Published on December 17, 2007
The word "aerobatics" is new to some people. Some might guess it's a form of acrobatics, or perhaps a new kind of aerobics, but neither gets close - or prepares you for what you're going to see.
Aerobatics is the demonstration of spectacular flying manoeuvres in aircraft, and whether for training, recreation or entertainment, it's considered one of the most demanding feats in aviation.
It's not every day, then, that you get to see an aerobatics team in action. More specifically, consider yourself very lucky if you get to see Surya Kiran take to the skies. Surya Kiran (which means "the sun's rays" in Hindi) is the aerobatics demonstration team of the Indian Air Force, and they were in Thailand for a display at the Royal Thai Air Force base at Don Muang last Wednesday to mark the 80th birthday of His Majesty the King.
The Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team was formed in 1996 to serve as the "Ambassadors of the Indian Air Force" and to "showcase the professionalism, calibre and the mettle of the service".
Surya Kiran occupies a rarefied place as one of only three nine-member aerobatics teams in the world. What makes them exceptional is the level of expertise required to fly in such large numbers so close together. In certain formations planes come within five metres of each others' wingtips while manoeuvring at speeds of between 200 and 600 kilometres per hour. The team has dazzled crowds over the length and breadth of India as well as other parts of the world, having performed in Burma, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore.
The HJT-16 Kiran MkII trainer aircraft that the Suryakirans fly are the basic trainer jets for the Indian Air Force, used for intermediate flight and weapons training. The team's planes are picked out in a distinctive day-glo-orange-and-white colour scheme, making them easier to follow as they roar overhead.
Budding daredevils are selected twice a year for a three-year tour of duty with the team and face a gruelling eight-month training programme before being able to fly at official events. All of Surya Kiran's pilots are qualified flying instructors, the veterans of around 2,000 hours flying time in the cockpits of fighters and 1,000 hours in the Kiran trainers.
When flying in formation, the pilots are subject to punishing forces in excess of five "g". Explained in layman's terms, g is a measure of the amount of gravitational pull on an object, one g being that which is felt by any stationary object on Earth.
Formula 1 drivers experience up to five transverse (sideways) g, but pilots experience g in the third plane, the vertical. Ordinary human beings can tolerate up to five g's worth of vertical pull, the kind of stomach-churning sensation only the most extreme roller coasters can deliver. For aerobatic pilots, however, this limit is stretched by hours and hours of training in the cockpit.
When in formation, the Surya Kiran team follows the lead of its Commanding Officer (CO), who directs every action of the remaining eight planes when in the air. The present team CO is Wing Commander Sandeep Bansal, a veteran Mirage 2000 pilot.
"Since every member of the Surya Kiran team is a veteran fighter pilot, there are just a few new things left to learn about formation flying," says Bansal. "The most basic rule when flying a fighter jet is to expect the unexpected, but formation flying is about doing absolutely nothing that's unexpected. A Surya Kiran pilot flies 40 to 50 metres above the ground, and that's something that needs getting used to. It's dangerous, there's no time for the pilot to respond or even activate the ejector seat if something goes wrong."
All sorts of factors can affect the kind of formations that the team decides to fly for a display, including birds, visibility and weather. The CO briefs the team on the ground with a set of possible manoeuvres to be executed. Once in the air, he assesses the situation and chooses the appropriate plan to execute.
"My responsibility as a CO is for the safety of my pilots and the people on the ground. At the same time it's also about putting on a good show.
"I believe we have been successful in inspiring young Indians to join the air force. It's an overwhelming feeling when a young boy runs up to you and says that he plans to be a fighter pilot because you inspired him," say Bansal.
In the programme of aerobatics to awe the g athered crowd at Don Muang airbase were manoeuvres that included a barrel roll, a starburst and a bomb burst. But the highest billing went to the Surya Kiran's signature "heart-in-the-sky", where two aircraft cross leaving a trail of smoke in the shape of a valentine's heart.
Further information about the team can be found at ArmedForces.nic.in/airforce/suryakirans.htm.