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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Oct 5, 2015, 6:01 PM; last updated: Oct 5, 2015, 6:01 PM (IST)

Vintage flying machines to spit fire again

Shyam Bhatia
Egged on by a very enthusiastic former Royal Air Force pilot, the Indian Air Force is set to revive its vintage squadron. First on line is the Spitfire, more than 70 years old and preserved at PEC varsity in Chandigarh. The target is to have these machines taking part in ceremonial flypasts, perhaps even the Republic Day parade of 2017. A report from London...
Vintage flying machines to spit fire again
It was former RAF pilot Mike Edwards who came across a disused hangar at Palam, containing a dust-covered Spitfire, Harvard, Tiger Moth and Vampire, each more than 50 years old. An IAF vintage squadron has since become an obsession for him. Photo courtesy: Mike edwards
A Supermarine Spitfire fighter preserved at Chandigarh’s PEC University of Technology is expected to have pride of place in a revived squadron of vintage aircraft planned for the Indian Air Force (IAF).

HS674, believed to be more than 70 years old, was originally part of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and saw action over Second World War Europe before it was acquired by the IAF.

Gifted in 1962 to PEC, formerly Punjab Engineering College, by the late Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh, the dismantled plane has been used for the past 50 years as a teaching tool for PEC students. Prof Kishori Lal, head of Aerospace Engineering, says that the fuselage, engine and wings of the Spitfire have been separately preserved. The wing design has been of special interest to his students who come from all over the country.

Prof Lal says the IAF revealed its interest in the aircraft a few months ago and has offered to exchange it for a MiG 21. “The IAF approached us, then the Air Force people came, they want to refurbish it and put it in their museum,” Dr Lal explained. “Our authorities agreed and we will get a MiG 21 in exchange.”

The Spitfire has also been an object of fascination for vintage aircraft enthusiasts all over the world.

One of them is a former RAF pilot and current senior commander with British Airways, Mike Edwards, who has persuaded the IAF to take responsibility for the Spitfire and prepare it for action as part of a larger squadron that will take part in ceremonial flypasts, such as Republic Day on January 26. Captain Edwards, who regularly pilots BA flights on the London-Delhi sector, happened to visit the Palam complex in Delhi, where he came across a disused hangar containing a dust-covered Spitfire, Harvard, Tiger Moth and Vampire, each more than 50 years old.

“When l saw the aircraft there, the next thing was to get them going,” Edwards explains. “l don’t like to see them sitting around like that and they’re very important aeroplanes in historic terms. So, from that point, l started talking to some retired Air Force guys. One of them put me in touch with Air Marshal DC ‘Tiny’ Kumaria (the IAF Vice Chief) and he was the one, the correct person to go to because he was the one who said, ‘You’re absolutely right, let’s make this happen, let’s start this again.’” 

The idea of an IAF vintage squadron has become something of an obsession for Edwards, who first became aware of it when he started to research his forthcoming biography of Harjinder Singh. It was Harjinder Singh who helped start the IAF’s vintage flight squadron that previously consisted of a Spitfire, Tiger Moth, Harvard, Vampire, the Indian-built H-2 and a Gnat. After Harjinder’s death, the vintage squadron lingered on for a few years before it was eventually abandoned.

Asked if he is reviving an old idea, Edwards responds, “That’s exactly what I’m doing, reviving and expanding.” Backed by Kumaria, he was subsequently appointed as the unpaid Chief Adviser for the IAF Vintage Aircraft Flight with approval to restore eight aircraft, including a Spitfire, Wapiti, Lysander, Tiger Moth, Hawker Tempest and a trainer bi-plane.

All told, the vintage flight group now consists of 27 full-time staff, including 25 technicians and two serving IAF pilots of the rank of Wing Commander, stationed at the Hindon air base on the outskirts of Delhi. The two Wing Commanders have just returned from the UK where they were taught the art of flying the Harvard.

Senior IAF sources who confirm Edwards’ key role describe him as an official adviser on vintage flights, entitled to use the distinctive orange, white and green logo of the IAF on his visiting cards.

Edwards explains the aim is to get at least two vintage aircraft flying for the 2017 Republic Day parade. “Of course, there are restrictions in place with the thought of these being single-engine jet fighters,” he observes. “But if we can get permission to fly over the city, that’s what we’d like to do — to celebrate 2017 in a big way, as much as we can. We are seeing if there is a possibility to fly down Rajpath.”

He is passionate about the origins of the Indian Air Force, one of the oldest air forces in the world, and the significant part it played in defeating the Japanese during World War II.

“People don’t realise the significance of what the Air Force did during World War II, it is something that’s always overlooked. The Battle of Kohima was on Indian soil soon after the Japanese invaded India. Word went out they will go no further than Kohima because if they had done so, the end of the valley goes into the open plains leading to Kolkata. Then the Japanese would have come storming into the top of India.”

Hence, the epitaph on the Kohima Memorial that reads, “When you go back home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

Back to Harjinder Singh, who in his long and distinguished career served as pilot, gunner and maintenance chief of the IAF.  In the 1930s, Harjinder served as a tail gunner in the Wapiti bomber piloted over Afghanistan by future air chief Arjan Singh. 

Less than a decade later, Harjinder used his engineering skills to modify the Lysander reconnaissance aircraft to carry 250 lb bombs to attack heavily-defended Japanese bases along the Burma border. His success in modifying the Lysanders resulted in the creation of an impromptu bomber squadron that made life difficult for the invading Japanese.

There is one Lysander left in India and it is also on the restoration list, but lower down on the priority list from the Harvard, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Vampire. Mike Edwards and his Indian Air Force friends have no doubt that it too will be revered one day as part of the vintage squadron.

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