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Not enough planes, IAF puts pilots behind desk

At least 1,000 fit and trained pilots of IAF are stuck in ground and desk jobs mainly because the force does not have enough aircraft, reports Nagendar Sharma.

india Updated: May 25, 2007 01:59 IST
Nagendar Sharma

At least 1,000 fit and trained pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF) are stuck in ground and desk jobs mainly because the force does not have enough aircraft, according to classified air force documents.

The government spent about Rs 5,000 crore in training these pilots to fly combat and other aircraft, says one of these documents seen by the Hindustan Times.

The air force currently has 3,068 pilots. Against that it has 790 aircraft — 340 fighters, 450 transports and helicopters. Only half the fleet is available at any given time, with the remaining being serviced. The air force plans to reduce its transport fleet further by about 40 per cent by 2010, according to another IAF document.

The latest report of the parliamentary standing committee on defence, tabled in Parliament on April 28, expressed concern over the delay in purchasing 126 multi-role combat jets, desperately required to beef up the IAF's depleting fleet. It has pulled up the government for its non-committal answers relating to this matter, for the past three years.

The committee's report says the IAF currently has 33 squadrons, against the sanctioned strength of 39.5. Each squadron on an average has 20 pilots.

The number of squadrons is expected to fall to 30 by the end of this year and to 28 in the next three years, an IAF document says. If this happens, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) would have numerical superiority over the IAF for the first time in 60 years. The PAF currently has 30 squadrons and plans to increase the number to 34 by the end of this year.

Although the IAF has put a large number of its pilots on non-flying duties, it says it still faces a shortage. In a reply faxed to the Hindustan Times, it said: "IAF continues to have shortages in the flying branch."

On whether pilots were seeking premature release, the IAF replied: "Premature retirements are processed on a case-to-case basis depending on their merit. A government policy does exist and is being followed meticulously. There are no more pending cases of resignation."

The air force maintains that since a huge amount of money is spent on training pilots, they cannot be easily allowed to leave the force to join the private sector.

According to government figures presented this year in Parliament, there is a shortage of around 220 commercial pilots. In the next five years, with the expansion in the civil aviation sector, the figure is expected to reach 5,000.

So, how much does the air force spend on training its pilots? "The cost of training a single fighter pilot is Rs 8 crore, that of a transport pilot is Rs 3 crore, and it involves a cost of Rs 2.5 crore to train a helicopter pilot," says an IAF document.

The IAF's argument on not relieving pilots contradicts its own classified policy document — Vision 2020, which states that a pilot who has served the force for 15 years should be allowed to leave.

"The cost of training an officer is recovered after eight years of service. In the proposed career progression versus age profile, an officer would have a reasonable idea of where he stands after 15 years of service. At this juncture the officers be permitted an outlet, with a golden handshake," the 2020 document says.

To address the desperation among the pilots, IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major had last month said that some of his ageing pilots could join private airlines.

"Those officers superannuating during the next one year are being sponsored. At 54 years of age, an IAF pilot would have contributed adequately to the objectives of service. For civil aviation, one can fly till 65 years. Hence they can be utilised for as much as 11 years after they leave," the IAF has said in its written response.

The impact of the air chief's announcement on pilots is still not clear.