Saturday, March 31, 2007

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 teamwork

Six 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
Pilots of the Suryakiran team beside a Kiran-II aircraft 

Reforming again 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.

Excelling in 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.

Formation 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.

Those who 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.

In close 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.

The average 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.

Formation 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

During the 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.

The experience 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.

During these 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 witnessed it.

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.

In November 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 perception.

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.

On completion 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".

For its 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.

"As 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 the air.

Lone tragedy

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.

Sarang helicopter show

Dhruv helicopters of the Sarang team execute a split
Dhruv helicopters of the Sarang team execute a split 

One 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 in 2004.

Sarang, which 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.

Dhruv, being 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.