The last of the Indian Navy’s iconic Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) Sea Harriers retired on Wednesday marking the end of an era.
The INAS (Indian Naval Air Squadron) 300 ‘White Tigers’, saw final sorties at the ceremony by outgoing commanding officer Commander Shikku Raj and Senior Pilot Lieutenant Commander Gokul Suresh. The Sea Harriers were escorted by two MiG-29KUB aircraft led by the incoming commanding officer Captain Kunwar Harsh Veer Singh, who has been with the Indian Navy’s first MiG-29K/KUB squadron, INAS 303 ‘Black Panthers’, which is currently embarked upon the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.
INAS 300 is the Indian Navy’s oldest fighter squadron and was set up on July 07, 1960.
Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Robin Dhowan, who was presented with an honour guard also once served as Direction Officer of INAS 300. The occasion also saw the presence of Sea Harrier pilots, Admiral Arun Prakash and Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, and Sea Hawk pilots, Vice Admiral Subhash Chopra, Admiral Sureesh Mehta Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha and Vice Admiral Sunil Damle – all whom are former White Tigers.
Coincidentally, the first CO of the INAS 300 Sea Harrier squadron, Admiral Arun Prakash, knew the last CO of the INAS 300 Sea Harrier squadron, Commander Shikku Raj, when he was a boy of seven in 1983, when his father served with the admiral at INAS 300.
Both agreed that the Sea Harrier was an incredibly difficult aircraft to fly. Only around 60 pilots ever qualified for the aircraft and according to Commander Shikku Raj, the rejection rate was close to 50 percent.
Interestingly, the squadron’s youngest officer Lieutenant Commander Patil reached a milestone of 500 flight hours on Tuesday, when he conducted the last conventional landing of the Sea Harrier.
Earlier, the navy had planned to establish a separate squadron, INAS 553, on Wednesday, simultaneous with the retirement of the Sea Harriers and the conversion of INAS 300 to MiG-29K aircraft, for the sole purpose of training new pilots on the MiG-29K. But for the time being, INAS 300 will play the role of the training squadron, until IAC-1 (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 1), is commissioned, when INAS 300 will embark on the INS Vikrant aircraft carrier.
INAS 553 will be finally established once INAS 300 moves as an operational squadron to INS Vikrant.
But for now, all six pilots of INAS 300 are due for sea time, after which six of them will come back as either Qualified Flight Instructors (QFIs) at INS Dega on the navy Hawks or convert to the MiG-29K/KUBs at INS Hansa.
A total of 23 Sea Harriers and six trainer aircraft were originally inducted into the Indian Navy. Today, only three trainers are still around – none of them airworthy and only six of the eight remaining Sea Harriers are airworthy. The navy will now consider requests from various institutions for installation and display of these aircraft.
INAS 300 has seen the loss of eight pilots, including a Kamov pilot on a familiarization flight to train Sea Harrier pilots on vertical take off and landing, as well as an Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot. Two of these eight pilots were never found.
What makes a Sea Harrier pilot?
All Sea Harrier pilots underwent training through the IAF training pipeline in three stages. Stage 01 training was carried out on HPT-32 aircraft and Kiran Mk2. Stage 02 training was on Kiran Mk2 aircraft. Stage 03 training was earlier on IAF Hunter aircraft and then later MiG-21 aircraft, but has now shifted completely to Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs).
A total of 36 Indian Navy pilots have also been trained through the U.S. Navy pipeline, beginning from the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor aircraft and then training as tailhookers on the Goshawk. This was followed by Sea Harrier conversion training which consisted of 90-95 hours. This training included 10 hours of training on the Chetak helicopter familiarize themselves with the nuances of VTOL flight. By the time a pilot joined INAS 300, he would have completed over 300 hours of flight time. Commander Shikku Raj led the last training course for the Sea Harrier, which ended in October 2014.
Future INAS 300 pilots will have to undergo training for the MiG-29K, which will consist of at least 15 hours on the flight simulator followed by flight training on the MiG-29KUB, before going solo on the MiG-29K. Pilots will have to do at least 70 hours of training at INAS 300, including Deck Landing Qualification, before they move to INAS 303 for operational flying. In the past, two IAF pilots have actually become carrier qualified as instructors on combat aviation at INAS 303.
There will be no more VTOL aircraft pilots trained in the India Navy. All future Indian Navy fighter pilots will be tailhookers.