New Delhi: They were always a sight to behold, a force to reckon with. Fighters landing vertically, akin to helicopters, with ear-splitting roars on a moving airfield despite being fixed-wing. It left even the usually phlegmatic Manmohan Singh slightly nonplussed during the “PM’s day at sea” in 2006. Similar was the case of other politicians, before and after him, like A B Vajpayee and L K Advani.
But the old must give way to the new. Ahead of the 56-year-old aircraft carrier INS Viraat’s retirement later this year, the Navy has bid adieu to its eyeball-grabbing Sea Harrier “jump jets” after 33 years of yeomen service.
The force, after all, now has its first supersonic fighters in 30 MiG-29Ks – out of the 45 contracted from Russia for over $2 billion – for INS Vikramaditya and the under-construction indigenous carrier INS Vikrant.
Navy inducted 30 of the British-origin Sea Harriers from 1983 onwards, but only 11 “air frames” are left now due to old age, lack of spares and cannibalisation as well as accidents over the years. “They have flown their last. The six Sea Harriers on board INS Viraat, which has returned to Mumbai from her final operational journey to the International Fleet Review last month, disembarked from the carrier on March 6,” said an officer.
The 11 Sea Harriers are now been mothballed at naval air station INS Hansa in Goa before being distributed as museum pieces to different establishments. “Their pilots are going for career advancement courses or MiG-29K conversion training,” he said.
Interestingly, Sea Harriers were part of INAS 300 (Indian naval air squadron 300) nicknamed the ‘White Tigers’. And much like the feline genetic oddity, a Sea Harrier stood apart, capable as it was of VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) operations.
“Harriers were certainly unconventional in their vertical landing, even though they usually took-off from the angled ski-jump on INS Viraat. With time, their production was stopped in the UK. The British Royal Navy also retired its Sea Harriers in 2006,” said another officer.
The White Tigers squadron will now hibernate till it’s re-commissioned with MiG-29Ks for INS Vikrant, which is slated to be ready by 2018-19. Incidentally, INS Vikramaditya’s MiG-29K squadron INAS 303 is christened ‘Black Panthers’.
Though the Sea Harriers had an operational speed of 640 knots or 1,186 kmph, with a range of around 800 nautical miles, they fell short of exceeding the speed of sound at Mach 1 or 1,235 kmph. They did undergo a “limited upgrade” some years ago, including being fitted with Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode fire control radars and ‘Derby’ beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, but have outlived their utility. “MiG-29Ks give us a four-fold capability jump over Sea Harriers,” an officer said.