|Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha
New Delhi, Oct. 31: The Grey Eagle has landed.
The quiet message relayed by word of mouth from naval headquarters to all officers and sailors this week conveyed a sense of relief despite the ominous ring to it.
The Grey Eagle is Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. This May he was decorated as a Grey Eagle, as the longest serving naval aviator.
Flying in from the White Sea on a twin-seater aircraft on a visit to Severodvinsk in north Russia’s Arkhangelsk Oblast, the pilot recognised for the sharpest of eyes and steadiest of hands landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. The Gorshkov was just concluding sea trials and was about to be certified ready for acceptance by the Indian Navy.
The landing of the Grey Eagle was meant to convey that the Indian Navy is finally, fully, after nearly two decades of delay, damage, disaster and disagreement now willing to take possession of the carrier.
Moscow had initially offered to sell the vessel at the cost of its retrofit. The cost trebled, even after the first contract was signed in January 2004, to about $2.33 billion.
In two weeks from now, on November 16, the Tricolour is scheduled to be unfurled on the vessel that will then take the name INS Vikramaditya.
By the end of the month, the Vikramaditya is to set sail to reach Indian shores in early January under its first Indian commanding officer, Captain Suraj Berry.
Captain Berry — who is a commodore by rank but all commanding officers are called “captain” — has been stationed in the north Russia town and on board the ship during the trials along with about 1,000 Indian crew members. The full complement of the ship’s crew would total 1,608 officers and sailors.
The tardiness — and, most of all, the costs — that have marked the acquisition of the Gorshkov has tainted governments and officers while revealing the vulnerability of a navy that claims to be the most powerful in the Indian Ocean region.
Later this week, in a reminder of that sloth, 10 Indian naval pilots would be going to Russia for a second phase of training to take off from and land on the carrier’s deck. Had the carrier been delivered on time, that training would have taken place in India.
In Goa, meanwhile, more pilots of the “Black Panthers” (Indian Naval Air Squadron 303), are preparing to train at a “Shore Based Training Facility” (SBTF) built by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The SBTF is a mock-up of the Gorshkov’s flight-deck ski-jump.
The 10 pilots who will train in Russia have also been undergoing drills over the Bay of Bengal from Visakhapatnam.
The Indian Navy has taken delivery of 21 MiG29K aircraft that will be embarked on the Vikramaditya when it is fully operational.
Two contracts for a total of 45 MiG29K aircraft to be based on the Vikramaditya totalled $2.4 billion (about Rs 1,300 crore).
The navy’s decision to continue with the training of the pilots is an effort to make up for lost time. The pilots would be expected to be operational by the time the Vikramaditya is berthed in Karwar, on the north Karnataka coast, where the navy’s “Project Seabird” is designed to be the only establishment that can shelter the 45,000-tonne carrier.
Navy sources said the Gorshkov did more than 100 days at sea and there were more than 500 sorties from its deck during the delivery acceptance trials that concluded earlier this month.