Flying colours of courage
Even the winds
stop to stare at their daring acts. They perform stunning
gravity-defying feats at a speed that is hard to fathom. Behind
the dazzling aerobatics by these IAF fighter pilots, says Vijay
Mohan, lies rigorous training, diligence and spectacular
Kiran trainer jets of the IAF’s Suryakiran aerobatics team
streak barely 50 metres above the ground in an arrowhead
formation. With their wingtips separated by just five metres,
they move into a diamond formation and roll towards their left
to form a "card" formation with three aircraft flying
abreast and another three trailing just behind.
Pilots of the Suryakiran team beside a Kiran-II aircraft
after a breathtaking "synchro head-on cross", where
two aircraft on the same level cross each other at a relative
speed of 1100 kph with a separation of just five metres, the
brightly painted red and white aircraft, with their exhausts
trailing smoke, dive vertically and then pull up again in
different directions to simulate a bomb burst.
the skill of formation flying and aerobatics is the pride of any
air force and a true test of a fighter pilot’s abilities of
concentration, co-ordination and unflinching nerves. But behind
the dazzling display — which speaks of professionalism, elan
and grit of the men in red flying overalls — lies a regimen of
extensive training, diligence and spectacular teamwork.
Based at the
Bidar Air Force Station, the Suryakiran Formation Aerobatic Team
(SKAT), which was formed in 1996, was in Chandigarh this month
to display its skills at the President’s Fleet Review. Along
with it was the Sarang Helicopter Display Team. The only kind of
aerobatic team east of the Suez Canal, there are just three
other teams in this class which fly nine-aircraft formations —
The Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows with Hawk jets, the French
Air Force’s Patrioville de France with Alphajets and the
United States Navy’s Blue Angles with F-18s.
flying is fascinating for aviators and spectators alike, as such
aerobatics requires daring as well as precision flying.
Aerobatics is considered the essence of fighter flying as any
pilot who can manoeuvre aircraft to the limits of their
operating parameters would always have the upper hand in combat.
volunteer to be a part of the SKAT must be fighter pilots, have
eight years of service, have a minimum of 1,000 hours of flying
and be qualified flying instructors. Volunteers are invited to
fly with the team, where their performance and personality
traits are evaluated. Over the next six months or so, selected
pilots then fly 70-75 sorties practising various manoeuvres
before they get into the formation flying team. "This is
the only IAF unit which selects pilots," the squadron’s
commanding officer, Wg Cdr Sandeep Bansal, said.
formation flying, there is no margin for error, especially at
low levels. The team flies in the height band of 30 m to 1,200 m
at an average speed of 550 km per hour. "This requires high
degree of maturity, skills and discipline among the
aircrew," Wg Cdr Bansal said.
tenure of a SKAT pilot is about three years. Two new pilots join
the team every six months. Starting at high altitude with a
single aircraft sortie, with the team leader or the deputy team
leader in the Kiran’s left-hand seat, the trainee moves on to
two-aircraft and then three-aircraft formation flying. After
mastering the skill of flying with two aircraft on either side,
the trainee then goes in for four-aircraft and six-aircraft
sorties before finally graduating on to nine-aircraft sorties.
All types of rolls, loops, dives and formations are flown at
various training stages.
aerobatics is not new to the IAF. As early as 1944, the IAF had
a display flight and later a few ad hoc teams carried out
aerobatic displays on special occasions such as the Air Force
Day parade and firepower demonstrations. One such team consisted
of four MiG-21s, called the Red Archers. The precision and
spectacle of these teams were comparable to those of display
teams from elsewhere. For the Aero India 2001, a special Mirage
2000 aerobatic team was formed
golden jubilee year of the IAF in 1982, handpicked fighter
pilots from various squadrons formed an aerobatic team for the
IAF called ‘The Thunderbolts’. Flying blue and white Hunter
fighter bomber, this team captivated audiences for about a
decade and it gave its last public display in 1989.
gained from the Thunderbolts was put to good use by a
four-aircraft team called the Formation Aerobatic Team, set up
in Bidar in 1990 on Kiran-II trainers. Though the team did not
give any public displays, it ensured that formation aerobatic
skills were maintained in the IAF.
In early 1996,
serious planning began for AVIA-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,
but some senior IAF officers were confident that the world’s
fourth largest air force would be able to field its own team.
This formed the genesis of the present team, the Suryakiran,
meaning rays of the sun.
In May 1996, Wg
Cdr Kuldeep Malik, who as a Flight Lieutenant had been a member
of the ‘Thunderbolts’, and who was then serving as an
instructor at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington,
was moved to Bidar, with instructions to raise a new aerobatic
team. The pioneer team comprised Sqn Ldr A K Murgai, Sqn Ldr V K
Khorana, Sqn Ldr S Prabhakaran, Sqn Ldr A R Gore, Sqn Ldr R K
Obheroi, Sqn Ldr N Kanitkar, Sqn Ldr P K Vohra, Flt Lt T.
Sharma, Flt Lt K Prem Kumar and Flt Lt K.K. Dubey.
early months the team flew overtime, graduating from aerobatics
in four-aircraft box formation to six-aircraft in shockwave
formation. The first six-aircraft formation took wings on August
8, 1996. There were two manoeuvres which the team 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 historic first for the IAF because even the
famed Thunderbolts did not do this manoeuvre.
Soon the SKATs
were tasked to carry out their first public display — a
flawless six-aircraft display for the golden jubilee
celebrations of Air Force Administrative College, Coimbatore. on
September 15, 1996, that was highly appreciated by all those who
In 1998, with
Wg Cdr A K Murgai as the CO, the team expanded to a
nine-aircraft formation. Considering the team was just two years
old, it was no small achievement. The team first displayed a
formation of nine-aircraft during the Independence Day fly past
over the Red Fort in 1998. The first full fledged nine-aircraft
aerobatic display was to follow at Palam on October 8, 1998, to
mark Air Force Day.
