Over a warm lunch at the Akash Officers’ Mess in the heart of India’s capital city this week, the Indian Air Force joyfully welcomed the newest member to a very special family. But as papers were signed for a beautifully restored World War II vintage DC-3 Dakota aircraft to join the IAF’s fledgeling Vintage Squadron, the aircraft itself was nearly 7,000 km away in Coventry in the United Kingdom. Not one to be left out of the festivities, pilot Mike Edwards slid into an IAF flight suit and decided to do his bit, ‘representing’ the IAF for a symbolic handover in the shadow of the grand flying machine.
For Edwards, the man overseeing restoration of the IAF’s vintage aircraft to flying condition as an official advisor, this has been a week of ecstasy. For nearly a decade since former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major kickstarted the vintage squadron’s journey by approving the restoration of heritage aircraft, Edwards has helmed the magical process. The Dakota that now flies in Indian colours over Coventry will soon join the two aircraft that currently populate the vintage squadron: a delightful de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane and North American T-6G Harvard trainer. But three aircraft in, there are serious doubts about what comes next. Or if anything’s coming next at all.
But what’s stalling the project? The simplest answer would be India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL), but there may be other pressures at play. First, let’s deal with the HAL hold-up.
The Tiger Moth and Harvard were both restored by a direct IAF contract to HAL, the latter carrying out the restoration in partnership with British company Reflight in Coventry. According to Edwards, this allowed the aircraft to be restored under British Civilian regulations, have a certificate of airworthiness issued which allowed the IAF to issue the ‘release to service’. It was found that this method of certification was quite simply the only path available certify restored vintage aircraft for IAF use.
IAF sources tell Livefist that HAL is no longer interested in participating in the program, with the cost and trouble far outweighing any possible profits. And since existing rules and bureaucracies make it difficult for the air force to contract directly with the UK-based company, moving forward without HAL has all but grounded the project. Evidently in the hopes of ‘sweetening’ the program and luring HAL back in, the IAF and Reflight have proposed that HAL’s vintage HT-2 trainer also be restored for the vintage squadron. But HAL isn’t moved.
“HAL have declined to be a part of further restoration despite the HAL HT2 now being discussed as another candidate for the vintage flight,” Mike Edwards tells Livefist. “Rather than following the path already established with Reflight they insisted they would need to destructive test 2 airframes. Obviously this is ridiculous and a stance taken to not be involved further as I believe it was deemed too much trouble. So the contract has to be issued directly from VB and it has been “stuck” for over 2 years.”
Livefist learns that the two next vintage IAF aircraft that were to be transported to the UK to begin restoration work over two years ago — a Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane — are still at the IAF’s museum in Delhi. And, as a result of the current impasse, there remains no clarity over precisely when and if things will start moving.
HAL declined an official response to Livefist questions on the stalemate. However a senior official said, “Over and above the returns on such endeavours, there are concerns over parts and serviceability, since these aircraft are very old. HAL is not closed to the idea of the HT-2.”
Edwards adds, “Reflight has provided extensive info to HAL and can restore, certify and return the HT2 to service relatively quickly but this project is also stuck in Vayu Bhaawan and in the IAF-HAL relationship. The HT2 would be a perfect aircraft to have. Built by India, a generation trained on them, it is a display aircraft in its own right and can return to its training job and train this generation of IAF pilots who are joining Vintage Flight.”
An exasperated IAF officer who has dealt with the Vintage Flight in the past says, “HAL don’t seem interested in their own history (HT2 and Gnat/Ajeet) let alone wider IAF history.”
Livefist got the sense from conversations with HAL executives that a section within the company definitely wants the vintage squadron project on track with HAL involvement. But shareholder pressures, budgetary issues and a frequently adversarial relationship with the IAF has made things difficult. While contract files for the next two aircraft remain ‘stuck’ at the Air Force Headquarters, a cloud now hovers over the other aircraft the IAF wants to see fly with its vintage squadron.
Apart from the Spitfire and Hurricane, the IAF’s 2008 vintage squadron plan also envisages flying specimens of a Hawker Tempest, Westland Lysander, de Havilland Vampire, Folland Gnat and the IAF’s first aircraft, the beautiful Westland Wapiti biplane, of which a singular specimen sits at Delhi’s Palam. It is understood that the Hurricane was being pushed as a priority by the IAF given its strong links to Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, who passed away last year.
Edwards says, “All aircraft awaiting restoration are in Palam. Each aircraft is being treated as an individual project and they are being dealt with one after the other (which was not the original plan). The next on the list was to be the Hurricane. Our sister unit, the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) pilots fly the Hurricane for a season before flying the Spitfire. However that was changed to the Mk VIII Spitfire that was the one rescued, restored and flown by Harjinder Singh. The project has been in Vayu Bhawan for over two years awaiting issue of contract.”
