Agra in the 90s: A call to nostalgia
Photo Courtesy of Wing Commander P. M. Ahuja (Retired)
As an aviation enthusiast, with special interest in the IAF in general, the tendency of the writing for this article was always to be more technical in nature. But that is not the objective of this article at all. This article was has been written as a reminder to those forgotten days in the history of our Air Force when there was no war to speak of. No visible enemy to fight and shed blood for. No threat to the nation to give their lives for. Yet this is exactly what many Officers and Airmen have done over the years. The general tendency within us is to forget the actions of those who continue to brave the dangers once the guns at the front have fallen silent. That’s when the Combat Aircraft land and the Pilots step out of them to count their achievements. But within our air force are people who put their lives on the line to get the job done even when their comrades in the fighter stream have stopped doing so. They do this day in and day out, and the saddest part is that they do it even in what we like to refer to as Peace. These are the Indian Air Force’s Transport Aircraft Pilots.
Our country is bestowed with the most diverse flora and Fauna found anywhere in the world. The vegetation and the geography varies immensely, right from the heat and sands of the Thar Desert to the snowy landscapes of the Himalayas, from the beaches of Goa to the thick forests of the Indian south-central region, from tropical to the temperate and from plains to the mountains. And our country has its borders that vary with these terrains. As a result, the IAF transport fleet is optimized for what is referred to as Hot and High Climatic conditions. Often the aircraft have to operate in the Himalayas in the morning and then fly over the Plains and then perhaps arrive at the Desert conditions of the Thar in case of some emergency within the same day. The effect on the aircrafts is brutal, and this is why the IAF transport fleet and its personnel are unique.
Terrain and climatic conditions apart, the IAF also has to cater for the needs of the Army, deployed in forward positions across all these terrains, and thus there is a need for a variety of Cargo carrying aircrafts that are currently met by the IAF transport fleet. Some of these aircrafts have to land in what can at best be described as austere airfields or in extremely high altitude conditions. They have to have the range to meet the vast distances of travel needed for the countrywide demands, and they also have to be able to carry whatever the other branches of the Services need.
The IAF currently operates a fleet of twenty-four IL-76s, a hundred odd AN-32s and a mixed fleet of Do-228s and Hs-748s, not counting the mixed fleet of the IAF VIP and communications Squadron. The massive fleet requires large permanent airfields to stage out of. And the Central Air Command provides these, with the most major base for Transport Operations being at Agra. The airbase is extremely enormous as it should be, since it holds components of what is the largest tactical airlift fleet in Asia in the form of AN-32s, IL-76s, HS-748s, and more recently, IL-78MKIs. In addition, it holds a Pechora SAM Squadron and a number of SU. The base is also home to the elite PTS. The Airbase has a very long and colorful history.
IAF Station Agra:
Air force station Agra is one of the largest of all bases belonging to the IAF and has been synonymous with the Taj Mahal for over half a century now. On 15th August 2007, the airfield will complete sixty years of its existence. An existence that has been marked by acts of valor and bravery by its officers and airmen, in both war and peace, to help maintain the integrity of this country’s security and it’s sovereignty.
Air Force Station Agra was established on 15TH August 1947 and placed under the command of Wing Commander Shivdev Singh, who was the incumbent commander of the No. 12 Sqn. Based on the then present system of Commands, the Base fell under the area of responsibility of the Western Air Command or WAC. The base remained under this Theatre Command for the next two decades. In July 1971 it was transferred to the Central Air Command or CAC, under whose control it remains to this day.
But as the base remained unchanged, the aircrafts it held did change, and along with them the Squadrons. During it’s fifty year history with the IAF, the base has seen the likes of C-47 Dakotas, C-119 Packets, Hs-748 ‘Avro’, AN-12s, AN-32s, IL-76s, Canberras, and now IL-78MKIs. Along with the aircrafts, the squadrons have come and gone, and so have many of the IAF officers and men who have served here and have had their professional lives touched by the base. Today, it is hard to find a transport pilot who has not been at AFS Agra at least sometime during his career. And this trend will undoubtedly continue well into the future.
