Raising the SuryaKirans


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This article is based on open sources but has obviously benefited from interactions with Group Captain Kuldeep Malik, VM, VSM.  I would like to acknowledge his invaluable inputs, while retaining responsibility for any errors.  Also, I would like to emphasize that this is by no means a definitive history of the Surya Kirans, or of IAF aerobatic teams – articles like this can never do justice to those subjects.


Although the Indian Air Force had a Display Flight as early as 1944, in the 1960s and ’70s it did not have an aerobatic team that did displays for the public.  (This was one of my major grouses, as a Biggles-obsessed kid, you understand!) The annual Republic Day fly-past down Rajpath was climaxed, during the early 1960s, by a small V-formation, three or five smoke-trailing Toofanis, which would execute a single aerobatic maneuver, usually a formation loop, over India Gate.  For the public, in those years, that was about it.

In subsequent years Toofanis were replaced, at the end of the Republic Day fly-past, by Hunters, and then by Maruts, in numbers up to eleven.  These types flew much faster than the Toofanis, so for safety reasons were restricted from carrying out aerobatics over the enormous crowds thronging Rajpath.  My fellow Biggles-readers and I, craning our necks, had to be content with a steep pull-up or a bomb-burst type of maneuver over India Gate.

However a number of ad hoc aerobatic teams did display, for invited audiences, on occasions such as the Air Force Day parade at Palam, or at Fire Power Demonstrations at Tilpath.  One such team consisted of four MiG-21s, painted in an eye-catching flamingo pink scheme, called the Red Archers.  The precision and spectacle of displays mounted by these ad hoc teams was quite comparable to those of teams from anywhere else; though they were inevitably made up of relatively small formations.

Diamond Formation 

Prelude: The Thunderbolts

It was only in the lead up to the Golden Jubilee year of the Indian Air Force, in 1982, that the IAF once again raised a full-time public display team, the Thunderbolts.  It was Air Marshal M. S. Wollen who took the decision, in the 1980s, to equip the IAF’s aerobatic team with Hunters, a 1950s design, rather than one of the other aircraft types that the IAF was then flying.  But there were sound reasons for the decision; and to a man (just ask them!), IAF Hunter veterans endorse the choice.

Raised by Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) P. S. (“Ben”) Brar, the Thunderbolts displayed with verve and style, for several years, all over India.  They also did one memorable overseas display, in Sri Lanka.  On their first day in Colombo, practicing with four-aircraft formations, over the Galle Face Beach, they immediately caused major traffic jams, as half the city stopped to watch.  By the time they had practiced with the full nine-aircraft complement, the Thunderbolts were already celebrities in Colombo.  Other Indian officers in Sri Lanka took to borrowing Thunderbolts baseball caps, to swagger ostentatiously about town in.

Perhaps more demanding, the Thunderbolts actually took off from, and did a display over, Leh at least once.  A distinguished Hunter veteran, himself a former CO of No 20 Squadron, was in Leh and keen to see the Thunderbolts display.  The AOC Leh was concerned about allowing Hunters to do tight formation aerobatics after taking off at 11,000 feet; but Wing Commander “Bonny” Mukherjee, then CO of the Thunderbolts, did not disappoint his distinguished predecessor.

  By the late 1980s, the Thunderbolts’ PR role had begun to fall away.  Operational demands were taking priority; and No 20 Squadron, the Thunderbolts’ operating unit, reverted to operational commitments.


Successors: The Surya Kirans

Again for some years after the 1980s, there was no full-time Indian Air Force display team.  Then, in early 1996, serious planning began, for Aero India 96, the first major air show and aviation trade event hosted in India.  The organisers’ initial intention was to invite an aerobatic team from overseas, but some senior IAF officers were so bold as to suggest (perhaps incautiously!) that, as such a large air force, we should be able to field an aerobatic team ourselves.

Since the Thunderbolts gave up their PR role, a small four-aircraft team of Kirans had been serving as the IAF’s aerobatic team, led successively by Wing Commanders A. R. Nigam and K. K. Vijay Kumar.  However, it was recognized that an occasion such as Aero India merited something bigger.