1999, the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows aerobatic team was
transiting through India en route to Australia. The Suryakiran
team was at Hindon to interact with them and a lucky few managed
a sortie in the Hawk. Three months later the French aerobatic
team ‘Patrouille de France’ was at Pune and the two teams
met and flew some sorties in the Alpha jet. An interaction
between the two teams resulted in the SKAT adopting the "Synchro"
manoeuvre. This raised their standard a couple of notches and
added more colour and `E9lan to its displays. The first synchro
sequence was displayed during the Combined Graduation Parade at
Air Force Academy in June 2000.
The team has
carried out over 500 displays in 72 cities across the country,
from Srinagar in the north to Tiruvananthapuram in the south and
from Naliya, the western-most air station, to Chabua, the
country’s easternmost airfield. Srinagar, at an altitude of
5436 feet is the highest airfield from which it has operated,
when it performed over Dal Lake in July 2003. Flying over sea is
the toughest as the vast, flat expanse of water affects depth
It has also
performed in the capitals of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and
Singapore. "We keep getting invitations from Europe and
American countries, but we are restricted by the low ferry range
of our aircraft," Wg Cdr Bansal said.
of a decade of precision formation aerobatics, the Suryakiran,
the youngest nine-aircraft aerobatic team in the world, was
conferred with Squadron status. With effect from May 1, 2006,
the team became IAF’s No 52 Squadron.
Also know as
The Sharks, No 52 Squadron was initially raised on January 1,
1986, and is the youngest Fighter Sqn of the IAF. The Sharks
flew the MiG-21 FL and were used in the MiG Operational Fighter
Training role. They were briefly used in OAS role in 1996,
before being "number-plated", that is deactivated, in
June 2005. The Squadron motto is "Sadaiv Sarvottam",
which translates as "Always the Best".
consistent performance since 1996, the Suryakiran was awarded
Chief of the Air Staff’s Unit Citation on October 8, 2004. It
is the first unit in the IAF to receive this award.
ambassadors of the IAF and the nation, we are aware of the
tremendous responsibility and trust that has been placed upon
us. Apart from motivating the youth to join the IAF, we also
perform to instil confidence among all Indians about the
capabilities of the IAF," Wg Cdr Bansal said.
The Squadron’s and the team’s
ethos revolves around Esprit de Corps and discipline. The sky is
not the limit for the team’s quest for excellence and as Sqn
Ldr Ashok Raj Thakur, the team’s Synchro No.2, puts it:
"Even the wind stops to stare" when the SKATs take to
On March 18, 2006,
tragedy struck the Suryakiran team when two pilots, Wg Cdr D.
Bhatia and Sqn Ldr Shailendra, were killed in a crash near Bidar
after their aircraft went out of control during a routine
training sortie. The exact cause of the mishap could not be
established. After the accident, the first ever suffered by the
team, the entire training programme was reviewed and several
changes were introduced.
The aircraft was flying just
200 metres above the ground when it went out of control, leaving
no reaction time for the stricken pilots. The junior pilot on
the aircraft had been with the team for just three months and
was being trained to perform manoeuvres. His widow, Shweta, a
lecturer at Allahabad University, has developed a close
association with the Suryakiran team and makes it a point to
attend SKAT displays whenever possible.
Dhruv helicopters of the Sarang team execute a split
of the handful helicopter display teams in the world, IAF’s
Sarang was formed at Bangalore on the indigenously developed
Dhruv advanced light helicopter in October 2003. Its first
public performance was at the Asian Aerospace Show in Singapore
means peacock in Sanskrit, uses a bright colour scheme for its
helicopters. It was so named because the IAF had formulated a
flight routine that emulates the grace and beauty of a peacock
and its long plume of feathers. According to an IAF officer, the
Sarang’s display sequence was designed to project one
continuous manoeuvre, where each manoeuvre blended into the next
and the entire sequence appeared to be a single fluid motion.
The team’s nine-minute sequence is set against Carnatic music.
highly agile, is able to perform turns and bends otherwise not
possible in a majority of the helicopters.
What makes the
task of the pilots more demanding and tricky is the helicopters
rotors. "But for the rotors we would have been closer.
Also, the team performs manoeuvres that are normally associated
with fixed-wing aircraft.
What adds to the
complexity of helicopter aerobatics is that a helicopter, being
an unstable aerodynamic platform, is a challenge to fly. It is
more affected by turbulence than fixed-wing aircraft are.
The four-chopper team is at
present commanded by Wg Cdr Sashank Mishra, who was among the
test pilots to have flown the Dhruv in Siachen during trials.
The other helicopter display teams in the world are British, the
Army Air Corps Blue Eagles and the Royal Navy’s Black Cats.
Sagar Pawan is
the aerobatic demonstration team of the Indian Navy’s Aviation
Arm. Based at INS Hansa, the Naval Aviation’s home at Dabolim
in Goa, the team comprises six Kiran-II trainers and fly
in a four aircraft formation.
Formed in 2003,
it performed for the first time on the 50th anniversary of
Indian Naval Aviation in May the same year. Sagar Pawan, meaning
Ocean Wind, is the only second fixed wing active Naval Aerobatic
Team in the world after the US Navy’s Blue Angels.
Since its inception, the team
has performed spectacular displays at Kochi, Visakhapatnam,
Mumbai (Gateway of India), National Defence Academy at
Kharakvasla and at the their home location at Goa. They were
also one of the star performers at the International Film
Festival of India 2005, after the organisers put in a special
request to the Ministry of Defence.