Pioneers of Formation Aerobatics in IAF

The First Nine.
Members of the Indian Air Force's first nine aircraft formation aerobatic team  - led by then Squadron Leader Bharat Singh , CO of No. 7 Squadron.  Photo Courtesy: Air Marshal R S Bedi from The Battle Axes' formation aerobatic team

Preamble

Flying Fighters in the Air combat role is the ability of a pilot to out maneuver the enemy pilot and shoot him down. Simple as it might sound; a lot of intense training, guts and swift reaction are the building blocks of a quality Fighter pilot and takes years to reach the required standard.

For achieving this standard, certain maneuvers are taught which we term “aerobatics”. The prime object of these maneuvers is to make a pilot feel at home in the three dimensions of Fighter Flying, the horizontal, the vertical and the rolling plane with in the flight spectrum of a given Fighter. Mastering these abilities creates a favorable combat tactical advantage to position the Fighter aircraft in a manner so that it cane bear its armament on to the enemy Fighter. Since the armament, be it missiles or guns, are mounted rigidly along the line of flight of the Fighters, it is therefore obvious that you have to “aim” your Fighter straight at the target. The fact that the enemy is attempting to do the same to you, the natural process of a   "Dog Fight" emerges.

The question now remains as to who is the better  "Dog" in the fight. To produce a better "Dog" who would have an edge over the other, we painstakingly evolve tactics and train our Fighter Pilots to prepare to face this moment of truth.

Other than this ability, what is just as important is building confidence as a team. The concept of fighter operations, at least in our days, consisted of a team of two or a maximum of four pilot and aircraft as one single fighting unit. It was therefore necessary to create a perfect team concept with under standing and coordination, bordering to a sixth sense instinct. This required anticipating each and every move as a team and that of the leader. I was amazed how quickly such latent qualities develop in those who have experienced Formation Aerobatics.

In the initial stages of formation aerobatics in our Air Force the object was publicity of the Indian Air Force but after experience and knowledge gained, this important element of advanced Fighter training surfaced dramatically. Yet the policy makers of our days did not truly realize this as a valuable tool as part of advanced training for Fighter pilots, the ultimate perfection in the primary concept of a Fighter Pilot, the aim to out maneuver and shoot down the enemy individually or as a team.

I would compare Formation Aerobatic to a regular dancer trained to be a Ballerina, capable of performing the impossible. A very critical asset in deadly Combat.

The History

Formation Aerobatics in The Indian Air Force was pioneered by No.7 Battle Axe Squadron in the early fifties when the De Havilland Vampire, the first jet Fighter was inducted in to the Indian Air Force and allotted to our Squadron. We soon realized that we could comfortably “flirt” with these easy to fly aeroplanes as compared to our experiences with the propeller driven Spitfires, and the Tempest. Those planes were a no nonsense, “touch me not or I will bite” type of down to business Fighters. They were difficult to handle requiring blood, sweat and guts in training and in combat flying.

So here we had now the Vampire a perfect beauty, easy to handle and maneuver and light on the controls, ideal for Formation Aerobatics. Our regular flying training started very soon after received these Fighters. Our holy terror, whisky guzzling Charminar smoking, walrus mustached Flight Commander the infamous Flt Lt Dicky Law , took us, Omi Taneja, Kapil Bhargava and me in hand and led us in to formation and tail chase exercises individually. The idea of formation aerobatics did not surface at this time.

One day during a tail chase exercise I trailed far behind Dicky. In the subsequent debriefing, he tore me to bits for improper station keeping, by lagging too far behind his Vampire. Raging with anger I swore to my self that in the next repeat exercise I will close in and scrape the paint off his Vampires tail plane. The day arrived and once the tail chase began I tried to drive my Vampires nose very close the tail section of Dicky's Vampire. Fortunately the force of Dickeys Vampire jet blast drove me back. But I had the gleeful satisfaction of seeing his plane heave nose down. I think he got my message.

During the subsequent debrief Dicky looking me directly in the eye and asked, me point blank,  "How close did you get to my plane?"

