AERO INDIA 2003 –– Aviations' Centenary Year

An IDC Report 


New Delhi, 26 February 2003

Aero India 2003

Part 1 –– Celebrating Aviations’ Centenary Year

By Jai Misra

MiG 29 at Yellahanka

The centenary year of man’s first manned, powered and controlled flight (well, just about controlled, anyway!) by the Wright Brothers in the USA, got off to an impressive start in far away India. This was somehow appropriate because 600 years ago, it was India that Christopher Columbus was trying to reach after all when he discovered America! The aviation centenary’s subsequent events in Australia, Germany, Abu Dhabi, and USA, culminating in the biennial Paris Air Show in June were still in the offing when Indian Air Force Station Yelahanka in South India found itself already in the aviation news, staging Aero India 2003 between 5–9 Feb 2003. This was not a first for Yelahanka either and thereby hangs a tale:

Yelahanka Revisited

It was in British India of the mid-1940s that a military airstrip came to be built for use of the Royal Air Force near the sleepy little village of Yelahanka, some 15 kilometres north of the largely military township of Bangalore cantonment. As in the case of some of the other wartime airstrips built in India, use was probably made of the captive labour force available in the form of thousands of Italian combatants shipped out from Africa to the many POW camps in India, following Italy’s surrender in Ethiopia. There were apparently three such in Bangalore, at Jalahalli, Hebbal and Jakkur, housing no less than 23,000 POWs. 

At the end of World War II the airstrip fell into disuse, doing occasional duty thereafter as an automotive racing track, the fate of many such wartime airfields the world over. It was in 1963 that the Indian Air Force decided to shift its Transport Training Wing from Begumpet airfield in Hyderabad to Yelahanka. That same year, the then Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh DFC (later to become the first Marshal of the Indian Air Force) arrived on an inspection of the technical training establishments in nearby Air Force Station Jalahalli. When the Air Chief expressed a desire to visit Yelahanka which was being reactivated as an airfield, the local Air Force brass hastily drew up a convoy of cars, complete with pilot jeep and invited the Air Chief to board his official staff car. As soon as the convoy moved off along the paved road, the Air Chief called a halt, saying that he knew from his wartime service of a much shorter cross-country route from Jalahalli to Yelahanka. Since no one else present seemed to know of it, the redoubtable Arjan Singh took the wheel of the pilot jeep and personally jolted his own convoy “over field and stream” on to Yelahanka, to the consternation of all, particularly his young ADC!

Another veteran, the late Group Captain John Mckenzie, also of the Indian Air Force, recalled his squadron’s temporary withdrawal from operations in Burma to wartime Yelahanka to re-equip with Spitfires. John’s rusty but trusty Hurricane had served him well and never had he missed a sortie on account of aircraft unserviceability. When he took off from Dumdum airfield in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to stage through Madras (now Chennai) it was with a song in his heart because he could snatch a few minutes off to see his family there. About halfway to Chennai, his coolant temperature began to rise alarmingly and he had to do a dead stick forced landing in the vicinity of another RAF wartime airfield called Amarda Road, near present Vishakapatnam on the east coast of India. It was a textbook forced landing but then a small hillock appeared inconveniently ahead and John found himself come to a thumping halt, sitting in his cockpit as “king of the hill”, his engine and wings having inconveniently dropped off just then. He climbed out of the cockpit and walked what he thought was a safe distance away, pausing to see if there were any signs of fire. It was then that he heard what sounded just like someone taking a leak – which is exactly what it was, only the leak was from one of his drop tanks which had come to just behind where he was standing. John recalled running like a bat out of hell before his aircraft caught fire. His wingman had meanwhile alerted Amarda Road and presently along came a RAF Flight Sergeant with a rescue and salvage team. The chiefy saluted John and pronounced the Hurricane officially dead. John was therefore not to see Yelahanka for the first time from the cockpit of his Hurricane on finals as had been planned but from a jeep instead.

