India’s British Origin Military Aircraft – A Historic Connect

anil chopra, air power asia, British Aircraft

Most British origin military aircraft have seen through India in a great way during the various wars, and during peace. The Lysander, Hurricane, Spitfire in World War II; the Tempest in Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48; the Vampires in 1962 and 1965, the Canberra in 1962 Sino-India war and subsequent in all actions with Pakistan; Hunters in 1965 and 1971, the “Sabre Slayer” Gnat in 1965 and 1971, and the Jaguar in 1999 Kargil war.  The others like the HS-748 have been the life-line of IAF during peace time.  The Indian Navy’s the Indian Hawker Sea Hawk saw action in 1971 war, the BAE Sea Harrier operated for nearly 33 years.       

Thirty years after the Wright Brothers made their first flight, Royal Indian Air Force (IAF) was formed through an Act of British Parliament of 1932 and the first Squadron (No 1 “The Tigers”) came up on 01 April 1933. Coincidently that was also the time when first Indian scheduled airline was formed by JRD Tata who was pushing civil aviation ahead. From a fledgling start with Westland Wapiti biplanes with five Indian pilots, Indian Air force (IAF) has come a long way. Undoubtedly the credit must go to the Royal Air Force (RAF) for the rich operational aviation practises that IAF initially imbibed. IAF pioneers and now legends like Subroto Mukerjee, Jumbo Majumdar, Arjan Singh, Baba Mehar Singh, Harjinder Singh, and the Engineer brothers later became household names and some also the future Air Chiefs. RIAF saw great operational action in the Burma Campaign of WW II, under taking operational missions using many British aircraft like Westland Wapiti, Westland Lysander, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, and Blenheim. Other planes that the RIAF in its early years got exposed to include RAF’s de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide, de Havilland DH.90 Dragonfly, Vickers Valentia, and Boulton Paul Defiant, though they were on the RAF inventory. Immediately after Independence the Kashmir crisis saw RIAF into action transporting troops and flying close air support missions. With the government’s transition to a Republic in 1950, the prefix “Royal” was removed.

Westland Wapiti. Picture Source:

Fighters & Bombers

At the time of independence IAF inherited some of the aviation assets transferred by RAF. 89 Hawker Tempest FB IIs were handed over and operated by seven IAF squadrons. IAF had started re-equipping with Spitfires in 1944. Sixteen units of IAF operated a total of 164 Spitfires. The aircraft saw action in defence of Kashmir valley in Oct-Nov 1947. Spitfires were phased out by 1958. One aircraft (NH 631) is presently with the IAF Historic Flight pending restoration. De Havilland Vampire was a product of English Electric Company that first flew in 1943. Inducted into RAF in 1945 it became a frontline fighter. It also had additional pilot training role. 7 Squadron of IAF received Vampires in 1949. In 1965 war Vampire Mk 52 flew attack missions against Pak Army. A total of 349 day and night fighters, 5 Photo Recce variants and 131 Mk. 55 trainers were inducted.

De Havilland Vampire. Image Source:

The English Electric Canberra was a first generation twin-engine jet powered medium bomber of the 1950s. It had set a world altitude record of 70,310 feet in 1957. It joined the IAF as a replacement for the B-24 Liberators in 1957. A total of 107 were inducted over the years. These included B-58 Bombers, PR57 photo-recce variant, and trainers. The aircraft served in many Air Forces and took part in the Vietnam, Falklands and Indo-Pak conflicts. Aircraft were also flown by IAF in 1962 UN operations in Katanga in Africa. In Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 Canberras were used by both sides.  The destruction of Badin radar and attack on Peshawar(PAF’s Canberra base) were noteworthy. Canberra PR57 did photo missions during Kargil war. Canberras finally retired in May 2007.

English Electric Canberra. Picture Source:

The light-weight swept-wing fighter Folland Gnat was with IAF from 1958 to 1978. Over 175 were license produced by HAL. They played a stellar role in the 1965 and 1971 wars and were christened ‘Sabre-slayers’. The famous Keelor brothers and the IAF’s first and only Param Vir Chakra Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon earned their name and valour on the Gnat aircraft. The famous air combat in the east in 1971 when in a single mission three sabres were shot by Gnats from Kalaikunda airbase demoralised the PAF in East Pakistan. Gnat’s Indian variant, HAL built Ajeet was inducted in 1977 and by 1991 when it retired, 89 had been built. India eventually was the largest operator of the Gnat.

