No. 52 Squadron
Sadova Sarvottama – Always the Best
Formation flying has a charm that appeals to both aviators and spectators alike. Formation aerobatics is undoubtedly the pinnacle of this very demanding and daring aspect of precision flying. Painting the Indian Tricolour in the skies over the subcontinent is the Indian Air Force Formation Aerobatic Team, “Suryakiran” meaning “rays of the sun”. It is the youngest of the very few nine aircraft aerobatic teams in the world. Performing an impressive display sequence including a four aircraft synchronised medley, the team has dazzled crowds over the length and breadth of India.
Formation Aerobatics in the IAF. Aerobatics is the epitome of flying fighter aircraft, as one who can manoeuvre the aircraft to the limits of its envelope shall win the fight in the air. Formation flying is also very much a part of basic of fighter manoeuvring. Put the two together and you have formation aerobatics. The IAF since its inception has had adhoc formation teams. As early as 1944 the IAF had a display flight, however, in the 1960s and ’70s it did not have an aerobatic team that did displays for the public. 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, called the Red Scorchers. 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.
The Thunderbolts. During the golden jubilee year of the IAF in 1982, hand picked fighter pilots from various squadrons formed an aerobatic team for the IAF called ‘The Thunderbolts’. This Team enjoyed a glorious innings of nearly a decade. It gave its last public display in 1989.
The Genesis. In early 1996, serious planning began for Aero India 96, the first major air show and aviation trade event ever hosted in India. The organisers’ initial intention was to invite an aerobatic team from overseas. Some senior IAF officers were however confident that, as the fourth largest air force in the world, the IAF would be able to field it’s own team! This formed the genesis of the present team.
The Early Years. In May 1996, then Wg Cdr Kuldeep Malik, who as a Flight Lieutenant had been a member of the ‘Thunderbolts’, was serving as a DS at the Defence Services Staff College. He was posted to Bidar, with instructions to raise a new aerobatic team, in the few remaining months till Aero India 96. The pioneer Team members were:
(a) Wg Cdr K Malik VM VSM
(b) Sqn Ldr A K Murgai
(c) Sqn Ldr V K Khorana
(d) Sqn Ldr S Prabhakaran
(e) Flt Lt A R Gore
(f) Flt Lt R K Obheroi
(g) Flt Lt N Kanitkar
(h) Flt Lt P K Vohra
As the team started getting its act together, there were lengthy discussions about the name and the size of the team. After a lot of deliberation an Indian name “Suryakiran” meaning, “rays of the sun” was chosen. Initially it was mandated to be a six aircraft Team. There were many who were sceptical about the ability of the Kiran Mk II to serve as a platform for a full nine-aircraft team, since it lacked the required thrust to weight ratio like the Hunter ac. Starting with four and five aircraft formations, the team gradually built up to the use of seven. “Once you’ve done it with seven, nine, is just one small step ahead!” Wg Cdr Malik reminisced later.
The Teething Problems. The side-by-side seating cockpit of the Kiran Mk II ac imposed one constraint. Those members flying on the left of the leader had to fly from the right seat. However, the master seat of the ac was the left seat. Therefore, per force these pilots had to fly dual with another pilot sitting on the left seat to operate some of the controls like the undercarriage, flaps, radio set and the canopy. This fact saw the posting in of three young officers Flt Lt Tanmay Sharma, Flt Lt K Prem Kumar and Flt Lt K Dubey.
During these early months the team flew overtime, graduating from doing aerobatics in 4-ac box formation to 6 ac in shockwave formation. To quote from the SKAT diary, “There were some 3 ac left heavy and right heavy echelon formations practised before the first six aircraft formation took wings on 08 Aug 96” and “There were two manoeuvre’s which we finally managed to get through with a little bit of trouble. The first was the Goblet roll and the other the Tango roll – the latter incidentally was a first for the aerobatic teams history because even their predecessors the famed ‘Thunderbolts’ did not do this manoeuvre.”
Behind the scene Wg Cdr Malik and his AOC-in-C were shown two sample aircraft painted in different schemes, one in “post-box red” and the other in “day-glo orange”. Though they preferred the red scheme, they were over-ruled by the CAS of the time, Air Chief Marshal S. K. Sareen, who said the day-glo orange scheme would stand out better. In hindsight, the then CAS made the right decision.
The First Display Season. The colour scheme having been decided and a smoke mod approved, slowly but surely aircraft were being ferried in from Sulur and by mid August the team had a full compliment of eight aircraft. Soon came the first tasking for SKAT- a six aircraft horizontal display for the golden jubilee celebration of AFAC at Coimbatore. On a clear morning on 15 Sep 96 the team went public for the first time. It was a flawless display that was applauded by all those who witnessed it.
