IAF’s First Formation Aerobatics Team

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Aviation magazines around the world have stories by old retired pilots titled, “I flew the . . .” Like, I flew the Sunderland. (I actually did – off the Belfast Channel – in June 1957). This magazine* has not carried many tales of this type from India. I hope this one remembering our formation aerobatics displays, particularly the anniversary of the Indian Air Force (IAF) fifty years ago, will redress the balance somewhat.    .

After completing BSc and one year of MSc, I joined the Royal Indian Air Force in July 1948 and qualified as a pilot in October 1950. I completed conversion to Spitfires and Tempests by end February 1951 and joined No, 7 Squadron (Battleaxes) at Palam in March. At that time the Squadron had six Spitfire XVIII and six Vampire Mk III aircraft. The Squadron’s Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader GK John. Flight Lieutenant RD (Dickey) Law was Flight Commander of A Flight. .

Dickey Law was very good at aerobatics on the Vampire. Not only was he very smooth and steady in performing rolls and loops, he used to show off an upward bunt while joining circuit. He would come over the airfield at about 500 feet, invert the aircraft and push upwards in an outside loop till the aircraft was horizontal again. Engine handling during this manoeuvre was especially critical. All fourteen of us pilot officers in the Squadron after qualifying on Vampires tried to imitate him and failed. While I could do a headstand for fifteen minutes without trouble, I was unable to cope with the rush of blood to my head with the negative G involved in the upward bunt.

We gave away our Spitfires to other needy units and became an all-jet Squadron with Vampires Mk 52 by September 1951. A month earlier I had done my first flight in a Vampire. Around this time it was decided to do intensive flying on the new jets to see if the airframes and especially the engines could last in India’s hot, humid and dusty atmosphere. This gave all of us a chance to log plenty of hours on the aircraft type. We did many full Squadron formation practices with the Boss (GK) leading us. Apparently Dickey Law concluded that OP (Omi) Taneja and I were good at holding our positions. On October 23 he took me up for my first sortie of formation aerobatics. He then allotted the right echelon position to me and the left echelon to Omi. RS (Sandy) Sanadi was the usual standby. The three of us became the very first formation aerobatics team of IAF. I have confirmed with my seniors that no aerobatics team had existed before ours. Due to the yaw on propeller driven fighters with changes in power and speed, formation aerobatics would have been rather dangerous. However, led by Flt Lt Jaffer Zaheer, three Tempests safely did some formation aerobatics in Poona, perhaps a first on piston-engined fighters. But they did not become a team for displays. Squadrons with propeller driven aircraft mostly did large formation flypasts as and when required .

Dickey Law, Omi and I did only one practice in November. Suddenly in the third week of December, we were asked by Air Headquarters to show off formation aerobatics at the passing out of the first course of the Joint Services Wing in Dehradun. We hurriedly did four practices and finally got airborne from Palam on December 28 1951. We flew to Dehra Dun and did a flawless show of loops, barrel rolls and wingovers. We returned to Palam well satisfied with our achievement. Air Headquarters must have received a good report on our demonstration. Soon after landing we were told to take off the next morning for Barrackpore (near Calcutta) for another formation aerobatics display there. With the 150-knot winter jet stream behind us, the flight from Palam to Barrackpore took under two hours, including taxiing on the ground. This was a record for the time, now well beaten by our airliners. Over Barrackpore we managed to put in eight practice sorties before the demo due on January 13 1952 over Eden Gardens.    .

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The show at Eden Gardens began to a full house, with attendance only slightly less than present day cricket matches. Sqn Ldr NC (Punji) Sarkar, a local hero, did solo aerobatics in a Tigermoth to thundering applause. We followed him. Group Captain (later CAS) PC Lal was doing the commentary for the show on the public address system. When he came to telling spectators about each of us in the formation, he had some special words for me. At the time I was a rare science graduate in IAF, though now every pilot is a graduate. He announced that the IAF needed not only brawn and the ability to fly but also brains. I did not have much brawn but he credited me with adequate brains. Exactly at that moment I fell out of position, though only slightly. Gp Capt Lal said that he had better stop saying how clever I was as his compliments were going straight to my head. I soon regained my station. My next important formation aerobatics display was over Delhi’s Race Course on April 1 1952, the nineteenth anniversary of IAF. .

