Jinx or no jinx, Aero India 2019 was a show that had to go on

The 12th edition of Asia’s premier biennial air show was conducted at the Yelahanka air force station in Bengaluru. The show had to pass through many a fateful trial this year.The five-day long event, which showcased India’s air defence prowess, has also acted as a platform for aviation companies, the defence sector, and the government to forge new alliances and contracts. This is, of course, setting aside all the adverse situations that preceded its very inauguration.

The air show was raring to take over the city’s skies with 61 metal birds, including HAL’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas and the heroic Dassault Rafale. However, the first tragic incident took place on that curve. On the morning of February 19, 2019, at about 1150hours, two aircraft of the Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team (SKAT) crashed while honing the ‘Mirror’ manoeuvre at the Yelahanka Airbase. The Surya Kiran is an aerobatic team of the Indian Air Force (IAF) that is renowned for performing breathtaking mid-air stunts.

Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi, who was airborne as part of the seven-aircraft team, was identified as martyred. The other two pilots, Wing Commander Vijay Shelke and Squadron Leader Tejeshwar Singh, were injured and airlifted to the Command Hospital. Later that day, the show continued as per schedule and was followed by a press conference in the evening. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed the press there along with other noted dignitaries.

When asked about the fatal SKAT incident, she said, “A lot of care and attention shall be ensured for the air warriors. Every incident is unfortunate. It is too early for me to comment further, let’s get down to the actual cause of the incident that happened. A court of inquiry is on”.

Later when questions regarding the Pulwama attack arose, she further added, “I can’t reveal much publicly. Some steps have been thought of, and, will be taken. Strategic details are not supposed to be revealed to the minutest of details. It’s too soon for me to make any concrete comment unless I get to have the complete picture in my hand”.

The air show

On February 20, 2019, the morning after the inaugural speech of the Defence Minister and other officials, the air show began with an air display showcasing the first vic formation of three Mi-17 helicopters carrying the national flag, along with the IAF and Aero India ensigns. The formation was led by Wing Commander Simon. 

It was followed by the ‘Gooneybird’. A Dakota (Douglas) DC-3, rechristened as Parashurama, from the vintage fleet of IAF, flown by Group Captain Ajay Menon, along with Squadron Leader Shubhanshu Shukla, made a fly-past.    

The Indian Air Force (IAF) flew three aircraft—Tejas, Su-30 Mki and the Jaguar—in the ‘missing man’ formation as a tribute to martyred Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi.

Aerobatic teams like India’s Sarang (ALH-Dhruv) and UK-based Yakovlevs enthralled the audience as a part of the display.

The Sukhoi SU-30Mki, Rafale, LCA Tejas, P-81, Hawker Siddeley -748, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Super Hornet and the mighty B-52 Stratofortress bomber also made a mark at the air show with their strategic maneuver and graceful fly past. Other events that were held along the sidelines of the Aero India 2019 were the CEO’s round table, drone Olympics, start-up manthan, and women’s day celebrations commemorating women achievers. 

Dassault Rafale, the French twin-engine, canard delta wing, multirole aircraft also took to the skies, and was well-received by force corps and all those in attendance of the show. Later in the day, at a special ceremony, at around 1730hours, the country’s military aviation regulator, Certification Centre for State-of-the-Art Military Airborne Platforms and Stores (CEMILAC), handed over the final operational clearance (FOC) certificate and other release-to-service documents to Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa for Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.

India’s first self-made fighter jet, LCA Tejas, is finally ready to be used in operations by the IAF. In what was referred to as a “landmark day” in India’s defence capability, as LCA Tejas was inducted into the air force as a fully-weaponised fighter jet aircraft. “It is a major milestone for the LCA (Tejas) to get the final operational clearance. The aircraft could fly in many sorties and has demonstrated the precision with which it can deliver weapons,” Air Marshal Dhanoa told the press in the presence of Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar.

The Indian Air Force recently placed an order of 83 advanced FOC aircraft of the LCA Tejas. Speaking about the order and the air force’s future plans, Air Marshal BS Dhanoa said: “Not only will we have to induct the LCA Tejas MK II, we will, in the days ahead, replace the Jaguar, Mirage and MiG 29 fighter jets.” The air chief added: “After that we will go ahead with the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.”

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, visited various exhibition halls and stalls, while interacting with the participating companies and aviation industries at Aero India 2019. On February 23, 2019, the Surya Kiran team took to the blue skies for one last time at the event, living up to the Squadron motto of “Sadaiv Sarvottam” (Always the Best), and that of the IAF’s indomitable spirit, “People First, Mission Always”.

Celebrating the women of Indian aerospace

A special event highlighting the achievements of women in the Indian Aerospace Industry was held as part of Aero India on Saturday, February 23, 2019. Several women working in the aviation, science and research sectors were felicitated during the event for their contribution to the industry. As a commemoration of the women achievers in aviation and aerospace sector, Indian badminton star PV Sindhu became the first woman to fly DRDO-developed (LCA) Tejas at the Aero India show 2019. 

Wing Commander Asha Jyothirmai & Squdaron Leader Khusboo, along with other women achievers from varied aviation backgrounds, were felicitated at the event. Lieutenant Commanders Seema Rani Sharma & Ambica Hooda, the first women aircrew of Indian Navy were also felicitated at the programme. These women combatants were the P 8i Mission Controllers, and have the distinction of being amongst the first combatants of Indian Armed Forces.

In honour of the women achievers in the aerospace sector, and upholding the theme of ‘Saluting the Queens of the Skies’, Chief Post Master General (Karnataka circle) Charles Lobo released a commemorative stamp.

On February 24, 2019, a Valedictory Function was conducted at the hall wherein Honourable Governor of Karnataka Shri Vajubhai Vala addressed the gathering. In his address, the Governor said that while the people of India have exhibited exemplary valour and have the necessary intelligence, the need of the hour is getting them the right opportunities. On behalf of the Government of Karnataka, he thanked all the people involved in the organisation of the show. He handed out the awards to the winners across various categories like the photography contest, Instagram contest, and best students’ project. The Visvesvaraya Institute of Technology, Bangalore, got the first prize in Drone Olympics for GANNET: The Amphibious Drone.

Yet another mishap

There was a fire incident in the parking area of Aero India on February 23, 2019, which resulted in the damage of over 270 vehicles. However, this could not dampen the public’s spirit, as the event saw a very high foot fall. People swarmed into the venue to catch a glimpse of these wonderful men and women in their magnificent flying machines.

Sayan Chatterjee is a Delhi-based publicist who contributes to print and online publications.

Aero India 2019BengaluruHALNirmala SitharamanSurya Kiran