The best and most modern option emerged then for LRMR aircraft was the Soviet built TU-142M, NATO nomenclature Bear. TU-142M was then the heaviest and fastest turboprop LRMR aircraft with a potent ASW on board suite.
The long-drawn turf battle over the control of maritime reconnaissance and surveillance roles between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navyended with the commissioning of Indian Naval Air Squadron (INAS) 312 on November 18, 1976, when five Lockheed L1049G Super Constellation were transferred from the IAF to Indian Navy. Thus, a new chapter unfolded on the growing aspirations of the Indian Navy to realise the Blue Water stature in the future. Although advanced in age Super Constellations served Indian Navy well to provide firm foundation for creating capability for long range and endurance maritime patrol, surveillance and reconnaissance over the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, etc.
As the utility and relevance of such a dynamic platform was unequivocally established, Indian Navy began to realise the true value of having a multi engine Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance and Anti-Submarine Warfare (LRMR&ASW). Thus, a hunt for a suitable and modern replacement for Super Constellations began in right earnest. Under the circumstances prevailing then, highly limited options were available in this segment of the naval aviation. The best and most modern option emerged then for LRMR aircraft was the Soviet built TU-142M, NATO nomenclature Bear. TU-142M was then the heaviest and fastest turboprop LRMR aircraft with a potent ASW on board suite and complex contra rotating propellers with four NK-12MP engines each producing 15,000 Shaft Horse Power.
Contract negotiations and its conclusion was most efficiently and expeditiously done and beginning from May 1987, initial commissioning crew comprising, 40 pilots and observers, 16 technical officers and 128 sailors were deputed to Riga for training. On March 30, 1988, the first three TU-142Ms (Albatross) arrived at INS Hansa, Goa, after a flight from Simferopol (Gvardeyskoye Air Base) in the Crimean Peninsula of the erstwhile USSR (now Russian Federation). On April 13, 1988, two more aircraft arrived, prior to the commissioning of INAS 312 on April 16, 1988 and by the end of October 1988, the fleet of eight TU-142Ms was delivered. Goa provided a good incubation location for the Albatrosses, but with India’s ‘Look East’ policy, the nest of the Albatross was transplanted to INS Rajali in May 1992 at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu. This location proved the most strategically advantageous launch pad for this versatile LRMR&ASW platform to provide continuous vigil, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in the entire maritime domain of concern to India.
Formidable Eye in the Sky
The Albatross has been the ‘Eye in the Sky’ of Indian Navy for nearly three decades, providing the critical real time inputs for transparency of operations in the entire Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The TU-142M made it possible to operate farther out than ever before and leave footprints of Indian Navy on the fringes of the strategic IOR. It is the fastest turboprop aircraft in the world. Many fighters all over the world found it difficult to intercept this machine at high altitude. The Albatross always took pride in telling an interceptor pilot - ‘Catch me, if u can.’ Rightly named ‘Bear’ by NATO, it remained a mystery and enigma for western world for many years.
Admiral Sunil Lanba lauded the stellar role played by TU142M aircraft in the defence of the country as a maritime reconnaissance and airborne ASW aircraft.
The ‘Mighty Props’ have been the mainstay of LRMR&ASW for close to three decades. Time and again this aircraft has proven itself in the last 29 year of its glorious service. The aircraft saw action during operation ‘Cactus’ in Maldives and participated in operational missions off Sri Lanka to provide airborne surveillance. It has acquitted itself extremely well in numerous operations like, Op Vijay in 1999, Op Parakram in 2002 and anti-piracy operations from 2011 till date. In 2003, it undertook the successful firing of a first underwater missile, APR-2E. Over the years, the aircraft gracefully aged, but kept pace with advancement in avionics and mission equipment. Small but significant upgrades added teeth to the MR/ESM capability, which is its forte. The inherent endurance allowed it to be on task for much longer. In 2008, the ‘Eye in the Sky’ got sharper sight with fitment of new ELTA Radar from Israel.
TU142M has remained an effective force-multiplier with its intimidating presence for the Indian Navy throughout its operational life and delivered its Final Punch in its latest assignment — the Tropex 2017 wherein, it clocked over 53 hours with a single aircraft. The squadron also achieved the prestigious milestone of 30,000 flying hours which is a proud moment for all Albatrosses. TU142M aircraft operations over the years stand testament to the skill, courage and professionalism of the men and women who have been entrusted with the responsibility to fly and maintain this vital aviation asset of Indian Navy. The squadron was awarded Unit Citation by the Chief of the Naval Staff in the year 2002 for outstanding professionalism and momentous contribution to the service and adjudged the Best Frontline Squadron on numerous occasions over the years.
TU-142M, Albatross aircraft were given a befitting farewell in a special ceremony organised at INS Rajali on March 29, 2017. Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of the Naval Staff, presided over the de-commissioning ceremony which was attended by Vice Admiral H.C.S. Bisht, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command, serving and retired officers and men, who have served in INAS 312 and other senior officials from the Navy as well as from civil administration.
Speaking on the occasion, Admiral Sunil Lanba lauded the stellar role played by TU142M aircraft in the defence of the country as a maritime reconnaissance and airborne ASW aircraft. He recollected the crucial role played by the squadron in Operation Cactus in Maldives, where fleeing mercenaries were detected and tracked till they were apprehended by Indian warships. He also mentioned the maiden participation by TU’s as the first Indian naval aircraft in the Republic Day flypast at New Delhi on January 26, 1999. He also acknowledged the professionalism of the pilots, the maintainers and all those personnel associated with flying and maintaining the aircraft in peak efficiency during their service. He assured that the rich legacy of the squadron would continue as the baton is being passed on to the proud crew of the worthy successors viz. the P-8 I Squadron.
With the imposing looks and a lethal punch to match, the TU14M aircraft which have been nothing short of a ‘Flying Destroyer’, were given an impressive farewell as they flew for one last time along with three Chetak helicopters, two Dorniers, one each IL-38 and the Boeing P-8I. In appreciation of the stellar service of the TU142M aircraft, the Chief of the Naval Staff inaugurated a TU Static Display at lNS Rajali.
Commander Yogender Mair, the last Commanding Officer of INAS 132 with TU142M aircraft handed over the reins to Commander V. Ranganathan, who will be the first Commanding Officer of the Squadron with the Boeing P-8I aircraft. The Boeing P-8I aircraft dedicated to the nation by the erstwhile Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on November 15, 2015, is the third type of aircraft, after the Lockheed L1049G Super Constellation and the TU-142M aircraft, to be operated by INAS 312. The P-8I aircraft has proven all its systems and has been fully integrated into the operational grid of the Indian Navy.
The other event of milestone proportion was the celebration of Silver Jubilee of INS Rajali the Naval Air Station which was synonymous with the TU’s, and its home for the last 29 years. To commemorate the Silver Jubilee of INS Rajali, the Postal Department released a special First Day Cover.