Military & Aerospace

Military Aviation and the Indian Air Force
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Issue Vol. 31.3 Jul-Sep 2016 | Date : 09 Sep , 2016

Formation of the Indian Flying School

Some British officers of Indian Army learnt flying at their own expense while on leave in England and earned their wings. In February 1914, an Indian Flying School (also called Central Flying School) was established at Sitapur in United Province (now Uttar Pradesh) under the command of Captain SD Massey of 29th Punjab Regiment. The Indian Army officers who knew flying were posted as flying instructors. The objective was to teach flying to some selected officers of the Indian Army under local conditions. The effort was to raise an Indian Flying Corps on the pattern of Royal Flying Corps of England. Before it could be pursued properly, World War I broke out and the officers and aircraft of the Corps were sent to Egypt to supplement the aviation resources of England. Consequently, the Flying School was shut down and India was left without an aeroplane.

The history of military aviation in India is associated with the birth of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1912…

During the War, some Indians joined the Royal Flying Corps and flew the airplanes in actual combat. Sardar Hardit Singh Malik who joined the RFC in 1917 became India’s first military aviator. Indra Lal Roy (first Indian DFC), S Welingkar, MC and EC Sen followed him.

Royal Air Force in India

Meanwhile, a Squadron (No 31) of Royal Flying Corps (later RAF) came on detachment in December 1915 to Nowshera for watch and ward duties in North West Frontier. The Squadron, the first in India, thus bore the crest with motif five pointed star of India and motto ‘Primis in Coelum Indicum’ (First in Indian Skies). Considering the serious operational requirement of aircraft in North West Frontier, an additional Flight was sent to India towards the end of 1916. Though there were lot of demands from India for air squadrons, but these could not be met in view of large requirements in the different theatres of War. Subsequently, when War ended, two more squadrons of RAF were ordered to be deployed in India in mid 1919. Incidentally, aircraft were first used to quell internal unrest during the disturbances in Punjab in 1919.12

By 1923, the number of RAF Squadrons in India rose to six and the strength almost continued till the start of the Second World War in 1939.13 These squadrons were organised under a Group Headquarters located with the Army Headquarters. Some airfields were also developed in India during the inter war period. Meanwhile, some Civil Flying Clubs were set up in cities such as Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi in the late 1920s. These clubs encouraged adventurous young men to learn flying as a sport. Many of them later joined ‘Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve’ during the Second World War.

The real Indian combat aviation was born on October 08, 1932, when the Indian Air Force came into existence…

Birth of the Indian Air Force

In the early 1920s, the idea of setting up an Indian Air Arm was floated. Public opinion as well as Central Legislature demanded the entry of Indians in the Air Arm soon after the First World War. In 1925, the Government of India set up a Committee under Lt Gen Sir Andrew Skeen to advise on the Indianisation of the Services. The Committee, recognising the services rendered by Indian pilots during World War I, recommended creation of an air arm in India.14 The recommendations of the Committee were accepted and in March 1928, the Government decided to send some Indians to RAF College Cranwell. Selected through Federal Public Service Commission (now UPSC), six Indians were thus sent to Cranwell in 1930 for two years training. Five qualified as pilots while one as an equipment officer. Many more Indians followed in the succeeding years. On completion of training, they all were posted to No 1 Squadron, IAF.

Meanwhile, thirty nine men were recruited by railway workshops and trained for a year as apprentice for aircraft maintenance at Drigh Road, Karachi. Of these, 22 qualified and came to be known as Hawai Sepoy. During the same time, an Act was passed giving birth to Indian Air Force (IAF) on October 08, 1932. On April 01, 1933, the first Flight, called ‘A’ Flight (No 1 Squadron) was raised at Drigh Road, Karachi. It included six IAF and two RAF officers. The Flight consisted of four Westland Wapiti aircraft which could fly at a speed of 80-85 miles per hour.