"Too close for your comfort Mr. Law!!"  I said.

He was a cool customer, grinning through his bristling mustache, "Good!" he said,  "but do not ever get in to my bloody jet blast again!"

The era of informal formation aerobatics started the next day. Omi Taneja and Kapil Bhargava were roped in to form a three member Vic formation aerobatic team. There is a slight controversy between Kapils and my statement in this matter, which is fine, because controversies are the zest of life.

After a few propaganda formation aerobatic displays and a lot of training we all went our merry way on transfers. Omi caught up with me at  CTU Hakimpet. We were specially posted there to help in converting other instructors initially and then participate in the conversion of new pilots on the Vampire. Later after a few postings here and there I was selected to proceed to the U.K for Hawker Hunter Conversion along with other No.7 Squadron pilots. We were attached to No.2 Squadron, RAF Station Chivenor, Devonshire located in South England.

On to Hunters!  -  International face to face show down at RAF Chivenor

I was along with my old comrades were air lifted to London awaiting our attachment to the Hunter Conversion Unit , Royal Air Force Station at Chievnor, Devonshire, England. Chivenor was a small sleepy village in beautiful Devonshire, south of London. The RAF treated us like royalty with an Indian meal thrown in, for which we thanked them but with folded hands begged them not to repeat. Out of kindness they had even prepared a booklet in Hindi, which was quickly withdrawn when we spoke to them in fluent English.

  The first Hunter conversion course with the Royal Air Force at Chivenor in UK, Nov  1957

Sitting: Flt Lt Bharat Singh,  Sqn Ldr Bhatnagar, Sqn Ldr W D Mc Neil, Sqn Ldr J J Bouche, Sqn Ldr K Singh, Flt Lt Harry Bhagat and Flt Lt N K Ramprasad.Standing: Fg Off Lamba, Fg Offr Sen, Fg Offr S K Kaul (Later CAS) , Fg Offr Rono Gupta, Fg Offr F J Mehta, Fg Offr Dhawan and Fg Offr Satwant Singh.

Click to View Album No.7 Squadron 1950s

Here comes Flt Lt Harry Bhagat, a mad hatter crazy kook, but a brilliant Fighter Pilot, one of the best. He kept rubbing the British Instructor Pilots the wrong way ruffling their feathers, because they, out of caution, treated us as poor quality pilots, who were put in to Air Force uniforms, given ranks based on our age and pushed out to fly Hunters in good old England.

Those days, Hawker Hunter Mk. 56 was one of the most sophisticated front line Fighter planes in the British Arsenal. Harry went a little too far one day and challenged the highly experienced RAF flying Instructors to a dog fight. The red faced Flight Commander   Sqn Ldr Cox fed up with Harry, took up the challenge as a way to bring down Harry from the high pedestal on which he had placed himself. By accepting this challenge by a representative of the RAF, it now became a direct challenge to the Indian Air Force to prove our worth or shut up.

The Flight Commander ordered a tail chase sortie of four aircraft with two RAF Instructors, with Sqn Ldr Cox as the leader and two Indian pilots of Harry’s choosing. I shrank within my self with horror when Harry looked at me with his evil eyes and said, with out my leave, "Bharat and I will fly on behalf of the Indian Air Force.".  By accepting the challenge Harry made the challenge an international affair. I was horrified because I had been out of touch with fighter flying for nearly one year, being kicked around from pillar to post; Jodhpur to Assam and then to England 10,000 miles away. Both Harry and I had only 20 to 30 hours on Hunters at that time against the possibly hundreds of hours of experience of the Royal Air Force Instructors.

The next memorable morning was typical English weather, a grey dreary day with a mixture of cloud and mist covering the whole sky from ground level to 40,000 feet, an Indian pilots nightmare. The RAF pilots were gloating, as they were used to flying in this weather, we certainly were not and they knew it. It was now a question of  "Not to question why, but to do or die",  this was my shaky determination as we got in to our Fighters and strapped in to our ejection seats.

