| A Suryakiran team displays aerobatic manoeuvres during an air show on the outskirts of Srinagar in 2005. (Reuters)
New Delhi/Bangalore, March 18: Two pilots of the air forceís showpiece squadron of flying aces were killed today as they rehearsed manoeuvres in the skies over Bidar in north Karnataka for an aerobatic display.
Squadron Leader Shailendra Singh and Wing Commander Deepak Bhatia were members of the Suryakiran team that flies the bright red aircraft for breathtaking displays in mid-air.
Only last week over lunch at Air Force Station Bidar just after a display, Wing Commander Bhatia, dressed in his blue pilotís overall and sporting the Suryakiran badge on his chest proudly, was explaining to a team of journalists from Delhi that inverted flying is one of the most difficult manoeuvres in the Kiran Mark II aircraft as the fuel runs out of the engine. The Suryakirans never fly inverted for more than three seconds at a time.
Bhatia usually flew his Suryakiran just left and behind the leader in the nine-aircraft formation. The Suryakirans are based in Bidar.
It is not known if Bhatia and his co-pilot were flying inverted at the time of the crash. But even the easiest of the drills performed by the Suryakirans tests the mettle of the aircraft and the pilots to the fullest.
The Suryakiran pilots revise their aerobatic displays almost every fortnight and devote hours of flying before going public. Singh had joined the Suryakiran team recently but Bhatia was a veteran who had flown Mirage 2000, MiG-23 and Jaguar fighter aircraft.
All members of the Suryakiran team are qualified flying instructors and are among the best fighter pilots in the IAF. They return to flying the Kirans ' the aircraft used in the Stage II training of fighter pilots ' after more than 1,000 hours of operational flying.
These pilots ' whose main job is public relations ' are selected after a rigorous examination of their records. It is one of the most coveted jobs in the IAF because of the high profile the Suryakirans enjoy and the travel perks that go with the job.
The Suryakiran that Singh and Bhatia were flying crashed in a field in Naubad just north of Bidar.
According to an IAF training command spokesperson here, a court of inquiry has been ordered and the preliminary investigation revealed that the tail of one of the planes in the formation, which was about to veer away from the other, hit another aircraft.
The collision sent the single-engine jet, in which the two pilots were seated, spinning out of control and it crashed into the field.
The Suryakirans fly at speeds between 200 and 600 kmph during manoeuvres. This is much less than the speed at which supersonic fighter aircraft are capable of flying. But the Kiran Mark II jet is exploited to the end of its abilities by the Suryakirans. During some manoeuvres, they fly with wing tips barely 5 metres apart.