The end of a voyage

New Delhi: **FILE** INS Viraat with fleet 1, which is due to be decommissioned on Monday, 06 March 2017. PTI Photo (PTI3_2_2017_000175B)   | Photo Credit: PTI

It was the summer of 1986 when the Indian Navy was abuzz with excitement, waiting for the arrival of INS Viraat, India’s second aircraft carrier, which would radically alter the Navy’s operational paradigms. It was also a time when we, as navy men, had just been commissioned. The 1980s had seen the induction of several new classes of ships. In fact, the entire inventory had undergone a sea change then with the most important of these acquisitions being the mighty Viraat. We secretly nursed the ambition of driving the jumbo-sized ‘Grey Ferrari’ and launching her mean flying machines. A year later, I was appointed on the missile destroyer, INS Ranvir, based at Mumbai. Time flew and I soon found myself in the midst of a huge crowd that had gathered on the South breakwater in August 1987 as Viraat drew in majestically. I shared the sense of awe everyone expressed and could sense the sheer might that she exuded.

The carrier environment

Watch-keeping on Ranvir was a great learning curve which was made steeper by the presence of the carrier in the fleet. As any navy man will tell you, fleet operations acquire a different and distinct hue when an aircraft carrier is around. It was our great fortune that our formative years were spent in such a tough environment. Be it anti-submarine warfare or flying ops, underway replenishment or missile defence, an aircraft carrier brings in a unique set of dynamics and makes life on the bridge and operations room that much more exciting and busy not only on the “Flattop” itself but on all the combatants in her company. In a sense, we cut our teeth in the best learning environment possible.

This was also true of our time in the harbour when the carrier generated a great deal of hustle and bustle. Being in the same fleet meant that one visited Viraat often and each time I left the ship I came away with the feeling of admiration at the way things seemed to work with clockwork precision. The crew always seemed to have an air about them and were usually the winners in most of the intra-fleet competitions, be it on the sports field or in academic endeavours.

My duties over the next few years continued on other ships in the Western Fleet, and in the vicinity of the “Flattop”. She continued to be the toast of the Navy and my desire to serve on her remained undiminished. Finally, in 2003, I was appointed the fleet communications officer reporting to the Western Fleet Commander. The carrier was the first choice as the flagship because of operational and administrative advantages. We spent many days on the carrier and she soon became a second home. With a better understanding of fleet operations and tactics, I was able to appreciate what working on the aircraft carrier was like. I spent many an hour trying to walk on her deck or watching her aircraft, the Sea Harriers, take off or land. I could now claim some kinship with Viraat though I was still not a fully paid up member.

Reassuring presence

Time passed and I moved to other ships. And the aircraft carrier sailed on. But all good things have to come to an end. The news of her decommissioning has filled me with sorrow. She has been the centrepiece of the Indian Navy over 30 years, her life mirroring ours. Viraat and ships of that generation ushered in a huge change in our fleet operations and in the way we thought of tactics or imagined combat. For three decades, she showcased India’s blue water capability across the seas. When the security environment in the neighbourhood was fraught with uncertainty, her presence was deeply reassuring as she protected and projected India’s maritime interests in the neighbourhood and beyond.

Twenty years ago, on January 31, 1997, when another iconic ship in India’s naval history, INS Vikrant, and India’s first aircraft carrier, was decommissioned, I saw many navy men of that era who had been associated with her with hardly a dry eye. The thought of it being the turn of Viraat now induces the same feeling in our generation of officers and sailors. We may not wear our hearts on our sleeves but to recollect the lyrics of the famous Manna Dey song, Viraat has been both our “Aarzoo” and “Aabrooh”. When the naval ensign is lowered for one last time on her today, March 6, 2017, she will slowly fade away and mark the end of an era. But she will live forever in our memories.

Commodore Srikant Kesnur is a serving Naval Officer

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 9:20:57 PM |

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