The Dakota C-47/DC-3 returns Home

A Red Letter Day, Worthy of Five Stars

Air Marshal GD Sharma & Dakota VP 905

Fourth May 2018 will go down as a red letter day in history of the IAF even as a venerable C-47/DC-3 Dakota returned home, to its old family fold, the Indian Air Force.  Being from amongst the fighter aircraft fraternity, I have no pretences of having experienced the challenges that faced the Dakota and its crew members when operating in the challenging Himalayan environment. But starting with the Kashmir Operations of 1947 and thereafter, in the treacherous hills of the north east, it was the Dakota and its indomitable crew members that contributed immensely to safeguarding our national frontiers. [see allied article].

In my view, these are the five stars that made 4 May 2018 a red-letter day. On this day, this Douglas DC-3 Dakota, given the tail number VP 905 and christened as Parashurama, joined the IAF’s Vintage Flight at IAF Station Hindon.

Having been its primary transport aircraft and solid workhorse for several decades, the Dakota served with the IAF from 1947 onwards, playing a crucial role both in the Kashmir 1947-48 and 1971 Indo-Pak conflicts, and in many counter-insurgency operations in between. Pioneered by the legendary Air Commodore (then Wing Commander) Mehar (‘Baba’), the Dakota had made the first ever landing of a transport aircraft at the high airfield of Leh at an altitude of 10,700 ft. Earlier, RIAF Dakotas flew in troops and supplies during the siege of Poonch in 1947-48. According to aviation historian Pushpindar Singh “The Dakota is the reason why Poonch is still with us”. What better tribute can we pay to this aircraft which had made history during the Second World War and for several decades after? Inevitably, as time (and airframe life) took their toll, the faithful Dakota was retired decades later, to give way to the Avro (HS 748) in Indian Air Force service.

This particular example of the Dakota had been identified and bought from scrap, refurbished in the UK and ferried to India by a combined and determined British/IAF team. The tail number VP 905 was appropriately chosen, being that of the Dakota piloted by Wing Commander KL Bhatia of No.12 Squadron which transported the first batch of troops (1st Bn, the Sikh Regiment under command of Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai) to Srinagar on 27 October 1947 and commencement of IAF operations in the 1947-48 war. By the end of that first, fateful day in October 1947, three Dakotas of the RIAF along with six civil Dakotas, had made 28 vital sorties from Palam (and Willingdon, now Safdarjung airports) in New Delhi, ferrying troops and their small arms to Srinagar.

70 years later

Over 70 years later, Dakota (VP 905) was accepted by Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa from the Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, when a Gift Deed was signed on 13 February 2018 but it was on 4 May 2018 that the CAS formally received papers of the Dakota from the MP’s father, Air Commodore (retd) MK Chandrasekhar.

The Dakota has now joined the IAF’s Vintage Flight at Hindon in the company of two other treasures, the Tiger Moth and Harvard. Since maintaining, flying and preserving vintage aircraft is well beyond the required skills of today’s “techno-logistic air warriors”, there has emerged yet another specialist breed who restore and maintain such vintage aircraft. The IAF, in keeping these aircraft airworthy and show casing them on special occasions will, hopefully, stir nostalgic memories amongst IAF veterans whilst inspiring air warriors of today and those of the future.

Air Commodore MK Chandrasekhar, a distinguished Dakota pilot with nearly 13,000 flying hours in the IAF, said at this memorable event that “this aircraft is dedicated to all air warriors and their families who served and flew the Dakota in various IAF operations in the remotest parts of India from 1947 till its retirement.” His son Rajeev Chandrasekhar MP, had earlier in an interview two years ago, said that because of his upbringing, he had always been deeply interested in military history and being a pilot himself, also knew about aircraft. He was horrified to learn in 2010 that the last remaining Dakota at IAF Station Sulur had been sold as scrap. He later located one in Ireland, which needed to be refurbished and then bought it. But his proposal, in 2011, to gift it to the IAF met with a blank from the highest levels of government since he was informed that the IAF had no policy on receiving such gifts! Fortuitously, his perseverance paid off and in 2016 the government changed its stand.

After this initial rejection, he said that, “in many ways, the rejection of my proposal is emblematic of the way we treat our military, its history, traditions and sacrifices. Britain still celebrates the sacrifices its airmen made, and The Battle of Britain Memorial Flights reminds people of Britain’s finest hour.” In his view, true patriotism was not about slogans, “but recognition and honouring of those Indians who protected our country and the military traditions that made those men”.

He concluded that ‘India requires its political leadership to take an interest in its military history’ and he personally did so by the example on display on this memorable day. 

Air Marshal Gian Dev Sharma

There was a galaxy of Air Force veterans at Hindon, amongst whom were many who had spent a lifetime with the Dakota, so it would be unfair to single any one for special mention, except that much like VP 905 making history, there was one amongst them doing so as well.

It can be said with certainty that not only was Air Marshal Gian Dev Sharma the eldest Dakota pilot present that day, but in all probability also the oldest living Dakota pilot in the world. At 96 years of age, his family had made every effort to see that he did not miss this historic event. He came all the way from his home in Dehra Dun to be present on the occasion, to be with his faithful aircraft in which he had flown thousands of missions over the decades.

 Commissioned on 10 November 1941, GD Sharma had spent the first few years in service with fighter squadrons such as Nos.1, 8 and 10, flying the Wapiti, Vengeance, Hawker Audax, Lysander, Hawker Hart, Hurricane, Tempest and Spitfire, amongst other types. His tryst with the Dakota commenced with No.12 Squadron on 23 November 1947 with Dakota (MA 963) and he signed off his last Dakota mission on 4 December 1977 on HJ 910. He had commanded No.12 Squadron from July 1958 to April 1960. In his years with the Dakota, in which he clocked  over 2600 hours of flying were operational missions, VIP flying of the Prime  Minister on 20 November 1948 in Dakota  HJ 205   from Palam to Srinagar and an early UK courier commencing from Palam on 5 February 1952 and returning on 3 March 1952. On that courier the outbound route followed was from Palam to Jamnagar, Sharjah, Baghdad,  Nicosia, Eladem, Luqa, Istres, Geneva, Zurich, Paris and destination Abingdon. The inbound route was from Abingdon, Istres, Tunis, Castle Benito, Eladem, Nicosia, Baghdad, Bahrein, Sharjah, Jamnagar and Palam.

 Air Marshal GD Sharma retired as AOC-in-C Central Air Command, 40 years ago in December 1978. Undoubtedly, the greatest honour that Air Marshal Sharma could have accorded to his Dakota Group colleagues was to continue displaying the leadership, courage and comradeship which marked his presence on this historic day.

 As for me, I can only say with nostalgia that I did not miss the thrill of flying the Dakota in the course of my testing career, my first such experience being only in Dakota (IJ820) on 4 December 1964 !

Air Marshal Brijesh D Jayal (retd)

Photographs from Air Marshal GD Sharma’s family.

Tag:- Indian Air Force, IAF, Dakota C-47/DC-3,