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Indian Summer

Part one: the arrival

Tim Senior looks at the forthcoming Waddington Airshow, and its eagerly awaited exotic Indian visitors. Pictures by Gary Parsons

Over the last couple of years the Waddington International Airshow may have seemed a little tame by comparison to some other airshows around Europe. Compared to the other few remaining British military shows left, it has come in for a bit of flak from some quarters, mainly from within the aviation enthusiast community, over the distinct lack of foreign heavy metal on display. While it is true to say that there has been a distinct lack of row-upon-row of fast jets from foreign countries, there have been some gems - remember the Israelis? The lack of aircraft is not helped by several other big military airshows across Europe always falling on the same weekend - these events tend to draw a larger mix of the more exciting fast jet and other types instead of Waddington.

Indian takeaway

One thing that must be remembered is that most of our European neighbours are, like us, suffering from constantly shrinking defence budgets. Some parts of the Armed Forces in several countries have lost entire fleets; the Royal Netherlands Navy P-3 Orions often attended Waddington, but they are part of the German Navy, replacing those Atlantics we used to see.

Some observers also seem to forget that a number of the European Air Forces are now reduced to only a single front-line fast jet type. With several NATO countries actively involved in operations in Afghanistan, and a number of other locations, this exacerbates the problem further. Despite the loss of some well-loved favourites here, the RAF, and the other services, still have several aircraft and helicopter types left to choose from. As do a few other lucky nations like France, Germany, Italy and Spain, even if some of them seem to avoid this part of Europe nowadays - maybe it's a legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. A brief look back at some of the UK airshows that took place around thirty years or so ago reveals that there was a similar shortage of foreign types way back then too.

Looking back over the years it should be always be remembered that Waddington was the only location in the United Kingdom that attracted the appearance of the F-15Is from the Israeli Air Force back in 2001, together with their Lockheed C-130 and Boeing 707 support aircraft; thinking back a little further, it also hosted the first flying display by an F-117A Nighthawk from an RAF airfield, and the Test Pilots Su-27P/PU Flankers for a couple of years.

Airshow preview extras

The appearance of the Indian Air Force, here to celebrate its 75th Anniversary and participate in Exercise 'Indra Dhanush', is another 'first' for the hard-working airshow team. Negotiations have been ongoing for two years, and it's not co-incidence that the exercise follows the airshow weekend. Last year personnel from 43 Squadron at Leuchars and from the Sentry community descended on Agra and Gwalior Air base in India during October, cementing the relationship between Waddington and the IAF.

While we will not see masses of Mirage 2000s and numerous MiG-21s, MiG-27s or even any trusty old MiG-29 Fulcrums, we will certainly get to see the Indian Air Force's mighty Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flankers, six of which have arrived to take part in the exercise. Looking back a few years, the Indians have operated an interesting mixture of British, French and Russian hardware, together with a few home-grown types from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The Indian Air Force first took an interest in the Flanker family in the early 1990s, having already used one of Sukhoi's classics throughout the 1960s and 70s, namely the Su-7 Fitter. After several years of negotiation they placed an initial order for forty Flankers back in November 1996, but the Indians were certainly not interested in purchasing a stripped-down and simplified version - they were keen to get a version that would have thrust vectoring, together with canards and more advanced systems than the versions then in production. In choosing this advanced version they would have to receive the aircraft in several batches, each being progressively more capable than the last.

The first eight Su-30MKI airframes were effectively standard Su-27UB trainers and these were delivered to 24 Squadron, the 'Hunting Hawks', at Pune for training purposes in March 1997. Various delays affected further deliveries, amongst these being the integration of avionics and development of other systems, and the programme further suffered when the first development prototype Su-30MKI made its much-publicised crash at the Paris airshow in June 1999. Development continued and the first ten full standard Su-30MKIs were ready to be delivered to 20 Squadron at Pune in September 2002, with a further twelve following in 2003 and the final ten during 2004 and 2005, allowing another Squadron, No 30, to re-equip with the type. In the meantime the Indian Government had signed an agreement for the license production of a further 140 aircraft in October 2000, with a contract following in December of the same year.

The first aircraft were built at Hindustan Aeronautics at their Nasik factory, although they actually arrived in kit form from the Irkutsk Aircraft Production Organisation. Eventually the remaining airframes will all be built using more and more Indian produced components, with the engines and other sections being built in India too. Further orders have since been place for the type including eighteen during 2006, and a further forty were announced during Aero India earlier this year.

The early aircraft that entered service with 24 Squadron in 1997 are currently stored after being retired in 2006, and are destined to be returned to Russia. The total order for the Su-30MKI currently stands at a healthy 234 airframes, with production of 140 airframes in India itself.

At Waddington, two Su-30MKIs are due to perform an air-to-air refuelling demonstration in the airshow with one of the Ilyushin Il-78MKI 'Midas' tankers, one of two that are accompanying the deployment to the UK. Other ground support has arrived courtesy of a pair of standard Ilyushin Il-76 'Candid' transporters, better known in Indian service as the 'Gajaraj' (King Elephant). So, even if you cannot stay for the exercise, you will at least get to see something a little different!

Once the airshow has finished Exercise 'Indra Dhanush' gets underway on Monday - apart from the based 8/23 Squadron E-3D Sentrys, other aircraft involved in the exercise are currently unconfirmed, although 43 Squadron from Leuchars is thought to be taking part. Air-Scene UK will bring you more on this interesting Indian summer!


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