We took off, with all available pilots (British and Indian) and the ground crew watching this historic moment. We climbed rapidly to 40,000 feet through layers of cloud and mist. I felt like a fish in a fish bowl. Leveling out, the Formation Leader ordered the pilots to go "line stern", in other words one behind the other. I got behind the leader and Harry behind me as No.3 and the other who was a RAF Instructor, as No.4 behind Harry. This was purposely planned to ensure that we the Indian pilots were watched by the tail end Instructor.

On the word go, the leader rolled over viciously and went in to a vertical dive nearly hitting supersonic speed. After loosing tremendous height the leader pulled up in a 6 g climb. He continued mercilessly to shake us off his tail but I and Harry clung on for dear life, "death before dishonour" I muttered with grinding teeth. I remained glued to my position, hoping Harry was doing the same.

After 10 minutes of this grueling maneuvering the leader came out in to level flight and called up the formation to a finger four position. I shot forward and so did Harry to our original positions in seconds. There was however no sign of the No.4, the RAF pilot. After repeated calls on the radio by the formation leader, the No. 4 called back in a sheepish voice "I am lost". Music to our ears!! We landed, not a single word was spoken and there was no debriefing much to the disappointment of Harry. But as the end result, then onwards the IAF  gained a lot of respect from the RAF Instructors. At the end of our training we parted as good friends. The stoic expressionless British faces even showed some emotion when we wished them good bye. All is well that ends well.

Return to India

After our conversion was completed at Chivenor We all returned to India. A little later brand new Hunters were ferried to India by RAF pilots and a full Squadron Strength of 16 Hunter Mk 56 and two T.66 dual Hunter trainers were allotted to No.7 Squadron. We were located at Ambala and full blown training was started immediately with the object of getting our pilots fully operational.

Since formation aerobatics had contaminated my blood earlier I started practicing two aircraft Formation aerobatics at the tail end of our training missions. Our Squadron CO realizing our desires, unofficially allowed these unorthodox maneuvers. The word spread and our sister Hunter squadron started a competition with us resulting in an accident in their Squadron. Operational Command stepped in and decided to allow only No.7 Squadron to train selected pilots under a training programme developed by our Squadron.

Having past experience of formation aerobatics on the Vampire and by the virtue of the fact that I was the senior Flight Commander I was selected by our CO Sqn Ldr  McNeil to select and train pilots unofficially. Meanwhile McNiel was posted out and I was appointed the new Squadron Commander of No.7 Squadron. This was a perfect opportunity for me to go all out and create a team of four pilots, that is Flt Lt Ghura, Flt Lt  A K Mukerjee and the late Fg Offr Vijayan, with me as the leader.

It was certainly tough to be a leader of a Formation aerobatic team but I believe it was tougher to be a team member. The leader had to have full control of his Fighter and all maneuvers had to be constant and smooth as silk. He dared not reduce the rate of rotation of the maneuver once it was started as it would have negative G effect on the members. His planning had to be perfect in relation to the spectators and once again once the first maneuver was started he dare not change the sequence. He had to have guts to face the consequences of his mistakes and a determination to over come his own weaknesses and have a flair bordering to a Ballerina to show off his team.

To the members, I take my hat off I just never understood how they could ever place their trust and their lives in me an ordinary mortal. Flying nearly wing tip tip to wing tip with me, right side up or on their back, they seemed glued to their position. Initially I used to glance at them and every time I received a rude shock to see a mighty Hunter, over 20,000 lbs in weight steady as a rock on each side of me. I just stopped looking at them and conditioned my mind to believe that I was all alone up their doing my bit. We progressively lowered our height from 10.000 ft. down to 500 feet above ground level. Forget about aerobatics which was limited to 10,000 ft, even straight and level flight was totally banned below that height. I obtained special dispensation to perform aerobatics up to and not below 500ft.

