Once the mainstay and pride of the IAF’s bomber fleet, the Canberra is being phased out this year. Vijay Mohan reports
ON March 7 at Chandigarh, as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, IAF personnel and select guests assembled on the airfield gazed skywards, the vulnerable Canberra made its last public appearance in the Indian skies during the President’s Fleet Review.
With IAF standards and colours fluttering on the tarmac and an array of aircraft and missiles keeping a stoic vigil, the Canberra, flown by Wg Cdr S.K. Mathur, formed the figure of ‘8’, signing off on a chequered career spanning 58 years. This is the longest period an aircraft has served with the IAF
Once the mainstay of the IAF’s bomber fleet, only a handful of Canberras remain in service today. The last of the remaining aircraft are being phased out this year. At present, they are being flown by No.106 Strategic Photo-Reconnaissance Squadron at Bareilly. As the commentator put it during the Fleet Review, "The unique features of the Canberra made the aircraft relevant even today in an otherwise modern air force."
With over 100 Canberras of different variants inducted into service, the IAF had the largest fleet of these aircraft outside the United Kingdom and the United States. The Canberra, built by English Electric, originally a locomotive company that later mass produced bombers during World War II, was also the only modern British bomber to be licence-built in the US.
The IAF first expressed its interest in the Canberra during the visit of the then Defence Secretary, M.K. Vellodi, to the UK in June 1956. A few IAF pilots had already flown the Canberra by then. One of them was the then Indian Air Attache to the UK, Gp Capt H. Moolgavkar, who later served as Chief of the Air Staff from February 1976 to August 1978. He had flown the Canberra as early as 1954 as part of an evaluation team led by the then Air Cmde P.C. Lal, who was the Air Chief during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Most courses at the Empire Test Pilot’s School in the UK by then had one or two Indian test pilots undergoing training.
It is interesting to note that the Canberra’s first flight took place as early as May 13, 1949, which happened to be a Friday. According to available information, the Canberra was designed by W.E.W. Petter, also called Teddy. Petter was the son of the managing director of Westland Aircraft, the company which gave the IAF its first warplane – the Wapiti – when it was formed in 1932. Till then it was known as the Royal Indian Air Force. The Wapiti also features on the IAF’s Platinum Jubilee logo, which falls this year.
The Canberras were meant to replace the US-made B-24 liberators already in IAF service. The first order for 65 B (I) Mk.58 bomber-interdictor, 7 TMk.54 and 8 PR Mk.57 was placed in 1957. Later another six B (I) 58, two T.54 and two PR 57s were also acquired.
The first IAF Squadron to equip with the Canberra was No.5 Squadron also called The Tuskers, at Agra. This squadron now operates the Jaguar strike aircraft and is presently based at Ambala. In June 1957, No.106 Squadron, the last remaining Canberra outfit was raised on the PR Mk.57 versions. By September 1958, No.16 and No.35 Squadrons were re-equipped with the Canberra. Called the Black Cobras, No.16 Squadron was raised on Spitfires in 1951 and at present flies the Jaguar, while 35 Squadron now flies the MiG-21 BIS.
The Canberra had a crew of two or, at times, three. It could carry a bomb-load of 8000 lbs, equivalent to the mission payload of four French-made Mystere fighters, also then in IAF service. Its good performance and handling characteristics led to the development of an intruder version armed with rockets and a four-gun external pack. It could also be used as a ground attack fighter to provide close air support to the Army, provided air superiority had been achieved.
The bombers first went into action in 1961 during the liberation of Goa. They were used extensively for bombing and interdiction missions in 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars. IAF’s historical excerpts state that Canberras raided major Pakistani airbases at Sargodha and Chaklala at night, flying 200 counter air and interdiction missions against these bases as well as other Pakistani targets, including those at Akwal, Peshawar, Kohat, Chak Jhumra and Risalwala.
During the 1999 Kargil conflict, a Canberra was assigned to conduct photo-reconnaissance sorties along the Line of Control. A missile hit damaged it, but the pilot still managed to make it back to base.
Their reliability and survivability remained unparalleled in Congo where it was deployed with the IAF contingent on a United Nations Peace-Keeping Mission. The IAF had sent six Canberras from No.5 Squadron along with ground support element. The Squadron, commanded by Wg Cdr A.I.K. Suares, inducted these aircraft through a long haul over the Gulf countries and Africa commencing from Agra on October 9, 1961.
Operating from Leopoldville and Kamina, the Canberras flew numerous attack and recce missions, many of them having vital implications for the ongoing mission. They destroyed the rebel air force, raided Katangan targets and generally provided the UN force with its only long-range air support element.
In fact two of the IAF most highly decorated officers, Wg Cdr Jaggi Nath and Wg Cdr P Gautam, both of whom have been awarded the Maha Vir Chakra twice in different wars, have been Canberra pilots.