Thursday, October 8, 2009

Surya Kiran could be grounded for rest of season

The most visible symbol of the Indian Air Force — its stunt-flying Suryakiran team that paints the sky in the tricolours of the national flag during daredevil aerobatics — will be forced to cancel most of its shows after Thursday, the Air Force Day, because of a chronic shortage of basic trainer aircraft.

The Air headquarters has ordered the Suryakiran Aerobatic Display Team (SKAT) to transfer all their aircraft to squadrons for training cadets. The Telegraph reported on October 3 that a new batch of cadets in the Air Force Academy that begins preparing this month may be forced to skip its first lessons in flying after the basic trainer aircraft, the HPT-32, was grounded in July after a crash.

An air force spokesperson confirmed that “their (the SKAT’s) displays will be curtailed but there is no question of disbanding the team”. He said the “curtailment” of SKAT displays will be in force for at least a year, till the air force decides what is to be done with the basic trainer, the HPT-32, and/or it gets replacements.

The SKAT, which is also an operational fighter squadron (number 52), is a nine-aircraft formation — one of only three in the world. It has 16 Kiran Mark II planes that have to be kept in top shape at all times because of the stunts — such as the Vertical Charlie or, more popularly, the “Heart with Cupid’s arrow” as an expression of love for women in the audience — the pilots have to pull off.

Distinctively painted in luminous red and white colours, the Suryakirans, formed in 1996, typically perform more than two shows every month for which they train everyday. The Air Headquarters has asked the Suryakirans, designated the 52 squadron, to transfer all its Kiran Mark II aircraft for training cadets in an effort to make up for the shortage in the basic trainer (HPT-32).

All Suryakiran pilots — there are at least 13 in the squadron — are from among the best fighter pilots in the air force. They are also qualified instructors with an average 2,000 hours of flying behind them.

The Air Headquarters decided that it could not continue with the frequency of the aerobatics displays at the cost of training. Cadets in the Air Force Academy in Dundigal, near Hyderabad, first begin flying in the HPT-32 (stage I training), move on to the Kiran Mark II (stage II training), then to the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (stage III) before being deployed to operational squadrons. Irrespective of the flying stream the pilots finally go to — fighter or transport, all cadets have to begin flying in the Hindustan Aeronautics-made HPT-32.

But with all the HPT-32 (there are more than a 100) grounded, there is now a greater demand for the Kiran Mark II. The IAF is therefore re-deploying the Kiran Mark II with the Suryakiran squadron, based in Bidar, for training cadets.

Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik said last Thursday that there were “fundamental problems” with the HPT-32 and a committee led by an Air Vice-Marshal was studying whether the aircraft should be scrapped. The Kiran Mark II is also of 1960s vintage. The HPT-32s were grounded after a crash on July 31 in which two senior instructors were killed.


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