Having soared the Indian skies for nearly 24 years and logging nearly 32,581 flying hours, 224 Squadron of the IAF, christened the ‘Warlords,’ will on March 20 end their tryst with the veritable ‘air superiority fighter’ (ASF) of its times. The MiG-23 MF fighters belonging to the squadron will take to the sky for one last time on Tuesday next.
The historic flights will take place at the frontline Air Force Station (AFS) Jamnagar under the South Western Air Command (SWAC) heralding their transition into the annals of military aviation history while also marking the end of an era with the IAF. The Air Chief, AOC-in-C, SWAC and the Commodore Commandant of the Squadron will be among those present bidding adieu to this venerable flying machine that is set to transcend into the aviation folklore.
The last flight of the MiG-23 MF, NATO codenamed Flogger-B and also known by her Indian nomenclature – Rakshak - brings to an end temporarily on March 31, the ‘Warlords’ operations as it gets ‘number-plated’ (an euphemism that in IAF parlance signifies the temporary ceasing of a flying squadron). 223 and 224 Sqdns, raised to counter the F-16 threat from across the border, ever operated this swing-wing variant of the MiG-23s that were inducted in the early 80s.
While the former switched over to the MiG-29 ASF in May 89, only 224 Squadron continued operating this aircraft till date. This variant, many assert, is perhaps one of the most powerful single-engine fighter aircraft in the world till date.
After the last symbolic flight by the Squadron, the ‘Warlords’ also take a brief hiatus until Air HQ allots them a new role and restores them back in their new avatar. No. 224 Squadron was raised on July 4, 1983 at AFS Adampur in Punjab. The first Commanding Officer (CO) of the Squadron was Wing Commander RA Massey Vr C. The Squdron is presently commanded by Wg Cdr K Khajuria and between them altogether 13 COs have commanded the Squadron till date.
MiG-23 MF is a swing-wing interceptor capable of delivering an array of missiles, bombs and guided weapons. The Squadron became operational with its primary role as Air Defence (AD) and the secondary role as Ground Attack (GA).
The ‘Warlords’ moved from Adampur to nearby Halwara, also in Punjab in April ’96 and then to Jamnagar, in Western Gujrat in September ’97. The Squadron was actively involved in providing AD cover over the western sector since its inception till shifting location to Jamnagar, where it continued to do the same. In the latters years, the Squadron was assigned both AD and GA roles in addition to the peace time secondary role of Banner Target Towing (BTT).
The MiG-23 MF was one of the first IAF fighters to be equipped with R-23 R and R-23T BVR (Beyond Visual Range) Air-to-Air missiles. It can also carry 96 Rockets or 1.5 tonnes of bombs of 100, 250 or 500 Kg calibers. The fighter aircraft has a top speed of 2.35 Mach i.e. approximately 2,500 Kph.
The peacetime secondary role of the squadron that of BTT is extremely vital towards honing the air-to-air firing skills of IAF’s fighter pilots. A banner made of a very special fabric of the dimensions 9x3 metres is attached behind the tow aircraft, which is specially modified with a cable extending up to 320 metres. The tow aircraft flies a pre-set pattern and the other fighters of IAF practice firing of their front guns upon the banner target. At the end of the exercise the banner is jettisoned at a pre-designated point and the bullet hits are counted to judge the accuracy of firing. The banner and the tail of the towing aircraft are painted orange to facilitate spotting by the firing aircraft.
In their nearly two-and-a-half decades of operations, the ‘Warlords’ have participated in various operations that include ‘Op Meghdoot’ in the air defence of Siachen Glacier are from 1985-86. In a unique first, the Squadron has the rare distinction of having operated from Leh, the highest airfield in India, located at 11,000 feet above mean sea level (AMSL).
The Squadron also has the unique distinction of being the first fighter aircraft to ever operate from Thoise airfield in Ladakh. These airfields owing to their high altitude, limit the performance of the aircraft, thereby reducing the margin for error considerably. The MiG-23 MF by virtue of its very powerful engine can operate under such marginal conditions with an experienced pilot on controls. And the first landing is most significant given the complete absence of any datum for reference. The Warlords were adjudged the ‘Best Over-all’ Fighter Squadron of the Western Air Command in 1985-86.
In ‘Op Safed Sagar’, the Squadron operated a six-aircraft detachment in Western sector during Kargil Operations and undertook round-the-clock air defence of Saurashtra and Kutchh area. During ‘Op Parakram’, the Squadron operated from two locations in the Rajasthan Sector. The Squadron continued to remain deployed there even after cessation of ‘Op Parakram’ for air defence duties.
The Squadron also participated in ‘Ex-Vayu Shakti’ or the ‘Fire Power Demonstration’ of the IAF held at Pokharan range in February ’99 and ’04 where they were tasked to carry out low level banner towing in formation apart from dropping the flare bomb to be used as a target for air-to-air missile firing.