An interesting episode in the annals of the Suryakirans is as follows. The Team was to proceed to Hindon to give its first aerobatic display over Palam, Delhi on the occasion of AF day, 08 Oct 96. The team had been practising towards a six aircraft display all the while. Then came the news that the display at Palam would be a 4 aircraft display. The outers No. 5 and No. 6 who had been practising their hearts out were disappointed. The Team started concentrating on 4 ac profiles with the Nos. 5 and No. 6 taxing out as stand by aircraft. A few days prior to the planned ferry out to Hindon the AOC-in-C, HQ TC was to witness a 4-aircraft display before the team proceeded up North. On the fateful morning four aircraft with two standbys taxied out while the C-in-C watched. Then came a voice on R/T, that of the AOC, asking if the team could do a six aircraft display. The Nos. 5 and No.6 jumped at the opportunity and an hour later their fate was decided and the team was cleared for a six aircraft display. Come 08 Oct 96, and the team performed their first six aircraft aerobatic display at Palam. It is worth a mention that the present Commanding Officer Wg Cdr S Prabhakaran was a part of this inaugural Team.
Laying a Strong Foundation. In 1998, Wg Cdr Malik handed over the mantle of the team to late Wg Cdr Murgai, under whom the team upgraded to nine aircraft status. Considering the fact that the team had been in existence for only two years, this was no mere achievement. The team first displayed a formation of nine aircraft during the Independence Day flypast over Red Fort on 15 Aug 98. The first nine aircraft aerobatic display was to follow soon at Palam on 08 Oct 1998.
Wg Cdr A Tiwari was designated the Team Leader in May 1999. The team, still in its third year had already started making an impression on the spectators and media. In Nov 99 “Red Arrows”, the aerobatic team of the RAF, was transiting through India enroute to Australia. The Suryakiran team was at Hindon to interact with them and a lucky few managed a sortie in the Hawk. Not much later the French aerobatic team, ‘Patrouille de France’ was at Pune and once again the two teams met and flew some sorties in the Alpha jet. A desire for progress saw inclusion of the Synchro Sequence in the nine aircraft sequence displayed by the team. This added more colour and gusto into the displays. The team first displayed the synchro sequence during the Combined Graduation Parade at Air Force Academy (Dundigal) in Jun 2000.
Early 2001 saw the team in full force during Aero India 2001 and International Fleet Review at Mumbai. Not much later in March the team headed down South, to Sri Lanka for their maiden trip abroad. The occasion was the 50th Anniversary of the Sri Lankan Air Force. SKAT did the country proud by putting up four exciting displays.
The reins of the team were then handed over to Wg Cdr S Prabhakaran in May 2002. The Team leader’s status, meanwhile, had been upgraded to that of a Commanding Officer (considered at par with CO’s of Squadrons of the IAF). During the prestigious Aero India 2003 show, the Team undertook no less than nine displays in five days. Of the thousands who came to witness the spectacular airshow it was common to hear people saying “We’ve come to see the Suryakirans only!” In July 2003 the Team achieved the rare feat of performing a full nine aircraft vertical display with synchro over the Dal Lake, Srinagar. This was no easy task considering that Srinagar is located at an elevation of 5436 ft. There were however, bigger things to come soon.
Trailing the Indian tricolour, the team unfurled the largest Indian flag ever seen over the skies of S.E Asia in Feb-Mar 2004. Ferrying and displaying across four countries, the Team reached its final destination Singapore on 20 Feb 04 to take part in its first major international air show abroad, Asian Aerospace 2004.
Detailed planning of the tour started almost six months in advance as this was probably the first such major IAF contingent going abroad for over a month’s tour. The Team and support staff included nearly a hundred personnel, twelve fighter-trainer aircraft and two support transport aircraft. A month before leaving everyone was in overdrive, standardization was the buzzword – the overalls, uniforms, patches, eveningwear and even haircuts! It was no mean task flying a distance of over 17,000 Km, transiting through 10 foreign airbases. Nearly 8-10 crystallization cards, with over 150 frequencies was required to see the Team through the 20 odd hops to reach Singapore. . A new profile called the Singapore profile was developed. The emergence of bird flu in SE Asia almost got the tour sabotaged. However on 04 Feb 04 the Team finally left AF Stn Bidar.
