Indian Air Force Day: Here’s A Little ‘Inner Gen’ About The IAF

The Indian Air Force celebrates Air Force Day on 8th October every year. Why did they choose this date?

As an ex IAF pilot, I’ll give you the ‘inner gen’, which is IAF slang for insider information.

Do you know the IAF earlier celebrated the Air Force Day on another date? Don’t go searching. You won’t easily find that info online. That’s what I mean by inner gen! 

By the end of this post, I’ll share the answer, but there are hints before. See if you can figure it out.

The British had a policy that British troops would not serve under Indians, hence Indians, however qualified, could not become officers in the armed forces. 

Royal Air Force was in its infancy at the beginning of World War I (1914-1918) and was called the Royal Flying Corps. The average life expectancy of a fighter pilot on active duty in those days was barely 6 weeks, and they desperately needed pilots.

Still, when the first Indian, Hardit Singh Malik, volunteered to join, they denied his request.

On the second attempt, after some powerful people intervened, they granted him a ‘temporary’ and ‘honorary’ commission. 

Some more Indians followed, and served with distinction. Yet, flying and maintaining an airplane was unofficially deemed too complex for the ‘natives’.

Therefore, the British were not keen to train Indians to fly and fight in the air, and no progress happened after 1918. 

But growing pressure from nationalistic Indians forced the British rulers to consider ‘Indianisation’ of the officer corps of the armed forces.

So, they formed a committee under the chairmanship of Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Skeen.  

On 1st April 1927, the Skeen Committee submitted its report, which recommended sending selected Indians to Royal Air Force College at Cranwell to be trained as officers of the future Indian Air Force. 

The first six Indian officer cadets began their training at RAF Cranwell in September 1930.

They were Subroto Mukerjee, HC Sirkar, Bhupendra Singh, Aizad Awan, Amarjeet Singh and JN Tandon. 

JN ‘Titch’ Tandon was declared medically unsuitable, because at 4 feet and 10 inches, he was too short to fly. 

If you’re wondering how his height mattered, let me tell you, it matters a lot in an aircraft cockpit.

They didn’t have adjustable seats those days, and one had to push the rudders with the feet while operating the joystick and the throttle with two hands, simultaneously and continuously. 

The remaining five graduated as fighter pilots and were commissioned as officers in the IAF.

On Saturday, 8th October 1932, Governor General Lord Willingdon granted his assent, and the Indian Air Force Act was promulgated.

The first flight, ‘A’ Flight of the No.1 Squadron Indian Air Force was formed on 1st April 1933, with 4 Wapiti biplanes, 6 pilots (5 Indians and 1 British, till another Indian, Aspy Engineer, joined the Squadron a few months later) and 19 Indian technicians.

The Commanding Officer and a few NCOs were British, as the young Indians had to gain experience before moving up the chain of command.

Our pioneers often faced ridicule and discrimination, but soon proved themselves and continued their hard work to earn many battle honours. 

After its stellar performance in World War II, the British crown granted recognition to the IAF, after which it was called RIAF, or Royal Indian Air Force. 

In the Wodehousean language of the British upper crust in those days, it was like saying, “I say, well done chaps, good show, what? You’re… ah… almost as good as the RAF. Well, thank you!” 

After India became a republic on 26th January 1950, it was our turn to say, “Thank you” and drop the prefix ‘Royal.’

On 1st April 1954, Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, one of the original five, having gained sufficient experience, took over from the British commander and became the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force.

That’s when the ‘I’ in the IAF became truly Indian.  

Much later, when I was on deputation to undergo Staff College in Bangladesh, my local course-mate jokingly told me, “In 1947, the Pakis changed from IAF to PAF by adding a semi-circle at the top of ‘I’. In 1971, we changed from PAF to BAF by adding another semi-circle below that!”

In a way, we are siblings, but of course, they celebrate their Air Force days on different dates.

The PAF celebrates on 7th September, ostensibly because they gained credibility on that day in 1965.

BAF celebrates the day it was born at Dimapur in India, on 28th September 1971, just prior to their Liberation War.

So, any guesses about our earlier Air Force Day date? 

It was 1st April, for that was when No. 1 Squadron, the first unit of the IAF, was established.  

The IAF changed it to October 8th in 1976, to align with the founding date of the IAF as a whole.

And no, the change had nothing to do with April Fools’ Day!

So, on the eve of the 91st Air Force Day, let’s salute the ‘Air Warriors’ of the IAF.

©Avinash Chikte

Photos courtesy: IAF and Bharat Rakshak

This article was first published on indiatimes.com

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