A glorious chapter in the Indian Navy’s history will come to an end later this year when the world’s oldest operational aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, retires after serving the country for nearly three decades.
The UK’s Royal Navy operated the carrier for 27 years - it was then known as HMS Hermes. International navies marvel at how India was able to keep the 57-year-old warship seaworthy for such a long period of time.
Completed and commissioned in 1959, it served as the flagship of the Royal Navy during the Falklands war in 1982 and was decommissioned three years later.
It is currently docked at the state-owned Cochin Shipyard where final repairs will be carried out over the next three months and the warship will be stripped of its weapons, radars, propulsion systems, auxiliary machinery and communication equipment.
Here’s all you need to need to know about the navy’s ‘Grand Old Lady,’ inducted into service in May 1987:
Viraat set sail for Kochi from Mumbai on July 23, the last journey on its own propulsion before the warship is decommissioned by the year-end. It will be towed back to Mumbai in October for the retirement ceremony.
Future of crew
The navy requires trained crews to man the under-construction indigenous aircraft carrier-1 (IAC-1). The new carrier, Vikrant, is expected to be ready for sea trials by 2018. Viraat carried a crew of 1,500 men when it was fully operational. It will now have a skeletal crew of less than 300 till it is finally retired.
The navy wants to ensure that the warship is habitable for possible conversion into a museum, hotel or preserving it as a relic of maritime history. The repairs will involve strengthening of the war ships’s hull and refurbishing underwater compartments. It will retain air-conditioning units and some generators on board.
Main air element
Viraat’s embarked air units operated Sea Harrier fighters, Seaking 42B anti-submarine helicopters, Seaking 42C commando carrier choppers and Chetaks for search and rescue. Viraat’s retirement marks the end of Sea Harriers, capable of vertical take off and landing. The fleet had become increasingly unserviceable and was decommissioned in May 2016 in Goa.
A string of refits and upgrades were carried out to keep Viraat seaworthy for so long. There were plans to retire the 28,000-tonne warship by 2010 but the delay in induction of INS Vikramaditya forced the navy to keep the carrier going for a few more years.
Viraat has spent more than 2,250 days at sea, clocking 10.94 lakh km (or covered the globe 27 times, as a navy spokesperson pointed out). Embarked planes have flown more than 22,034 hours.
The carrier was mobilised during Operation Parakram when hostilities between India and Pakistan peaked following the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001. It also played a crucial role when Indian peacekeepers were deployed in Sri Lanka in 1989. It was on stand-by when the Kargil war was fought in 1999.
The International Fleet Review staged by the navy off the Vizag coast in February 2016 marked the final operational deployment of the warship. It holds the Guinness Record for being the oldest serving warship.
The navy plans to deploy two carrier strike groups over the next four to five years. When complete and ready for sea trials in 2018, the Vikrant will weigh 37,500 tonnes. It will guarantee India a slot in history as the fifth country to have designed and built a carrier of this size - others being the US, the UK, Russia and France. India’s existing carrier INS Vikramaditya, bought from Russia and inducted in 2013, is currently undergoing a maintenance refit.