But first some background explanation: the origin of the IAF can be traced to the recommendation of the Skeen Committee set up by the British in 1925. This committee looked into the demand by Indians for a greater say in matters of defence. The committee, chaired by Sir Andrew Skeen (then Chief of General Staff), was formally constituted as the Indian Sandhurst Committee in 1925. It recommended, among other things, the induction of Indians into the RAF College at Cranwell and the formation of an Indian Air Arm manned fully by Indians. Non-Indians (meaning Britons) were permitted to join the Indian Army and the Navy. But it was intended that IAF would have no foreigners. However, RAF officers and NCOs served with IAF without ever becoming its personnel. .

The IAF was born on October 8 1932 with the Governor General in Council declaring the IAF act operational. However, A Flight of No.1 Squadron was raised only on April 1 1933. For thirty-three years IAF celebrated its anniversary on April 1 each year. Immediately after taking over as CAS, Air Chief Marshal H Moolgavkar reverted to October 8 as the day the IAF was actually sanctioned. I wish this had happened a lot earlier. At Palam Cantonment, a distant cousin was a subaltern in 8 AT Regiment of the Army Supply Corps. The letters AT stood for Animal Transport, meaning mules to supply forward troops, especially in mountainous terrain. In spite of driving mules around, he never hesitated to twit me for observing our anniversaries on All Fools Day.

The Indian Air Force acquitted itself very well in WW II, particularly in halting the Japanese advance in Burma. About two months before VE Day, around March 1945, His Majesty the King Emperor (George VI) awarded it the title of Royal Indian Air Force. On January 26 1950 with India giving up Dominion status and becoming a Republic, the Royal was dropped from its title and Ashoka Pillar lions replaced the crown on our uniforms. We also changed over to the Himalayan Eagle. .

As a member of the aerobatics team, I was actively involved with celebrating only one anniversary of IAF. After Dickey Law left 7 Sqn, Fg Offr Bharat Singh led the team. We did a demo at Delhi’s Race Course on April 1 1952. The display went off rather well, except for some naughty behaviour by Bharat. Pulling out of the last loop, he deliberately eased off the G. We almost scraped the ground. If either Omi or I had been even a few feet lower than the leader, we would have ploughed into the Race Course. Gp Capt ED Massalamani controlling us on the R/T gave a weak call to say that the pull out was rather low.

Later, an entire four-member American Thunderbirds aerobatics team of T-39 aircraft crashed due to the failure of the leader to pull out of the loop due to mechanical problems with the control column.

After Omi peeled off to watch us from above, Bharat and I tried to show off a crossing of two Vampires flying at 455 knots each about fifty feet off the ground. At 6,000 feet, we approached the Race Course from behind the spectators. Over the display area we split away from each other and flew for an agreed number of seconds. Then the two aircraft half-rolled with throttles fully open to reach the maximum permissible speed. The attempt to show a high speed crossing was a fiasco as Bharat arrived in front of the VIPs (President, PM, etc) a few seconds before me and immediately pulled up. I went trundling past at 455 knots but without actually showing the total crossing speed of 910 knots.

At the first opportunity, Bharat Singh raised a formation aerobatics team on Hunters. This later gave way to the official team – Thunderbolts which gave many excellent displays. After Hunters were retired from service, Kirans took their place. Today, the Surya Kiran team shows off formation aerobatics in a superb manner; much better than what we could ever achieve.

Click to Enlarge No.7 Squadron formed the first 9-aircraft formation Aerobatic team in the IAF. This picture was taken in March 1962 during the visit of the Chief, Aspy Engineer. (Standing fourth from right). The CO Sqn Ldr Bharat Singh is to his right, and Flt Lt A K ‘Peter’ Rawlley is further to the right of the CO

Present day anniversaries of IAF are mainly celebrated with a magnificent parade at Palam reviewed by the CAS. This includes the ceremony of decorating some officers and airmen. A flypast is also a part of the parade. Unfortunately, in 1989 a Mirage 2000 crashed on the parade ground while demonstrating downward rolls. That was also the last year that vintage aircraft such as the Tigermoth, Spitfire Mk VIII and Vampire etc were flown. Vintage aircraft are now towed past as part of the parade.

The IAF will celebrate its 70th anniversary on October 8 with justifiable pride and will rededicate itself to the service of the nation. We shall then wait for the next major event in 2007 when it will observe its 75th birthday. That will be an occasion to remember, as by then most of the plans of IAF’s modernisation will have borne fruit. Meanwhile the Indian Air Force will surely keep Touching the Sky with Glory.

 This article first appeared in INDIAN AVIATION News Magazine

Copyright © GP CAPT KAPIL BHARGAVA. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of GP CAPT KAPIL BHARGAVA is prohibited.


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