Edwards, who wrote a fine account of Harjinder Singh’s tryst with the Spitfire, has had a troubling two years waiting for movement on the project, but remains upbeat.
“With the connection to Harjinder “Spitfire” Singh, the Spitfire is special to me and it will put IAF on the map in terms of military historic units,” Edwards says. “However in terms of IAF history, the Spitfire was widely used and helped win the 1947 war but the Hurricane has that link to Marshal Arjan Singh, 1 Sqn and the battle of Kohima. There is no Tempest flying in the world, which would make IAF vintage flight unique. The IAF was formed on the Wapiti and we have the only example left in the world. It goes without saying this is something very special and I think should be restored as a flying memorial to Marshal Arjan Singh perhaps as a joint military and business backed project.”
Industrialist politician Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s decision to fund the restoration of a DC-3 Dakota as a gift to the IAF has ignited the possibility of what Edwards calls ‘business backed’ projects. While the idea has been floated on forums, no concrete discussions have happened just yet. Companies with a rich aviation history like the Tata Group could potentially be interested in pitching in, IAF sources suggested. Chandrasekhar himself could potentially be interested in supporting further restorations, an officer on his team told Livefist.
While the project remains stalled for all practical purposes, the IAF’s plan is to either cajole HAL back into the mix, or figure a way to slice through the red tape required for a foreign contract of this kind. Justifying the expenditure at a time when the IAF faces its biggest budgetary pressures in history will be another battle altogether.
For the project though, next in line are the Spitfire and Hurricane — whenever they’re cleared to move. These two aircraft, engineers in the UK believe, will be easier to restore than many of the others in the IAF’s vintage flight plan.
Edwards weighs in: “The Spitfire and Hurricane are straight forward as several have been done before and are now flying (including several ex-IAF Spitfires). Ever part is removed and tested to see if it can be rescued. Parts that can’t fly again are copied. This is the “reverse engineering”. As much of the original aircraft is used. Once the aircraft is effectively a massive jigsaw, it is put back together but this has to be done in special jigs. The aircraft is rebuilt as it would have been built originally on jigs. Some parts need to be made new, for example the wing main spars and this alone is a big task. Most of the work is done by hand.”
Restoring the Wapiti will be a decidedly more complex task as the jigs will need to be built around what remains of the original structure before anything else can be done — and the existing drawings will not be so comprehensive if they exist at all. The plan is, however, ambitious: if and when the original Wapiti is restored, replicas could be produced from the jigs. The precious original could be flown on special days and the replica more often.
The vintage flight remains contentious, given the budgetary and other pressures on the IAF, but the purpose doesn’t have many detractors. The IAF’s wonderfully varied aviation history deserves to be preserved in a vintage flight, far more visible and accessible than the notoriously out-of-the-way IAF Museum in Palam, quite apart from engendering a love for flight and history in the public at large.
“The Vintage Flight needs to be used more in India,” Edwards says. “It should be seen at more events, at schools and made more accessible to the public. Yes, beyond that it should then be seen abroad to raise the profile of IAF. Very few people know the IAF has been around since 1932, that it played such a part in WW2 and that when India was invaded, it was a big contribution form IAF the stopped the “unstoppable” Japanese in Kohima and Imphal. Not used Europe but in the region to remind the neighbours that the IAF has been protecting India since 1932.”
Aviation journalist and contributing author of the new book Carrier Aviation in 21st Century Angad Singh agrees. “The Vintage Flight needs to be more widely displayed. But beyond serving as ambassadors of India and the IAF to the public at home and abroad, I feel the Vintage Flight has a special meaning within the AF. It reminds veterans and those in uniform alike of where their force came from, gives them a sense of their place in history,” he says.
Enthusiasts and aviation historians rue what they see as the IAF losing interest in the project, weighed down by the pressures that have slowed it down.
Singh, one of India’s sharpest aviation watchers travels the world photographing both new and vintage aircraft, and he’s clear about the path the air force ought to take.
“The aircraft commemorate the IAF’s past… either broadly like the Tiger Moth and Harvard on which the earliest IAF pilots trained, laying the foundations for the modern force,” he says. “Or the Dak, which marks the Srinagar airlift. As much as I love the Hurricane, an aircraft flown by my great-grandfather in WWII, post-Independence aircraft like the Spit and especially the Tempest need to be restored. Jets are way more complex, but for heavens sake, the IAF’s history with the Gnat absolutely has to be celebrated by putting one back in the air. We owe it to the AF and the country to ensure that we preserve as much of the IAF’s gallant past as we can.”