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Photo of Sea harrier from Naval Review

The Navy, in particular, had a close connection with the Royal Navy and the result was that the Naval top brass always opted for British aircraft on the plea that the warships of the navy were all earlier of  British pedigree and as such it was best to operate only British aircraft.

The IAF was more open and was ready to accept Russian aircraft despite having a long list of British planes from the Lysander, Hurricane , Spitfire, Canberra, Vampire, Hawker Hunter and Gnat. The crunch came when India asked for the Lightening Mark II Interceptor , which was capable of speeds above Mach II. The British refused and the then Indian Defence minister Krishna Menon made a secret trip to Moscow and met Khrushchev. The Russian leader looking for a window of opportunity to displace western interests readily agreed to supply India with the MIG -21 and this was the beginning as more and more Russian planes were inducted into the IAF.

The Navy needed an aircraft for its aircraft carrier the Viraat and Vikrant.  the Sea Hawks ( another British plane) was to be phased out. The Sea Hawk was a subsonic fighter-bomber and had been successfully used in the bombardment of Chittagong in the 1971 war. It was operated by the carrier Vikrant. The Vikrant was for information of readers an old Second World War aircraft carrier, which the Indian Navy had bought.

The Naval top brass insisted on a British aircraft and the choice narrowed down to the Sea Harrier. This plane was a very versatile interceptor with a top speed of 1150 km n hour. Trials for this plane commenced in 1981 and the plane was inducted into the Indian Navy in 1982. It replaced the ageing Sea Hawk. 

The Sea harrier had many capabilities including a vertical take-off and short landing ability. It was a VSTOL( vertical and short take off and Landing ) aircraft and in addition was specially adapted for carrier operations. The  plane formed the mainstay of the Royal Navy aviation corps in the Falklands war and was a huge success.

I have never flown the plane, but compatriots have told me that it was a high precision aircraft and not easy to fly. There were reports that one of the test pilots had died to fly the plane and it had crashed in the UK. However, the Indian pilots soon got the hang of the plane and were able to operate it from the flight deck of the Viraat. The plane required great skill to land and needed the pilot to come low down on the deck and land at the edge so that the arrester mechanism could be activated. Failure to do this would have meant the aircraft shooting the deck and landing in the sea.

The Indian Navy operated the Sea harrier. No war was fought by the Navy during the 3 decades the harrier was in service. It, however, acted as a deterrent as the Indian Navy is the only Navy in Asia to operate 2 aircraft carrier. In contrast, China operates only one.

The last ceremony of the Harrier was conducted at the Naval Aviation unit at Goa. The plane was given a "water wash up" or water salute and phased out from the Navy arsenal. The Navy has got over its British obsession and now with a Russian-made carrier having joined the fleet, the navy has opted for the MIG 29K as a replacement for the Sea harrier. The latest aircraft carrier is from Russia and was the Russian ship Admiral Gorshkov.

The Sea Harrier did yeoman service for the navy. It had an accident free tenure and was reliable. Despite not having taken part in any naval operation, yet the Harrier on board the Viraat  served India's interests as it carried the Indian flag in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan does not have an aircraft carrier and is in some fear of the Karachi port being blockaded by the Indian aircraft carriers. The Sea harrier was a great machine and used by the Royal Navy as well. It will remain part of the history of Indian aviation. 


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