It was 1980 and Air HQ was formalizing its plans to celebrate 50th years of foundation of IAF two years later in 1982. Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh, the Chief of the Air Staff thought that the most visible and unique way that IAF would impact the hearts and minds of the people in the country in its Golden Jubilee year must come from a show from the air and the idea of forming a Formation Aerobatic Team (FAT) started to germinate in the minds of the decision makers at the Air HQ. It was a bold idea as IAF never had a Formation Aerobatic Team though instances of aerobatic performance in formation by few bold aircrew of Hunter squadrons was known but had not received any official recognition.
Time to form the team was short and above all the approval from the Government of India with all its bureaucratic delays could stymie the idea in its very beginning. So, all preparations had to be put on the fast track. First and foremost, the choice of aircraft was zeroed onto Hunter that was the workhorse of the IAF fighter fleet in the sixties and seventies and was known for its superb handling qualities and easy maintenance. However, more importantly and in the number one priority, the planners at Air HQ had to identify the pilot who would lead the team because he would not only have the onerous task of forming the team from the scratch but also to lead it perfectly as the unique showpiece of the IAF in the eyes of the world. Various names of fighter pilots with sterling career profiles were considered.
The leader should be a Wing Commander currently engaged in flying duties with command experience. His flying records should be impeccable with no adverse safety observations and above all a leader that could lead a band of officers and men as a close-knit team. After a fair number of discussions in the highest level of decision making, one name emerged as the right choice. Wing Commander PS Brar, popularly known to everyone as ‘Ben Brar’, appeared to be the right choice to lead the team. He was currently commanding 29 Squadron at Jamnagar.
The Hunter squadron that was chosen for the task was 20 Squadron known as the ‘Lightnings’. It was a highly decorated squadron of 1971 war whose pilots were awarded several awards for their war time exploits including a MVC for its CO, Wg Cdr CV Parker (later AVM). The Squadron moved to Hasimara from Hindan and No. 27 Squadron, also equipped with Hunters moved to Hasimara from Jamnagar more as a support to the efforts of forming the aerobatic team by the Lightnings. Soon additional men and material started to pour in.
The all-important task of pilot selection for the team at Air HQ should have been headed by the team leader himself. But there was hardly any time to go through such elaborate selection procedures. So, CO left it to the ‘P-Staff’ at Air HQ with a broad QR to select pilots from the squadrons with ACR assessments on flying performance between six and seven. Soon Air HQ posted 25 odd pilots to the squadron who had to be tested for their fitness to be display pilots by the team leader. They all assembled at Hasimara in June 1981. The flying commenced towards preparation of the task on 30 Jun 81.
The next step was to decide on the colour scheme of the aircraft and have the aircraft painted in an attractive theme. One of the pilots posted to the team, Flt Lt VP Singh (VP), happened to be a talented artist and he set about creating a scale model of the Hunter aircraft in wood, which he subsequently painted as a demonstration model. VP’s model had eye-catching streaks of RED and WHITE like the RAF Red Arrows. But his colour scheme of RED was later changed to BLUE, with WHITE lightning streaks running along the length of the aircraft. Thus, the logo ‘Thunderbolts’, was suitably and very aptly represented in the final livery, that also happened to be in consonance with the motto of 20 Sqn, ‘The Lightnings’.
Meanwhile the serviceability Hunter aircraft that was already in the process of being phased out from the Air Force was a worrying factor and required maximum attention of the CO. As records indicate, IAF had already started to replace ageing Hunters with Jaguars and MiG-21M aircraft in mid Seventeens.
The screening of pilots by flying with each of them commenced in right earnest. The CO flew the first sortie on 30 Jun 1981. time was running out to get the entire team ready to fly a nine aircraft display team well before inauguration of the GJ celebrations in 1982. On 26 December 81, within a period of barely six months Thunderbolts flew the first nine ac display formation. It was a landmark day in the history of fighter aviation in IAF and definitely an occasion to celebrate. However, it also came as a bone chilling reality that demand on serviceability of aircraft for formation aerobatics could never be less than one hundred percent. This unique aspect of the squadron had to be hammered in on the ground crew by the CO and ensure that it sinks into their minds loud and clear. For any other aircrew or ground crew not familiar with similar tasks, it was impossible to comprehend that most of the team members and particularly the team leader had to use the same aircraft for a flawless display each and every time. Ben Brar himself flew 42 sorties in Dec 1981. One hundred percent serviceability and the entire one year of practice and display without even a minor incident is also a living proof that no shortcuts on the technical practices were resorted to and the “Mission Impossible” was achieved through sheer grit and determination of the ground crew through long hours of work towards achieving excellence. This is no mean achievement in a fleet of aircraft that had reached almost the end of their calendar lives. When the team readied for its first nine aircraft display, the earliest audience was Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi accompanied by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh sometime in December 1980. Impressed by the performance of the team, they were given permission to give a glimpse of the THUNDERBOLTS to the country in a six aircraft formation over the Rajpath and Rashtrapati Bhawan in January 1981 followed by a nine aircraft display over the Tilpat Range. Both shows were a spectacular success and it heralded a new era of formation aerobatics into the IAF.
As the number of displays in the Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1982 started to increase, Wg Cdr Brar realized that it would not be possible to move around the country giving displays with a huge gang of ground crew. So, the standard maintenance practice in IAF of carrying out first line servicing with technicians from each trade had to be replaced by training the men on multitasking. Once again, the resistance to change and unwilling to bypass the official rules and SOPs needed much convincing and cajoling and finally the 30 odd technicians that accompanied the team for display from one place to another was cut down to just seven technicians. As the team’s reputation started to spread far and wide, the request for their display in other countries started to pour in. Thunderbolt’s first performance out of the country was at Colombo, Sri Lanka where the unit took 12 aircraft with only 40 technicians.
The final team of nine pilots that went about performing all through the country in the Golden Jubilee year of the IAF were Flt Lt VP Singh (VP), Sqn Ldr GR Mallesh (Mally), Flt Lt Kuldeep Singh (Kilo), Flt Lt SS Sawhney (Kaka), Flt Lt AR Nigam (Nigs), Sqn Ldr AK Shyam (Shyamji), Flt Lt P Kumar (Pinky), Flt Lt A Gupta (Suzy) and Flt Lt VK Bali (Vijay).
It was obvious that not all pilots can have the temperament and skill to fly in a formation that demands a cool head and high precision to keep perfect position in a formation as any deviation can be extremely critical for the entire formation from the safety point of view. Initial selection was for the four primary members and Flt Lt TS Randhawa (Randy), Flt Lt Keshav Bewoor (KGB) on echelons and Sqn Ldr JS Thakur (Munna) in the astern positions with Ben leading made the perfect four. The practices with the four members were working out well and soon it was time to add two more, for graduating to a six aircraft team.
The Thunderbolts saga was an unqualified success and it heralded a new era of formation aerobatics into the IAF. The experience, knowledge and expertise of forming an aerobatic team with nine aircraft from scratch laid a solid foundation for the later generation of teams named Surya Kirans with Kiran ac and now with Hawks. In 1982 as the IAF went about celebrating its Golden Jubilee it was Thunderbolts that stole the show wherever they performed and kept the audience mesmerized and spellbound with their magical performance. The ballet in the air brought tears in the eyes of many spectators. It was also the best way the IAF could motivate the younger generations to join the Air Force as a career.
Wg Cdr PS (Ben) Brar later rose to the rank of Air Marshal and retired as the Vice Chief of Air Staff. He was also the AOC-in-C of Eastern Air Command and the Air Attache in France.