An interesting incident on the day prior to crossing the International border into Myanmar, a comparison of notes with the transport support crew sent all plans into a spin. Whereas the transport crew was planning to file their flight plan for Mandalay – ICAO designation VYCZ, SKAT was cleared for Mandalay – ICAO designation VYMD! The matter was quickly resolved the transport crew were given the coordinates for the correct destination.
On 10 Feb 04 after a brief halt at Kumbhigram, 12 Kirans and two An-32 aircraft crossed the Indo-Myanmar border 62 years after the first Indian Air force squadron had done so (Editors Note: Not entirely correct, there was an Ouragan aircraft dettachment of No.8 Squadron that went to Burma in 1956) . On 12 Feb 1942, leading a flight of Lysanders of No. 1 Sqn RIAF, Sqn Ldr KK Majumdar or Jumbo as he was known crossed the Indo-Burmese border to land at Taungoo. Their mission: to stop the advance of the Imperial Japanese army – a task performed admirably by them. (No. 1 Sqn RIAF was awarded battle honours for this campaign). This time however the IAF did not cross the border in anger but with ‘Goodwill on our wings and the Tricolour in our hearts’. The Team’s first halt was at the picturesque city of Mandalay. Rich in heritage this city used to be the former capital of Myanmar. The hospitality of the Myanmar Air Force was impeccable.
“Sawasdee khap” is a term that is omnipresent in Thailand like the gods and the goddesses (after dark). One could translate it to mean ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’, ‘hello’ and even ‘goodbye’! Thailand is a country that never sleeps and always fascinates. Hospitable people, glittering temples, colourful markets and great shopping are what it is famous for.
The grand reception at Phitsanulok airfield caught the Team by surprise for it was the local squadron’s anniversary day. The entire station including wives, children and the local civilians seemed to be there. As “Suryakiran” formation cut their engines to switch off, the entire crowd swarmed in to take a closer look at the gleaming Kiran aircraft. Traditional Thai beauties garlanded all pilots. An interesting fact is that like India almost half of the controllers (ATC) in Myanmar and Thailand were women. Bangkok, an oriental city (and so droned the words of that famous eighties song), was the first major International airport that most of the Team members had landed at for the first time. Two parallel runways with a golf course in between, a departure / recovery almost every minute and more B-747s than one could count – it was truly Amazing!
The Team’s hotel was very thoughtfully located at the edge of town. Display day on the 15th for the first time the Indian tricolour was etched in Bangkok’s skies. The Thai people, Air Force and civilians included were amazed by the fact that the IAF could put up such an enthralling display. The icing on the cake was the fact that the aircraft were indigenous and had been flying for twenty years in India.
The journey to Singapore continued on the 16th with refuelling halts at Prachub Kiri Khan and Surat Thani, enroute to Hat Yai. It was on this day that most of the Team members realised that Heaven can be found on earth, for ‘Prachub’ was just that and then some. Located by the coast at sea level with a small hillock at the end of the runway it really was a very enchanting place. Surat Thani was a typical fighter base, and like the rest of the RTAF bases was equipped with a very efficiently managed officer’s cafeteria! The longest day ended at Hat Yai another forward fighter base.
After a well-deserved R’n’R at Hat Yai, the Team set course for Kuala Lumpur (KL) on the 18th morning, but, not before posing in front of the oldest F-5B fighter aircraft in the world. Yes the first F-5B that was produced in the world 42 years ago was still in top shape with the RTAF.
KL is the city of the future. Petronas towers and the KL radio tower stand well above the city skyline. It’s a pity that the Team could not display at KL, due time constraints. They did however make the most of their time there sightseeing and some even managed a ride on the ultra modern monorail.
The Team landed at Changi International airport on 19 Feb 04 and was based with the Royal Singapore Air Force, which extended their utmost cooperation in terms of ground support. A large number of Indians residing at Singapore turned up to watch the displays and it was indeed a proud moment for them. As was summed up by one of the Indians at the reception in honour of the team, “We can now walk around in Singapore with our heads held high”. Indeed this sentiment was not restricted to Singapore alone, for the NRIs at Thailand and Myanmar also echoed the same patriotic fervour.
The ten days at Singapore finished a little too soon for the Team’s liking. Sentosa Island, Midnight safari and Mustaffa remain firmly etched in everybody’s memories. The Team’s hosts at the Changi airbase held a beer bash for the officers and it was good to see that all Air Forces have similar traditions! Before they knew it, the Suryakirans had left Singapore, leaving nothing behind except the smell of AVTUR in the air and traces of the Tricolour in the sky. The team did, however, take back happy memories and an invitation to AA06.
