Sulur (Coimbatore): The Indian Air Force (IAF) on Sunday pinned yet another page to its inspiring history when desi fighter Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas was formally welcomed to its permanent home at the Air Force Station Sulur. The event marked the beginning of a new era for the No 45 Squadron, Flying Daggers, operating the Tejas, which was raised in Bengaluru on July 1, 2016.
At a solemn event at the air base, multi-faith religious representatives offered prayers inside the brand new hangar in the presence of the entire crew and family of Flying Daggers. Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Southern Air Command (SAC), Air Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, who was on a visit to AFS Sulur also graced the ceremony.
Lined up inside the hangar were five Tejas fighters, of the nine inducted into the Flying Daggers so far. Outside on the tarmac, basking in the shining sun, was another Tejas in the company of three senior residents of AFS Sulur -- an Advanced Light Helicopter from the Sarangs, a Mi-17 V5 and an AN-32.
For the record, AFS Sulur becomes the only base of IAF that currently operates fighters, transporters and helicopters from under one roof. As reported in these columns earlier, the moving of Tejas to Sulur has scaled up the roles of SAC headquartered at Thiruvananthapuram.
In an informal chat with the gathering briefly on the sidelines of the event, Air Marshal Bhadauria said he would want to see more fighters joining the squadron at the earliest. He said AFS Sulur will be the core base for Tejas inductions and hoped to see the Flying Daggers settle down the earliest as a unit.
Massive upgradation work on
Ever since the IAF chose AFS Sulur as the permanent home for the Tejas, the base began multiple activities to accommodate the squadron in the last few years. The new hangars that have come up can accommodate 40-60 Tejas fighters at any given point of time.
A new ATC tower is also coming up in addition to upgraded runway work nearing completion.
Air Commodore A K Puntambekar, Air Officer Commanding (AOC), AFS Sulur, said that the Tamil Nadu government is processing a request from IAF for additional land.
“AFS Sulur will soon become one of the most active IAF base in the South and it will also be home for some of the future programmes as well. In addition to the hangars, an engine test bed for Tejas is up and running. We also have a Doppler Weather Radar facility too in place now. It has been a well planned manoeuvre since the government cleared the plans for Tejas squadron,” says Air Commodore Puntambekar.
He said AFS Sulur has enviable redundancy in landing strips wherein, any additional aircraft of any type could be accommodated, if the need so arises. Parallel with the fighter operations need, the air base has also built new accommodation facilities for the Tejas crew.
From Bengaluru, HAL Chairman T Suvrana Raju, while wishing the Flying Daggers said his team is geared up to deliver the remaining fighters at the earliest.
“Team HAL is delighted that the Flying Daggers have started operations from AFS Sulur. HAL plans are on track to complete remaining deliveries on time,” Raju said.
Inspiring plans afoot for TN
AFS Sulur is ready with a series of inspiring plans to attract youngsters to join the ranks of IAF in future. Based on the response the Station received last year during the ‘Know Your Forces’ event, the officials are now keen to take the Tejas story to the young generation in the state.
“We want the environment around AFS Sulur to come and get a feel of Tejas. We want to give opportunities for the students to come an experience the Tejas fighter from close quarters” says Air Commodore Puntambekar.
He said the coming of Tejas to Sulur will benefit the youngsters from Tamil Nadu.
“It is a great opportunity to youngsters, provided they too tune in to the changing needs of the future and the IAF,” he adds.
Gagan Shakti an eye-openor
The stupendous performance by the Flying Daggers during the recent exercise Gagan Shakti has won laurels for the team from many quarters. During the exercise, Tejas platforms undertook multirole missions by both day and night and were able to turn around at very short notice without any prolonged snags. Though meant to be a replacement for the MiG 21s, Tejas proved to be at par with any contemporary fighter in its class.
Group Captain Samrath Dhankhar (Danny), who took over as the Commanding Officer of Flying Daggers on May 28 this year, said the priority of his team would be to safely settle down and orient themselves in the new base. Danny is assisted by Wg Cdr M Tolani, who has taken over as the Flight Commander of Flying Daggers.
“The Tejas has everything a modern fighter needs to have and we are happy with this flying machine. It is a smart and intelligent platform which would listen to you and even talk back to you. For a fighter pilot, Tejas is a delight and I am happy to lead the boys,” says Gp Capt Dhankhar.
Hailing from Rohtak in Haryana, Danny is the first non-test pilot to have flown Tejas after the Flying Daggers was raised in Bengaluru. He has 17 years of experience in the IAF and leads a very young team.
Escape from Bengaluru birds
Interestingly, the IAF officials are heaving a sigh of relief that the Flying Daggers have eventually moved to AFS Sulur.
“The bird activity over the Bengaluru skies is beyond our control and there is a risk attached when you fly under these circumstances. It will be a tragedy to lose a fighter to a bird hit and this fear always played on our minds in Bengaluru. We are happy that AFS Sulur offers a different environment,” says an official.
With the real estate boom and the number of eateries in and around Old Airport in Bengaluru increasing by many folds, the lives of aviators are often put to risk by the patrolling birds.
At AFS Sulur, the Flying Daggers will now share the air space with the Sarangs (151 HU), the Mi-17 V5 Knights (109 HU) and the AN-32 (33 Sqn) Soaring Storks.
And, the people of Sulur and Coimbatore will often get to witness the sky party performed by Flying Daggers. Blue skies and happy landings!
(The writer is an independent aerospace, defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)