The airbase is now much different from what it was during the 1990s. Back then it had the 44 Squadron ‘Mighty Jets’, flying the powerful IL-76s which as at present in Nagpur. It also was home to the operational Canberra Flight of the 106 SPR, which has now been retired from active service. Instead, the base now has the honor of holding the first In-Flight refueling aircraft Squadron in IAF service, the 78 ‘Battle Cry’ Squadron flying the IL-78MKIs. This is indeed an honor considering that it’s also a first for the whole of the Indian Sub-Continent region.
In addition, the aircrafts themselves have undergone a change. The old paint scheme is gone, and so is their individuality. There are no longer any exotically painted Canberras flying, and indeed, the last ones were painted Grey as well. The AN-32s, the ‘Avros’, and the IL-78s are all painted Grey when at one time they might have held the white and gray paint scheme common to all of the IAF transport aircrafts till the late 1990s.
It is with this loss of identity that I felt that something should be written on a bygone era of IAF transport operations. There were relatively less, and I emphasize the term ‘relatively’ strategic operations in the 1990s compared to the 1980s, and even lesser in the first decade of the next century. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes it is better to say nothing in order to make a point. As a result, this article will only present a brief history of the IAF Station Agra and the squadrons and aircraft based there in the 1990s before coming to the photographs themselves. This article is not meant to be all-encompassing database for the history of IAF Agra, but rather a pictorial representation of its operations during the 1990s.
[u]The Squadrons of the time:[/u]
No. 12 Squadron:
A number of Squadrons have been associated with this airbase over the years, but the longest staying Squadron has been the 12 Squadron that flies the AN-32s. During the early years after independence, as the transport fleet was built up, this squadron was the backbone of the IAF transport fleet. The Officers and airmen of this squadron conducted some of the most well known Air Operations in the 1947-49 Kashmir war. Whether it was the landing at Srinagar Airfield with the first Indian army troops in the Kashmir Valley or the first ever landing by a C-47 at Leh in the Ladakh region, this Squadron has seen it all. It performed the bulk of the Air Bridge Maintenance Sorties as well as the massive Airlift that was imposed on it.
Years after this trial by fire, the Squadron shifted to C-119 ‘Packet’ aircrafts for the airlift sorties. It has also participated in the massive airlifts during the Indo-China war in 1962, the airlift sorties in 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars and also in the Airlift operations during the Siachen buildup to name a few of the major conflicts and operations. This does not include a list of other operations that have been conducted by the Squadron over the years. In recognition of its work for the Nation, the Squadron was awarded the President’s Standards on 15 March 1971.
In December 1980, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, stated in answer to a parliamentary question that AN-32s would replace the C-119s in the Indian air force, with a total of 95 to be procured. With the arrival of the AN-32s in India, the Squadron shifted from its previous workhorse and converted to this new aircraft for its daily transport operations. The No. 12 Squadron has continued to use the AN-32 ever since.
The Paratroopers School:
The 12 Squadron is not the only one to use the AN-32 at Agra. The Paratroopers School, or PTS, also uses the same aircraft. The Base holds the distinction of having the only such unit of its kind in the country. Following a similar path as 12 Squadron, the unit was also equipped with the C-47s, then the C-119s and finally the AN-32s. The Squadron strength has, however, remained much lesser than its sister unit. In 1949, the base was equipped with only three C-47 aircrafts, and despite the changes in aircraft types, the number of aircrafts have remained roughly the same over the decades, in keeping with the unit’s requirement and operational status.
Another similarity shared by this unit with the 12 Squadron is its service to the country over the decades. It has participated in the 1965 and 1971 wars with distinction, and played a pivotal role in making the Paratroop assaults over Tangail in the indo-Pak war of 1971, possible. The Squadorn has also taken part in the Siachen airlifts and it played a center role in the reestablishing of Governmental control in Male during the famous Operation Cactus in conjunction with 44 Squadron IL-76s. The Squadron received the President’s Standards on 11 November 1994.