The formative years of the Squadron were related to training in Army Co-operation, then considered the prime role of an air arm. Subsequently ‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights were added in 1936 and 1938 respectively. The Squadron remained busy in operations in North West Frontier and in Waziristan during the period 1937 to 1939 and earned a good reputation. Operations in the Frontier areas with practical experience of low-flying in tortuous terrain, produced efficient pilots in the IAF. The Squadron’s flying standards and serviceability of its aircraft earned the admiration of all concerned. In social terms, the squadron had a mixed class composition and men of various communities and castes stood shoulder to shoulder and dined in a common mess. The Squadron was converted to Hart aircraft in June 1939 and to Lysanders in August 1941.

In the early 1920s, the idea of setting up an Indian Air Arm was floated…

The IAF during World War II

World War II broke out on September 03, 1939, when the IAF was still in its infancy, comprising 16 officers and 144 men. The massive requirement of manpower during the War led to a large expansion of the IAF. Indeed the reverses suffered by the Allies in the early stages of the War necessitated the expansion which was further accentuated by the entry of Japan into the War.

In view of the expansion, training facilities for aircrew were to be provided in India. Elementary Flying Training Schools were, therefore, established at Begumpet and Jodhpur while advanced flying training was started at Ambala (shifted to Risalpur in 1942). Similarly, the technical airmen were trained at Ambala and the non-technical airmen at Lahore. Subsequently, more training institutions were set up to train the airmen and aircrew for the IAF. Still some aircrew were sent to England and Canada for flying training. Now, officers were given emergency commission for the duration of the War. The IAF Volunteer Reserve Scheme was launched and many Indians who had learned flying in civil aviation schools were commissioned in the IAF. Six Coast Defence Flights of the IAF at various coastal cities were raised to guard against any offensive from the sea. In 1940, an expansion plan for the IAF provided for raising of four squadrons by April 1942. However, in 1941 the target was enhanced to ten squadrons.

By October 1940, No 1 Squadron in its full strength and Coast Defence Flights with partial strength, became operational. Meanwhile, No 2 and No 3 Squadrons were added in April and October 1941 with Wapiti and Audax aircraft respectively. No 4 Squadron equipped with the Lysander aircraft followed in February 1942. The Coast Defence Flights were disbanded and their strength was absorbed in 6, 7, and 8 Squadrons (equipped with Vultee Vengeance aircraft) raised by-mid 1943.15 Raising of two more squadrons was delayed due to paucity of pilots; but finally with the help from RAF, Nos 9 and 10 Squadrons were added by early 1944 with Hurricane aircraft.16 By the end of 1944, all squadrons were converted to Hurricane while in mid-1945, Nos 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons were re-equipped with Spitfire aircraft.

The pressure of War led to the rapid development of the IAF and it became a nine-squadron force by the end of World War II…

The ten-squadron plan was thus almost achieved. However, the IAF was neither given bomber aircraft nor transport planes during the War. It was only in 1946, that No 12 transport squadron was raised with Dakota aeroplanes. During the War, all IAF squadrons were perpetually engaged in operations in areas such as the North West Frontier, North East India, Burma and Arakan. Many senior IAF officers also got the chance to command Squadrons.17 Two of them even commanded the RAF Station Kohat. This experience stood them in good stead just after the independence when India got involved in operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Though in fledgling stage and with limitations, the IAF brought laurels for its role in World War-II. It earned 22 Distinguished Flying Cross (one Bar to DFC), one Distinguished Service Order and many other gallantry awards. The IAF flew more than 16,000 sorties in Burma alone, involving more than 24,000 operational flying hours. As a mark of recognition for its contribution in the War, the IAF was granted the title ‘Royal’ by His Majesty the King on March 12, 1945.

