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Sarang's aerial ballet

Aerobatics by a fixed-wing airplane is tough enough, but imagine an unstable chopper waltzing to Mozart. BHUMIKA K.'s jaw drops at the dazzling manoeuvres of Sarang, IAF's helibatics team

GETTING A 5.5 tonne metallic machine to dance in the air to the tunes of Mozart is no mean task. But making it look like a song is Sarang.

The Indian Air Force's helicopter display team will, for the first time, participate in India's own international air show Aero India 2005, starting tomorrow. Dubbed Sarang, which is peacock in Sanskrit, the whirring birds promise to be as graceful as the peacock in their moves. The sides of the helicopter too are painted with the image of a peacock with the feathers contrasting the gold and red body of the chopper.

On the mark

The team has just returned after a very successful stint at the 21st World Grand Prix in the U.A.E., where they placed third among10 fixed-wing, jet and helicopter aerobatics teams of the world put together. Sarang is perhaps one of the world's only three operational helicopter display teams and is all set to vie for audience attention at Aero India this year along with the Suryakirans, the jet aerobatic team of the IAF that has enthralled audiences here before. Watch out for the awesome Sarang Splits, the crossovers, nosedives, reverse moves and different forms of tandem formation flying.

"Of course, jets have a natural grace which is difficult to emulate," admits the modest Wg Cdr Hari Nair, who leads the Sarang team. "Helicopters are largely unstable machines."

And here lies the challenge. The choppers are the Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH), produced indigenously by the Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Sarang's symphony in the air is a statement of the capabilities of this twin-engine multi-role craft that can easily take to heliborne assault in times of war and switch to air ambulance for casualty evacuations.

Like dancing

Wg Cdr Nair compares Sarang's moves to ballroom dancing! "Each must know his steps or you step on someone's toes!"

The power of the main and tail rotors as well as that of the twin-engine is what gives them the power to manoeuvre the way they do. "The ALH has hinge-less fibre rotors. If you try these aerobatic tricks with regular helicopters, it won't work," he explains. No special modifications have been made to the ALH for the display team, except the addition of a smoke generation system that leaves smoke trails in the sky for the crowds to gasp over.

It is the only chopper in the country with the capability to fly backward. "No helicopter wants to fly backward. There is always a resistance and refusal from the machine," says Wg Cdr Nair. Adds Flt Lt Nikhil Naidu, one of the Sarang pilots, in lighter vein: "It's more difficult reversing a helicopter than a car, because we don't have rear-view mirrors!"

Wg Cdr Nair leads a young team of 10 pilots and hopes that Sarang, born in June 2003, will grow into a five-chopper team eventually. The team is also in charge of monitoring the ALH project, under the IAF's Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE). Most of the Sarang pilots are former Siachen pilots who have been flying in and around the high-altitude and arduous areas of Leh. "Asking us which is more challenging — Siachen or Sarang — is like asking which is the better of our children. Each demands a different kind of perfection," Flt Lt Naidu puts it crisply. Many of the pilots are hobby photographers, others musically inclined, some diehard sportsmen who have to run their regular 10 km a day, and some who love tinkering with their cars and machines.

The Bangalore-based team puts in up to 10 practice sessions every week, flying down to Kolar's Defence Air Field at 7.30 a.m. and keeping at it well into 2.30 p.m. Every session is recorded on video and the performance dissected later with the team.

Says a very proud team leader Nair: "The strength of my team lies in its insistence on sticking to a strict standard of criticism! Sometimes, even if I say a problem was minor and let it pass, they say it's not OK, and keep giving feedback."

Watching the Sarang perform, during certain manoeuvres, one gets a bit bothered that the rotor blades of two choppers will grate into each other! "We maintain a distance of around 13 metres from each other. It's only the audience perspective that gives the formation a tight appearance. We need adrenalin and a bit of caution. When caution is thrown to the winds, that's when we should start worrying," is how Wg Cdr Nair dismisses any possibilities of danger.

Photos: Bhagya Prakash K.

Pilots of the Sarang team come down to earth exclusively for MetroPlus. Team leader Wg Cdr Hari Nair is seated in the middle.

Right now, Sarang dances in the air to the tune of Mozart's 40th Symphony, but may switch to Hindustani music later.

The team comprises pilots Flt Lt A.S. Abhyankar, Flt Lt Nikhil Naidu, Sqdn Ldr Umesh Patkar, Sqdn Ldr Suji Nair, Flt Lt Shailendra Pandey, Sqdn Ldr V. Jetly, Sqdn Ldr Benny Mathews, and engineering officer Sqdn Ldr Saurabh Deokuliar.

All set for the show

BANGALORE'S SKIES have donned the colour of joy. And even the winds pause to gawk as aircraft after aircraft zips through the skies.

Aero India 2005, the country's fifth international aerospace and defence exhibition, takes off tomorrow at the Air Force Station, Yelahanka. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee will throw open the show at 10. a.m. on February 9. Some of the aircraft participating in the show — be it a static display or flying display — are India's own LCA Tejas, MIGs, Jaguars, Mirage 2000, Sukhoi 30 MKI, AN-32 transport aircraft, and for the first time, the Navy's Sea Harrier.

France, Russia, U.S.A., U.K., Israel, Germany and Brazil are some of the countries participating in the show.

A total of 72 aircraft will be at the airs how, out of which 22 are foreign craft. Watch out for Israel's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, U.K.'s Hawk 100 and, for the first time, America's F15E Eagle.

There will be one air display tomorrow, at 3 p.m. From February 10 to 13, there will be two displays every day — from 11 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and again between 3 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. Daily tickets for the Air Display Viewing Area are priced at Rs. 150, and season tickets at Rs. 600 and are available at designated Canara Bank branches.

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