In May 1996, Wing Commander (now Group Captain) Kuldeep Malik, who as a Flight Lieutenant had been a young member of the Thunderbolts, was serving as a member of DS at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington.  He cheerfully admits now to enjoying the officer-like life-style of the Nilgiris, hoping his next posting would be the command of a squadron, but fully expecting to spend another year or so at Wellington before it happened.  In true services style, he was unceremoniously ordered to Bidar, with instructions to raise a new aerobatic team, by hook or by crook, in the five months remaining till Aero India 96.

Paying tribute to the team, he starts by emphasizing that “half the battle” was won by the quality of the team members assigned.  One of his personal contributions, in which he still takes immense pride, was to insist on an Indian name for the team – hence Surya Kirans.

There were lengthy discussions about the size of the team.  Initially it was mandated at just six aircraft.  There were many who were skeptical about the ability of the Kiran Mk II to serve as the platform for a full nine-aircraft team, suggesting that it lacked the thrust for a formation that size.  Wing Commanderr Malik was one of those who encouraged bigger thinking, “not least because the team members were really capable guys”.  Starting with four- and five-aircraft formations, the team built up gradually to the use of seven.  “Once you’ve done it with seven, there’s no difference to doing it with nine,” he reminisced later.

Who are the Surya Kirans?

One constraint arising out of the use of the Kiran Mk II was imposed by its side-by-side seating arrangement. Certain positions, on the left side of the formation, could not be flown from the left-hand seat – it was impossible to formate, on the left side of the formation, while sitting in the left-hand seat.  So team members flying in those positions had to fly the aircraft from the right-hand, the student’s, seat.  The problem was that certain controls – the undercarriage controls, the canopy jettison lever – could not be reached from the right-hand seat.  In practice, the aircraft flying in those positions always had to have someone, a qualified pilot, but not necessarily a team member, in the left-hand seat, just to operate those controls.  The team members flying on the right side of the formation flew in the left-hand, the instructor’s seat; so the right-hand seat in those aircraft was effectively free, for a joy-riding passenger, who did not necessarily have to be a pilot.  A photographer occasionally occupied the seat.

Wing Commander Malik and his C-in-C were shown two sample aircraft painted in different schemes, one in what Wing Commander Malik describes as “post-box red” and the other in day-glow orange, and asked which they preferred.  Both said they preferred the red scheme.  They were over-ruled by the CAS of the time, Air Chief Marshal S. K. (“Bruno”) Sareen, who said the day-glow orange scheme would look better in practice.  Five years later, Kuldeep Malik acknowledges ruefully that the CAS was right –the orange scheme did look better in the sky. He had seen numerous other schemes in use by teams overseas, and had made the right call.

There were problems with the smoke trail mechanisms.  The Kirans did not have the plumbing for chemical smoke generators, as earlier generations of IAF display aircraft, the Toofanis, Hunters and Maruts, had.  The Kirans produce their white smoke as the Red Arrows do, simply by spraying diesel into their jet-pipe exhausts.  In the initial stages, the thickness of the smoke trail was severely affected by the airspeed of the aircraft.  This meant that during a maneuver in which speed varied, such as a loop, the thickness of the smoke trail varied considerably – a founding Surya Kiran wife observed that from the ground it looked as though the smoke was fading out, during the high-speed part of the loop.  The technicians experimented with the pressure at which the diesel was delivered, and eventually achieved something workable, though the Team Leader and the CAS never considered it entirely satisfactory.  “OK for a poor man’s air force,” someone is said to have muttered.

The team also experimented with the placing of the smoke button, and eventually settled for a button on the joystick, that was simply held down between the calls, “Smoke on!” and “Smoke off!”  The chemical additives required to produce the orange and green smoke required for the tricolour smoke displays had at that time to be imported, at considerable cost; and were therefore used very sparingly – not at all displays, and initially only by the two outermost members of the formation.

