RAF 100: Incredible Indian pilot with a taste for adventure
PUBLISHED: 11:00 15 July 2018
He was a turban-wearing fighter pilot, pizza chain manager and all action hero.
Former Newham and Gravesend resident Mahinder Singh Pujji was born in Simla in the Punjab in 1918, the son of a senior civil servant in the British Raj.
He fell in love with flight after joining the Delhi Flying Club in 1936 where he learned to fly before getting his first job with Himalayan Airways.
In 1940 he was one of the 24 Indian pilots to arrive in Britain after volunteering for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
He joined No 43 Squadron flying Hurricane fighter aircraft.
Keith Wyncoll described his longtime friend: “He was one of those all action heroes. Everything he tried he wanted to do well and he wanted to try everything. He was such an inspiring character.”
Pujji got a warm welcome on arriving in Britain. He was even sent to the front of the queue and got in for free at a screening of film of the year Gone with the Wind after punters spotted the RAF wings on his coat.
“People were thrilled to have him here and he was thrilled to be here. He had a deep affinity with the British,” Keith said. “He was treated with great respect. He didn’t suffer any racism.”
He trained in combat and received his pilot’s wings with 17 Indian colleagues. Within a year 12 had been killed in action.
But Pujji managed to survive being shot down twice during dog fights with the enemy – crash landing on top of the white cliffs of Dover one time. He said his turban saved him by cushioning the blow.
By 1944 Pujji was a squadron leader based in Burma where the Japanese posed a threat to India.
When 300 African soldiers under US command got lost in dense jungle full of Japanese soldiers Pujji sent out pilots to find them.
After they returned with no news he climbed into a plane himself, flew over the tops of the trees and found them.
“It was incredibly dangerous because he could easily have been shot down,” Keith said.
But when he reported the troops’ position back at HQ no one believed him. So he flew a second time to prove it.
His bravery resulted in Pujji receiving the distinguished flying cross medal for valour and getting nicknamed “the eyes of army”.
Keith commented: “The war was one of the most exciting times for a young man. Pujji absolutely loved flying. The ability to fly every day was thrilling for him.
“It must have been amazing for him being with a group of mates away from family restrictions.”
And he was one of many from the British empire to volunteer with one in four pilots in bomber command hailing from overseas territories.
RAF Museum curator Peter Devitt explained how the service wanted the best and brightest regardless of background or where they came from.
“The RAF of the 1940s provides a model of racial integration. It’s a surprisingly progressive organisation,” he said.
Pujji returned to India after the war but was invalided out of service with the Indian Air Force after surviving tuberculosis.
By the 1950s he was flying gliders taking historic figures including Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and US president Dwight D. Eisenhower up into the clouds.
He emigrated to Britain in 1974 where he worked as a Heathrow Airport air traffice controller. In 1978 he took up hand-gliding. He was 60-years-old at the time.
Less than a decade later he moved to the US where he worked as a pizza chain manager, but he came back to Britain in 1984 later settling in East Ham where he was given freedom of the borough of Newham.
No stranger to royalty and high society, Pujji was at Buckingham Palace with the Queen in 2005 to mark 50 years after the end of World War Two and spent a day with Princess Diana in 1991.
In 1998 he moved to Gravesend – where his statue was unveiled in St Andrew’s Gardens in 2014 in honour of not only his service but of thousands more from across the Commonwealth who served in military campaigns from 1914 on.
And even in his nineties Pujji was taking to the air with one memorable trip by helicopter from Headcorn Aerodrome to mark the launch of his book For King and Another Country: An amazing life story of an Indian Second Wolrd War RAF fighter pilot. On his friend, who died in 2010 aged 92, Keith said: “He was respected by everybody he met. He was quite unassuming, but he had amazing stories to tell.
“He was respected by everybody he met. He was just incredible.”