After having lorded the skies for almost 24 years and logging nearly 32,581 flying hours, the 224 squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF), christened Warlords, ended their tryst with the veritable 'air superiority fighter' of its time, the MiG-23 MF, at the Jamnagar airbase in Gujarat on Tuesday morning in presence of Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi and many other dignitaries.
It is probably in the fitness of things that the event took place in the Platinum Jubilee Year of the IAF and at Air Force Station Jamnagar, which has received a trophy for the best airbase in the country.
Four of the remaining five fighters belonging to the 224 squadron took to the sky one last time amid emotional scenes before transcending into the aviation folklore and marking the end of an era with the IAF.
At 10 am, group leader Wing Commander MK Singh flew the first flight with a huge fabric banner titled 'End of an Era' attached to it amid a roar of applause from the disciplined spectators.
This was followed by the flights flown by Wing Commander RS Jamdar, Wing Commander Tapas Sahu and Squadron Leader Vijay Shelki. While the four fighters were flying, the fifth was brought for display before the audience. It was thrilling spectacle so long as it lasted.
MK Singh was the last to land his aircraft. After he carried out the formalities of post-flight external checks after landing, he was received by the four pilots and given the Form 700 (logbook of the aircraft) and the Pilot's Notes (about characteristics of the fighter). After he signed the documents, all the five pilots approached the air chief as per custom. MK Singh then ceremoniously handed over the documents to SP Tyagi.
For many IAF people, it was both a joyous as well as emotional occasion as some of them were seen with wet eyes. "This is a very emotional moment for all of us, the pilots in particular, who are attached to the squadron. Those who have worked on MiG-23s, and those who have flown them, have reasons to feel very emotional on this occasion. It is like separating from one's near and dear ones," the air chief said at the press conference that followed the air show of the 222 squadron.
"After the last symbolic flight by the squadron, the Warlords will take a brief hiatus until the AIR headquarters allot them a new role and restores them back in their new avatar," defence spokesman Wing Commander Tarun Kumar Singha told Hindustan Times. "The 224 squadron was raised on July 4, 1983, at the Air Force Station Adampur in Punjab."
MiG-23 MF was a swing-wing interceptor capable of delivering an array of misiles, bombs and guided weapons. The squadron became operational with its primary role as Air Defence and the secondary one as Ground Attack.
The Warlords moved from Adampur to the nearby Halwara in Punjab in April 1996 and then to Jamnagar in September 1997. The squadron was actively involved in providing Air Defence cover over the western sector since its inception. In the later years, the squadron was assigned both the Air Defence and Ground attack roles.
Interestingly, the MiG-23 MF was one of the first IAF fighters to be equipped with the R-23 R and R-23T beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. It could also carry 96 rockets or 1.5 tonnes of bombs of 100 kg, 250kg or 500 kg caliber. It had a speed of approximately 2,500 kmph.
In their two and half decades of operations the Warlords participated in various operations, including Operation Meghdoot in the Air Defence of Siachen glacier area in the mid-1980s. In a unique first, the squadron had the rare distinction of having operated from Leh, the highest airfields in India, located at 11,000 feet above mean sea level.
The squadron was also the first fighter to ever operate from those airfields in Ladakh which, owing to their high altitude, limit the performance of the aircraft, thereby reducing the margin for error considerably.
In Operation Safed Sagar, the squadron operated a six-aircraft detachment in western sector during the Kargil struggle and undertook round-the-clock Air Derfence of the coastal and other sensitive areas of Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat.
It continued to remain deployed there even after cessation of Operation Parakram for Air Defence duties. The squadron also participated in Ex-Vayu Shakti or the Fire Power Demonstration of the IAF held at Pokharan range in Rajasthan in February 1999 and 2004, where they were tasked to carry out low level banner towing in formation apart from dropping the flare bomb to be used as a target for air-to-air missle firing.
"Now that they have been taken back from the services, MiG-23s will be known as gate guardians. One each has been given to the Air Force Academy at Dundigul in Hyderabad and the Air Force Museum in New Delhi.
"As for the remaining three, we have to consider a proposal from the Army, Balachadi Sainik School near Jamnagar and Vadodara," group captain Vijay Kaushal told Hindustan Times.