(This story was first published on 8 October 2017 and is being republished from The Quint's archives to mark the 89th anniversary of the Indian Air Force.)
In 1933, a year after its inception, the Indian Air Force possessed just four aircraft – the Westland Wapiti biplanes – managed by six officers and 19 air soldiers. In 2017, the force boasts of a fleet of more than a thousand aircraft.
Since its establishment on 8 October 1932, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has had nearly 80 aircraft types to its name. Many of these have essentially been British, French and Russian imports, with only a few being indigenously developed, designed and built.
Now, a lot of us might know about the Sukhois, the Tejas’ and the MiGs. But what about the Spitfires, the Gnats and the Canberras, all of which have served the force vitally in one way or another?
On the occasion of the 86th anniversary of the Indian Air Force, we take a brief look at some of the iconic aircraft that have made their mark in the Indian skies.
The Wapiti And The Spitfire
Being the first plane to be inducted in the IAF in April 1933, the Westland Wapiti biplane merits the first mention when talking about the history of IAF aircraft. The Wapiti aircraft served in Burma (present-day Myanmar) during the second World War, and some were attacked and destroyed by Japanese bombs in the course.
By the time India gained independence, the British Spitfires became the prominent fighter jets with the IAF. These were instrumental during the 1947 war in Kashmir, providing a setback to the Pakistani invaders near Srinagar.
With India becoming a Republic on 26 January 1950, the air force also changed its name from the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) to just the Indian Air Force. Notably, the title of 'Royal' was given to the air force by the British in March 1945, after recognising its services and contributions during the Second World War.
Post-Independence, the significance of the air force and its fleet was underlined the most during the various wars that the country fought.
During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the Canberra bombers played a vital role, along with the Gnats. The Gnats were also instrumental during the 1971 war with Pakistan, and became well-known for shooting down many of Pakistan's Sabre planes in both the wars. In fact, this feat ended up earning them the title 'Sabre Slayers'.
By the time the war broke out in Kargil in 1999, the Russian MiGs and the French Mirage 2000s were in currency in the IAF. The French made planes, along with MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27 and MiG-29, are said to have played a vital role during the high-altitude war.
Though having been the preferred machine for many pilots, the MiG-21 was also infamous for being prone to accidents, so much so, that it earned labels such as ‘flying coffin’ and ‘widow maker’.
It is important to note here that the role of IAF during the 1962 India-China war has been said to be restricted, limited to using aircraft for transportation purposes.
The Current Scenario: An Acute Shortage
Today, apart from possessing various variants of the MiGs, the Sukhoi SU-30 MKIs form the backbone of IAF's combat jet fleet. Moreover, the fleet also includes a few 'Made in India' Tejas fighter planes, whose number is expected to go up in the coming years.
However, the Indian Air Force today is plagued by an acute shortage of aircraft.
According to reports, it currently has just 33 squadrons out of the authorised 42.
Though the coming years would see the induction of more Tejas and Sukhoi planes, along with the French Rafales, this would probably not be enough.
In such a scenario, the country might have to either turn to US F-16 or the Swedish Gripens.
(Image Courtesy for Video: Wikimedia Commons, IAF website)
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