It was necessary for purposes of display that the formation remain as low and as close to the area of display as possible. It would serve no useful purpose to disappear in to the blues after each maneuver. Therefore I decided to use 10 degrees of flap, which would allow us to rotate faster and keep the flight envelope of our Fighters as tight as possible to keep in view of the spectators at all times. As we all gained experience I found it necessary to further tighten the sequence of maneuvers by increasing the “g” factor to a maximum of 5 "G" rate of rotation in all maneuvers all through the flight spectrum. My pilots had to fly using G-suits to be able to cope with this amount of G-forces acting on their body for the full 7 minutes of the planned maneuvers.

I remember  "Kailo" a fine flyer who hyperventilated more than others and consumed all the oxygen before landing. There was nothing I could do except on his radio call send him in for priority landing. This did not mean that he was removed from the team because he could continue with our training exercise at least two times with in a sortie and only then I would send him packing when his oxygen ran low.

One day I was informed by Operational Command to complete our training quickly and be ready to proceed to Poona AFB from where we would be participating in one of the biggest Air Force day celebrations with Firepower and Formation aerobatic display, never seen before in India.  For this purpose AVM Pinto our C-in-C  came to Ambala to review our Formation aerobatic display. I believe he was pleased with our performance. His smile told us so.

Bombay Air Display. April 3, 1960.

 

4 Aircraft Team

 
   

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Ghura

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Bharat Singh
 

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Mukherjee

 
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Vijayan
   

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Stand by pilot*  
*"Gosh I cant remember his name, I knew him very well."

The Squadron morale was very high including the engineering staff and we received a fond farewell as we took off for distance Poona over 800 miles away. We always effectively utilized our flights by including a training element to it. We decided to use four long range tanks fitted to our planes to navigate a long distance flight in one hop. According to my log book it was March 16, 1960 I was flying a Hunter Mk 56 # BA297 .

We took off from Ambala climbed to 40,000. feet and behold landed at Poona in a flight time of just 1 hour and 50 minutes, an average of little over 400 miles per hour.

Our Ground Crew had already arrived before us and it was nice to see familiar faces. Rehearsals started almost every day till April First (all fools day and also The Air Force day) The rehearsals were very well planed and all formation Leaders had to land at Santa Cruz air field for de briefing and then fly their planes back to their respective bases.

Then came the grand finale on April 3rd. In hind sight I am a bit surprised it should have been on April 1st?

We got ready for the final day and made absolutely sure that our planes were fully serviceable. The Meteorological officer (met officer) made a passing comment that the sea humidity was likely to be unusually high that day. We paid no attention to this comment. We took off and crossed the Western Ghats and there as usual solid as a rock, Bombay, the gracefully curved marine drive and out in the distance our RV -  a Navy ship giving out coloured smoke as a signal for us to identify the Rendezvous Point for all participating aircraft. We switched our radio frequency to that of the Air Display controller and reported our location, height and  TOT  (time over target).   This was acknowledged and an advisory given to other planes on circuit at the RV point.

Now that we were comfortable and had time to relax I looked at the scene ahead of me. There was Bombay large as life eternal and the beautifully curved marine drive with a light blue sky meeting the dark blue sea at the distance horizon. I saw the reassuring Navy ship, solid as a rock, emitting coloured smoke and well clear of our path, small boats some with white sails bobbing in the sea. It was indeed a soothing sight but not for long. My step brother "trouble" was waiting gleefully for me.

Back to work at hand! We positioned ourselves along with other planes and left the orbit at the precise time slot allotted to us. The display controller cleared my Hunters to commence our programme. I ordered 10 degrees of flap and started my shallow dive to 500 feet level. Leveling out I adjusted my RPM to the planned 7300 revs.

Every thing looked fine with my formation perfectly in place. This is when disaster hit me literally in the face. The cockpit was suddenly filled with mist and dew. I looked quickly to the left and the right I could see my Wing men. I simultaneously ordered "flood flow on" and commenced my initial loop on instruments. I was forced to remain on instruments with minimum help from the very limited out side visibility. I shot a glance at my wing men they were right there like rocks. By now I was feeling very uncomfortable the extremely hot air by using flood flow was burning my face and my eyes were watering. I take my hats off to my boys I still don’t know how they stuck on. Suddenly the mist disappeared as quickly as it had come. I saw my self on my back rotating downwards out of the loop. Yet I dared not order switching off the flood flow because it may again start misting up. I continued the loop, now visual, and reached the other side of the loop nose down hurtling towards the sea below.

