A 50-yr- old photograph of five veteran IAF pilots, known as Hell’s Angels, was recently recreated by a bike company.
These war heroes epitomised the meaning of bravery and selflessness, and went above and beyond the call of duty to participate in some of the most heroic combat missions in Indian aviation history.
No wonder then that bike company Jawa decided to recreate an old black and white photo of the five Kalaikunda Air Force station pilots — Sunith Francis Soares, Anup Kumar Shyam, P M “Velu” Velankar, Ashok Bhagwat, and the late Vishwanath Pasupathy — all posing on their Jawa bikes in the year 1966.
Interestingly, the picture was taken prior to the 1971 war when the squadron was deployed in the Eastern theatre for war operations. The five GNAT pilots can be seen happily posing for the photograph with one hand on the petrol tank and a cigarette casually dangling from the lips of one of them. Known as the ‘Hell’s Angels’, they found a special niche in the history of Indian aerial combat when they proved their mettle as the most successful and destructive fighter squadron of the IAF in the 1971 war. By the time the war ended however, they were rechristened the ‘Sabre Slayers’ as the formation in which Soares was flying shot down three Sabre jets of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), in what came to be known as one of the top five battles of the modern jet era.
Walking down memory lane, veteran AVM A. K. Shyam VM (G), who went on to form IAF’s first aerobatic team Thunderbolt flying Hunters in Hashimara in 1981 and was later posted at the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka before retiring as Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) of Nagpur-based maintenance command, says, “This photo is of my first operation unit when I was just 21-years-old. As 22 Squadron Air Force we were flying GNAT aircraft (fighter) at Kalaikunda Air Force station near Kharagpur. Just before the 1971 operations, we all had Jawa bikes.”
He recalls, “Unlike now, where every squadron has an emblem and a motto, at that time we didn’t have any, so we just called ourselves ‘Hell’s Angels’. Later, in April 1986, the Squadron received its official crest and was renamed as Swifts. We travelled all over the country with our Jawas. Mine remained with me till 1983. I bought it for Rs 5,000 and after using it for 13 years I sold it in Siliguri for around the same amount.”
Adds Sunith Soares, “We knew war would come up, there was little flying and most of the day we would just sit around as we were preserving ourselves for the hour. We did not even have a squadron crest, so we called ourselves ‘Hell’s Angels’ inspired by the US group of bikers wearing black jackets and riding Harley Davidsons.”
Sharing an interesting anecdote, AVM A K Shyam V M(G) narrates, “Once we had gone to a place called Digha Beach in West Bengal with the intention to camp there. That night we even pitched tents. The sea was very far away from that place. But the very same night, the tide moved in and all our bikes were submerged in water. We thought they would never start but to our surprise they did!”
As for the idea of recreating the vintage photograph, he says, “None of us had a clue that the picture clicked nearly 50 years ago would go viral on social media, but it caught the attention of Anand Mahindra. When he was launching the new Jawas, he decided to get all four of us together in Delhi, although sadly, the fifth officer is no more. They insisted we take the photos in the same pose as in the old picture to recreate the scene. A fifth bike was placed with only a helmet in a missing man formation, an Air Force way of honouring a fallen pilot.”