by Chethan Kumar

BANGALORE: In an indication that things have not completely de-escalated between India and Pakistan, defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which maintains the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fighting squadrons, continues to remain on ‘red alert’ which means that their engineers and technicians must be ready to leave for support duty anytime, at a short notice.

As is the standard operating procedure (SOP) during any emergency situation, HAL was put on high alert on February 26, the day IAF struck terror camps in Pakistan. The alert was in anticipation of escalation from Pakistan, and as TOI had reported in 2016, a similar alert existed after India’s surgical strike too. But the 2016 alert was withdrawn within five days.

“This time, the alert has prolonged. Our staff have been told to be prepared to fly out anytime to any one of the IAF bases across the country...While there is no written order, there generally isn’t, we’ve been told that compulsory overtime will be put in place as and when needed,” an HAL source said.

Another source, while confirming this, said that while nothing has been circulated in writing—in fear of leaks—and that all engineers and technicians have been told to keep their “bags ready”.

“This is an SOP (standard operating procedure) and nothing unusual. This happens every time there is something planned. I remember how we worked months together during Kargil,” another officer said.

Why HAL Is Key?

All aircraft with IAF have four lines of servicing: The first two lines of servicing happen at the squadron level where IAF has trained men; third line of service, which requires slightly higher degree of repair work goes to the various base repair depots (BRD) and the fourth line of service involving engines, avionics, control systems and other major systems go to the maker or assembler of aircraft.

“HAL makes up the fourth line of servicing of aircraft. We do the Sukhoi and MiG platforms in Nasik, the European platforms — Mirage & Jaguar — are done at the aircraft division in Bangalore, while all choppers are repaired at the Helicopter complex in Bangalore,” a source explained.

While IAF sends the planes to these locations during peacetime as there is time, it is standard practice to have back-up staff from HAL at air bases during conflicts, a retired a retired Air Officer-in-charge Maintenance said.

But even the third line of servicing is technically done by HAL, at the bases. “We have more than 150 technical staff, several of them ex-servicemen, who are on the rolls of HAL who are stationed across the bases, including in Leh, Ladakh, Srinagar, Pathankot, Ambala, Gwalior, et al,” an official familiar with the matter said.