Indian Air Force: History

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Warrant Officer Harjinder Singh; Picture courtesy: The Times of India, August 14, 2016

This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.



Highway landing/ 2021

Yeshika Budhwar, Sep 10, 2021: The Times of India

As a Hercules C-130J aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) touched down on a 3-km stretch on NH-925 near Barmer in a mock emergency landing on Thursday, the country’s first Emergency Landing Facility (ELF) on a national highway had a flying start. With three Union ministers on board, the mission also paved the way for 19 more ELFs that will come up on highways across the country.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh and minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari inaugurated the ELF and witnessed aircraft operations on it. Union Jal Shakti minister and Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh Shekhawat was also on the flight.

Chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria and other officials were present at the inauguration.

TOI on Monday had reported that the Union ministers would fly the aircraft as part of the inauguration ceremony of ELF, built under the supervision of National Highways Authority of India, where all types of IAF aircraft can land. “We are working on 19 similar projects. Of these, two more will be in Rajasthan,” said Gadkari.

“By creating a strip so close to the international border, we have sent a message that we will stand up for unity, diversity and sovereignty of our country,” said Rajnath. Gadkari said NHAI is willing to provide land for small airports in the region which would be used for defence and civilian purposes. “This landing strip is evidence of interoperability between different ministries. While it normally takes over a year to construct a landing strip, NHAI can do it in 15 days if IAF wants,” he said.

Manufacture of aircraft

Warrant Officer Harjinder Singh

The Times of India, Aug 14 2016

Manimugdha Sharma 

Behind first made-in-India planes: `Spitfire' Singh

A British pilot tells the story of ingenious IAF engineer Harjinder Singh who used jugaad to beat the Japanese, and went on to build a bomber fleet by refurbishing destroyed planes

Calcutta, 1941. The Indian Air Force was being deployed in World War II to fight the Japa nese in Burma. Warrant offi cer Harjinder Singh wondered out aloud: “Why should we fight this war for the British?“ Being heavily influenced by the Congress-led Freedom Struggle, he wasn't convinced that Indians should fight for the British.

His Indian commanding officer, Squadron Leader Karun Krishna “Jumbo“ Majumdar, reasoned with him: “Harjinder, if we do not fight in this war for the damned British, we shall be nothing better than a flying club when the war ends. We must fight, and we must aim to expand the IAF while the going is good.After the war is won, India will be a Dominion, and we shall have to run our own Air Force.“

A little later, on February 1, 1942, Harjinder and Jumbo parked themselves with the whole 1st squadron of IAF at the Royal Air Force base in Toungoo, Burma.The next day , the base was hit by a Japanese bombing raid. The RAF was putting up a dispirited fight with talk about withdrawing from Burma further bringing down morale. But the IAF ignored all the defeatist talk. In fact, its unorthodox CO had the most audacious idea -bombing the Japanese air base with obsolete reconnaissance aircraft. Harjinder said aye.

So, seven decades before India started talking about `Make in India', this first engineer officer of IAF converted a whole squadron of 12 Lysander planes into bombers. The Indians bombed the hell out of the Japanese. Again and again. For his pioneering effort, Singh was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). It was a sweet revenge of sorts for him -as a lowly Hawai Sepoy in 1934, he had got the most disappointing welcome message from Air Marshal Sir John Steele, the first chief of the IAF. “Indians will not be able to fly or maintain military aeroplanes.That's a man's job,“ Steele had said to the 200 Indians of the fledgling IAF.

From being a Hawai Sepoy to retiring as an air vice marshal, Harjinder's (or Harry to some) fascinating life story is the stuff of film scripts. A man who could put back any damaged or destroyed aircraft to the air, who commandeered and then drove a whole train in Burma to take his boys and birds out of harm's way , who gave Independent India an entire bomber fleet by cannibalising and restoring destroyed British and American planes, and a man who could well have been be the poster boy of the government's `Make In India' programme.

His exploits were largely unknown till former RAF officer and British Airways pilot Mike Edwards wrote out the epic tale, using personal diaries, letters and other memorabilia kept safe by J R Nanda whose uncle Air Commodore Amrit Saigal was Harjinder's staff officer.

At the launch of his delightfully written book, Spitfire Singh, at the British High Commissioner's residence recently, Edwards told TOI: “I learnt about his story in 2012. It took me so many years to write it out. I can only hope that I did justice to this unsung hero of India and the IAF. But it was perhaps destiny that a gora had to write the story of an IAF legend,“ said Edwards, who was also involved in the resurrection of the IAF's vintage flight and flies the refurbished Tiger Moth and Harvard of the IAF.

Just like Jumbo had predicted, India became a Dominion in 1947 though he didn't survive to see it himself. But Harjinder did and also experienced the horrors of Partition. Worse, soon after that, he found himself in a war against his former comrades when the Kashmir War broke out.

Overruling his British commanders, Pandit Nehru deployed the RIAF (the prefix Royal was added in 1945 and dropped in 1950) in the war. And soon, Dakotas were flying in troops to the Valley while the fighter force of Spitfires and Tempests was bombing and strafing Pakistani positions. Harjinder realised he didn't have enough spares to keep his aircraft flying. But he was a man who thought on his feet.

The next thing Harjinder did was fly to Lahore in a Dakota where he was cordially received by Pakistan Air Force officers. They let him take half of everything they had. Once back, Singh readied his planes to take on the same Pakistanis. The age of chivalry was still alive between the two rival militaries back then.

