THE SUN SETS OVER VIRAAT
As the Sun leisurely glided down the distant crimson westerly sky on 06 Mar 2017, it was a momentous occasion for two countries, India and UK onboard the Flight- Deck of INS Viraat. It was a historic moment indeed when the ensign was lowered for the last time and its commissioning pendent hauled down in military precision after almost 30 years into its second Avataar. Viraat on that Day boasted of being the oldest Aircraft Carrier the World had ever seen. The Mother or ‘The Grand ol’ Lady’ as She was graciously referred to, had borne Navy men from Britain for 27 long years, fought the Falkland War ( her role therein are textbook references for the future Navies) and was re-commissioned into the Indian Navy to serve for another 30 years. And today as She was being laid to rest for ever, all pair of eyes onboard were bound to be moist. There were occasions, when She sailed with her sister Carrier Vikrant for 10 years before bidding her good bye. She also welcomed India’s new refurbished baby Vikramaditya in early 2014, while she was herself in her sunset years.
A peep into the genesis of the Grand Ol’ Lady would reveal that her keel was laid on 21 Jun 1944, while the World War was still in progress. She was launched within 9 years, while the world was still grappling with the economic slowdown post War and got commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes(R12) on 25 Nov 1959. Decommissioned in 1984, She must have been euphoric to get a nod to serve another country in her second Avataar. And what a great monumental occasion it was for Capt V Pashricha (later FOCinC West) and his crew to resail her and bring the Grand Ol’ Lady into the Indian Waters in 1987, chanting its Motto ‘Jalameva Yasya, Balameva Tasya’ implying ‘He who rules over the Seas is all Powerful’. Its primary strike capability had been Sea-Harriers (White Tigers) laced with Sea Eagle and Magic matra for aerial combat. The ship also housed the ASW helos SG42-B (Harpoons) and its commando version ‘C’, apart fron the Chetak integral flight. The Harrier’s too called it a Day in May 2016, an year before their Mother was to retire.
The Grand Ol’ Lady in its second Avataar had to struggle with senility. She braved Engine room flooding in Sep ’93, for which she remained out of service for several months. Later coped with a life extension refit in 1999, to participate in India’s first IFR (‘Bridges of Friendship’) at Mumbai. She endured two more refits in 2003 and 2009. Hats of to its Commanding Officers who despite all the setbacks kept her optimally operational. Viraat played a Key role in Operation Jupiter in 1989 during the Srilankan Peacekeeping Operations. She also saw action during Op Parakaram in 2001-02 after the Parliament Attack. The Ship had participated in various International Fleet Exercises like Ex Malabar, Varuna, Naseem-Al-Bahaar apart from annual TROPEXs. Viraat and Vikramaditya were the Cardinal Warships of India’s second International Fleet Review in early 2016 at Vizag, in which 95 warships from 50 Nations participated.
‘The Mother’ was fondly commanded by 22 Commanding Officers since 1987. It was heartening to see all of them had arrived for her Grand Finale ceremony. Admiral Sir Philips Jones, The First Sea Lord and CNS of the Royal Navy and VAdm Vinod Pashricha, its First Commanding Officer were the Guests of Honour, while Admiral Sunil Lanba, CNS was the Chief Guest for the ceremony. To commemorate ‘30 years of Glorious Service to the Nation’ by INS Viraat, a special postal cover was released by the Chief Guest.
It was a pleasure to meet and interact with the crew of then HMS Hermes, who had been specially invited by India. These 20 Officers and Sailors (including ladies) had participated in the Falkland War, and proudly narrated the incidents of the War. It was also an occasion to meet some aviators with whom I’d lost touch. Cdr Sam T Samual had bestowed us his Baby-cot for both our kids at Goa and Vizag, it was a pleasure to introduce Anuj, who is presently in Redfm, to him. Also met Cmde Ajay Kumar, Capts P Roy, Jaggu Verma and Bill Hoti Sir, who was the Top Gun privileged to fly the last Sea-Hawk of Vikrant and also to usher in the Sea-Harriers in 1983 as its replacement. He had flown in from California for the this Grand occasion.
Talking of enormity of ‘Viraat’; Yes, She is so enormous that I missed out on meeting a lot of my friends in the huge gathering of about 1500 invitees that day, yet we can barely spot her as a tiny matchbox from aircraft circuit-height. When the spectacular Naval Band played the Sunset Bugle call as the ensign was lowered for the last time on the Quarter Deck, all eyes were bound to be moist and we all Saluted in reverence to the Grand old Lady, for the glorious service that She had rendered to the two Nations. The Legacy of ‘Viraat’ has been carried forward to ‘Vikramaditya’ and shall be passed on to ‘Vikrant’ in a couple of Years. Shano Varuno ! Jai Hind !
About the Author: Commander Rajinder Dutta (Retd) has been a Naval Pilot and a Qualified Flying Instructor with about 3000 hrs of flying on various fixed wing Aircraft of Indian Navy, viz HT-2, HPT-32, Kiran, Islander, Superconnie, Fokker F-27 and IL-38.