The year was 1962. The first Commander-in-chief of the maintenance wing of the Indian Air Force was legendary Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh. Here was an officer who was one of the greatest aviation experts. So much so, he had designed and built an aircraft. You can still find the plane “Kanpur 1” in the labs of Punjab Engineering College. He was among the first few employees of the Air Force when it was established in 1932. He had joined as technician and rose to the level of commissioned officer in 1942. He was appointed Air Officer commanding Maintenance Command in 1955, when the command was established. When the level of Command was raised in 1959, he was also promoted to AVM to head the command. He retired in 1963. The Air Force maintenance command was based in Kanpur. He even created a team of Air Force officers who actually manufactured AVROs in Kanpur. “Harjinder Nagar” in Kanpur is named after him. You may read more about the great man here:
But we digress. In year 1962, it appeared that we could have some action on our Northern/Eastern front and he felt that Air Force was not prepared for the action. One of the biggest bottleneck that he as the Commander-in-Chief of Maintenance Command felt was lack of engineers to maintain aircrafts. There was no undergraduate program in Aeronautical Engineering in the country. There were a couple of Diploma courses in Aircraft maintenance and IISc Bangalore offered a research program. There was an urgent need by Air Force for the Aeronautical engineers.
He thought of connecting with IIT Kanpur. But they were still under construction, and a new program would produce engineers five years hence. Air Force could not have waited that long. So he thought of his alma mater. He had done his engineering from Maclagan Engineering College in Lahore which had split into two during partition, and the Indian half had established itself as Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh. He convinced the college that it was so urgent to produce aircraft engineers that he could not wait for a new program to start. The program had to start by shifting students from other disciplines who were about to complete their second year into this new program of Aeronautical Engineering. Since the first two years had a common curriculum, it was indeed a possibility.
The college was ready to do anything for the nation. But it needed labs and faculty. AVM Singh talked to the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Shri Pratap Singh Kairon, who offered all support. He then suggested that Air Force could provide all the equipment necessary for setting up of labs. Faculty was still an issue. There was no way, PEC would be able to recruit several faculty members in a couple of months. The Principal turned to Dr. V S Malhotra, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and he agreed to run the new program.
Option was given to all students to change in the beginning of their 3rd year to Aeronautical Engineering. To make the deal sweeter, AVM Singh announced that all these students will be eligible for recruitment as Pilot Officer right in the 3rd year, and those selected will get a full salary during their 3rd and 4th year. All seventeen went through the Services Selection Board, and 8 were selected as Pilot Officer in Indian Air Force. The other 9 were a disappointed lot. They will not get any money for these two years. But at the end of their program, all 9 were recruited by the fledgling DGCA, and as one of them recently told me, the disappointment of not getting selected as Pilot Officer disappeared when they found out that as DGCA officers all of them will have job till 58 years of age, while in Air Force, the retirement age would depend on your promotions.
Dr. Malhotra had the hard task of training these 17 students with no faculty. He started writing to all institutions in India about various courses. While no institution other than IISc had a department of Aeronautical Engineering, he could find specific faculty members to teach specific courses. So students were sent to IISc Bangalore, IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur for doing certain courses. It certainly helped that a young professor, who too was an alumnus of Maclagan Engineering College, had assumed the role of Director of IISc Bangalore. He was Head of Aeronautical Engineering Department before that. That young professor was none other than Satish Dhawan who would later become Chairman of ISRO.
The students would go to these institutions (and notice that IITM and IITK were just 2-3 years old and had a lot of teething troubles of their own, but they too chipped in because of nation first) for a few weeks each, and go through a compressed course by a faculty member. In the meanwhile, Air Force helped with setting up of labs so that students could come back and do their experiments on campus or at Air Force station. (So our students doing courses at other educational institutions and getting credit at PEC is nothing new for us. It is part of our DNA.)
At the end, the first set of 17 graduate engineers in Aeronautical Engineering in the whole country came out of PEC in 1964, with 100 percent placement – 8 in Indian Air Force, and 9 in DGCA. One of them, Shri H S Khola would later become Director General of Civil Aviation in India.
We at PEC are proud of our heritage and how our alums have built India, one small step at a time.