Remembering the First Jet Plane of the IAF: The De Haviland Vampire
I wonder how many people are interested in aviation in particular military aviation. For good or bad, the credit for launching aviation and setting up the air force in India must go to the Raj, that euphemism for British rule. After the first manned flight in 1903 by the Wright brothers in the USA in their plane Kitty Hawk, exciting possibilities opened up. Visionaries came on the scene like Giulio Douhet who formulated theories of air power within the ambit of the Principles of War. The result was the development of military aviation which was a big factor in the First World war ( 1914-18).
The British were keen to have an Air Force in India and accordingly a committee was appointed to study the scope of setting up an Air Aviation wing. Known as the "Skeene Committee", it recommended the setting up of an Indian aviation branch of the Military in India. The Viceroy signed the gazette notification and the Air Wing was formed on 01 April 1932. Subsequently, the first batch of Indian airmen called " Hawai Sepoys" was sent for aviation training on 8 October 1932. The first batch consisted of 10 Hawai Sepoys, of whom S. Mukherjee became the Chief of Air Staff during the Nehru era.
The Indian Air Force was equipped with British aircraft which were seconded from the Royal Air Force and the first base was set up in Drigh Road, close to Karachi ( now in Pakistan). All through the period till independence the Indian Air Force which got the nomenclature Royal Indian Air Force served the British interests loyally.
Independence and Induction of First Jet Plane
Having been an adjunct of the Raj, the Indian Air Force had a penchant for British made aircraft. Thus, when in 1947, Nehru wanted a Jet plane for the Indian air Force, the choice fell on the British De Havilland Vampire.Nehru was an Anglophile and so were the senior officers of the Air Force and all wanted only British aircraft. The choice was made in favor of the Vampire a jet fighter-bomber, then in use by the Royal Air Force.
The Vampire was inducted into the IAF and became part of no 7 Squadron. It was a distinct moment in the aviation history of India and Asia. It was the first jet plane inducted into service in Asia by any Air Force and that is a feather in the cap. It is a pity that later India squandered this great start and became a laggard and was thrashed by China. At that time, China did not even have an air force. what an irony.
The Vampire in Service
The induction of the Vampire was successful and many Indian pilots were sent to the UK to train on the Vampire. The Vampire was among the first jets ever flown in the world and was a versatile plane. it was a sub-sonic fighter-bomber that could be used for bombing, close support to troops in a battlefield as well intercept enemy fighters. In short it was a multipurpose airplane and was used by a dozen air forces in the world.
After the induction of the Vampire, no further planes were added to the IAF arsenal. The Vampire was a success and was a safe plane to fly and not a single aircraft crashed to any technical glitch. It was used in the 1961 invasion of Goa but was used only to shower leaflets on the Portuguese troops asking them to surrender. It was not used in the 1962 conflict with China as Nehru had a morbid fear that the war will escalate and Indian cities would be bombed by the Chinese Air Force. This was a blunder, as we know that at that time the Chinese did not have much of an Air Force in Tibet and use of Air Power may well have dented the invincibility of the Peoples Liberation army.
The Vampire inducted in 1948, had reached the nadir of its operational capability as more modern aircraft were available by 1965. Unfortunately due to a paucity of funds and an outmoded thinking of the Air Staff the Vampire continued in service.
In 1965, war broke out with Pakistan as the enemy made an attempt to wrest Kashmir from India. The Pakistan army mounted a massive thrust in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector with over 70 Patton Tanks. the Indian army confronted by superior firepower was being pushed back when Lal Bahadur Shastri authorized the use of the IAF. It is to the credit of Shastri who took this decision , unlike Nehru who in 1962 just twiddled his thumbs. The air staff led by Air marshal Arjan Singh authorized the use of air power and the choice fell on the Vampire. This was a flawed decision as Pakistan was known to have modern aircraft like the F-86. The Indians had the Hunter and Gnat but why they were not used is a mystery.
Eight Vampires took off from a forward base in Punjab and went into operation against the Pak army. Initially, they halted the thrust, but soon the F-86 appeared on the scene and 4 of the vampires were shot down. The vampires were then withdrawn from the battlefield.
The vampire did yeoman service for the IAF and it was finally phased out in 1968. My father flew the vampire and for me, this is a cherished remembrance. A vampire is kept in the Air Force Museum at Palam in Delhi.
The famous no 7 Squadron was then equipped with MIG planes as a Teutonic shift had taken place with the left-leaning defense minister Krishna Menon, opting for Russian hardware.
The Vampire will always have a cherished role in Indian aviation history. It put India on the Asian map and was the first jet operated by the Indian Air Force.
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