Suryakiran: India's very own "Thunderbirds"

Suryakiran Aerobatic Team. Pic credit: Commons

Hrishabh Tiwari



Formed in 1996 as a part of the 52nd squadron "The Sharks" of the Indian Air Force, just as the name Suryakiran has been like the "Rays of the Sun" radiating the excellence of IAF through their Aerobatics Demonstrations within the country and abroad. The Suryakiran team is a fleet of 20 Aircrafts and 14 consummate Pilots, second to none akin to their motto "सदैव सर्वोत्तम"

Aerobatics of Suryakiran.Pic credit:twitter/Suryakiran

The Suryakiran Aerobatics Demonstration Team(SKAT) was formed on May 27, 1996 under the No. 52 squadron of the Indian Air force also known as "The Sharks" to perform various demonstrations and formation reflecting the capabilities of Indian Air Force and bring the audience closer to thrilling and dazzling world of aviation. SKAT can be rightly called as the "Ambassadors of the IAF"; alongside Suryakiran, IAF has helicopter air display team 'Sarang'(a Sanskrit word meaning peacock). Sarang is home to 4 HAL Dhruv choppers also known as Advanced Light Helicopter(ALH), Sarang team is based in Sulur Airforce station, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.

The Suryakiran's fleet comprised of HAL(Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) HJT-16 Kiran Mk2 aircrafts till 2011 and later in the year 2017 was upgraded with Hawk Mk-132 aircrafts. The SKAT team was grounded in the year 2011 due to shortage in the trainer aircrafts however they were re-established in the year 2017 with the Hawk aircrafts. The SKAT team has 14 highly skilled pilots but only 9 fly at a time during an expo. Karnataka's Bidar Air Force station is home of SKAT from where they plan and operate for various exhibitions.

HAL HJT-16 Kiran(left); Hawk Mk-132(right)



In the year 1982, on the occasion of golden jubilee of Indian Air Force, handpicked fighter pilots from various squadron formed a Formation & Aerobatics Demonstration team called "The Thunderbolts" which flew blue & white hunter bomber aircraft that performed in various public displays and flew its last flight in the year 1989. In the year 1996, first major air show AVIA-96 was organised in India although AVIA-93 in the year 1993 was the first time Indian audience witnessed air show at the Yelahanka Air Force Station with a fly-past of a lone Mig-29 aircraft, it was truly in the year 1996 when biennial Aero show was kicked off(now known as Aero India). The organizers had decided to call an International Aerobatics Team, however the IAF officers were confident that the experience of "The thunderbolts" would prove helpful and IAF will have its own Aerobatic Team. It was then the idea of SKAT took shape and Suryakiran was established with the Kiran aircrafts.

Wg Cdr Malik

In 1996 Wing Commander Kuldeep Malik was called on from the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington where he was serving as an instructor to raise the aerobatics team in Bidar. As a Flight Lieutenant he was part of "The Thunderbolts" demonstration team, he is also the awardee of 'Vayu Sena Medal'(1992) and 'Vishist Seva Medal'(1997) and served as team leader of SKAT from June 1, 1996 to March 30, 1997. The Suryakiran flew its first sortie in a 6 aircraft formation on May 27, 1996 at Bidar Air Force station led by Team Leader Malik. During the early days, the SKAT flew overtime perfecting their formations and manoeuvres. On September 15, 1996 they performed at the golden Jubilee celebrations of Air Force Administrative College, Coimbatore which was lauded by all those who witnessed the air show.

The consummate team of Suryakiran in the early 1990s included: 1. Wg Cdr Kuldeep Malik (Team Leader) 2. Sqn Ldr A K Murgai 3. Sqn Ldr V K Khorana 4. Sqn Ldr S Prabhakaran 5. Sqn Ldr A R Gore 6. Sqn Ldr R K Obheroi 7. Sqn Ldr N Kanitkar 8. Sqn Ldr P K Vohra 9. Flt Lt T. Sharma 10. Flt Lt K Prem Kumar 11. Flt Lt K.K. Dubey

SKAT at Aero India 2007

Only the fighter aircraft qualified pilots are selected for SKAT twice a year for a 3-year tour of duty. The selected pilots are Qualified Flying Instructor(QFI) with over 2000 hours of fighter flying experience and 1000 hrs on Kiran aircraft. The team is led by a Commanding Officer who also chooses the future team and puts them through gruelling trials and flight tests. In the year 1999, the aerobatics team of the Royal Air Force, Red Arrows was transiting to Australia via India when Suryakiran team at Hindon Air Base got an opportunity to interact with them and lucky few managed to do sorties in the Hawk aircraft of the RAF. Few months later French Aerobatics team 'Patroullie de France' was at Pune and in yet another interaction, SKAT members flew the Alpha jets and learnt few manoeuvres, this helped Suryakiran raise their formations by few notches.

SKAT, 20 years apart

The Suryakiran team has been performing alongside Sarang Team(helicopter unit) in various expos around the world. On an average the SKAT performs 30 shows a year and 3 sorties per day during training and 2 sorties whilst aerobatic displays. The team has carried out over 550 displays in over 75 cities right from Srinagar to Thiruvananthapuram, In 2003, SKAT performed over Dal Lake from Srinagar, its highest operating airfield at altitude of over 5500 feet.

"As ambassadors of the IAF and the nation, we are aware of the tremendous responsibility and trust that has been placed upon us. Apart from motivating the youth to join the IAF, we also perform to instil confidence among all Indians about the capabilities of the IAF" - Wg Cdr Sandeep Bansal(CO SKAT : 2006-2008)
SKAT with Sarang in different formations

2006 Tragedy


During a routine sortie, a tragedy struck as the 2 seater aircraft Kiran crashed near Bidar Air Force Station killing both the pilots, Wing Commander Dheeraj Bhatia and Squadron Leader Shailender Singh. The exact cause of the mishap could not be traced however the pilots could not eject in time as the aircraft was flying just 200 meters above the ground level. A set of inquiries were ordered and many changes were made in the operational activities. This was a lone fatal tragedy in Suryakiran Squadron since its induction until 2019 during the Aero India show at the Yelahanka AF Stn in Bangalore where two Hawk Mk-132 jets collided mid-air killing a pilot. Three pilots were air borne, two managed to eject safely but claiming the life of Wg Cdr Sahil Gandhi in an unfortunate accident.

Feb 19, 2019 crash at Aero India

Apart from the two mishaps, the SKAT has been elite in their aerobatics showcasing the caliber and mettle of the Indian Air Force, recently SKAT performed at Colombo air show held in the month of March, 2021 to mark the 70th anniversary of Sri Lankan Air Force. At the biennial Aero India show taking place at the Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bangalore, one can witness the brilliance of the Suryakiran; the thunderbirds of India.

Sources: Suryakiran Twitter Page, Bharat Rakshak

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