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60 years of Marut: A fighter jet that proved its worth in 1971 war

The armament firing sorties of this aircraft -- where the weapons on the fighter plane put to the test -- were often called the canopy firing sorties by the pilots who flew it
By Arun Dev, Bengaluru
PUBLISHED ON JUN 20, 2021 12:39 AM IST

The armament firing sorties of this aircraft -- where the weapons on the fighter plane put to the test -- were often called the canopy firing sorties by the pilots who flew it. The vibrations during weapon firing were so strong that it resulted in the canopy of aircraft flying off mid-air. It was India’s first indigenously developed fighter aircraft- HF-24 Marut.

Despite its shortcomings, the fighter plane proved its worth in the 1971 war. A ground attack aircraft, it has aerial combat kill to its name after Squadron Leader KK Bakshi shot down a Pakistani F-86 Sabre on December 7, 1971. In this war, three Marut pilots were awarded Vir Chakra for bravery.

June 17 marked 60 years since the aircraft made its maiden flight. Despite the list of problem that came with indigenous production, the men who flew the aircraft and those help build have fond memories.

The development of the aircraft was envisioned by the Jawaharlal Nehru and Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) in the 1960s, with aeronautical engineer Kurt Tank as the lead designer. Although intended to have a top speed of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), the Marut could not even manage to do half that. Since its speed was limited, it was primarily used for ground attack missions, even though envisioned as a capable interceptor aircraft.

Air Marshal (retd) Brijesh Jayal was in charge of taking the aircraft from HAL to the operational unit in Jamnagar for conversion of the squadron to Maruts. Referring to his logbook, the officer said that on March 19, 1967, he flew BD 842 from Bengaluru to Jamnagar via Pune, along with three other IAF pilots Karan Yadav, Pirthi Singh and Ashoka.

As much as the aircraft, he thought the men who flew were exceptional too, said the retired air marshal. According to him, there were times when he was taken aback by the sheer gung-ho attitude of the operational pilots.

“On one occasion, a senior flight commander and a dear friend mentioned to me that one of his pilots had reported airframe vibrations beyond a particular speed. The flight commander took the aircraft up himself and decided to explore further and flew beyond the speed. He then described to me the severity of the vibrations. When I told him that he should investigate the problem rather than first exploring possibilities on the ground, he had a hearty laugh. The flight commander was unimpressed and thought that I was far too cautious,” recalled Air Marshal Jayal.

“I have done more than 150 hours on the aircraft, and I love it. Much of my experience as a test pilot with Maruts were routine. Testing is not about bravado but meticulous planning, good teamwork and a keen eye for detail and potential problems. I was fortunate in having worked with the finest in every field, including those involved in HAL.” he added.

Prodyut Das, who worked on the Marut at HAL, said the Marut was an aircraft with the potential but wasn’t realised because of several reasons.

“For starters, we should have aimed for simpler aircraft than looking to make Mach II fighter. Even though he had very sincere engineering, their experience was lacking. In our education, we are taught to find the correct answer and not developing the capacity to imagine something big. But of course, I believe that instead of focussing on purchasing foreign aircraft, had we given more support to the project, it could have been a bigger success,” said Das.

Angad Singh, a Project Coordinator with Observer Research Foundation’s Strategic Studies Programme, said the project began as a prestige project of Prime Minister Nehru and was troubled from the start for various reasons.

“We were trying to create something incredibly difficult and expensive in a country where spending money was frowned upon. The gun versus butter argument was firmly settled in favour of butter. There was no appetite for something more than the bare minimum. Considering this, it was an achievement. But at the same, the initial designs were created by a German designer not at the cutting edge of contemporary aerospace research and technology, so the design was not state of the art,” he added.

But the pilots who flew have all praise for the ability of the aircraft. In 2011, a reunion of the pilots of Marut was held in Bengaluru, where pilots remembered the aircraft had remembered the fighter fondly.

“The first time I saw her, I was stunned. She was beautiful, slim and sexy. When she moved, you couldn’t spot her,” said Wing Commander (retd) Brian DeMagry.

Air Commodore (retd) P Ashok, another pilot, recollected how low the pilots used to fly the Maruts. “There was a pilot who flew so low that he crashed into a live high-tension wire pole. He was skilled enough to bring the plane out without a scratch, but the whole locality was in the dark for an entire day,” he said.

And there were mentions about the canopy flying off as well. “During the armament firing exercise, the canopy of the plane flew off. Not once but twice, though, I managed to land it safely both times. Then on, whenever I would go for armament firing, they used to call it canopy firing exercise,” said Wing Commander (retd) M W Tilak at the reunion in 2011.

However, the prolonged technical problems and the induction of the newer, more technologically advanced aircraft resulted in the aircraft retiring from service by the late 1980s. But did it pave the way to indigenisation in the defence sector? Singh thinks otherwise. “For whatever good or bad that was the Marut project, it was HAL who worked on it, and every other domestic or licence-production aviation project in the country. They were the centre of all aerospace expertise in the country but, when India decided to start the Light Combat Aircraft project, we created the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and kept HAL out of the design phase,” he said.

Despite the aircraft not realising its true potential or resulting in better lessons for its indigenous fighter manufacturing, Marut, the spirit of the storm remains close to the heart of those who have flown it.

“Everything said that about the aircraft aside, I loved the Marut,” said Air Marshal (Retd) Jayal.

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