India All Set for “Air Force One” Boeing 777s

anil chopra, Air Power Asia, VVIP aircraft, Indian Air Force,

Two brand new Boeing 777-300 are all set to arrive and join the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Air Headquarters Communication Squadron, also referred to as the VVIP squadron. There are only three designated VVIPs in India. These are the President, Vice President and the Prime Minister.

“Pegasus” Squadron Crest. Image Source: bharat-rakshak.com

IAF’s VVIP Squadron the “Pegasus’

          Induction of the new aircraft to this unit which has the “Pegasus” as its emblem and Seva aur Suraksha (Service and Security) as its motto, is yet another land mark event. Formed on 01 Nov 1947 at Air Force Station, Palam, it has seen through Dakota DC-3, Devon, IL-14, Viscount, Avro HS-748, L-1049 Super Constellation, Tupolev Tu-124K, the Boeing 737, and Mi-4 and Mi-8 helicopters, among others. All the Presidents, Vice Presidents and Prime Ministers of the country had travelled in this Squadron’s flight. A host of foreign dignitaries like Lord Mountbatten, Pope John Paul, Mother Teresa, Mrs Sirimavo Bhandaranayake, Aung San Suu Kyi, Dalai Lama, John Major, Kofi Anan, Ho Chi Minh, Boris  Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela have flown in this Squadron’s flights. The Squadron currently operates three Boeing Business Jets (BBJ), four Embraer-135 aircraft and six Mi-8 helicopters. In addition, the VVIPs were using Air India’s Boeing 747- 400 aircraft for their international visits. While the IAF paid for the international visits of the President (Supreme Commander of Indian Armed Forces), that for the Vice President and the Prime Minister were paid for by Ministry of External Affairs and Prime Minister Office (PMO) respectively. Air India One is the call sign of any aircraft with the President or Prime Minister of India on board. Each of these aircraft have their own peculiarities and utilisation.

IAF VIP Mi-8 helicopter. Picture Credt: Vedant Agarwal. Image Source: bangaloreaviation.com

VVIP Accident

          On 04 Nov 1977 a TU-124 of the VVIP Squadron, while flying from Delhi to Jorhat crashed near Jorhat. The dignitaries on board included the then Prime Minister of India Morarji Desai, PK Thungon (then CM Arunachal Pradesh), John Lobo (then IB Chief) and Kanti Lal Desai (PM’s son). The entire delegation along with other passengers survived the accident with minor injuries. However, the flight crew, namely, Wg Cdr Clarence J D’Lima, Wg Cdr  Joginder Singh  , Sqn Ldr  V V S N M  Sunkara, Sqn Ldr Mathew Cyriac and Flt Lt O P Arora paid the supreme sacrifice.

Tupolev Tu.124 Indian Air Force. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Embraer 135

          The Embraer 135, is a twin-turbofan-engine jet from Embraer Regional Jet (ERJ) family produced by Embraer, a Brazilian aerospace company. This VVIP/VIP jet was inducted into Air HQ Communication Squadron as a replacement for the Avro  in September 2005. The aircraft has a maximum Ramp weight of 22,570 Kg and a maximum fuel capacity of 8,300 Kg. It can carry 10 passengers to a maximum range of 3,100 nm. The cabin volume of 40 cubic metres offers ample space for seating 12 passengers including four in the VIP cabin. It normally cruises at 0.78 Mach. With a takeoff distance of 1800 metres and landing distance of 1400 metres, it can operate from most of the airfields in India. IAF’s Embraer 135 are equipped with missile-deflecting systems, modern flight management system including global positioning system, as well as category II instrument landing system, and other navigation systems giving it ‘Reduced Vertical Separation Minima’.

IAF Embraer 135. Image Source: flickr.com

Boeing Business Jet

          The BBJ designation denotes the business jets based upon the 737 series airliners. These aircraft usually seat between 25 and 50 passengers within a luxurious configuration. IAF has three BBJs, named RajdootRajhans and Rajkamal. These cost the IAF ₹93.4 billion (US$1.3 billion) including ₹20 billion (US$280 million) for Self Protection Suites SPS. The SPS includes radar warning receivers, missile-approach warning and counter-measure systems. The aircraft has the capability to fire chaff and flares to deviate radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles off their track along with other security tools. There are some more security features which are undisclosed for obvious reasons. The onboard electronics are well shielded to protect the wiring and crucial electronics from the electromagnetic pulse associated with a nuclear blast.

