Bhartesh Singh Thakur
On a fine Sunday morning in early 2021, then Punjab Governor and Chandigarh Administrator VP Singh Badnore called Group Captain PS Lamba to his official residence. Lamba had recently set up a three-storey Indian Air Force (IAF) museum in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Badnore took him to the iconic Press Building in Sector 18, Chandigarh, which was India’s first glass façade structure. “He showed me the space and asked whether I could set up an IAF museum. I agreed,” says Group Captain Lamba. Designed by English architect Edwin Maxwell Fry and constructed in 1953, Press Building is one of the oldest constructions in Chandigarh.
“By the evening, Badnore had telephoned Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh about the proposal,” reveals Lamba.
Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, who was then Vice Chief of Air Staff, came for the signing of the Agreed-In-Principle document with the Chandigarh Administration on June 27, 2021. When the MoU was signed on June 3, 2022, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari was present along with UT Administrator Banwarilal Purohit. He gifted a replica of an aircraft propeller as the first artefact of the IAF Heritage Centre. The propeller, by its rotation, provides forward pull to an aircraft. The gift was symbolic.
It was decided that the IAF will provide artefacts, simulators, aircraft, aircraft models and murals while the Chandigarh Tourism Department would manage the centre.
“From September 2022 onwards, we started the job. The murals were outsourced. It took eight months for the overall completion. We trained the guides for four months. The history department of the Ministry of Defence cleared the information to be displayed,” says Lamba, who was made the Project Director of the centre. His term ended on May 13, but he has been asked to keep monitoring the functioning of the centre.
Rajnath Singh inaugurated the IAF Heritage Centre last week. He termed it a testament to the courage and dedication of all those who have served in the IAF, a tribute to their sacrifice and a reminder of their invaluable contribution.
A feel of the real thing
Built at a cost of Rs 2.75 crore, the Chandigarh centre is bigger and has more aircraft than the other IAF museums at Palam (Delhi) and Thiruvananthapuram. Two cockpits, five aircraft, and four simulators are parked here. “People can feel an aircraft. They can see which buttons are to be pressed for launching bombs and rockets, how to see speed, how to change radio frequency, how to see the altitude and compass. One doesn’t get such exposure of an aircraft elsewhere,” Lamba points out.
Located at the edge of Sector 18, two aircraft meet the eye as one enters the heritage centre. One is a Folland Gnat put up near the light point, appearing to be in a descent in the sky, and the other is MiG-21 Type 96. It is perched on a platform in the parking of the erstwhile Press Building.
A visitor can sit in the cockpit of MiG-21. Having been the mainstay of the IAF for about 45 years, Type 96 was decommissioned in 2019. Inside the building, wall-to-wall murals depicting the 1971 war operations, a model of the Prachand combat helicopter and multi-role combat aircraft Tejas, models of decommissioned aircraft, and life-size paintings of Corporal Jyoti Prakash Nirala (Ashok Chakra, posthumously) and Corporal Gursewak Singh (Shaurya Chakra, posthumously) lead to the entrance of the main gallery. To the right are the corners dedicated to gallant men and famous operations, and to the left, the models of aircraft, helicopters, missiles, and bombs. Simulators, holographic displays of all IAF aircraft, films, and virtual reality have separate junctions.
In honour of the heroes
Two sculptures stand out. One is of Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, who led the force in the 1965 war. The other is of Air Commodore Mehar Singh, Maha Vir Chakra, who was the first to land an aircraft at the emergency landing ground in Poonch and Leh during the Indo-Pak war of 1947-48.
The first name on the gallantry awards wall is of Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, the only IAF officer to be awarded the Param Vir Chakra (PVC, posthumously). A blazer of Sekhon has also been put on display.
Different walls cover the 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and the 1999 Indo-Pak wars. A wall is dedicated to the Balakot strike too.
One cannot miss the bullet-ridden T-shirt of Squadron Leader S Jhajhria of Garud Commando Force (a special forces unit of IAF), who received the Shaurya Chakra during Operation Naira at Pulwama on January 29-30, 2022. Along with it are kept the maroon beret, sunglasses and Swiss knife cover of Corporal Nirala, who was awarded the Ashok Chakra posthumously for gunning down two category ‘A’ terrorists and injuring two others on November 18, 2017 in Bandipora district of J&K.
A wall is dedicated to Patiala-born Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, who was the first Indian to travel to space, making his epochal journey in a Russian Soyuz T-11 in 1984. Interestingly, the wall also carries the picture of Air Commodore Ravish Malhotra, who was also shortlisted along with Wing Commander Sharma to go to space.
Models of the Pralay missile, Smart Anti Airfield Weapon, Brahmos (aerial version), Hammer Air to Surface Missile, Laser Guided Bomb, and Astra missile are displayed in a row.
Including space outside the gallery, the heritage centre is spread over 40,000 square feet. “However, there is still space left for expansion,” says Lamba.
Director Tourism, Chandigarh Administration, Rohit Gupta, says, “One aim of setting up the museum is to feature the exploits of IAF so the youth could identify with it. The other is to give a first-hand account of how things are.”
“Press Building is a heritage building,” recalls former Administrator Badnore. “Earlier, the printing press used to function but later, it was not in use. We were planning to have vintage cars here, but it didn’t work out. Then the setting up of an IAF heritage centre was proposed. The IAF responded positively. It has come out so nicely, better than what I thought. The region has youngsters who want to join the armed forces. This centre will be a great inspiration.”
IAF Heritage Centre
10 am to 6 pm
Closed on Mondays/ gazetted holidays
Entry ticket Rs 50
Immersive experience ticket (for simulators, audio-video devices, motivational theatre and holographic experience) Rs 295
A shop on premises sells replicas of aircraft and other mementoes
a cafe on the premises serves eatables and beverages to visitors
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