Among the other senior septuagenarians and junior octogenarians from various countries who remembered those days was former President Weizmann of Israel, then a young pilot with an RAF squadron at Yelahanka. On an official visit to Bangalore in the 1990s, the President recalled his wartime weekly Sabbath visits to some prominent Jewish families in Bangalore with nostalgia. Press reports of the Presidential visit suggested that these visits tended to be noticeably more to one family than the others, but the President’s tight security detail saw to it that the eager newshounds were left guessing which family it was and, more importantly, why. All that could be gathered was that the President was indeed unmarried at the time! 

Cut to the present: some 60 years later, an Israeli UAV Heron gets airborne from Yelahanka on 5th February 2003 at 9:15 hrs, just before the Opening Day of Aero India 2003 and stays airborne till the ceremonies end, beaming aerial coverage of the five-hour ceremony and the flying displays to the massive stall of the Israeli Aircraft Industries. Was it looking for “something or someone special?”

Moving on, the first Aero India was staged in 1993 as a small privately organized event but the subsequent and progressively bigger ones in 1996, 1998 and 2001 were sponsored by the Government of India and staged by the Ministry of Defence and its Departments of Defence Production and Supplies, Defence Research and Development along with participation from the Civil Aviation Ministry and the Department of Aerospace. Indian Air Force Station Yelahanka remained the host, although of course no one would recognize it as a wartime airfield anymore.

The Indian Air Arsenal

India’s Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, muttering in his unique way and not quite under his breath, “Too many speeches” on his way to the podium declared the show open and released a first-day cover depicting four aircraft built by HAL, the HT-2, the HF-24, the ALH and the LCA. This was the signal for three Mi-8 helicopters to trail the flags of India, the Indian Air Force and Aero India 2003 just above the runway.

The flying display then got off to a dramatic start with the flypast of the Air Force’s fastest and slowest. It was a most impressive sight to see the Dhruv helicopter leading the formation as the slowest with its nose determinedly down going flat out while the two Su-30MKI supersonic fighters flying wingmen had their noses up at an impossible angle, seeming to struggle to stay airborne at that speed, belying their superb controllability. Such a flypast must be unique in any air force.

The second technology demonstrator of the Indian designed and built fourth-generation Light Combat Aircraft was also shown in the air, raising many inquiring and admiring glances from aviation experts of several countries. Over 50 flights of this smallest and lightest of the world’s fourth-generation fighters have already taken place and a trainer as well as a carrier-borne Naval version is also under development. Apart from the maneuverability shown by the incredibly agile Su-30 MK I of the Indian Air Force, there was also an impressive display by a MiG 29 (this particular one from the Russian manufacturers) demonstrating the vertical climb and dramatic tailslide first perfected by this aircraft type.

The other Sus, the Suryakiran aerobatic team of the Indian Air Force, thrilled the crowd with their precision formation aerobatics and showed a new manoeuvre the “Columbia” developed by them as a tribute to the astronauts, particularly the intrepid Indian born Kalpana Chawla, who recently lost their lives in the Columbia burnout. The Suryakiran team is one of the world’s only three aerobatic teams, which have a nine-aircraft formation. Even though the Kiran jet trainer has trained generations of pilots, a future replacement is already in the offing, designated the HJT-36 with tandem seating. Other aircraft types visible were India’s first fly-by-wire fighter the Mirage 2000, the sometimes-maligned MiG 21 bis and the versatile Jaguar.

In the rotary wing section, apart from the Mi-8, the Dhruv (as the Advanced Light Helicopter has been christened in the Indian Air Force), showed its paces and generated a respectable level of interest, as did a mockup of its armed variant the Light Combat Helicopter, projected as the world’s lightest and expected to fly in 2006. The offshore operator Azal India Limited has already ordered the civil version of the ALH.

While on variants, it was worth watching the Lancer being put through its paces; it is an attack version of the basic Alouette, with remarkable high-altitude performance for Army service. Other aircraft to be seen were the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard versions of the Dornier, and one Naval aircraft showing off its somewhat unnerving reverse taxiing ability!  

Picture credits: Ranjit Rai, Bharat-Rakshak, Highgallery

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