IAF BBJ. Image source: http://www.wikiwand.com

          The BBJs have a four class configuration. There is a separate enclosure in the aircraft which includes an office and a bedroom for the VVIP. Everyone aboard is required to wear a colour-coded identity card. Members of the official delegation (Joint Secretary level and above) are tagged in purple and sit in First Class portion of the jet. There is normal economy class seating for others, including for the security personnel and technical crew. BBJs are used for domestic and neighbouring countries travel by VVIPs.

Air India Boeing 747-400. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Boeing 747-400

          The Boeing 747-400 is a wide-body airliner produced by Boeing Commercial Airplanes. It is an advanced variant of the initial Boeing 747, with more efficient engines and 1,000 nm (1,850 km) more range. The 747-400, has been in commercial service since February 1989. With 694 delivered over the course of 20 years from 1989 to 2009, it is the best-selling 747 family. The aircraft is gradually being phased out by most airlines in preference for Boeing 777 variants. Currently, Air India still has 4 Boeing 747-400s (VT-ESO/P, VT-EVA/B) in its fleet. They are over 22 years old since entry into service, and used for VVIP commitments and only a few other routes. As they have become less cost-effective to operate, it was time to acquire new aircraft for the VVIP duties. The IAF communication squadron is looking forward to operating the Boeing 777-300ER.

U.S. Air Force One. Image Source:  whitehouse.gov

U.S. Air Force One 

          Air Force One is the official air traffic control call sign for a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. The aircraft are prominent symbols of the American presidency and its power. The idea of designating specific military aircraft to transport the President arose in 1943, when officials of the United States Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, became concerned about using commercial airlines for Presidential travel. A C-54 Skymaster was converted for Presidential use; dubbed the Sacred Cow, it carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and was used for another two years by President Harry S. Truman. The “Air Force One” call sign was created in 1953, after a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II carrying President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airline flight using the same flight number.

Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Image source: in.news.yahoo.com

          Other Air Force Ones have included another Lockheed Constellation, Columbine III, and two Boeing 707s, introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1990, the presidential fleet has consisted of two Boeing VC-25As: highly customized Boeing 747-200B aircraft. The U.S. Air Force has ordered two Boeing 747-8s to serve as the next Air Force Ones.

Typical VVIP Boeing 747 Inside Layout. Image Source: indiaonline.me

IAF’s Boeing 777-300ER 

          A panel of secretaries had discussed whether the new plane should be two-engine or four-engine and whether Air India or Indian Air Force should be operating and maintaining the plane. The IAF already maintains and operates the fleet of BBJs. The government chose the ultra long-haul Boeing 777-300ER to replace the ageing Boeing 747s. In 2006, Air India had placed orders with Boeing for 68 aircraft — 27 Dreamliner, 15 B777-300 ERs, eight B777-200 LRs and 18 B737-800s. Of the three B777-300 ERs which were to be handed over to Air India on January 24 2018, two were sent to the USA for VVIP modifications. Unlike the past, as the case of B-747s, and on the lines of the US President’s Air Force One fleet, the two 777s once handed over to the defence ministry won’t be used for commercial operations by Air India at all. The government will buy out the two planes from Air India. The two custom-made Boeing 777 planes, which will be used to fly the VVIPs from September 2021, will be operated by pilots of the IAF and not of Air India. However, the new wide-body planes will be maintained by Air India Engineering Services Limited (AIESL), which is a subsidiary of the Indian national carrier.

External Electronics. Image Source You Tube. Credit Defence Decode Code

Security Upgrade Of Boeing -777

          The primary focus of the new fleet has obviously been security. The new aircraft have Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite (AIDEWS) to protect from electronic threats to the plane. They have been fitted with the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAICRM) Self-Protection Suites (SPS), which allows the aircraft to detect and jam incoming missiles. These systems are a part of the special package costing nearly US$190 million and specially approved by the State Department. This includes, twelve guardian laser transmitter assemblies, and  missile warning sensors, and the counter-measures dispensing system. The U.S. Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has cleared the same. The retrofit is being done in Fort Worth in Dallas with the latest security and communication systems. The aircraft will be strengthened to withstanding grenade or rocket attacks. There are some reports saying that it will have air-refueling facility, but the same cannot be authenticated and the seems unlikely.

