INS Viraat, decommissioned in 2017, has been in news after Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused Rajiv Gandhi of using the warship as his 'personal taxi' for a holiday

Mumbai: It was years ago when Viraat was once again in the news, albeit for different reasons. She was INS Viraat then, a Centaur-class warship inducted in the Indian Navy in 1987.

After holding the record for being the world’s longest-serving warship, she was to be decommissioned in a glorious and emotional ceremony on March 6, 2017. Nicknamed the ‘Grand Old Lady’, she could carry a contingent of nearly 1,600 crew and officers. 

“She was like a floating city, a piece of our country wherever we went,” a naval officer had once told me. 

This was after the warship had served the British Navy for 25 years between 1959 and 1984. Her name then was HMS Hermes and she had played a major role in the Falklands War of 1982. As a mark of respect to Viraat and to honour the long association between Great Britain and India, the First Lord of the British Navy came to India. As a special invitee of the Indian Navy, Admiral Sir Philip Jones felt particularly glad to be part of the ceremony.

“I see a bright future for the two of us. So much attention has been given by the Indian Navy to Hermes,” he had told me then.

‘Mother’, as she was fondly referred to in the Navy, had been commanded by 22 Captains since 1987. Since her inception, she had been the Navy’s flagship. Around 40 Flag Officers, including five Chiefs of Naval Staff, were raised and groomed in her lap.

Her legacy under the royal flag was no less. As HMS Hermes, she was commanded by 13 Captains of the Royal Navy. Her role in Operation Mercy in 1974 and the Falklands War in 1982 are now textbook references for future navies.

INS Viraat played a major role in Operation Jupiter in 1989 during the Sri Lankan peacekeeping operation, after which she was affiliated with the Garhwal Rifles and Scouts of the Indian Army in 1990. She also saw action during Operation Parakram in 2001-2002, post the terrorist attack on the Parliament.

The ship was instrumental in honing the art of flying operations from a carrier deck in the Navy, which resulted in the seamless induction of INS Vikramaditya and its integration with the fleet. The ship has participated in various international joint exercises like Exercise Malabar (USA), Exercise Varuna (France) and the Naseem-Al-Bahar (the Oman Navy). She has also been an integral element of all annual theatre-level exercises (TROPEX). The last operational deployment of Viraat was for the International Fleet Review off Vishakhapatnam in Feb 2016, a handout by the Defence Ministry had then said.

The warship was not just a witness to history, she created history herself. When the Indian Navy acquired her in 1986, the British Navy predicted that she would not be in service for more than seven years. But she went on to serve the Indian Navy for nearly 30 years, over four times the predicted life span.

In her long-serving life, Viraat was at sea for a whopping 2,252 days, travelling almost 11,000 kilometres. She had the capacity to carry almost 26 aircraft, with all flights and choppers she “mothered” clocking 22,000 flying hours. At the time of her decommissioning, Viraat’s boilers had run for over 80,000 hours. She was probably the only warship, constructed during the World War II, to have served any country for so long.

And the Indian Navy’s best-kept secret behind her longevity was the ‘Black Gang’.

“A mothballed ship was resurrected when we had acquired her in 1986. Mothballing is the process of preserving the ship when she is not in use. It is a difficult task to revive an old mothballed ship,” Commander DS Deswal, the first chief engineer of Viraat, had said after the decommissioning ceremony. “It took us three to four months to revive her after acquiring her. We had real hard work to do to get her going. It was a very satisfying experience.”

On the evening of March 6, 2017, when the naval ensign and commissioning pennant were lowered for one last time onboard Viraat during sunset, many of the finest men had moist eyes.

Just days ago, during the last party she hosted before being decommissioned, officers spoke their hearts out about their beloved ‘mother’. Many of them were the members of the ‘Black Gang’.

“What is this Black Gang? And why are you all called the ‘Black Gang’? Why not ‘White Gang’ or ‘Blue Gang’?” I had asked an officer.

“They are the unsung heroes behind INS Viraat’s long life. They are the engineers who had served onboard her,” Vice Admiral AK Chawla then said. Currently, he is the Flag-Officer-Commanding-In-Chief of the Southern Naval Command.

“They are called the Black Gang because of the colour of their dungarees. She was an old ship constructed during the World War II. Her boiler ran on furnace oil. So when the boiler ran, the furnace gave out black soot. The dungarees of engineers working in the boiler room used to blacken due to the soot. That’s why our gang is known as the ‘Black Gang’,” a senior naval officer had explained.

This ‘Black Gang’ worked tirelessly on every problem the ship faced after induction. During her initial years, there were many small mishaps onboard, including problems to the boiler and minor fires. The wiring of the ship was old too.

“The boiler was built in 1944. With gas leakages and old machinery, obviously there were problems. And each and every one of us over the years went beyond our call of duty to resolve issues in those gruelling conditions,” said a proud officer.

And what do gruelling conditions mean? “To understand what such conditions mean, you will first have to see the boiler room with us,” a group of young officers told me.

“How difficult could it be to go to a part of this warship?” I wondered. Dressed in party wear, I rushed behind the officers in uniform.

As I crossed one narrow strip after the other, I reached a narrower steel ladder. I descended a floor only to be greeted by another narrow ladder. I went down this one too. After a while, I lost count of the number of ladders I had descended. The area kept becoming smaller and darker and the ladders narrower.

Finally, I entered a dark and suffocating small room. I had come down eight floors. I was in the belly of the mighty INS Viraat, just days before she was to be decommissioned.

Along with a few officers, I cramped up in the small space to see the boiler. Several pipes, lights, instruments, control panels and casings greeted us. Just coming down here was gruelling enough. Working in such a small and sweaty room in temperatures crossing nearly 60 degrees Celsius was unimaginable.

“When the boiler is working, you can’t dare to touch the railings of these ladders while coming down or going up. They are so hot,” an officer said.

The ‘Black Gang’ members didn’t just work here, year after year, but they also carried out repairs when things went wrong. And how wrong could they go?

“Very wrong,” said a senior naval officer. Vice Admiral Ajendra Bahadur Singh, who was then a Rear Admiral, had recollected an incident when they held an engineer by his toes as he went down for repairs. He was instructed to keep moving the toe for those holding him to understand he was fine. The moment he stopped moving the toe, he was dragged out.

The night of the party was unforgettable. With so many stories around the grand old lady, so many fond and emotional voices, I thought about the amazing legacy Viraat left behind. Among the many voices were those of a father-son duo of naval officers who had both served onboard Viraat. For all those officers and crew members associated with her, Viraat remains a fond memory.

Today, Viraat lies docked at Mumbai’s Naval Dockyard, awaiting a proposal from the Maharashtra government seeking her conversion into a museum. Maharashtra has already squandered one opportunity in the past to preserve INS Vikrant, another warship which was sent to the scrapyard after a legal tangle. I hope this one doesn’t pass by too.