During the War, the demand for manpower in the IAF was high, particularly between 1942 and 1944, when Japanese offensive in South East Asia called for maximum effort. By this time, British and US aircraft factories had increased their production and could supply aircraft in the numbers required. Efforts were also made by Walchand Hirachand to manufacture aircraft indigenously, but could not last long. Between January 1942 and August 1945, the IAF needed 4,304 officers and 74,125 airmen, however could find only 2,533 officers and 41,324 airmen. Many were wasted out during training. At the end of the War, the IAF had nine squadrons and a strength of 1638 officers and 26,900 men. It is estimated that 12,953 personnel of RIAF were demobilsed towards the end of 1946.


The invention of the aircraft in 1903 added a new element to warfare. Now to maintain the balance of military power, the states needed air power also. India was introduced to the aeroplane in 1910. Subsequently, RAF Squadrons came to India for operations in North West Frontier as also for internal security. Public pressure ultimately led to the creation of an Indian air arm in 1932. However, the expansion was very slow until the Second World War (1939-1945). The pressure of War led to the rapid development of the IAF and it became a nine-squadron force by the end of World War II.

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The Second World War led to substantial growth in infrastructure. It necessitated the building of several air bases country-wide which proved to be useful after independence. The expansion during the War again provided a sound basis for future development of the IAF. Indians again got an opportunity to serve with US and British air force personnel augmenting their vision. At one time, there were 13,225 officers and 118,682 other ranks in the Royal Air Force units operating in India. About the end of 1943, a total of 3,699 planes of various air forces were based in India.18


  1. Tony Mason, Air Power: A Centennial Appraisal (London: Brassy’s, 1994), p. 3.
  2. H.G. Wells, The War in the Air (London: MacMillan, 1908)
  3. Charles J. Gross, “George Own Squier and the Origins of American Military Aviation”, The Journal of Military History, vol. 54, no. 3 (July 1990), pp. 281-306.
  4. Phillip S. Meilinger, “Trenchard and Morale Bombing: The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine Before World War II”, The Journal of Military History, vol. 60, no. 2 (April 1996), pp. 243-270.
  5. Guilio Douhet, The Command of the Air (Dehradun: reprint 2003, first published in 1927), pp. 26-44. Also see Lord Tedder, Air Power in War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), pp. 29-52. According to Tedder, General Smuts was first to advocate the concept of ‘air supremacy’.
  6. GR Simonson, “The Demand for the Aircraft and the Aircraft Industry, 1907-1958”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 20, no. 3 (Sep 1960), pp. 361-382.
  7. Meilinger, ‘Trenchard and Morale Bombing’, pp. 243-270.
  8. Aeronautics in India”, Times of India, January 26, 1910. Also see “Aviation Progress: Lecture at Allahabad”, Times of India , January 10, 1910.
  9. Capt Norman Macmillan, Air Strategy (London: Hutchinson, 1950), p. 7.
  10. P Anuradha Reddy, Aviation in the Hyderabad Dominions, p. 8.
  11. Indian Aircraft Act, 1911”, vide Act No. XVII of 1911 (23 September 1911).
  12. Srinath Raghaven, “Protecting the Raj: The Army in Indian and Internal Security, c. 1919-39”, Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 16, no. 3 (December 2005), pp. 253-279.
  13. SC Gupta, History of Indian Air Force, 1933-1945 (Delhi, Historical Section, 1961), p. xviii.
  14. The Skeen Committee had two Indian Members Moti Lal Nehru and MA Jinnah. Nehru however tendered his resignation in March 1926.
  15. During that period, No. 5 Squadron of RAF was located in India, keeping this in view no squadron was raised in IAF by this number to avoid confusion.
  16. Formation dates of squadrons are, however different in different sources.
  17. On cease of hostilities in August 1945, six of the nine IAF squadrons were commanded by Indian officers. See “AOC’s Internal Minutes”, 1945.
  18. Bisheshwar Prasad, India and the War (Delhi, Historical Section, 1966), p. 258.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Narender Yadav

PhD in Military History, working as an Assistant Director in History Division, Ministry of Defence.

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