HAL built Ajeet. Picture Source:

Supersonic in dive, Hawker Hunter Mk 56 fighter and ground attack aircraft started inducting in 1957. These were bought to counter the Sabre F-86 being purchased by Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Forty trainer variants Hunter Mk 66 were also bought. The aircraft were also used for operational training conversion and target towing. IAF’s first nine-aircraft formation aerobatics team ‘Thunder Bolts’ was formed with this aircraft in 1982 and operated till 1990. By 1996 when they were phased out, 217 fighters had been operated. Hunters played great role in the Indo-Pak wars. Their role in the classic anti-tank battle of Longewala in 1971 war is part military aviation folklore. The attack on Attock Oil refinery also made a great dent on Pak morale.

Hawker Hunter Mk 56. IAF’s formation aerobatics team ‘Thunder Bolts’. Picture Source: Pinterest, Credit:

The SEPECAT Jaguar is an Anglo-French deep strike ground attack aircraft conceived in 1960s as a jet trainer. It was a joint venture between Breguet (later Dassault) and BAC (later BAE Systems). This nuclear capable aircraft till recently served with the French and Royal Air Forces. The 15-tonne aircraft with 4,500 kg weapon load carries a host of latest air-to-ground precision guided weapons and over-wing air-to-air missiles. Aircraft has air refuelling capability. India ordered the aircraft in 1978 after it won a competition with Dassault Mirage F1 and Saab Viggen. 40 were built in Warton U.K. and 120 under license by HAL. 18 fly away aircraft were loaned from RAF and entered service in July 1979. The IAF defining its role as a “deep penetrating strike aircraft”. Jaguars were used to carry out reconnaissance missions in support of the Indian Paece Keeping Force in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. They later played an active role in the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan, flying bombing missions. They are also being used in maritime strike role using the Sea Eagle missile. IAF has sponsored major avionics updates through HAL, which include the inertial attack system (DARIN), autopilot, cockpit avionics, weapons and radar for maritime variant. IAF flies 125 aircraft in 5 Squadrons. DARIN III would feature modified avionics architecture, new cockpit with dual SMD, solid state flight data recorder and solid state video recording system, auto pilot system, integration of new multi-mode radar on Jaguar IS (currently only Jaguar IM are fitted with radars). Major structural modification would be carried out on the air frame to accommodate the radar. Initial Jaguars delivered to the IAF were powered by two Adour 804E; further deliveries were powered by Adour Mk811. All the current IAF Jaguars are powered by Adour Mk811.

SEPECAT Jaguar. Picture Source: Credit: Jane’s

The Hawker Sea Hawk was a British single-seat jet day fighter built by Hawker Aircraft and its sister company, Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft. It first flew on 02 September 1947, and inducted in March 1953. A total of 542 were built. Although its design originated from earlier Hawker piston-engined fighters, the Sea Hawk became the company’s first jet aircraft. In addition to the Royal Navy, the Sea Hawk were operated from aircraft carriers in Dutch and Indian Navy. The Sea Hawk saw extensive service during the Suez Crisis, in October 1956, and were primarily used for ground attack. In Indian Navy service beginning in 1960. Sea Hawks were used aboard the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, ex-HMS Hercules and saw service during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 and 1971. In 1971 war, Sea Hawk aircraft sank about a dozen vessels, comprizing Pakistan Navy gunboats and cargo ships, in East Pakistan waters (now Bangladesh) without losing an aircraft. The Sea Hawk was withdrawn from Indian Navy service in 1983, being replaced by the far more capable BAE Sea Harrier.