Inevitably the Suryakiran displays at Bangkok and Singapore drew comparison with other foreign teams who had earlier performed in these countries. It was extremely heartening for the Team members to be told, in no uncertain terms, that their display was second to none! This for a Team less than eight years old and flying a basic jet like the Kiran MkII was no mean achievement.
On 08 Mar 04 the team finally re-entered Indian skies and landed at Kumbhigram. That such a large detachment had accomplished its mission without a hitch, be it in terms of ac serviceability, operational hang-ups or admin problems speaks volumes not only about the Team, but also the countless, unseen people at Air Force Station Bidar, HQ Training Command and at Air HQ. It could be achieved only because all concerned were willing to work that extra hour, walk that extra step and more importantly do it willingly! Each and every one of them realised what was at stake for the IAF and the country.
The Team however did not bask in its achievements as a fresh display season was to commence. Shortly before the commencement of the tour, the CO was informed that the team was to receive the Chief of Air Staff Unit Citation on 08 Oct 2004 at AF Stn Palam for its consistent performance since 1996. The Team is the first unit in the IAF to receive this award.
The team also participated at the Aero India 2005, once again enthralling the large crowds that gathered at Yelahanka on all five days of the airshow.
On 05 Jun 2005 Wg Cdr S Bansal took over command of the Suryakiran Team. An experienced Mirage-2000 pilot and an A2 QFI, he is on his second tenure with the Team. In its the tenth year, the team set a record of sorts as it displayed at all four corners of the country from Srinagar in the North to Kochi in the South, from Naliya in the West to Aizwal in the East. During the year the Team displayed for the Nat Geo Mission Udaan road show, it also displayed for the following state tourism departments Gujrat (Loriya), MP (Bhopal), J&K (Dal Lake Srinagar), Goa (Miramar Beach) and Manipur (Aizwal). In addition to these displays the team has also carried out displays for the Army and the Navy.
In just 10 years the Suryakiran Team has enthralled crowds across the country in over 530 displays and has emerged as the ‘Ambassador of the Indian Air Force’ and the Pride of the Nation. This milestone also marks another historic event in the annals of the Team.
On completion of one decade of precision close formation aerobatics, the youngest 9ac aerobatic team in the world, the Suryakiran Aerobatic Team has been conferred with Squadron (Sqn) status. With effect from 01 May 2006, the team has become 52 Sqn IAF.
No. 52 Sqn also known as ‘The Sharks’, was established on 01 Jan 1986 and is the youngest Fighter Sqn of the IAF. ‘The Sharks’ flew the agile Mig-21 FL (Type-77) and were used in the MOFT role. They were activated briefly in OAS role in 1996, before being number-plated in Jun 2005 and are being resurrected after a gap of nine months.
The Sqn motto is ‘sadova savaao-M<ama ‘, which means ‘Always the Best’. A motto that the Suryakiran team inherits with ease as it aptly describes the epitome of the Suryakiran team. The Team is carrying out a special display at AF Stn Bidar on 19 May 06 to commemorate this historic milestone.
The team proudly flies an indigenous aircraft, the ‘Kiran Mk-II’ used by the IAF to train its fighter pilots in basic fighter manoeuvres and weapon delivery. Pilots are selected twice a year for a three-year tour of duty, from the fighter branch of the IAF. The team performs to build confidence of our Indian brethren in the capabilities of the Air Warriors who guard our sky and to motivate the Indian youth to join the IAF. Esprit de corps and discipline are the motivating force in the team’s quest for excellence.
The Team looks forward to fulfilling the aspirations of its viewers as it is set to undertake a fresh display season at the dawn of the 75th year of the Indian Air Force. Finishing the day by making the crowd want more and the knowledge of having made a difference in someone’s life are strong motivators for the Ambassadors of the IAF.
|Wg Cdr Sandeep Bansal
|Sqn Ldr Sharad Pasricha
|Sqn Ldr Rahul Lilani
|Sqn Ldr A Tokekar
|Wg Cdr S Sadhashivpeth
|Sqn Ldr Sandeep Singh
|Sqn Ldr John Cruz
|Sqn Ldr A Raj Thakur
|Sqn Ldr Mohit Shisodia
Wg Cdr K Ramesh (Deputy Leader)
Wg Cdr Prajual Singh (Standby Synchro)
Sqn Ldr V P Singh (Trainee)
Sqn Ldr S Malhotra (Trainee)
Flt Lt Jiji Simon Subi
Flt Lt V Magesh
|Kuldip Malik VM
|A K Murugai VM
|Amit Tiwari VM
|S Prabhakaran VM
|HAL Kiran II
|Air Force Station Bidar