Welcome to Air Force Station (AFS) Sulur! An airbase locked on to future. And, tipped as the Indian Air Force's (IAF) most critical base in years to come.

by Anantha Krishnan M

When Onmanorama visited AFS Sulur, the base was abuzz with a series of upgradation works. From runway to ATC tower to new hangars, it for a while looked like a massive stadium getting ready for a big game. And, those who have flown in know how significant this game is going to be for the IAF in the future.

The boss of this base is Air Cmde Ashwin Keshav Puntambekar, who is the Air Officer Commanding (AOC). A product of National Defence Academy (NDA) 71st course, this Mumbaite is a helicopter pilot and a Qualified Flying Instructor with over 5,800 hours of flying to his credit, in his 31 years of service.

The second in command here is Gp Capt Gopal Swami, who passed out of NDA almost 11 summers after the AOC. This Jaguar pilot from Mysuru is the Chief Operations Officer with close to 2,900 flying hours across platforms to his credit.

Changing Dimensions

The shifting of the No 45 Squadron, Flying Daggers, operating the Tejas, from Bangalore to here on June 12, 2018, probably changed the dimensions of this base on all counts.

“With the moving in of 45 Sqn, similar to the Sarangs, the Old Bangalore airport (HAL) got decluttered of post-production aircraft, making it easier for more platforms to be produced and test-flown. The spares flow is easy to sustain over a 365-km separation and crucially, Tamil Nadu gained an asset class over which it is proud,” says Air Cmde Puntambekar.

He said the modern infrastructure accretion that was created to house the Tejas has changed the erstwhile skyline at Sulur making its transformation markedly profound.

“It has also changed the frame of reference of viewers from being benign to being serious. AFS Sulur has accommodated the new accretion with pride and it will graduate on the lines of a modern airbase of the IAF,” he says.

According to him, the footfall in terms of increased takeoffs and landings is expected to go up as a natural corollary.

Sulur is the only station in the IAF where a mix of fighters, transport fleets, helicopters, microlites and para-hang gliders fly in perfect harmony.

“Crucially, Sulur’s USP (unique selling point) gets accentuated when an event that has gone unnoticed by many, is brought to their notice. While older aircraft types are being phased out in the rest of the country, it is the only AF Station where a birth of a new aircraft class has occurred. The nation will celebrate this birth,” he says.

Inspiring Students

To inspire air warriors of future and to spread general awareness on military aviation, AFS Sulur was tasked last year by the Southern Air Command to host an air festival for the local schools.

Air Cmde Ashwin Keshav Puntambekar, AOC, AFS Sulur, with the schoolchildren during the air festival.

“It was big draw on impressionable young minds and a cross section of boys and girls evincing interest in joining the IAF. I am convinced the IAF would have created a niche in these young minds with a long term view to eventually join the IAF. The Tejas with its afterburner is sounding the wake up call to young inhabitants around each morning. And, the alarm reminds: Come and join me,” says Air Cmde Puntambekar.

When asked about the future roles being played by AFS Sulur keeping in mind the operational requirements of the IAF, he said: “Why was Tejas brought to Sulur? It is a thought that will come up in the minds of many. The Indian Navy likes to look at the map of India the other way round; with peninsular India as the North with a large sea front dominating the view. This infectious idea is here to stay. Assets like these get created as there was a felt need to work on an increased maritime footprint. The IAF’s operational edge thus gets a big fillip as a result of this thought.”

He says the credit for the base coming up one year in advance (first planned for July 1, 2019,) goes to two other individuals Gp Capt L T J Antony, Chief Engineering Officer and Gp Capt Rajesh Chembath, Chief Administrative Office.

“In fact this base is passionately built by the entire team of personnel at AFS Sulur,” adds Air Cmde Puntambekar.

AFS Sulur comes under the purview of the Southern Air Command headquartered at Thiruvananthapuram, currently headed by Air Marshal B Suresh, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C).

His predecessor, Air Marshal R K S Bhadauria, presently the AOC-in-C, IAF Training Command in Bengaluru, played a key role in fixing operational, maintenance and administrative issues, before the Flying Daggers moved to Sulur.

Inspiring History

The construction of the Sulur airbase was started by the Royal Navy and the air field was commissioned in 1942-43, during World War II. The base was placed under the South East Asian Command. During the August Movement of 1942, the base bore the brunt and was burned down.

Later, it became operational as HMS Vairi in 1945 and Hellcats, Barracudas and Sea Otters of Royal Navy operated detachments from here. Royal Indian Air Force also operated from Sulur during this period.

After World War II, the Indian Army used a part of airfield and number of hangars as MT Vehicle Park. Post-Independence, the Indian Navy established INS Hansa to operate Hawker Sea Hawks. The liberation of Goa saw INS Hansa being shifted to Goa's Dabolim airfield. (Interestingly, to this day, a small Aircraft and Engine Holding Unit continues to be housed at Sulur.)

In 1956, the air field was taken over by the IAF to set up a Care and Maintenance Unit. It was re-designated as Aircraft Storage Unit under Maintenance Command in 1957 and later renamed as ‘Air Force Storage Depot.’

In April 1966, the Air Force Storage Depot was re-designated as 5 Base Repair Depot and assigned the task of repair and overhaul of Gnat aircraft. 33 Equipment Depot too was established at Sulur in 1967 for providing equipment support to 5 BRD but later merged with 5 BRD.

Today, 5 BRD overhauls Avro and Dornier fleet of IAF, though it was earlier used for storage and repair of Gnat, Kiran, Canberra, Chetak and Cheetah aircraft. (In fact, IAF officials confirm that the 5 BRD will receive the Presidential Colours on March 4, 2019.)

In 1984, carving the land assets from 5 BRD, 43 Wing Air Force, an operational formation was established in Sulur. The major area of operation of this Wing is southern peninsula of the country.

After its formation, 18 Sqn, which had moved from Srinagar became a lodger unit to 43 Wing. 18 Sqn later moved to Jammu in the year 1988. 119 HU moved in 1989 but soon after moved out to Jamnagar within a period of less than two years. A detachment of 11 Sqn (Avro aircraft) started operating from the Wing in the month of June 1992. In the year 1996, all Avro aircraft were de-induced and ferried out from the base.

Today, AFS Sulur has become one of the most modern air bases of IAF, equipped with Category-II Instrument Landing System and is home for many squadrons.

Tejas is the fourth squadron currently to have made its base at AFS Sulur, along with the Sarangs (151 HU), Mi-17 V5 Knights (109 HU) and the AN-32 (33 Sqn) Soaring Storks.

The base also houses a Radio and Maintenance Unit, a Transportable Radar Unit and a Garud commando unit.

For the IAF, in the coming years, AFS Sulur would be the fulcrum of operations whenever the country would look forward to meet any contingencies south of latitude 11 degrees North.

And, that will be a developing story to be written in future!