Typical anti missile flares on a transport aircraft. Image Source: aviatorflight.com

Long Haul Flight

          In addition to its highly improved self-defence equipment, the plane packs two GE90-115BL engines (made by General Electric), which are the world’s most powerful jet engines, offering maximum thrust of 1,15,300 lbs. The VVIP Boeing-777 would be able to fly over 17 hours, and cover long-distance routes, such as from India to the US, without a refueling stop. The current Boeing-747 fleet is incapable of doing so.

VVIP Boeing-777 ER Image Credit: Flickr account of Andy Egloff

New livery of Air India One

          Dubbed India’s “Air Force One”, or “Air India One”, the new planes will have new livery. Earlier, the VVIP planes used the existing Air India livery, since it was a commercial plane on special operations. The Indian Air Force’s current fleet of Embraer VVIP jets, used for short-haul flights, also have a predominantly white livery. The redesigned 777 will have a sleek new appearance. The planes feature India written in both English and Hindi along the side, along with the national emblem in the center. On the tail, is the Indian flag, reminiscent of the US flag on Air Force One. The aircraft will have the Indian Air Force roundel behind the rear door. The two 777s that are being upgraded were a part of Air India’s original  order and still hold the same registration for now. However, the planes will be operated by the IAF and maintained by Air India Engineering Services Ltd. While there are just a few images currently available of the new aircraft, many more are expected when the planes land in India soon. The photograph of the VVIP Boeing-777 that is going around was taken by Andy Egloff, a flight dispatcher with American Airlines in Grapevine, Texas. In the picture, a distinctive bulbous ‘hump’ atop the forward fuselage, which may be intended to house satellite communication gear. The well-known ‘Air Force One’ Boeing-747 used by the US President has multiple such installations to ensure secure communications.

PM Modi Alighting from IAF BBJ. Image Source: oneindia.com

Mini PMO

          The aircraft will act as a mini PM office, and have secure mobile and satellite phone and communication facilities. There will also be space for a conference, VVIP seating area, senior officials seating area, and an in-flight kitchen, in addition to the restricted executive area for the VVIP. The plane will also have an on-board medical staff, and fitted with a mini operation theater as well. The two planes are expected to be in India by first week of September, two months behind original schedule because of delays due to Covid 19. A lot more clarity will emerge after the aircraft actually start operating in India.

Revive an Old Tradition

          In the 1950s and 60s, it was a tradition for the President and Prime Minister to hold a get-together every year with the crew of the Air HQ Communication Squadron, in a way to thank them for the warm hospitality shown towards the VVIPs through their travels during the year. The quantum of such air travel has increased multifold nowadays. It will be a good idea to restart such a rich tradition.  

Picture Credit: Michael Ing Flickr. Image Source: timesnownews.com

Published by Anil Chopra

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

7 thoughts on “India All Set for “Air Force One” Boeing 777s

  1. How can the aircraft used by the Indian Air Force [IAF] Communication/VVIP Squadron be maintained by Air India Engineering Services Limited [AIESL]???!!! It just doesn’t make sense, now that the Government of India [GOI] has decided to privatise Air India!!! Why doesn’t the Indian Air Force [IAF] Communication/VVIP Squadron maintain the aircrafts operated it by for VVIPs???!!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ideally, the operator in this case, the Indian Air Force [IAF] should be the maintainer, that is doing the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul [MRO] of the aircraft operated by its Communication/VVIP Squadron!!! The then Government of India [GOI] headed by the Indian National Congress [INC]-led United Progressive Alliance [UPA] dug Air India’s grave when the then Union Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel of the Nationalist Congress Party [NCP] merged Indian Airlines with Air India and gave away invaluable and precious routes and rights to foreign airlines!!! It’s a shame that a nation like India which wants to be a superpower doesn’t have a national airline. Indian Airlines should be demerged from Air India and Indian Airlines, Air India, Air India Express and its cargo and MRO functions should function as separate companies owned by the Government of India [GOI], but, under absolute management control of private sector/expatriate Chief Executive Officer [CEO] with profit as the one and only aim!!!

        Liked by 1 person

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