Since the profile of the loop may have been slightly disturbed during the emergency, I saw the sea, too close for comfort, coming up to meet us head on. I had to think very fast, to go in for the  "last ditch" call or continue with the planned maneuvers. I agreed with my guardian angel that there was a reasonable chance of clearing the sea by a couple of hundred feet. So we continued but dared not switch off the Flood Flow. Fortunately we all flew with our visors down during formation aerobatics to avoid the suns glare. This was a blessing in disguise as it saved any serious injury to the eyes. Having lost three hundred feet in the first maneuver and since I had to fly with my throttle fixed at 7300 r.p.m. there was no way to regain the lost height, and we were forced to continue keeping 200 feet as our minimum height. Please remember flying below 500 feet is a Court Martial Offence. I took a great chance and did  "singe my whiskers" later. Fortunately I had no time to think of a court martial  but only the sea, the aerobatics and the lives of my pilots was paramount in my mind.

Once clear of the first loop it was plain sailing to complete the sequence of the maneuvers. Coming out of the last loop we leveled out at 500 feet.... may be a little lower say 300 feet. ok you don’t believe me - then 200 ft !!

Hurtling straight at the grand stand on the Marine drive. I gave my hunter full power and roared over the Grand Stand but gracefully allowing a 500 feet clearing and shot up in to sky steering a course for Poona and from there back to Ambala. I believe the formation aerobatics stole the show as per newspaper reports and our team was personally welcomed back by no less then Gp Capt Abbas Hussain the Station Commander.

Some how some where, deep in side me, there was a gnawing apprehension of "Brother Trouble"  raising his ugly head once again. And it came with a vengeance.

Brother Trouble revisits

I was summoned to Operational Command HQ at Palam to the C-in-C's Office at the time and date specified. Waiting in the lobby I saw “Shark” no names, except he was SASO (Senior Air Staff Officer) walk past me his chin and belly quivering in indignation, walk in to the office of Air Vice Marshal Pinto ( C-in-C Operational Command). My apprehension was now at fever point. I was called in. There was the C-in-C trying to look very grave and the Sharky standing stiffly on the side and behind the C-in-C's chair. All I remember is "I shall remove you from Command if you break air discipline once again!!!"

It all came back, the Court Martial I thought.  Looking directly at the C-in-C, I told him, respectfully, "Sir you have condemned me with out hearing my side of the story".

I went ahead and described the emergency event as written in this narrative earlier and the choices I had to make, to abandon the display and disgrace my self, my Commander in Chief and my squadron or take a calculated risk, a prerogative all commanders have in the field. AVM. Pinto allowed me,  in fact encouraged me,  to complete my story giving side glances at the SASO.

After hearing me out, he said, "You may go back to your Squadron".

I was fuming with rightful indignance and cancelled all formation aerobatics in my Squadron indefinitely. I spoke to my Station Commander advising him of my decision and explaining, that I see no reason why I risk my and my pilots neck in an adventure or misadventure as the case my be and lose my Command and rank, or disgraced by a Court Martial.

A few months later AVM Pinto, came on an Inspection tour of our Base in Ambala. He made a bee line for my Squadron and after the inspection was over came for the traditional tea at my office. I could see that he and my Station Commander were sharing a secret.

The C-in-C looking at our Squadron album suddenly said, "It was a good show Bharat" referring to the Bombay Air Display,

"Now I want you to start training for a Nine aircraft team".

I stood there gaping with the shock. For Gods sake! could I say, NO!!

The First Nine Aircraft Formation Aerobatic Team in the World of that time.

