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2009 Articles

FEB 28 2009
Indian Air Force Museum, Palam, New Delhi

India is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and in keeping with this status, its airports and airlines are currently undergoing huge expansion and modernisation. The main international airport in the Indian capital, New Delhi, is Indira Gandhi International, and the airport is currently seeing huge changes. Recently, a new runway has opened, and a new terminal, complete with Metro link to the city centre is under construction.

On the North side of the airport is a military facility, known as Air Force Station Palam, home to a communications unit, equipped with the venerable HS748. In a quiet corner of the Air Force Station is the Indian Air Force Museum, one of a very small number of aviation museums within India. Entrance to the museum is free, although visitors are required to sign a large leather bound visitors’ book, and photography is permitted for no extra charge.

Entrance is through a display area detailing the history of the Indian Air Force, from its inception in 1932, through several conflicts with Pakistan to the present day. From there it is on to the display hangar, which contains roughly half the collection of aircraft. Of particular interest is a rare Westland Wapiti biplane, which equipped the first IAF squadron (1 Squadron) from 1933 to 1942. By the end of WWII, the Air Force had grown to nine squadrons, but was split on Indian Independence in 1947, with three squadrons going to the newly created Pakistan.

Other aircraft from this early period of operations include a Hawker Hurricane MkII, Supermarine Spitfire XVIII and Westland Lysander. The Hurricane was the most commonly used fighter aircraft of the WWII period, with the Spitfire serving in much smaller numbers. The Lysander also equipped the Indian Air Force during that period, although the aircraft on display was acquired from Canada, and retains RCAF colours.

A rather unusual exhibit is an example of the Japanese Kamakazi aircraft, the Yokosuka MXY-7 Okha (Cherry Blossom). This aircraft was used to attack allied ships, and the example on display is thought to have been discovered in Japan by pilots from 4 Squadron, and brought back to India when they returned from duty as part of the Commonwealth Occupation Force. Arriving too late to see WWII service, the Hawker Tempest later equipped the IAF in the post independence years, and saw action against Pakistani forces.

Other aircraft from this early period of operations include a Hawker Hurricane MkII, Supermarine Spitfire XVIII and Westland Lysander. The Hurricane was the most commonly used fighter aircraft of the WWII period, with the Spitfire serving in much smaller numbers. The Lysander also equipped the Indian Air Force during that period, although the aircraft on display was acquired from Canada, and retains RCAF colours.

The aircraft on display from the jet age illustrate the variety of nations which supplied India with aircraft in the post war period. From Britain came the DH Vampire, Hawker Hunter and the Folland Gnat (built locally as the HAL Ajeet); from France the Ouragon and Mystere, and from the USSR the MiG-21 and Su-7, amongst other types. Several of these aircraft saw action in several conflicts with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965 and 1971).

Of note is the HAL Ajeet on display, which carries the markings of an aircraft flown by Flt Lt Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon PVC. Flt Lt Sekhon was an Ajeet pilot during the 1965 war with Pakistan, when his base of Srinagar was attacked by a flight of six Pakistani F-86 Sabres. Flt Lt Sekhon was the only pilot to get airborne, and took on all six of the attacking aircraft, destroying two of them, before himself being shot down and killed. He was awarded the India’s highest military honour, the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) medal, for his conduct.

Also on display inside is a single example of the HAL HF-24 Marut, which entered service in the late 1960s, as India’s first indigenously produced jet fighter. The aircraft was designed by none other than Kurt Tank, the designer responsible for the Luftwaffe’s Focke Wulf Fw190 fighter during WWII. In total, 147 of these aircraft were built, and the last were retired as late as 1990.

Outside, a collection of larger aircraft were on display, the rarest being a B-24 Liberator. During WWII, the B-24 was used by the RAF in the Far East, and after the war ended, the aircraft were mostly disposed of locally, with large numbers being abandoned after being “put beyond use” at their base of Kanpur. The newly independent Indian Air Force required a heavy bomber, so the airframes at Kanpur were surveyed and a total of 42 were selected and flown to HAL’s facility at Bangalore to be returned to service. See here for a more detailed account of the aircraft’s recovery. The last Liberators served in India as late as 1968 and subsequently, on retirement at least six aircraft were saved and preserved, with the examples displayed in the RAF Museum and the Pima Air and Space Museum being ex-Indian Air Force aircraft.

The aircraft which replaced the Liberator in the bombing role was the English Electric Canberra jet bomber, which arrived in 1957, and was only recently fully retired from service in 2007! The aircraft on display is B(I)58 version, equipped with a fighter-style canopy.

The remainder of the external display area is home to several of the larger and more modern aircraft in the collection. These include examples of the Sikorsky S-55 Whirlwind and the similar Mil Mi-4 Hound. Transport aircraft are represented by an Antonov An-12 and a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar. The IAF Boxcars were used to insert paratroops during the 1971 conflict.

Jet aircraft on display outside include the Soviet built MiG-23 fighter, which was retired in 2007. The aircraft displayed served with 224 Sqn at Jamnagar, who were the last operators of the type in India. The similar MiG-27 remains in service as a ground attack aircraft and has in fact recently been upgraded. Another Soviet jet on display is an example of the awesome MiG-25RB Foxbat. The MiG-25 served as a high speed, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, and saw service over Pakistan in that role, until retirement in 2006. The external display area is also home to a pair of PZL TS-11 Iskra training aircraft.