Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, September 22
Streaking through the blue skies with blazing contrails just a few hundred feet above the ground, the tight formation of brightly painted red and white Hawk trainer jets of the Indian Air Force is an exhilarating sight as they execute a series of loops, barrel rolls and other breathtaking aerial manoeuvres.
The famed Suryakiran Formation Aerobatic Team (SKAT) is in Chandigarh once again to display its flying skills as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Chandigarh Air Force Station that was established in 1961.
The team, considered among the top three nine-aircraft aerobatic formations in the world, has left audiences across the country as well as in several countries, spellbound with its performance. Nine is the highest number of aircraft in an aerobatic team anywhere.
But behind the glamour and glitz of close formation flying – the ultimate test of a fighter pilot’s abilities of concentration, coordination and unflinching nerves—lies a tough regimen of careful selection, extensive training, diligence and spectacular teamwork. In addition is the meticulous technical evaluation of its all manoeuvers and flying procedures that have to be ratified and approved by the IAF’s Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment before they can be put into practice.
To be a member of the SKAT, volunteers must be fighter pilots, have eight years of service and 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.
Pilots have a tenure of about three years with the team. Generally, two new pilots join the team every six months. Starting off at high altitude with a single aircraft sortie, flying with the team leader or the deputy team leader, the fresh inductee moves on to two-aircraft and then three-aircraft formation flying. After mastering the skill of flying with two aircraft on either side, the fresher then goes in for four-aircraft and six-aircraft sorties before finally graduating to nine-aircraft sorties. All types of rolls, loops, dives and formations are flown at various training stages.
In close formation flying, there is no margin for error, especially at low levels. The displays are performed in the height band of 30 m to 1,200 m at an average speed of 550 km per hour, which requires a high degree of maturity, skills and discipline among the aircrew. The manoeuvres can be in the vertical plane or the horizontal plane depending on the visibility, cloud cover and terrain.
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 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 AK Murgai, Sqn Ldr VK Khorana, Sqn Ldr S Prabhakaran, Sqn Ldr AR Gore, Sqn Ldr RK Obheroi, Sqn Ldr N Kanitkar, Sqn Ldr PK Vohra, Flt Lt T Sharma, Flt Lt K Prem Kumar and Flt Lt KK 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.
In 1998, with Wg Cdr AK 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 flypast 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 recognition of its performance and its role as brand ambassadors of the IAF, the SKAT became the first Air Force unit to be awarded the Chief of Air Staff Unit Citation, which it received on October 8, 2004.
On May 1, 2006, the team was conferred with Squadron status after completion of one decade of precision flying. No 52 Squadron, The Sharks, an erstwhile MiG-21 Type 77 squadron, the IAF’s youngest flying unit that had been raised in January 1986, was reformed with the SKAT on the indigenously developed HJT-16 Kiran Mark-II jet trainers. The squadron’s motto ‘Sadaiva Sarvōttama’, translated as ‘Always The Best’ is an intrinsic part of the Suryakiran’s ethos.
Due to a shortage of training resources, the Suryakiran team officially wound down in 2011, with Aero India being the last event. The team then flew into the sunset in the wake of flawless displays, the last of which was in the evening of February 13.
The Suryakiran team rose again on February 16, 2015, when the unit was resurrected on the newly inducted British-made Hawk jet trainer aircraft at the fighter training town of Bidar in north Karnataka, the alma mater of all IAF fighter pilots. It had also been home to the Suryakiran team since 1996.
Incidentally, the first trip abroad post-resurrection was to Sri Lanka in March 2021 for the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lankan Air Force, exactly 20 years after the team’s very first foreign tour. The first had been to the same country in March 2001 for the 50th anniversary of the Sri Lankan Air Force.
SKAT currently operates the Hawk Mk-132, an advanced jet trainer designed by BAE Systems in the United Kingdom and license-produced in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The aircraft was formally inducted into the IAF in February 2008, and is used to train all budding fighter pilots. The aircraft is powerful and agile with modern avionics and has the capability to carry about 3,000 kg of bombs, rockets and missiles along with a 30 mm cannon. It has a top speed of Mach 1.2.
The Suryakiran Formation Aerobatic Team is at present commanded by Group Captain Anoop Singh, a Jaguar pilot decorated with the Vayu Medal for gallantry. There are 16 other officers on its posted strength, including three engineering officers, a medical officer and a woman officer who is the squadron’s adjutant, responsible for administration. The maximum number of pilots is from the Sukhoi-30 MKI.
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