Indian Navy’s Sea Hawks parked on the deck of INS Vikrant. Picture Source:

The British Aerospace Sea Harrier naval short/vertical take-off and vertical landing jet fighter, reconnaissance and attack aircraft first entered service with the Royal Navy in April 1980. The principal role of the subsonic Sea Harrier was to provide air defence for Naval task groups centred around the aircraft carriers. The Sea Harrier served in the Falklands War and the Balkans conflicts. The BAE Sea Hawk was phased out from the Indian Navy in 1978. In 1983 Indian Navy inducted the Sea Harrier and became the only other Navy to operate it. Eventually a total of 30 Harriers were procured, 25 for operational use and the remainder as dual-seat trainer aircraft. India has operated Sea Harriers from both the aircraft carriers INS Vikrant and INS Viraat. The Sea Harrier carried modern missiles such as the British anti-ship Sea Eagle missile, and the French Matra Magic missile for air-to-air combat. Other ordnance has included 68 mm rockets, runway-denial bombs, cluster bombs, and podded 30 mm cannons. The aircraft was withdrawn from the Royal Navy service in 2006, and from Indian Navy in 2016. MiG 29K/Kub fighters replaced the retired Sea Harrier fleet.

Indian Navy’s BAE Sea Harrier. Picture Source:


Five Airspeed Oxford transport aircraft and 55 Auster AOP Army Co-op aircraft joined IAF in early 1950s. 22 de Havilland Devon aircraft flew with IAF from 1947 to 1991. These were later replaced by the Dornier. IAF also operated two Vickers Viscount transport aircraft till 1971. 89 Hawker Siddley HS-748 medium turboprop aircraft were license produced in India by HAL, including 17 for Indian Airlines. A few of these aircraft are still used for communication duties by IAF.

Hawker Siddley HS-748. Picture Source: Credit: Kaivan Sethna


In the initial years, 1939 to 1957, IAF used de Havilland Tiger Moth for training. 192 of them were in service. Similarly RAF left 62 Percival Prentice trainers that were used for training till 1963. HAL’s HT-2 basic piston engine trainer was heavily influenced by the design of De Havilland Chipmunk. 169 of them were used for training from 1953 t0 1998. IAF’s HAL built Kiran (HJT-16) intermediate stage trainer was influenced by the British Jet Provost design. It had the Rolls Royce Viper engine and later Bristol Siddeley Orpheus engine. BAE Systems Hawk Mk 132, a British single-engine advanced jet trainer is used for training and low cost combat. Aircraft is also flown by Red Arrows aerobatic team and operated by 18 Air Forces around the world. Being built by HAL under license, it is powered by Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour engine. 24 joined IAF starting February 2008. 42 have been assembled by HAL and another 57are on order, including 17 for Indian Navy. 20 additional have been ordered are under contracting for the IAF’s Aerobatics team. On 10 February 2011, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and GE Aviation signed a contract under which GE Aviation will conduct the next 30 years of maintenance on the Hawk fleet. In 2011, the IAF was reportedly unhappy with the provision of spare components; In December 2011, BAE received a contract to provide India with spares and ground support. A total of 123 aircraft have been ordered by the IAF and 17 by the Indian Navy till date.

BAE Systems Hawk Mk 132. Picture Source: Credit: BAE Systems

          Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has launched the first indigenously upgraded Hawk Mk132 trainer aircraft for the IAF. The upgrade work included the replacement of imported mission computer and data transfer units with systems that were locally designed and developed. Designated as Hawk-i, the aircraft is equipped with mission computer in the dual redundant configuration which has additional capabilities such as digital map generation (DMG) to provide improved situational awareness. The aircraft has also been fitted with an embedded virtual training system (EVTS) that offers improved training capability over the existing system. It is said to provide secure voice communication and data link capability by integration of Softnet Radio and pilots can configure and select cockpit human machine interface (HMI) for different aircraft platforms. The aircraft upgrade was carried out at HAL so as to be independent in matters such as integration of new sub-systems or modifications, obsolescence management of avionics systems and to enhance the aircraft operational and training capabilities, HAL said. The aircraft was showcased at Aero-India 2017, in Bengaluru.

HAL Built Hawk-i aircrfat. Picture Source:

Apart from the Spitfire and Hurricane, the IAF’s 2008 vintage squadron plan also envisages flying specimens of a Hawker Tempest, Westland Lysander, de Havilland Vampire, Folland Gnat and the IAF’s first aircraft, the Westland Wapiti biplane, of which a singular specimen sits at Delhi’s Palam. It is understood that the Hurricane was being pushed as a priority by the IAF given its strong links to the late Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh.

Lead Picture Source:

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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