Chandigarh: It’s highly unlikely that the Dassault Rafale fighters, five of which were commissioned into Indian Air Force (IAF) service earlier this month, will be given a native name like previous platforms which were christened upon induction with an Indian moniker.
For nearly five decades, till the early 1990’s the IAF bestowed almost all its imported combat and transport aircraft and helicopters and indigenously developed platforms, with catchy and robust local appellations that were shortlisted by a senior officers committee at Air Headquarters in New Delhi, and finally approved by the air chief.
Expectedly, this committee delved into India’s rich animal world, mythology and history, before deciding on appealing names which, in many instances also depicted the designated platforms’ capabilities.
“There’s no room for romance, imagination or chutzpah in the IAF these days,” said former Air Commodore ‘Sandy’ Indrajit Singh Sandhu, a distinguished fighter and test pilot from his farmhouse outside Chandigarh. The force has become professional, demanding and somewhat detached with little or no time for enchanting idiosyncrasies like nicknaming aircraft, he added woefully.
Over the years many local names bestowed on IAF platforms had fallen into disuse, with many even in the service either forgetting them or recalling them with effort. Senior retired officers also regretted that the agreeable practice of aircraft naming had been discontinued two decades ago, following somewhat feeble reasoning that it was ‘extraneous and superfluous’.
Consequently, the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI multi-role fighter that joined IAF service 1997 onwards does not have an indigenous name and neither do imported transporters like Lockheed Martin’s C-130J-30 and Boeings C-17 ‘Globemaster’ or the AH-64E Apache attack and CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
Earlier, the French MD 450 Ouragan fighter-bombers, also made by Dassault which, like the Rafales were commissioned at Ambala Air Force Station in 1953, were the first to be nicknamed. They were called Toofanis, a direct translation from the aircraft’s French name, meaning Hurricane. Veteran officers recall that the principal reason behind naming them Toofanis was that most technicians and even pilots had difficulty in pronouncing Ouragan (oo-rhay-gon) properly.
Thereafter, the practice of nicknaming platforms gained currency. The French Alouette III light utility helicopter that was inducted into service in the early 1960s was christened Chetak whilst the Aerospatiale SA-315B rotorcraft that followed over a decade later became Cheetah. A more advanced version of the former rotorcraft, developed much later by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, was called Cheetal, while the indigenously designed Advanced Light Helicopter was called Dhruv, or constant, in Sanskrit.
Parallel to this, India’s first indigenously designed fighter-bomber in 1961, the HF (Hindustan Fighter)-24 was nicknamed Marut or Spirit of the Tempest, while the licence built derivative of the British Folland Gnat light attack fighter and trainer, that joined IAF service in 1977, was called Ajeet. Over two decades later, the locally designed Light Combat Aircraft was baptised as Tejas, meaning brilliantly lustrous. Fortunately, that’s a name that’s in popular use in and out of the IAF.
Soviet fighters began joining the IAF in 1964, with MiG-21M variants being commissioned into service as Trishul (trident), while the more advanced MiG-21 BIS was christened Vikram (valorous). The subsequent MiG-23BN strike fighter and its MiG-23MF air defence variant, inducted during the IAF’s ‘golden era’ of inductions in the early 1980s, were named Vijay (victory) and Rakshak (protector) respectively. Moreover, the IAF’s classified MiG-25 reconnaissance platform was christened Garuda, after the mythological bird-like creature whose purported activities were as mysterious and enigmatic as those of the aircraft.
Later IAF additions, like the ground attack Jaguars were baptised Shamsher (Sword of Justice), the MiG-29 as Baaz (Eagle) and the French Mirage-2000Hs, also made by Dassault, was called Vajra, meaning thunderbolt of the gods, a name the fighter has lived up to in many recent missions.
The IAF’s Russian Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft were befittingly called Gajraj, whilst the smaller Antonov An-32s were dubbed the Sutlej. Rotorcraft like the medium-lift Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter was named Rana, and its subsequent upgraded version the Mil Mi-17 Pratap, subtly combining the names of the 16th century legendary Rajput warrior Maharana Pratap on two platforms. The Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopter was cheekily nicknamed Akbar, after the Mughal potentate who defeated the Mewar Maharana at Haldighati in 1568.
Monikers of pilots
Meanwhile, no account of distinct Indian names for IAF aircraft would be complete without some of the equally, if not more appealing and somewhat mysterious nicknames the pilots that operated them were given. But unlike the aircraft names, the pilots’ monikers remain in use, often with their real names becoming a little fuzzy at times for veterans to recall.
In some instances, inquiries into the origin of these intriguing sobriquets are fobbed off, presumably because they were acquired by rambunctious or rowdy antics from a bygone era. A large number of these aliases, though, originated from either shortening or transforming the pilots first or last names; for example, all Randhawas in the IAF came to be and are still called Randy, all Grewals are Garry and all Gills are Gilly.
Similarly, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) A.Y. Tipnis was unexcitingly known as Tippy and one of his illustrious predecessors, Swaroop Krishna Kaul, was prosaically called Supi. Other IAF chiefs with more enigmatic names included L.M. Katre, known as Baba, S.K. Mehra who was nicknamed Polly, S.K. Sareen lovingly called Bruno and S.P. Tyagi puzzlingly nicknamed Bundle. Expectedly, ACM N.A.K. Browne was fondly referred to as ‘Charlie’ after the eponymous comic book character, and the recently retired B.S. Dhanoa’s nickname in the force and outside it is, curiously, Tony.
The renowned IAF fighter pilot, Air Commodore Mehar Singh was affectionately called ‘Mehar Baba’ or Graceful Saint, a sobriquet coined by Aspy Engineer, independent India’s second chief of air staff. Awarded the Maha Vir Chakra or MVC and the Distinguished Service Order or DSO, Baba flew dangerous missions in a Dakota during the 1947-48 Kashmir operations transporting Indian Army soldiers to the besieged Valley. Baba was also the first IAF pilot to land in Srinagar, Poonch and Leh.
But there’s great enigma surrounding ‘Jimmy’, the nickname of Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia, one of the IAF’s fiercest and most decorated fighter pilots. When queried about its origin, the former three-star officer resorts to the sort of artful dodges he no doubt successfully executed in aerial combat in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.
He says he was christened Jimmy ‘one quirky afternoon’ over pink gins at lunch in the 1960s at one of Assam’s expansive tea plantations, then still managed by Englishmen. The details of the lunch are deliberately hazy and nebulous in the telling, but thereafter Jimmy went on to secure the Vir Chakra and Bar in two successive wars, a feat few in the IAF have achieved before or since.
The same afternoon, Jimmy recalls one of his colleagues Darshan Singh Basra being named Mack-the Chhuri, after ‘Mack the Knife’, the popular song from the roaring ’20s, which presumably figured on the turntable during the allegedly feisty afternoon in Assam. The Mack moniker prevailed for Basra’s lifetime.
“Those were days filled with adventure, style and elan,” said Jimmy Bhatia nostalgically. “Sadly, with time and pressure all that has ebbed”.