Frankly most of the blood, sweat and strain was already over,  having developed the basic 4 aircraft team. All I really did was to form another 4 aircraft team and trained six more pilots and amalgamating them in to a 9 aircraft Formation Aerobatic team with one or two stand by pilots. This amalgamation of combining 9 aircraft was a bit hair raising but we soon got used to it, by first increasing the number to 6 and then to 9. which we called the diamond formation. It also became necessary to train pilots to substitute each other in positions other then their own just in case it became necessary at the last moment to fill a slot, in case the pilot for that slot was not available or his Hunter developed problems before take off or in flight.

I found that most pilots were comfortable in their own selected slot and preferred to remain there. I did manage to find two pilots Nadkarni and and Dhiman who could fit in to most positions, yet trained as many of my team members as possible to dual slot positions, in case of an emergency situation.

CO briefing the team Sqn Ldr Bharat Singh briefing the formation team members before the display flight

See more photos in Album: The Battle Axes' formation aerobatic team

I had Mukherjee as my deputy leader to replace me just in case I was not available or my plane developed problems. However deep inside me I was uncertain how Mukherjee in case of an emergency while performing Formation aerobatics would cope with the situation. I pushed aside this worry by arguing the fact that I did not know how I personally would react in an emergency. He was an excellent flyer and a good leader but unfortunately he hardly ever managed to lead a nine aircraft team because of time and aircraft availability. In my case I had been practicing a lot of Formation aerobatics including leading the nine aircraft team.

Now to train another leader, the over all Squadron effort would practically double. The reader must keep in mind that our Squadron had to complete our regular annual training programmes and special tasks allotted, and over and above the special task of training of eleven pilots in formation aerobatics. To train another leader with as much effort as on my own training would have been impossible. Any way Mukho was a great flyer and I am sure if any emergency ever came up he would deal with it effectively.

From then onwards we carried out displays for many VIPs specially our own C-in-C AVM. Pinto without whose trust and support our team would never have materialized. We performed for the Deputy Chief of Air Staff and finally for the for the Chief Of Air Staff himself and on many other occasions I fail to remember.

Our superiors were getting over enthused and suggesting all types of hair raising stunts which was causing great concerns to me. They failed to realize that I and my pilots were operating in the high danger zone and one day a mistake on my part or even a vulture hit could easily kill nine very valuable pilots and destroy nine very expensive air craft with the possibility of injury and death to spectators.

However there was one very good suggestion, which came right from the top, to send our team to participate at the Worlds greatest air show held every year at Farnborough, England. It would have been my dream come true, to come face to face with the USAF and the RAF aerobatic teams and show them what we were worth. Dreams often remain dreams. The Ministry of Finance shot the plan down because of the tremendous expense involved. Air headquarters amended their demand by suggesting that we hire RAF Hunters for us which would eliminate sending ground crew and associated spares and equipment The Central Government response remained negative.

Official Recognition

This History of Formation aerobatics has been blanked off by vested interests to place the spot light on teams in their period of Command on the pretext that our team was not officially recognized. That is a shameful argument. Our team had the official recognition by nobody less than the President of India himself. He awarded me the Vayu Sena Medal in this Endeavour. Such honours can not be given to all the team members. The significance of giving it to the team leader is the same as honouring the whole team and is the official stamp of recognition by the head of State.

Advanced notification of my award reads as follows.

MESSAGE FORM

From Ops Command
To 16 SU.

Originators number PS/92 Jan /25 UNCLAS

PERSONAL FROM AIR VICE MARSHAL E W PINTO TO SQN LDR BHARAT  SINGH STOP YOUR DEVOTION TO DUTY AND COURAGE DESERVES RECOGNITION STOP

MY HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS FOR THE AWARD OF VAYU SENA MEDAL STOP

My Citation, I call it my Squadron citation, is reproduced below.

Reproduced from Part I, Section I, of the Gazette of India Notification No. 21-Pres/63, dated 26th January, 1963.

As I close this momentous chapter of my life; To my old comrades the team members, dead or alive, I say:

"Cheers!!  May your cup of life brim over with the joy of 'Mission Accomplished'."


Further Reading:


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