Bengaluru: When Ponnathapura Gundappa Yogindra, fondly called ‘Yogi’ by close associates, garlanded the bust of Walchand Hirachand, the founder of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) on Saturday evening, hundreds of workers watched from a distance, inside the LCA Tejas Division.
For many, it was an emotional day. But Yogi was composed as he waved to his colleagues one last time before being driven away with his family members. It was his last day at HAL where he had served for 35 years.
Just days before his retirement, Yogi had received a commendation letter from the Indian Air Force (IAF) at Air Force Station Sulur, when the second squadron of Tejas Flying Bullets was inducted.
This was a rare IAF honour for a civilian officer and probably the first time anyone in HAL had received such a coveted recognition from the Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria.
Onmanorama dives deep into the DNA of one of the most respected and popular aeronautical engineers of our times who is said to have told his colleagues on his last day in office that he is stepping out a ‘disappointed man.’
“I am retiring with so much of work left to do. So many expectations from the user... life will be different without Tejas being around. I will miss the sight of the plane being taken out of the hangar and constantly telling my team that they are the wings of this project,” says Yogi, who has always shied away from the media glare.
Yogi was the eldest of six siblings and battled poverty all through his childhood and student days. His early education and subsequent progress were all at the mercy of some generous souls or sabhas (Trusts) that helped the poor. His father Gundappa was a cook who assisted during marriages and then doubled up as a road-side vendor, selling bondas and bajjis in Mysuru.
Yogi probably picked up early lessons in material management as a young boy, helping his parents in cooking.
“I used to set out of my house at Vidyaranyapuram in the morning to collect firewood so that my parents could cook idli, vada and rice bath at home. This was later sold in the streets to support us. I remember there were hardly any utensils at home as most of them were pledged at a local shop. Life wasn’t easy... most days we went to bed hungry after drinking some water,” reminisces Yogi.
The family managed to get full fee concession for Yogi and two of his siblings at Sharada Vilas, where he studied till Class 12.
“I still remember it was a community sabha that paid my SSLC exam fees of Rs 13. My parents were helpless as both were uneducated. Most relatives distanced themselves from us, may be because of our poverty,” he said.
Yogi says he had no direction or any guidance as a young boy.
“I remember the face of my mother who had to undergo several difficulties during pregnancies. There was no guarantee about the future those days. As a youngster I had to swallow a lot of pain, which had an impact on my life later. I didn’t have proper clothes either,” says Yogi.
Yogi, who did his mechanical engineering from NIE Mysore and M Tech from IIT-Kanpur, believes that his love for flying kites in childhood probably laid the foundation for aerodynamics in his mind.
“Every year flying paper kites during annual Ashada Ekadashi festival was a memorable experience. To make your own kites, to ensure they withstood the wind and to make them fly for longer durations was exciting. There were different challenges in flying kites with a tail and without it. I did pick up some principles of aviation by flying kites,” he chuckles.
So, the kite festival (Galipata Habba) gave the man who went on to head one of the crucial Divisions of HAL years later, elementary lessons in flight testing.
Entry to HAL
Yogi’s strong desire to end the poverty at home gave him a sense of focus early in life. He says he yearned to wear clothes bought with his own money and not borrowed or handed down as charity. His patience and hard work paid off, and he was among the 25 who got selected for IIT-Kanpur in 1982.
“I cannot forget the train journey to Kanpur. I had no seat and slept on the floor, spreading papers. Those days, the classes started during the winter session and our syllabus and schedule was similar to that followed in American universities. The memory of that first cold-water bath in Kanpur sends shivers down my spine even now,” smiles Yogi.
A campus recruitment team from HAL that visited IIT-Kanpur in 1985 was convinced that the Mysore boy with special kite-making skills could probably help make planes that would touch the skies with glory.
“It was the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) team which came to recruit us. HAL had just announced the project and I was happy to have got selected. I had a private job offer as well from a company in Secunderabad. Finally, in May 1985, I was on the rolls of HAL,” he recalls.
In the next 35 years Yogi grabbed every opportunity that came his way in HAL, conscious that it wasn’t merely a job from him, but an experiment in life, overcoming one challenge after another.
As a Grade II engineer at the Rotary Wing Research Design Centre, Yogi witnessed from very close quarters, the ALH taking baby steps. Eventually he played a part during the roll-out of its first prototype in the early ’90s.
From 1990 to 1996, he was with the Aircraft Research and Design Centre (ARDC) and that brought him close to LCA Tejas. He was involved in building the first Technology Demonstrator of the aircraft. He handled several roles in the company and was one of the key brains behind giving shape to HAL’s Aerospace Museum as well.
