Maintenance Command, as most old timers would know, was formed at Kanpur on 26 January 1955, with Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh MBE PVSM as its first Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief.
Kanpur was the hub-centre of maintenance activities even before independence. The only Base Repair Depot (BRD) of the Indian Air Force existed at Kanpur, along with a Repair and Manufacturing Depot (RMD). A unit called Aircraft Manufacturing Depot (AMD) was subsequently added to undertake manufacture of the AVRO aircraft. In the perspective of industrial revolution in India, when the role of IAF was more clearly defined, the AMD was transferred to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). This division of HAL is today known as Transport Aircraft Division, or HAL(TAD), and is based at Chakeri, Kanpur.
IAF, however, was poised to expand in times to come and Kanpur alone could not absorb the futuristic industrial activities. Nagpur was eventually selected as the new site for setting up Maintenance Command Headquarters, knowing well that its satellite work-centres were destined to populate every nook and corner of the Indian territory.
The second AOC-in-C of Maintenance Command, Air Vice Marshal O P Mehra PVSM, who later became Chief of the Air Staff and subsequently occupied the distinguished offices of Governor of Maharashtra and Rajasthan, shared some of his experiences of establishing Maintenance Command Headquarters at Nagpur. He admitted that he was overwhelmed with the teething problems of setting up the headquarters at Nagpur. At times, he wondered why this proposition was at all accepted. The story that came out was that the then Defence Minister, Shri YB Chavan, was very keen that one Air Force Command Headquarters should be established in Maharashtra, and this dictated the choice of place. The Government of Maharashtra had then promised that the old secretariat building of the erstwhile Central Provinces and Berar Government would be made available for the purpose, and that the huge amount of land alongside it could be used for other facilities.
Since, Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh was not keen to move to Nagpur, and since he had a lot of say in the affairs of Maintenance Command, the process of moving Maintenance Command Headquarters to Nagpur was somehow delayed till he was due to retire. And then, Air Chief Marshal (Retd) OP Mehra recalls - “One fine morning, I was summoned to Air Headquarters by then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal AM Engineer DFC. He started the conversation by saying that I must have been aware that AVM Harjinder Singh was due to retire and that was I ready to accept this challenging appointment? Elated at the thought that I was picked up to walk into the shoes of the legendary figure, I considered the challenge worth accepting. Telephonic approval of Defence Minister was obtained and orders were handed over to me to be AOC-in-C of Maintenance Command with immediate effect. I proceeded to Nagpur in the IAF aircraft given to me by the Air Chief, without realising as to what was in store for me.” Nonetheless, founder father of Maintenance Command Headquarters at Nagpur had been born.
Setting up of Maintenance Command Headquarters was not exactly a bed of roses since the entire process was delayed and lot of loose ends had to be tied up. About his reception at Nagpur as the new AOC-in-C, Air Chief Marshal (Retd) OP Mehra once again goes down the memory lane and recalls - “Taking over as AOC-in-C was a ceremonial occasion and a matter of pride for me. I was looking forward to a Guard of Honour on reaching Nagpur. When the doors of aircraft were opened at the tarmac, the Guard of Honour that was presented consisted of the then Senior Air and Administrative Staff Officer (SAASO), Air Commodore Aggarwal, two officers, one of whom was the OC unit and the other who was earmarked to be my ADC, and half a dozen airmen. It was bit of a disappointment but then I guess whatever had to be was to be.”
He continues - “Air Commodore Aggarwal then drove me to the headquarters which was just a dilapidated building, rented temporarily to house the headquarters. On further queries, I was told that there was no specific place earmarked for my office. I had to share the same table with SAASO for some time till they cleared a storeroom of size 10ft x 10ft for me. The manpower was split between Nagpur and Kanpur. For residential accommodation, single officers did not have any Officers’ Mess, married officers and airmen were fending for themselves, and living-in airmen had been put up in a tented accommodation outside the Sitabuldi Fort occupied by the Army. I went to Air Headquarters and told the CAS that it was impossible for me, or for anybody else, to function under these conditions. We then went together to the Defence Minister. He sympathised with me but said that I had no option. He, however, assured me to provide all help.”