No. 44 Squadron: “The Mighty Jets”
Although no longer based at Agra, No. 44 Squadron’s workhorses have in fact been the epitome of the IAF’s powerful Strategic Transport capabilities. During the 1990s the base was known as the one holding the biggest military aircrafts in North India, along with Chandigarh. The aircraft was none other than the IL-76. A massive aircraft by any standards, when it came to India, it was easily the most awe-inspiring aircraft of the time. It even made the AN-12 look small by comparison, and it was the arrival of these aircrafts that finally started the beginning of the end of the service of the AN-12 in IAF service.
The Squadron arrived in Agra in March 1985 and on 9 May 1985 it received its first IL-76, indeed the first IL-76 in IAF service as well. Despite the embryonic nature of the aircraft’s service in India, the Squadron was soon flying the aircrafts everywhere, right from the airfields in the Himalayas to the support flights for the IPKF forces in Sri Lanka. But the most memorable operation ever conducted by the IL-76s has to be the retaking of the Maldives from the rebels who had taken control. Although the details of that operation are not discussed here, it is suffice to say that the event was the first expeditionary deployment of its kind for the Indian armed forces, and it showed how the IL-76 had bestowed the IAF with a true strategic capability.
It was this capability that was again exploited to evacuate the NRIs from Iraq during the first Gulf war in August 1990 and from Yemen in 1994. Sadly, the 44 Squadron is no longer based at Agra. But its departure to Nagpur has given way to another set of aircrafts that is a different variant of the IL-76. It was probably the base’s experience, (not to mention the local population’s experience in terms of noise!) with the original transport variant of the aircraft that led to the decision of deploying the IL-78MKIs at Agra. These being the In-flight refueling version of the original IL-76, the base now has the unique distinction among all IAF bases of having these aircrafts permanently based there.
The 106 Squadron “LYNXs”
Formed in December 1959, this unit has served more than probably any other unit in the air force in the time of need for this country. Using Canberra aircrafts, the pilots of this unit have conducted daring reconnaissance missions in all wars that this country has fought. In the 1962 Indo-China war the Canberras from this unit were the first to show with photographs the Chinese Build-up taking place in the Aksai Chin and the extreme Northeastern Tips of India. During the war they conducted more flights and were thus the only non-transport IAF unit to take part in the war. Further, the missions involved over flights into china that also means that they were the first IAF unit to do this feat in our history. The Unit performed with valor and bravery during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars and has received a large number of Decorations in the process. The Canberras from this base have also taken part in Operation Cactus and the Siachen war. In the 1999 Kargil war, the unit’s aircraft conducted valuable aerial reconnaissance missions over the Kargil peaks and came back with the information needed by the IAF Mirage-2000s, Mig-27s and other aircrafts to decimate the Pakistani fighting force comprising of units of the 7TH Northern Light Infantry which resulted in their rout from Indian soil.
In the 1990s, the unit operated the Canberra along with the Hs-748 Avro, with the squadron divided into two flights. In the late 1990s, the unit was the sole IAF Canberra unit to remain in active service. The aircrafts from this squadron have acted as Target Tugs during the later stages of their career and the Day-Glo or orange colored Canberras could be easily spotted among the flight lines during the 1990s. However, with the arrival of Satellites for overhead reconnaissance and the arrival of the Lakshya PTA for the target tug role, the two main jobs of the aircraft of 106 Squadron had now been taken over by the next generation of machines. Combined with the increasing obsolescence of the machine, the ever-increasing time periods of maintenance required to keep the Canberras flying, and seeing the immense service lifetime of the Canberras in the IAF service, the IAF in turn decided to rest these stalwart and resilient machines and retired them from active service in an emotional event, early this year.
© Copyright 2007 Vivek Ahuja. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Vivek Ahuja is prohibited.
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