special people could become pilots.”
But when he grew up Damle enrolled for a bachelor’s degree at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture in Mumbai. However, one day, he came across an advertisement in the newspaper asking for naval aviation cadets. This notice triggered his old feelings of affection for aeroplanes.
So Damle applied, and was selected. Commissioned on December 19, 1970, he joined the fighter stream in the Fleet Air Arm (Naval Aviation). And he seemed a natural leader: He became the commander of the carrier-borne fighter squadron INAS 300 (White Tigers); the executive officer of missile frigate INS Talwar, commanding officer of missile corvette INS Hosdurg and missile frigate INS Gomati. Thereafter, he became the captain of the INS Viraat, Commander of the Eastern Fleet, and Flag Officer Commanding in Chief of the Southern Naval Command.
So what are Vice Admiral Damle’s notions of leadership?
“As a leader, you should try to put yourselves in the shoes of your subordinates,” he says. “That helps you make the right decisions. Secondly, since everybody is not good at everything you have to find out what is the strong point of a person and then entrust him with that job.”
His team worked well and it seemed like a charmed life, but it was not all smooth sailing. “The Navy personnel are separated from their families for long periods of time,” he says.
And this absence takes a toll on the wife and the children. For example: When the son is in Class 10, and there are complaints that the boy is not studying the father is helpless, because he is on a ship and cannot return for months. The wife has to look after the family and the house, handle the finances, and manage the education of the children for months together. “A Navy life is very hard,” admits Damle, the father of two children.
And this hard but eventful career is coming to an end on August 31, after 39 years of service. A Maharashtrian, Damle is retiring to Goa. “The quality of life is much better there than in Mumbai,” he says.
At his elegantly furnished office at the Naval Base, Kochi, Damle breaks out into a gentle smile. You will never guess from his face that the last two weeks has been a frenzy of farewell functions and all the hassles of packing belongings gathered over a lifetime.
When asked whether he will miss the Navy, Damle says, “I will miss it, but not the power and the status. It has become restrictive. I am glad to shed both. This is the beauty of a democracy. You are given a big responsibility and when that job is over, you have to go away.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)