Sulur Air Force station near Coimbatore from where the MI-17 V5 helicopter carrying chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat and others took off is one of the largest airbases in the country.
The airbase is home to 109 Helicopter Unit nicknamed “Knights” that operates the Russia-made chopper, 33 squadron “Himalayan Geese” that flies Antonov-32 fixed wing transport aircraft, two squadrons of the indigenous light combat aircraft “Tejas” and the 151 Helicopter Unit of the popular air display team “Sarang” that flies the advanced light helicopters, Dhruv, built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
The airbase was set up in 1940 by the Royal Navy of the British armed forces and was known as HMS Vairi. The IAF took it over from the Indian Navy in 1955. The Sulur airbase is second only to Hindon air force station near Agra in size and has played a stellar role in providing air support to a range of military and non-military operations such as the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987 and the 2018 flood rescue mission in Kerala where the MI-17 V5 and Dhruv choppers were deployed to save lives and deliver relief material.
Six MI-17 V5 helicopters flown by 12 pilots, apart from technicians and ground staff from the air force station, had rescued more than 300 people from marooned homes in Kerala, and air dropped close to 60 tonnes of relief materials, clocking more than a hundred flying hours in about 160 sorties in one of its biggest peace-time missions.
The Sulur airbase had even deployed Dhruv helicopters, known for its agility, to make some key rooftop landings to rescue stranded people as the century’s worst floods ravaged Kerala.
The airbase is tasked with providing air support to protect the oceanic boundaries of the country along the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and handles both fighter planes and fixed wing transport aircraft at the same time. It has a well-equipped base repair depot and operates under the Southern Air Command based in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.