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On diamond jubilee, naval aviation's spirit shows

By Ajai Shukla
May 13, 2013 17:42 IST
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Since 1910, when a barnstorming aviator first took off from a warship deck, naval fighter pilots have considered themselves a special breed.

But few yearned to fly as much as Leading Aircraft Ordnance Mechanic Ajit Singh Gill, an enlisted Indian Navy sailor who eventually fulfilled his ambition by stealing a Seahawk fighter from the Meenambakkam base in 1964.

Only officers can fly fighters, but Gill was never selected, not even for an Emergency Commission after the 1962 war. So he learned to fly a tiny single-engine aircraft in the Delhi Flying Club and built aeromodels in his leisure time.

On base, he volunteered for duty helping naval pilots strap into their Seahawk fighters, during which he asked casual questions about how to fly them. One Sunday, alone on guard duty, Gill clambered into a Seahawk, fired the starting cartridge and -- using all the information he had gathered -- roared off the runway into the sky.

At about the same time that the off-duty fighter pilots and the Meenambakkam control tower realised that an aircraft had been stolen, Gill realised he had no idea how to land the high-speed fighter.

Wisely choosing to land on water where he wouldn't catch fire, Gill touched down just off Tiruvanmiyur beach. Since he did not know how to close the canopy, the unconscious Gill floated to the service where his opened hair was spotted by the frantic fishermen who had just had a fighter jet land amid their boats.

Gill was court-martialled, to the regret of many naval fliers. Says Admiral Vinod Pasricha, himself a veteran carrier pilot, "I think Ajit would have made an excellent fighter pilot. He had all the right ingredients -- courage, determination, capability, enthusiasm and perhaps the little madness associated with all of us."

Admiral Pasricha and other senior members of the navy's fighter pilot fraternity were at the inauguration of the first MiG-29K squadron, which was timed for the Diamond Jubilee of Indian naval aviation. Present in Goa on Saturday were three naval aviators who went on to become naval chiefs: Admiral Tahiliani, Arun Prakash and Sureesh Mehta.

It is the tradition of aircraft carrier operations that gives the Indian Navy a distinct edge on Sunday over its Chinese counterpart, the People's Liberation Army (Navy. In contrast to India's long tradition of carrier deck operations, the PLA-N has only now commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

"It's going to be a long, hard learning experience for the PLA-N because aircraft carrier operations are amongst the most complex military operations that one can think of. There are thousands of things that must work in unison whilst launching aircraft from a ship and nobody is going to tell the Chinese how to do those," explains Admiral Sureesh Mehta.

The navy understands well the importance of maintaining this lead. Present on Sunday at Goa was the navy chief, and the heads of all three naval commands: the Mumbai-based western naval command; the Vishakhapatnam-based eastern naval command; and the Kochi-based southern naval command.

Adding colour to the occasion were 25 wives of the officers of the Mig-29K squadron, all dressed near identically in flaming red. "For us, this is like getting married," explained one.

The spirit of naval aviation seems alive and well, 60 years on.

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Ajai Shukla
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