AVRO 748 In India - More Than Four Decades On

Induction of the Avro

The induction of the AVRO 748 aircraft type in India was the result of the drive of just one man. This is now a part of the history of the country's aviation industry. Having joined the Indian Air Force (IAF) as a Hawai Sepoy (Air Soldier), a rank lower than that of a Private, Harjinder Singh rose to become an Air Vice Marshal (AVM). One of his many initiatives was the construction of an aircraft at IAF Station Kanpur (UP) in early 1958. This was appropriately called Kanpur 1. AVM Harjinder Singh lost the race to introduce this as a basic flying club aircraft to the Pushpak made by Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (HAL) Bangalore. He then made Kanpur II but again lost to HAL's Krishak Mk II. The latter became the Air Observation Post aircraft for the Indian Army.
Frustrated by these two failures AVM Harjinder Singh decided to think big and make a DC-3 (Dakota) replacement. He considered only three candidate aircraft. These were the Handley Page Herald, F-27 Fokker Friendship and the AVRO 748. The first was given up, as it did not seem to find favour anywhere. The F-27 was examined carefully. Its construction required bonding methods, which would have meant air-conditioned hangars. On that one count alone, it was also rejected. This left the AVRO 748 as the sole contender. The AVM's keenness to start producing the aircraft within the Air Force was very great. As a result, its Operational Requirement was a virtual reproduction of its sales brochure. After quick contractual agreements in 1959-60, major assemblies and parts began to be airlifted from Chadderton (Manchester) and Woodford Airfield (Cheshire) to a newly raised IAF unit, Aircraft Manufacturing Depot at Chakeri, Kanpur. The first AVRO 748 assembled in India was ready just a few weeks after the second prototype made its maiden flight at AV Roe & Co at Woodford. It thus became only the third AVRO 748 to take to the air. The production of a transport aircraft by a user air force for its own use must be a very rare case.

The First Flight

November 1961 was a very important month in its history. On the 1st, the AVRO 748 Series 1 (BH 572) with Dart 6 engines took to the air for the first time with me at the controls. Chandu Gole and Ripu Daman Sahni (both test pilots and now retired Air Marshals) were also on board. Defence Minister Mr. V.K. Krishna Menon was present to see its first flight. He was overjoyed with the aircraft (named Subroto after the first Indian Chief of the Air Staff). Krishna Menon immediately saw great possibilities in it to help his own election campaign. As is now common practice, he decided that the first Indian assembled transport aircraft needed to be inaugurated properly and "dedicated to the nation", as if till this were done, the minister concerned had been funding it and not the tax payer. He convinced Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to do the needful. This was scheduled for 26th November at Palam. Naturally, my colleagues and I prepared for this event with some dedication of our own. Ripu Daman was to fly with me and Chandu was to do the commentary on the public address system.

Subroto Small The first HS-748 manufactured at the IAF facility in Kanpur was titled 'Subroto' in the memory of late Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee. This aircraft was flown by the Author on its first test flight.

For the inauguration, we demonstrated the aircraft's capabilities. These included showing a safe take-off even if the critical right engine were to fail, by actually feathering it (at V1) during the very first take-off run. I later heard from some Air Force pilots watching it (mainly belonging to Comm Sqn) that they were convinced that the aircraft would crash and were surprised when it actually climbed away quite easily. The rest of the demo and matching commentary must also have been quite good. Sir Roy Dobson, Chairman of the Hawker Siddley Group had flown in especially for the occasion. Some eavesdroppers later told me that he remarked to the Prime Minister that it was the best demo of the aircraft he had ever seen. This must have pleased the PM. When I came out of the AVRO, Mr. Nehru was at the foot of the steps. Krishna Menon introduced me to the PM. He immediately hugged me and even made a very flattering remark, "I know this chap". He then asked me to show him the aircraft. We climbed up the ladder and I proudly showed him the interior. This was a marked improvement on his (then) VIP aircraft, the Ilyushin-14 from USSR.

Mr. Nehru sat down in the front row. Most of the other seats also got occupied quite rapidly. He then called Krishna Menon and whispered something to him. Krishna Menon came up to me and asked if we could go for a joyride. Since the aircraft had not even completed its post-production tests, the idea was a shock to me. The right engine of Mr. Nehru's Ilyushin-14 had once caught fire and Wing Commander Reggie Rufus had landed it safely at the nearest airfield, Raipur. It was front-page news. I would have been famous if I had given the PM and others a joyride but even more famous if we got into trouble. It only took me a few seconds to think this through, though it felt like an eternity. Senior Air Force people on board did not come to my rescue.