With that, the quest started for land and Mr Wankhade, the then Finance Minister of Maharashtra, was deputed to come to Nagpur to facilitate the process. He is understood to have directed the Commissioner that Maintenance Command Headquarters of the IAF was to be located in Nagpur and that same was to be housed wherever AVM Mehra wanted. AVM OP Mehra than carried out a reconnaissance of the area and then, on the local map, drew a circle around Seminary Hills. No questions were raised and the planning started. For his residence, the new AOC-in-C selected a house which happened to be used by the Chief Minister during the assembly session at Nagpur. Air Chief Marshal (Retd) OP Mehra says – “This time round, I was not so lucky, and Shri YB Chavan told me that the old man (Chief Minister) could not be deprived of the privilege and that I should select another house. Eventually, I chose another house which was equally magnificent and still proudly stands out in Civil Lines as Air Command House.”
For the headquarters building, a team of engineers was formed and, on 01 April 1964, Air Vice Marshal OP Mehra PVSM, the second AOC-in-C of Maintenance Command, IAF, dug the first pod of earth at the site where the Maintenance Command Headquarters building now stands in all its splendor. The entire project was executed in a time bound manner. The barracks, dining facilities, medical facilities and the administrative unit came up by 19 January 1965, the date which AVM Mehra had targeted . The headquarters building finally came up on 15 August 1965. The same, however, could not be formally inaugurated by any dignitary due to the Indo-Pak war, and it still remains that way even today. Nonetheless, a well planned campus now stands as Vayusena Nagar, thanks to determination of AVM OP Mehra.
The retired Chief of Air Staff concludes his memoirs thus – “The dedication of the technicians shown during the Indo-Pak war still remains the hallmark of the tenacity and versatility of IAF technicians, well emulated over the years and now an attribute of an air warrior donning the technician’s overall. The extensions granted to aircraft after essential checks in those days later became Technical Staff Instructions, a guideline for engineers, which are being followed even now during war and war like situations.”
Phoenix was a legendary bird that lived in Arabia. According to tradition, it consumed itself by fire every 500 years, and a new, young phoenix sprang from its ashes. In the mythology of ancient Egypt, the phoenix represented the Sun, which dies at night and is reborn in the morning. Early Christian tradition adopted the phoenix as a symbol of both immortality and resurrection. The ancient concept of the Phoenix is, in many ways, the essence of the mythological treatment of themes of renewal and rebirth, particularly considering the emphasis on fire, metaphorically the spark of life and, practically essential for existence.
In May 1978, Air Mshl D Subia PVSM VrC, AOC-in-C, MC used this philosophy to give the Base Repair Depots a uniform UNIT CREST and MOTTO. The genuinely unique crest depicts the mythical bird PHOENIX rising out of the flames with a gear wheel encircling its head. The motto inscribed on the insignia is KAYA KALPA which indicates rejuvenation of the body and explains the role of the Base Repair Depots where aircraft, aero engines and other technicalequipment, having completed certain life, are overhauled and sent out with a new lease of life. 1 BRD, the mother BRD, however, has been allowed to retain its original motto of SAHAYATA SEVA.
Technical activities undertaken by Maintenance Command units are effected today in Base Repair Depots (BRDs), Air Defence Ground Environment Systems (ADGES) Maintenance Support Establishment (AMSE) / Regional ADGES Maintenance Establishments (RAMEs) and numerous other smaller units. The present structure of Maintenance Command, however, had its modest beginning in post-independence Kanpur.
To support air operations in the Far East during World War II, No. 322 Maintenance Unit was formed in 1940 in the 21 TATA hangars at Chakeri, Kanpur. The functions of the unit included arming of bomber and fighter aircraft like Liberator, Lancaster, Hurricane, Tempest and Dakota. The unit was further expanded to include aircraft storage and servicing activities, while the logistics support and aeroengine storage functions operated at Armapur Estate, 25 km away from Chakeri. In August 1945, after Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces and hostilities came to an end, this No. 322 Maintenance Unit was disbanded and Royal Air Force Station, Kanpur came into formal existence.
On 15 August 1947, the historic day of India’s independence, Wing Commander Ranjan Dutta DFC took over the command of Air Force Station,Kanpur from the Royal Air Force. Simultaneously, on this very day, No. 1 Aircraft Repair Depot for servicing and No. 10 Aircraft Storage Unit for storage activities were formed at Chakeri, Kanpur. Group Captain DAR Nanda became the first Commanding Officer of both these units. On 09 August 1948, the two units were merged to form No. 1 Base Repair Depot and Group Captain Harjinder Singh MBE PVSM being the first Commanding Officer of this new unit. Nostalgic moments included induction of India’s(space) first jet aircraft, the Vampire, in 1954 and the Depot effecting its major servicing in that very year. Flying Officer Gian Singh still remains a much-remembered name who used to regularly ferry in the Vampire aircraft for servicing at Hangar No. 6 of the Depot.