Harjinder, by this time, had spotted the wreck of a Spitfire in Kanpur. True to his style, he completely restored the plane with some help from Rolls Royce and started flying it. But he was still not a military pilot. In the 1950s, the IAF allowed him to proceed for pilot training.In his own Spitfire. And even at that age, Harjinder successfully got his wings. His Spitfire is now being restored to join the Vintage Flight.


Top pilots: 1947- 2010

June 10, 2022: The Times of India

In 1940/50s IAF looked to the Royal Air Force for air combat tactics and training, but limited budgets and opportinities meant only a handful of pilots could be trained, with no continuity and transfer of knowledge. 
Post-independence, IAF started to think of this with more seriousness. In 1950, IAF sent four pilots to Australia to undergo the Pilot Attack Instructors (PAI) course. A few more were sent to the UK in subsequent years. The plan was for these pilots to pass on their knowledge to squadron pilots.

In tandem, IAF began to scout for an air to ground range that would allow pilots to hone their skills further. Maharajpur, Jamnagar, Bhopal, Amarda Road & Cholavaran were considered. 
Jamnagar was selected and named Armament Training Wing (ATW) where, through the year, entire squadrons would visit to receive training and be assessed.

The first air to ground training course was conducted in May 1951 at ATW, Jamnagar with crew from 3 Squadron. The first desi Top Guns graduated in April 1958, and 24 such courses were held between 1958-70, training nearly 200 pilots, including three future IAF chiefs. While PAI trained with air to ground weapon delivery, air to air combat and tactics were still being learnt and developed overseas and IAF still relied on sending pilots to the UK for Day Fighter Leader Course on Hunter aircraft.

Several luminaries such as Johnny Greene, Dilbagh Singh (later chief) and Rags Raghvendran attended this course and recommended setting up one for IAF. Both Dilbagh Singh and Rags Raghvendran made sporadic attempts during the 1960s but lack of funds and approvals coupled with the 1962 and 1965 wars made sure no IAF Fighter Leader was trained for nearly 15 years, till 1972.

The 1965 war was the first one in which IAF engaged in meaningful aerial combat post-Independence. The war exposed the urgent need for us to develop tactics and training more suited to our needs. These efforts received a fillip after the formation of a unit under the Directorate of Offensive Operations. 

Group Captain Aubrey Michael and Squadron Leader Denzil Keelor planned and executed the setup. While Aubrey was awarded an AVSM for his efforts, Keelor commanded this very unit years later, retiring as Air Marshal.

The unit – the Tactics and Combat Development and Training Squadron (TCDTS) – was set up with a flight each of the best combat aircraft in the IAF fleet at that time, the MiG-21 FL and the Su-7. 211 handpicked officers and men reported to the unit on 1 Feb 1971. Initially approved as a one-year experiment, TCDTS moved to Ambala soon after and was just getting settled when war clouds began to loom.

The fledgling TCDTS was drafted in and given the task of conducting low-level night strikes on Pakistani Air Force (PAF) bases, flying at 150-200m above sea level. The only challenge was that neither the MiG-21 nor the Su-7 or pilots of the TCDTS were equipped or trained for it. To their credit, TCDTS delivered night-time raids at major PAF bases, flying nearly 300 sorties through the war. Damage to infrastructure may have been repairable, but impact on PAF morale and tactics was undeniable.

In 1972, Wing Commander A Sridharan took over as the Commandant of the now combat-experienced unit, which was renamed as the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) and moved to Jamnagar. In the hectic period of 1972-74, staff at TACDE laid out flying techniques, tactics, briefing notes and experimented with combinations of 2vs2, 2vs4 aircraft mixed formation flying, strike missions – nearly rewriting manuals on these aircraft.

The first Fighter Combat Leader (FCL) course began in May 1973. It had three pilots each from MiGs and Sukhois fleets, who were all Flight Commanders of their various squadrons and qualified PAIs from the pre-TACDE era. Squadron Leader AY Tipnis (later Chief of Air Staff) won the trophy as the best Fighter Leader of the first course.

Graduates earned a patch with a MiG-21 (Air Defence) and Su-7 (Ground Attack), separated by a flash denoting the Fighter Controllers who directed them from ground. The background colours signified the ability to operate by both day and night. The Motto of “Learn to lead – Lead to fight” was inspired by the UK. The official crest was designed by then Commandant MS Bawa in 1976. He had earlier won fame for his role in the Battle of Longewala.

In June 1982, both the MiG-21FL and Su-7 were phased out from TACDE. The MiG-21bison and MiG-21M were inducted instead, leading to refinements of techniques and syllabi. The PAI course was reintroduced at TACDE, as a subset of the broader FCL Course. The MiG-21 would remain the only aircraft at TACDE for the next 12 years. Between 1989-97, TACDE again evolved rapidly. The Fighter Strike Leader and Master Fighter Controller courses were added in 1989. Surface to air guided weapons (missiles) combat crew were also integrated. 

In 1994, the MiG-27 replaced the MiG-21M and in 1997 the Helicopter Combat Leader course was added. 
In 2000, TACDE moved out of Jamnagar after 28 years to its current home at Gwalior. Gwalior was considered a better location geographically, had modern facilities and an adjoining electronic warfare range. Su-30 replaced the MiG-27 in 2010 and earlier this year the MiG-21 was phased out of TACDE after 50 years, almost at the same time as TACDE celebrated its golden jubilee.

More than 500 pilots and over 100 Fighter Controllers had graduated from this unit. A handful of them had also been posted back to TACDE as Directing Staff – an honour that fans of the sequel to Top Gun understand well. There are Mavericks this side of the Pacific too and we sleep in peace because they train those who guard the skies above us – day or night.

The writer is an aviation historian. Views are personal

See also

Indian Air Force

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