As the head of Export Department of Aircraft Division from 2006 to 2011, Yogi was the go-to man responsible for production of Airbus A320 doors, IAI’s B737 main deck cargo doors/installation kits, Boeing B777 uplock box assembly and F-18A looms gun bay doors.
Later, from 2011 to 2015 as the head of Integrated Materials Management Department of Aircraft Division, he steadied the supply chain for the Hawk project. As the Chief of Projects (Hawk), Yogi oversaw planning, production and assembly of Hawk aircraft, its customer support and its supply chain management.
It was at this point that he was tracked on the radars of IAF as an able administrator.
“We knew his commitment and there was a method in the madness in whatever HAL did during his tenure with the Hawk delivery. Yogi understood what we wanted — a point often missed by HAL,” says an IAF official.
After a short stint at HAL headquarters, Yogi was back with the LCA Tejas Division in 2016 and within a year he was promoted as its Executive Director.
Insiders say it was his coming back to Tejas at a crucial juncture that scripted a new chapter for indigenous manufacturing in India. Yogi knew it was shape up or ship out for the Tejas Division.
In the next three years, Yogi launched several inspiring steps in production at the Division. He also made it a point to flatten the structure and gave a free hand to his young team to take decisions.
As HAL’s infamous hierarchy started crumbling at Tejas Division paving the way for a much more acceptable flat leadership structure, youngsters were enthused when they saw their ideas getting propelled.
“That’s when we started seeing many youngsters representing HAL at important negotiations at Delhi. It was a welcome change to hear their views and responses to our needs,” says an IAF official.
Yogi believed more in the power of people than the teeth of technology. He sought permanent solutions to problems. His morning meetings and impromptu sessions at hangars are said to have sprayed magic, boosting the enthusiasm of his team.
“Technology will be imbibed by people as they progress in their career. Managing them is the key. Today, the kind of support we are getting from IAF is phenomenal. The IAF Chief himself is the brand ambassador for Tejas. This is a golden opportunity for HAL,” says Yogi.
With favourable winds starting to blow from the IAF headquarters in the last couple of years, Yogi constantly sat with his team to find ways to ensure better serviceability and upgradation in the shortest cycle time.
“As a leader you are expected to leave behind good practices. You will be remembered not only for the numbers of aircraft you produced, but for the number of people whom you shaped and the systems you put in place. I always reminded my team that LCA stood for Leadership, Commitment and Achievement,” says Yogi.
Yogi’s tenure saw the completion of production of 16 Tejas fighters in the Initial Operational Clearance configuration, improved supply chain, better production, infrastructure ramp-up, reduced production cycle, efficient sub-assembly tooling and faster assembly technologies.
On March 17 this year, the first Final Operational Clearance (FOC) fighter of Tejas flew out of HAL hangars in a record period of 13 months, setting new benchmarks.
To the man contributing so much to HAL silently sans any PR exercise or the fanfare of photo ops, the IAF commendation that came just days before his retirement was just a validation of what hard work and passion can eventually fetch even without active solicitation.
Interestingly, sources say that the IAF was extremely keen to form the second Tejas squadron before Yogi retired. This could be one of the biggest tributes an HAL employee has ever received from the IAF.
The commendation given to Yogi speaks volumes about the adulation of the IAF for the Tejas man.
“During the period 2020 while serving at LCA-Tejas Division of HAL, you have displayed great dedication and professional ability resulting in praiseworthy contribution to the service, which IAF and I are proud of,” reads the commendation letter signed by Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria.
Aerospace legend Dr Kota Harinarayana sums up Yogi’s contribution to the Tejas programme by terming him as a man with matchless dedication to the project.
“Yogi owned the programme. He was passionate about it. His commitment to overcome all problems he faced and willingness to take on challenges saw many new production patterns falling in place. His contribution has been vital, especially setting up the Tier-1 supplier base that changed the Tejas story, during his regime,” says Dr Kota, who has tracked Yogi’s career from ARDC days.
“Ownership is the key to success. Yogi is today a role model because he was different. I am extremely delighted to hear about IAF’s commendation of him. And when it comes from a man like Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria, it adds more value — because the IAF Chief also owns Tejas,” adds Dr Kota.
On his post-retirement plans, Yogi wryly says there are several repair works to be undertaken on the home front, which have been pending for years.
“It will be difficult to imagine life without Tejas. I must get used to it now. It will take some time. I also have a lot of unattended work at home. And, I am keen to take up teaching in a management course. Life must go on,” he says.
Finally, when asked if he still loves to fly paper kites, constantly trying to improve better aerodynamic features, agility, manoeuvrability and range, Yogi chuckles: “Yes! Why not? With tail or without?”
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake)