To mark the Azadi ka Amrut Mahotsav (75th Year of Independence Day), it is in the fitness of things that the Republic Day Parade this year at Rajpath, New Delhi, will not only see the participation of 75 aircraft from the Indian Air Force, Army and Navy in the fly-past, but will also witness the ‘Amrit’ formation by Jaguar aircraft. The formation, as its name suggests, will be in the shape of 75.

The 75 aircraft will comprise of 39 fighters, 28 helicopters and 8 transport aircraft of the Air Force, Army and Navy flying in various formations.

For the first time, the newly acquired French fighter jet Rafale, inducted in the IAF last year, will be flying in the Republic Day fly-past.

The fly-past will not only showcase India’s modern-day aviation capabilities across the three forces but will also commemorate the Swarnim Vijay Jayanti of the 1971 war by highlighting two of the most decisive military operations during the Bangladesh War – the Tangail and the Meghna operations.

In December 2021, the Defense Minister had inaugurated the Swarnim Vijay Parv to commemorate the valor and professionalism of the Indian armed forces in the India-Pakistan war of 1971, that resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh. The event marked the culmination of year-long celebrations of 50 years of India’s victory in the war.

Two special fly-past formations will be a homage to the fallen heroes of the Indian armed forces in the 1971 war and honor the victory that liberated Bangladesh.

These will be the ‘Tangail’ formation which will have one Dakota and two Dornier 228 aircraft flying in ‘Vic’ formation. The other will be the ‘Meghna’ formation which will comprise of a Chinook and 4 Mi-17 helicopters.

The Tangail airdrop was the biggest airborne operation by Indian paratroopers (around 750) against the Pakistan army. On 11 December 1971, the 2nd Battalion (Special Operations) of the Indian Army’s Parachute Regiment captured the Poongli Bridge on Jamalpur-Tangail-Dhaka Road and the ferry site on Louhajang river to intercept Pakistani army’s 93rd Brigade that was retreating from Mymensingh in the north to defend Dhaka. They defeated a force that was three times numerically superior, and shattered the will of the Pakistani army to defend Dhaka.

The operation involved AN-12s, Packets, Caribous and Dakotas. Feint drops were also carried out by Caribous by using dummies to hide the true location and the extent of the operation.

The 50 years of the historic airdrop were marked by a mass parachute jump in December last year in Agra involving 120 elite paratroopers and 4 veterans. The jump was dedicated to India’s first Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat and 12 others who were killed in the M-17 crash in Coonoor a few days earlier.

The Meghna Operation, or Meghna Heli Bridge, codenamed Operation Cactus Lilly, was another critical aerial operation of the IAF during the 1971 war. On 9 December 1971, the IAF, using Mi-4 helicopters, airlifted the IV Corps of the Indian Army and Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini fighters from Brahmanbaria to Raipura in Narsingdi over the Meghna river, bypassing the destroyed Meghna bridge and Pakistani forces in Ashuganj.

Among the other aircraft that will display their might at the fly-past will be MiG 29s, Su 30s, P-8I, C-130s, C-17; and Sarang, Mi-35, Apache and Advanced Light Helicopters.

The IAF will also present a tableau at the Parade, displaying assets like Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) armed with Dhruvastra missile, Ashlesha Mk1 radar, and Gnat, Rafale and MIG 21 fighter jets.

The fly-past has been an abiding feature of the Republic Day Parades from inception. At the first Parade, more than 100 aircraft from the IAF participated- Harvards, Dakotas, Liberators, Tempests, Spitfires and others. This was, however, not the first fly-past in Independent India. The first ever fly-past was carried out, without rehearsal, on 15th August,1947 when Nehru unfurled the national flag of free India on the western ramparts of the Red Fort. The fly-past consisted of 12 Tempest aircraft lead by the future Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh. The planes flew through many flocks of birds and it was by sheer chance that no aircraft was hit. Over that densely populated area, any accident would have had disastrous results. As a result, no fly-past has thereafter ever been carried out over the Red Fort.

In fact, a bird hit is a clear and present danger in all fly-pasts all over the country because of the low levels at which the aircraft fly. Bird Hazard Combat Teams of the IAF are deployed along the fly-past route to report any kind of bird activity. Appeals are issued not to throw eatables and garbage in the open to ensure a safe fly-past.

What is the role of a fly-past?

Fly-pasts are conducted during national events, anniversaries, celebrations – and occasionally funerals or memorial occasions. Sometimes fly-pasts occur to honor someone or to celebrate certain types of aircraft. For example, in May last year, the Chief of Air Staff, with other pilots, flew the ‘missing person’ formation in a MiG-21 Bison at the Suratgarh Air Force Station, Rajasthan as a mark of respect to a fighter pilot who had died after his jet crashed a week earlier.

Fly-pasts are intended to showcase the prowess of the pilots and the flying machines and to attract young men and women into the air wing of the country’s defense forces by instilling a sense of pride, discipline and patriotism in them.

Fly-pasts are held all over the country on various occasions- they are not limited to the Republic Day Parade in Delhi only. The IAF also has an aerobatics demonstration team called the Surya Kiran which performs all over the country. It was founded in 1996. It performed initially with HAL’s Kiran Mk.2, and now performs with BAE Hawk Mk.132.

Why do the aircraft fly in formations?

Military planes fly in formations during combat missions to gain tactical advantage by being able to strike simultaneously and to provide mutual defense if attacked. Additionally, close formation flying of fighter jets helps in confusing enemy ground radars so that they are unable to detect the total number of planes in a formation. During air-to-air combat, various combat formations help military planes avoid detection and radar lock by enemy aircraft. Military planes adopt varying formations according to their combat plans and battle scenarios.

To a common eye, military planes flying in formation may seem mesmerizing but for the pilots inside these formations, it is a tough job.

During formation flying these fighter jets must maintain a specified horizontal and vertical separation from each other. One key factor in being able to maintain these separations is throttle control. In a formation, a pilot must keep one hand on the throttle to make very minute adjustments to stay at the exact speed with other aircraft. One slight variation in throttle endangers the complete formation as they may crash into each other.

Formation flying is also useful in non-combat situations such as taking off and landing to shorten the amount of time it takes to get multiple planes in the air or on the ground.

Flying in formations is risky but it is mitigated through flight proficiency and intense practice by these pilots.

For military transport/maritime reconnaissance aircraft, as opposed to fighter jets, the challenges in formation flying are many due to their size, slow flying and their ponderous features.

During a naval ceremonial fly -past in 2012, two reconnaissance Illyusin-38 aircraft of the Indian Navy collided midair near Dabolim airport. Fifteen people, including twelve crew members, were killed. Sixteen civilians were injured. The Russian-make Il-38 aircraft were participating in the silver jubilee celebrations of Squadron 315 of the Indian Naval Station, Hansa in South Goa. After the take-off from Dabolim airport, the two planes collided. It, however, was not a head-on collision. The planes were supposed to be spaced at an aerial distance of some 300 yards. But while attempting a formation, their wings brushed. 

Take the case of the AN-12.  

The IAF inducted the first of these aircraft in 1961, when it raised No 44 Squadron – “The Himalayan Geese” – at Chandigarh. These aircraft took part in airlifting army reinforcements to Ladakh during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Subsequently, another squadron of AN-12s was raised (No 25 Squadron).

My father, late Group Captain VC Mankotia (then Wing Commander), took over as the Squadron Commander of 44 Squadron in 1967. Though the AN-12 played a remarkable role in air transport and air maintenance roles, it had its limitations. It was partially pressured. The navigational aids were rudimentary. It was at the 1968 Republic Day fly-past rehearsals, with my father in the lead, that it was realized how difficult it was to carry out low level formation flying with a high winged, turboprop, huge aircraft like the AN-12, sluggish to respond to throttle movement.

The AN-12s had never done any formation flying before. Recalls Wing Commander Gautam Guha (Retd) who was the lead navigator, that he had to calculate speed and time to ensure accurate time over the saluting base. Alexei Kosygin – the Premier of the Soviet Union, and Josip Broz Tito – the President of Yugoslavia, were the chief guests. With the crew cursing under their breath, the formation flying was mastered and the fly-past went off without a hitch. After two hours ten minutes of non-stop flying (Chandigarh-Saluting Base-Chandigarh), the crew was treated to beer and biryani.

The mastery over formation flying came in handy some years later.

Air Marshal (Retd) Ashok Goel, an authority on transport aircraft and India Strategic’s aviation editor, has stated that the IAF had toyed with the idea of using the AN-12s for bombing when my father took over the command of IAF’s 44 Squadron in 1967. The innovative idea was encouraged by the then Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh.

My father got cradles built locally to store and roll out the bombs and crews were trained for low-level night missions. Carpet bombing trials over KK Range off Air Force Station, Pune were carried out.  The aircraft carried 10,500 pounder high explosive bombs on iron cradles fixed on to transporter rails. The aircraft had to drop from 9,000 feet to 1,000 feet with time delay fuse. Without a proper bomb sight, it was very tough to determine the time to press the green button to release the bombs as there was a skip distance when the bombs reached the ground (KK Range had a rocky surface). It was decided to supply-drop the bombs by judging the distance allowing for skip distance due to time delay fuse.

Remember, the aircraft was a cargo aircraft. Its manufacturers had not intended it to be a bomber. There was no standard operating procedure to rely on. Everything had to be created from scratch. Even the Soviet officers were surprised. The extensive testing done during this period honed the skills of the crew. This proved to be very critical when the AN-12s were used as bombers in the 1971 war.

By then, Wing Commander VB Vashisht, my father’s flight commander, had taken over as Squadron Commander. My father moved on to Guwahati as station commander and lead the air attack on Dhaka in yet another instance of a cargo aircraft (Caribou) converted by him to a bomber.

After the war broke out on December 3, 1971, the AN-12s of 44 Squadron, led by Vashisht, flew night missions (even though the night fighting capability was non-existent), unescorted, and did intense carpet bombing. They were always in waves of six aircraft, and all returned home safely. The aircraft was deployed on both the Western and Eastern sectors, and played a crucial role in turning the fate of the war in India’s favor. The Pakistanis repeatedly intercepted them with Mirage-3 and F-104 fighters, but the An-12s managed to evade them each time.

The Squadron won one Maha Vir Chakra and three Vir Chakras. Notably, 44 Squadron is the only transport squadron of the IAF to be conferred the Battle Honors, a feat otherwise reserved for active operational combat units.

Take the case of the Caribou.

In Gauhati, where my father was posted as the Station Commander, he came up with the innovative idea of converting Caribous into bombers. Converting the Caribou into a bomber, at first glance, appeared to be foolhardy. However, the Eastern Air Command saw merit in the idea. The objective was to use the Caribous to harass the Pakistani Army and repair teams at the Tejgaon airfield by sporadic night attacks. Subsequent events resoundingly vindicated the concept.

Four Caribous, led by my father, took off for the bombing mission on December 7 midnight. The target – Tejgaon Airport, Dacca. Flying Caribous at night was a hazardous exercise. Though the Squadron was experienced in carrying out paradrops by night, there were few visible landmarks in the dark. The crew picked up features they could make out on the ground; however, cloud cover, combined with the darkness, ensured they lost sight of the features yet again.

The Caribou pilots used a combination of guesswork and instinct to time the bomb ejection mechanism. The switch had to be flipped with a simultaneous opening of the throttle to full power, which raised the nose and put the aircraft in a climb.

Each Caribou released ten 1000 lb. bombs before heading back to Gauhati. The round trip took more than four hours for the lumbering Caribous; all four returned safely. The objective of the Caribou raid was to harass the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), to make sure there was no rest for those on the ground. They succeeded; there was no rest for the PAF that night.

Tejgaon airfield was bombed on three nights, and the Pakistani brigade at Brahmanbaria was bombed on two nights. It was an act of the highest courage to undertake these missions in a plane not conceived, designed or ever used anywhere in the world as a bomber.

Both the AN-12 and Caribou have retired from the Indian Air Force.

An interesting incident involving formation flying by Indian bombers took place in the spring of 1953 during the public Fire Power Demonstration held by the IAF.The (now abandoned) firing range south of Delhi at Tilpat near Faridabad was the venue. One of the display highlights was to be a demonstration of the awesome power of stick bombing from B-24 Liberators. Formations of these bombers were to drop sticks of 500-pound bombs in a show of carpet-bombing. During a rehearsal with live bombs, the delivery was perfect and most of the bombs fell in a straight line. However, the line pointed straight to Parliament House in Delhi. Although it was several miles away, the Parliament House shook strongly. Most of the MPs ran out. When the cause was discovered, Nehru was angry and wanted the exercise cancelled. But the Scientific Advisor to the Defense Minister assured Nehru that the repetition of a similar occurrence was not possible. The Fire Power Demonstration was given the go ahead.

Since the Republic Day is commemorating 50 years of India’s victory in the war, it would have been fitting to have the AN-12, Packet and Caribou, besides the Dakota, participate in the fly-past. All these aircraft have retired and are displayed in museums, but they are still active either in the militaries of some countries, or in museums/ flying clubs around the world. Perhaps they could have been taken on loan for this special occasion. Or maybe, their models displayed in the IAF tableau.

Be that as it may, the armed forces have done a wonderful job of conceiving such a grand fly-past which will commemorate two historic occasions. There will be thrills galore!

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75 aircraft to celebrate 75th year of our independence will include Rafales amongst 39 fighters, 28 helicopters and 8 transport aircraft will fly at the Republic Day Parade to show that the nation’s armed forces are ready to face any challenge from our enemies.
Republic Day Parade: Flying in a formation to weave past with the future