A further consideration was that the Surya Kirans had to carry drop tanks containing the diesel on two of their four pylons, significantly reducing their fuel load and therefore their ferry range.

It was a hectic period, and a major mission, effectively raising a new squadron-sized unit, with all the additional pressures of a highly visible PR role, and with a deadline for the first major exercise that had already been set, more or less in stone.  The team’s needs spanned units and commands in the IAF: BRDs and Maintenance Command to execute mods; flying stations and operational Commands to provide runway and ATC facilities (sometimes causing hold-ups in their own flying programs); and Training Command for base facilities.  The AOC-in-C Training Command of the time, Air Marshal K. B. Singh, took a personal interest in the formation and the raising of this unit, and conferred frequently on a one-to-one basis with Wing Commander Malik, directly addressing many of the issues the team had to deal with.

Come the deadline, and display the Surya Kirans did, and in style too.  During Aero India 96, the Surya Kirans wowed the crowds on four days out of the five – only scrubbing the display on one day, due to bad weather.  The Team Leader, who made that call, had the fullest support for curtailing the display on the day he did; the officer responsible for approving the Team Leader’s call was Air Vice-Marshal Lamba.  AVM Lamba had himself led a flying display some years earlier, flying the Historic Flight’s Tiger Moth, during which a pilot had been tragically lost.  He had learned the hard way that a line needs to be drawn, sometimes.  

Unfortunately, the Surya Kirans could not display with colored smoke, at Aero India 96. The required chemicals had arrived in India, but were held up, inevitably, in a Customs warehouse.

The Surya Kirans’ first near-public display had actually been done shortly before Aero India 96, for the Golden Jubilee of the Air Force Administrative College at Coimbatore.  It was not too far from Bidar, and a relatively easy ferry.  (One of the constraints of deploying the Kirans, as compared to the Thunderbolts’ Hunters, has been their shorter ferry range.)

The Surya Kirans did several major displays across India.  One of the highlights was a display over the National Stadium, marking Vijay Divas, commemorating victory in the Bangladesh liberation war.  This was particularly difficult to fly, as the route led over the National Stadium and Purana Quila, along a flight path which leads almost directly to the turbulent, bird- thermal- and smog-ridden air above the Indraprastha power station.

Subsequently more cautious figures in the Indian Air Force, and civil aviation authorities, following practice in many other large cities worldwide, have placed restrictions on aerobatic displays, and even on fly pasts, by single-engine aircraft over populated cities.  So we have probably seen the last of the displays over India Gate, which brought to such a thrilling end the Republic Day fly-pasts of the 1960s and the early ’70s.

As time has worn on, the Surya Kirans have made good use of the empty seats in some of their aircraft.  They often carried a photographer, or a pilot from the base they were flying out of.  On one occasion that Wing Commander Malik remembers, they were displaying immediately after an Iskra display.  The Iskras which displayed each had a joy-riding Surya Kiran team member in the rear cockpit.  They landed immediately after their part in the display, and from each Iskra both pilots sprinted across to the Surya Kiran aircraft waiting to take off for their own part in the display, in which the Iskra pilots now flew as joy-riders!

The Future

In 1998, Wing Commander Malik handed over leadership of the Surya Kirans to his No 2, Wing Commander Anil Murgai, whose third stripe had recently been gazetted.  Wing Commander Malik went on to command an operational squadron.  Wing Commander Murgai led the Surya Kirans ably for the following two years.  (Tragically, he died in a flying accident in 2000, after handing over leadership of the Surya Kirans himself.)  He was followed by Wing Commander Amit Tewari, who led the team during Aero India 2001.  The current leader is Wing Commander S. Prabhakaran, who served previously as a team member in the founding period.

The Surya Kirans continue to operate, as the public face of the world’s fourth largest air force. The spectacle they provide, across the length and breadth of India, and recently in Sri Lanka, continues to garner the respect of professionals, the admiration of spectators, and provide inspiration to youngsters.  Long may they continue to do so.


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