Pandit Nehru in the HS748 Sep 61 with AVM Harjinder Singh and the Defence Minister Krishna Menon Nehru Harjinder

I told Krishna Menon that I was sorry that the aircraft was not fit to carry the Prime Minister. Besides, I asked him to look back - there were other cabinet ministers, and a few governors and bureaucrats. I said that if we had trouble there would be no Government of India left. Krishna Menon must have told the PM that I was not willing to fly him around without the accompanying explanation. The PM walked out in an obviously angry gesture.

My caution in refusing the joy ride to a whole host of VIPs was not misplaced. Krishna Menon wanted to use the AVRO 748 for a visit to Bombay for his election campaign. We decided to complete the remaining production tests on the aircraft in a hurry. With Ripu Sahni at the controls and me as the second pilot we decided to combine night flying with pressurising the cabin, both for the first time on the Indian aircraft. At about 6,200 feet, we heard an almighty bang and the entire aircraft filled up with mist. We had lost pressurisation with the main passenger door having blown off.

We later heard from (then) Air Vice Marshal PC Lal, Chairman Indian Airlines (later he became the Chief of Air Staff) that this had happened four times earlier. In South America, an airhostess was sucked out. The aircraft could also not take part in the January 26 Republic Day flypast of 1962. It got damaged on the ground in a storm just one day earlier. However, it is a survivor. This IAF aircraft is now on a permanent lease to HAL as its corporate carrier. Surprisingly, in 45 years it has flown less than five thousand hours. The aircraft is still young with many more years of service ahead of it. HAL takes very good care of it.

Meeting with the President

The authorities must have been kind. On 26th January 1962, I was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal for contributions to flight testing. This award being in its early stages, the presentation was to be made by the President at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
After the investiture ceremony, as is the custom, the ADC ushered my wife and me to have a cup of tea with the President. The ADC announced us to Dr S Radhakrishnan. He was a very gentle teacher and philosopher. Mr. Nehru was seated next to him. The President asked me, "Since when have the Bhargavas become a martial people?" . I   immediately told him that it was from the time of Parashuram (from the fourth generation itself). Mr. Nehru found the answer very funny and had a good laugh.   Parashuram in Indian Mythology was the descendant of Brahma the Creator through Bhrigu the sage. His, pious, unarmed and unresisting father, Jamdagni was killed by the Kshatriyas. Parashuram vowed to avenge this atrocity. Oppression by Kshatriya kings did not help either. According to the Purans "thrice seven times did he clear the earth of (all adult male) Kshatriyas " (= 21 times). You cannot get more martial than that. The President did not say anything else to me. Apparently he was also from the Bhargava group of Brahmins and did not much care for the martial tendencies of the people who were expected to devote their time to religious studies and meditation. Mr. Nehru was very well aware of the allusion. He took over the conversation and even asked me how the AVRO was doing. The generous man that he was, I am sure he had forgiven me my "No Prime Minister".

Only four Series 1 AVRO 748s were assembled in India. All these were delivered to the Air Force and three of were retrofitted with Dart 7 engines to upgrade them to Series 2. A total 85 Series 2 aircraft with Dart 7 engines were manufactured at Kanpur. After much reluctance, Indian Airlines (IA) was induced to use seventeen of these aircraft as feeder liners. Its cabin conditioning was somewhat deficient. In summer, the interior got unbearably hot and did not cool down enough during its short-haul flights. The seating pitch was rather small - resulting in discomfort to passengers. The aircraft was not very popular with fare paying passengers. Among the IA pilots who flew it on commercial flights was Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who later became the Prime Minister. He is said to have not liked it too much even though it was his first airliner. Many years later the Dornier 228 aircraft also made in HAL Kanpur replaced the 748 as feeder liners for a while.

BH572 parks at the maintenace bay [Aug 63] A beautiful shot of BH572 "Subroto" shown parked at the maintenance bay at Changi in August 63. The aircraft was flown to various countries in South East Asia on Demonstration Flights.View Photo Album: Plane Spotting at Changi by David Taylor
HS748 Avro BH572 touching down on Runway 20 [July-Aug 63] at Changi AirportView Photo Album: Plane Spotting at Changi by David Taylor HS748 Avro BH572 touching down on Runway 20 [July-Aug 63]


The Series 1 aircraft BH-572 aircraft was taken by me for a South East Asia tour to show the Indian flag. We demonstrated it in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Burma. The briefing for our demo tour was very strange. Krishna Menon ordered us to show it off to the best of our ability. But, we were not to talk about its price, date or numbers for delivery. In short, it was definitely not a sales effort.