Over the years, 1 BRD repaired and serviced a variety of aircraft, such as the Tempest, Spitfire, Prentice, Auster, Harvard, Mystere, Toofani, Otter, Bell Helicopter, Vampire, Hunter and Avro aircraft, and also overhauled Martin, Griffen, Nene, Verdon, Goblin MK-34-35, Avon 203-207 and AL-7F-1 aeroengines. Reclaiming 50 Liberators from junkyard became the first feather in the Depot’s cap. The Depot proved its expertise once again when a written-off Spitfire aircraft was retrieved from salvage dump and made airworthy by Pilot Officer Roy Chowdhury in 1950. In fact, Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh MBE PVSM was the first engineering officer to fly that fighter aircraft. With this kind of work being effected, it is natural that this BRD is still known as The Mother BRD. The Depot, for a long time, also had storage flights of MiG-21 and Mirage-2000 aircraft. Today, this BRD is engaged in a dedicated task of major servicing of AN-32 transport aircraft and storage of HPT-32 aircraft and MI-17 helicopter. For its contribution to the IAF, 1 BRD isbeing awarded President’s Colours on 01 November 2004.
IAF was destined to grow big, and as the Government of India concentrated on having more formidable Armed Forces, Maintenance Command for the IAF was formalised. 26 January 1955 was then chosen as the day to commence IAF’s Maintenance Command with its Headquarters at Chakeri, Kanpur. On 27 June 1959, the Transport Aircraft Wing at Kanpur took to the task of licence manufacturing of Avro HS-748 aircraft. This part of the station, christened Aircraft Manufacturing Depot, later separated as a new entity that we know as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (Transport Aircraft Division). Maintenance Command moved its headquarters from Kanpur to Nagpur on 13 June 1963.
Overhaul requirement of transport and helicopter fleet of the IAF necessitated setting up of No. 3 Base Repair Depot at Chandigarh on 20 August 1962. Group Captain TMJ Kirpalani, the Depot’s first Commanding Officer, set up the requisite facilities with Russian collaboration, and commenced the first of the overhauls of the IL-14 transport aircraft and the MI-4 helicopters. With induction of new helicopters in IAF, the Depot graduated to overhaul of MI-8 and MI-17 helicopters. In fact, the Depot has today become the knowledge base for all Russian helicopters, and has undertaken number of tasks like life-extension of MI-25 helicopters, repair of MI-26 helicopters and upgrade of MI-35 helicopters.
3 BRD is also a unique Base Repair Depot which undertakes overhaul of helicopters as well as aero-engines. At present, it overhauls TV-2 engines of MI-8 and TV-3 engines of MI-17 helicopters. Overhaul of AI-20M engines of AN-12 aircraft was also established at this Depot. It is a testimony to the ingenuity of technical personnel of 3 BRD that the depot has graduated to overhaul of AI-20D engines of AN-32 aircraft on theirown without any Transfer-of-Technology from the Original Equipment Manufacturer.
Over the seventeen years of its existence, No. 1 Base Repair Depot had expanded its facilities to service and overhaul a variety of aircraft and aero-engines. With this increased scope of work, aereo-engine related activities were delinked from this Depot and in 1964, No. 4 Base Repair Depot came into existence, at Chakeri, Kanpur itself, as a dedicated aeroengine overhaul agency for IAF’s fighter aircraft. Group Captain AS Srivastava was this Depot’s first Commanding Officer. The Depot has since graduated from Nene, Verdon and AL-7F-1 aerongines to Viper 22-8 aeroengine of Kiran aircraft, R-29 aeroengine of the MiG-23 and the MiG-27 aircraft, and state-of-the-art M53-P2 aeroengine of the Mirage-2000 aircraft. 4 BRD today boasts of having repaired and overhauled over 6000 aeroengines of all types, including over a 1000 each of Viper 22-8 and the R-29 aeroengines.
Maintenance Command was set up to provide maintenance support to operating bases both by undertaking overhaul and repair of aircraft, aeroengines, ground equipment, radars and missiles and warehousing of stores required during peace and war. These works are undertaken by Base Repair Depots (BRDs), Equipment Depots (EDs) and Air Storage Parks (ASPs). These units have the most modern and state of the art equipment to undertake repair and overhaul of various weapon systems.The stores are also well preserved under a controlled environment to accrue the most of storage life. This equipment is maintained by highly skilled technicians and officers.
From its very modest beginning, this command has grown both physically and in stature and has a presence across the length and breadth of the country through its depots. Today its highly skilled community of engineers and logisticians , ensure that all maintenance related activities of the IAF are handled effectively and efficiently.