The above photos show Indian Navy pilots being trained in conventional take-off carrier operations at the US Navy’s Naval Air Training Command at Naval Air Station Kingsville, and other institutes, part of an elite Indian Navy strike-pilot programme that commenced in 2006 to train 32 Indian Navy pilots in batches of four every six months over a period of four years.
The Indian pilots follow an identical training trajectory followed by counterpart pilot cadets in the US Navy. The course begins with six weeks of hardcore aviation preflight indoctrination at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. This includes four weeks of theory, swimming instruction and practice, plus two weeks of flight physiology and survival training.
From Pensacola, the Indian pilots move to Naval Air Station Whiting Field, also in Florida, for 18 weeks of flying Beechcraft T-34 Mentor single turboprop trainers. After this, the pilots move to Naval Air Station Kingsville in Texas to begin the real stuff — flying jets. But first, there’s three months at Kingsville just for classroom and simulator preparation. After weeks of flying the glass-cockpit simulator, the pilots finally strap into a T-45 Goshawk. But for the first two weeks, they’re made to fly blind — called “flying under a blanket” or instrument hood. Learn to trust your instruments more than anything else, that’s the point. This completes Phase 1 of the six months course.
Phase 2 will be the real juice they’re there for. Weeks upon weeks of tactical combat formation, air combat manoeuvering and air-to-ground weapons delivery. Finally, the real meatball! Training finally ends with a trial by fire — flight qualification on board an American aircraft carrier. But he’s got to perform consistently and deliver immaculate landings on a regular basis to finally get carrier qualified to fly MiG-29Ks and LCA Navy off the INS Vikramaditya and Indigenous Aircraft Carrier.
The first Indian Navy pilot to be carrier qualified (CQ) was Captain Surendra Ahuja, who trapped his T-45C ten times successfully on the USS Enterprise in May 2007. Thus began the Indian Navy’s tryst, with tailhook aviation after a lengthy hiatus, and one that will continue long into the future.