The Avro's service in India

The 748 during its service with the Indian Airlines has had a very distinguished safety record. A total of three fatal crashes occurred in commercial service of almost three decades. The first aircraft flew into mountains when the IA pilot on a commercial flight descended through cloud, based entirely on his estimated position, without using any navigation aids. He had decided that he knew exactly where he was. The second accident occurred during an instructional flight at IA's training centre at Hyderabad. An instructor and his pupil were killed. After this crash, checks were introduced to ensure that pilots were not inebriated before flight. The third IA aircraft crashed on a clear night while on an ILS approach into Bombay hitting the ground 28 nautical miles short of the runway. All three crashes were almost certainly entirely due to pilot error. Other accidents were non-fatal.

The Indian Air Force currently owns around 60 AVRO 748s. The majority of these are used for communication, carriage of freight and courier duties, especially within the areas of responsibility of various IAF Commands. Seven aircraft were specially equipped for training navigators and four for signals training. All these till recently were engaged in their allotted jobs. Eighteen aircraft were made into pilot trainers. The mod involved only the duplication of the nose wheel steering tiller for the instructor seated on the right. Pilots were trained on these at Yelahanka Air Force Base just north of Bangalore. This base has recently come on the international map with air shows being held at it once every two years. The next one is due in February 2007. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation acquired two aircraft mainly for calibration of navigation and approach facilities at civil airfields. One aircraft was used by the National Remote Sensing Agency for geological exploration and the paramilitary Border Security Force used one aircraft for communications.

Unfortunately, the 748 was never meant to be a military transport. At the request of IAF, its door was enlarged to enable larger cargo items to be loaded and to allow para dropping without hitting the tail plane. However, to load a jeep in it, a 30-ft long ramp was required. The jeep would drive in and insert its front wheels into the aircraft. Then it had to be manually lifted and turned to get it in. Unloading it was just as difficult. Para dropping of troops or cargo even from the aircraft with the enlarged door was considered too dangerous with the risk of hitting the tail plane. The aircraft's performance at hot and high airfields was hopelessly inadequate. Eventually IAF acquired the tail-loading An-32s which were powered specifically for IAF's need for operating in the Himalayas.

The IAF has had four fatal crashes of the 748. The first occurred at Leh killing all 28 persons on board. At Yelahanka during an instructional sortie, the right engine of another aircraft seemed to lose power. It veered to the right, resumed its original take-off heading and then hit the ground and caught fire. The possibility that the engine was feathered either automatically or by the crew and that the aircraft was overloaded cannot be ruled out. The instructor, a pilot of the Navy, the pupil and 28 joyriding pilot officers from Jalahalli were killed. The next crash resulted from fatigue failure of the support of the right engine's jet pipe. It dipped down and damaged the fuel pipeline leading to fire and fracture of the right wing. The relevant mod to prevent such an occurrence may not have been implemented on the doomed aircraft. The crew and an Air Force band perished in this accident. One IAF 748 loaned to Defence R&D Organisation had been modified for establishing airborne early warning technologies. Its radome separated from the support pylons and sliced off the top half of fin and rudder. All eight occupants of the aircraft were killed.

During certification of the 748, the weight-altitude-temperature (WAT) curves were limited mainly by the second segment climb. This concerns the climb after take-off with the undercarriage up, engines continuing at maximum power and flaps still at take-off setting. The aircraft (at V2) must have a climb gradient of 2.4% or else its all-up-weight must be reduced till this requirement is met. However for safety, manuals are based on a gradient of only 1.8%. Surprisingly, in all the years of AVRO 748's service in India there has never been a single accident due to poor performance in the second segment climb. At one time IA pilots had complained about this facet of the aircraft's performance. Under the leadership of Dr Satish Dhawan, Director Indian Space Research Organisation, much investigation was carried out, including ferrying the aircraft to Woodford for trials and back. While the IA fleet was declared to be safe, Rolls Royce undertook some enhancement of power on the Dart engines.
Aircraft Manufacturing Depot later became a part of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd in October 1964. The 748 acquired numerous prefixes starting from AVRO to HS (for Hawker Siddley) and BAe (for British Aerospace). Now that Woodford is known as the AVRO Division of BAE SYSTEMS, the aircraft can perhaps again be called the AVRO 748. The aircraft has done well for more than 45 years. It is a survivor and so is its name.

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