Last week, Mumbai bid adieu to INS Viraat, the oldest aircraft carrier in the world that was towed away to a ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat. Commodore Srikant Kesnur, Director of Maritime Warfare Centre in Mumbai and Officer in Charge of the Naval History Project, relives the glory days of INS Viraat, once the centrepiece of the Navy’s combat capability, and tells Mayura Janwalkar why a generation of naval officers saw her go with a heavy heart.

What are the lesser known things about INS Viraat and its history?

First, a brief historical background. At the dawn of Independence, Navy’s founding fathers were farsighted to propose a two fleet Navy, each built around an aircraft carrier. This vision partially bore fruit when we commissioned Vikrant in 1961. She had a distinguished journey, including a glorious role in the 1971 war.

In the 1980s, the Navy decided to induct a new aircraft carrier. At that time we had a massive infusion of hardware. Our whole Navy went through a renewal. And Viraat was the centrepiece to that expansion and development. She was an experienced war horse, was a Harrier carrier and we had inducted Sea harrier aircraft, so it was an ideal buy.

She was conceived during World War II but commissioned at the height of the Cold War, served Britain for about 25 years and yet she was in good shape. So, we bought and commissioned her in May 1987.

One lesser known aspect, to the layperson, about aircraft carrier operations is that flying at sea is the acme of professional skill. You are landing on a moving platform that requires huge amount of precision and courage from the entire team that operates it. Equally important are the people who sustain an aircraft carrier. While the jet fighters are the most glamorous and visible, aircraft carriers also operate squadrons of helicopters that play a huge role in anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare and surveillance. Then there are smaller helicopters for search and rescue.

Normally, Viraat embarked three types of aircraft – the Sea Harriers called the White Tigers, the multi-role Seaking Helicopters called the Harpoons and the smaller Chetak helicopters called Angels used for search and rescue.

Then you also have the Direction team – officers who direct these aircraft, do airspace management and control traffic. An aircraft carrier has a very busy direction room. Also, there is an entire team on Flight Deck and Flying Controllers that manage the deck for landing and take-off. An important set of people are those who provide propulsion and steam. This steam is also essential for high speed for an aircraft carrier to generate more wind on the deck. Engineers who give these speeds are called the ‘Black Gang’; they work several decks below and invariably drenched in sweat and soot. These sailors are incredibly motivated, full of josh and verve. In short, an aircraft carrier is a complex eco-system that has a number of people.

What role did INS Viraat, then Hermes, play in the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982?

Before the Falklands War, as Hermes, it went through a number of role conversions before it became a STOVL (Short take-off and vertical landing) or Harrier carrier in 1980. The Falklands war happened in 1982, Falklands was far from UK, about 9,000 miles. Hermes operated two squadrons of Sea Harriers, one squadron of Seakings. These Sea Harriers shot down around 20 Argentine aircraft. As the flag ship of the Royal Navy, she ensured air superiority and sea control by the Navy so that the marines and Army could land safely.

With INS Viraat going to the ship-breaking yard, what is the irreplaceable loss in terms of naval heritage?

Many people think that as there was no war in the 30 years that she (INS Viraat) served us, there is not much to remember her by. But that is a very wrong way of looking at things. Navies are meant to deter war and sustain peace. For 30 years, Viraat sustained peace in a fragile neighbourhood. It was constantly deployed as necessity arose, during (operation) Parakram or Kargil, and earlier off Sri Lanka that also showed its versatility. When you have an aircraft carrier for 30 years in your arsenal, you are talking of huge capabilities. You have a moving airfield anywhere in the areas of interest as the carrier moves about 500 miles a day. The whole fleet is energised when you have an aircraft carrier. It’s like a herd of elephants or a pride of lions prowling about. The aircraft carrier is the flagship. In harbour, it has the hustle and bustle of a small town. It has 1,000 to 1,500 people.

One feels a sense of loss about how to convey this to people who have not had this experience. It gave us a huge sense of succour, comfort. For the previous generation of Navy people, Vikrant was mother, for us it was Viraat. It was our arzoo (desire) and abroo and (honour). This sense of loss may not find understanding or salience elsewhere.

How different was the day that INS Viraat was towed away to Alang from the day she was decommissioned?

In 2017, when she was decommissioned, there was sadness about the end of her innings but that was tinged with pride for what she had achieved. She had served in two navies for 55 years that would probably make her one of the longest serving aircraft carriers in the world. We bid a tearful but a gracious farewell to the old lady. But until she was towed away to Alang, there was hope that she would be salvaged in some way, may be as a museum, for training, for tourism or, possibly she could be a destination for diving and underwater exploration. There was a fond hope that she would find a dignified end. But when it was towed away to be sent to the ship-breaking yard where it will be broken down to metal for your shaving blades or mobikes, there was a sense that it was not the end she deserved. We, Navy people, are tremendously attached to the ships. Viraat was called vibrant Viraat. There are vibes that ships carry about them. You are deeply attached to the nuts and bolts, to the cabins you stayed in. There are small and big memories of your time on board that build your camaraderie and soldiering pride.

Could she have been turned into a museum?

The Navy tried for some time to maintain a museum on INS Vikrant at its own expense but then found it unviable after a while. It’s impractical for the Navy because it requires huge manpower, berthing space. We can support endeavours like running of museum ships or of preserving our maritime heritage but we cannot be the principal agency doing it. It has to be a national effort. The governments, the Navy, they made all the efforts but somehow the pieces did not fall in one place. So, issues of our heritage should have a national approach with national consciousness. French author Antoine de Sant-Exupery once said that “if you want to build a ship don’t send men to the forest to drum up the wood, instead teach them the desire for the sea”. This is what a museum ship like Viraat would have done.

What are the other aspects of maritime heritage that need attention and conservation?

We are a nation with a glorious maritime heritage that goes back about 5,000 years. Long before the Europeans sailed, we had maritime exchanges with Rome and Greece in the West and up to Japan in the East. We lost our freedom to the Colonials when we lost our ability to sail the far seas. From one of the richest nations in the first millennium, we became among the poorest in 1947. There are lots of lessons in this grand maritime mosaic that could have been reflected in a maritime museum. It requires more than just one agency. The Navy is doing a lot with organisations like National Maritime Foundation and Maritime History Society. But much more is needed. We have not even touched one-hundredth of India’s maritime heritage.