AASHIQUE AHMED IQBAL
The Indian Air Force museum situated at Palam, New Delhi is the resting place of the last surviving airframe of the Westland Wapiti aeroplane. This is apt given that the Westland Wapiti occupies a place of great importance in Indian aviation history since it served as the first plane flown by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Today the IAF is one of the world’s largest air forces and features some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. Nevertheless its beginnings can be traced back to the humble Westland Wapiti.
The Wapiti was commissioned by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1927 to serve as a multi-role combat aircraft and served in the air forces of a number of countries including Canada, South Africa and Australia. Reliable but not remarkable, the Wapiti appeared destined to pass into obscurity as many of its contemporaries have. However, aeroplanes like people sometimes have destinies that are difficult to anticipate. The Westland Wapiti’s fate was to serve as the first aeroplane of the Indian Air Force.
The Indian Air Force was established on 8th October 1932 as a sop to Indian political opinion. Indian legislators in the Central Legislative Assembly had long demanded greater Indian control of the armed forces. They argued that having more Indians in positions of power in the armed forces would both reduce costs as well as put India onto the road to self-government. To pacify Indian demands the British Government of India had conceded control of token units in the Indian army. Now as demands for the admission of Indians into the RAF grew louder the decision was taken to set up a tiny Indian Air Force. The air force so created was kept very small and equipped with aeroplanes passed down from its better equipped and larger British counterpart.
The Westland Wapiti had been dubbed the “What-a-pity” by RAF pilots. It often had to be manhandled by large groups of airmen into take-off position. Its air gunner was chained to his seat to prevent him from flying out of the plane. It threw up great plumes of dust as its rotors came on and went off and it often flew carrying a caged carrier pigeon to be used when radio communication was not possible. It was handed to the first, and for a very long time only, squadron of the Indian Air Force on the 1st of April 1933.
The Indian Air Force which was never conceived of as much more than a token was confined to glorified policing or “Air Control” operations on India’s rough Northwest Frontier province from 1937 onwards. Air control involved the bombardment of recalcitrant Pathan tribes such as the Hurs and the Waziris into submission to British Imperial will, something that bears curious similarities to the present. Here Indian pilots learnt to navigate rugged terrain and to perform photo reconnaissance. Equally importantly Indian Airmen or “Hawai Sepoys” (air soldiers) on the ground learnt to repair and maintain the aircraft on the ground in tough conditions.
The imminence of war in 1939 led to the steady replacement of the Wapiti by the Hawker Hart even, in the IAF. However the Wapiti remained in service well into the Second World War and was responsible in addition to its old air control duties for the patrolling of India’s coastline where it helped in the timely spotting of a great Japanese fleet in the Bay of Bengal in 1942.
The Second World War saw a flood of new kinds of aeroplanes enter the service of the Indian Air Force as well as the expansion of the force itself from one to ten squadrons by 1946. The Wapiti went quickly from mainstay to memory. To dismiss the Wapiti at this point however is a mistake since it was the experience gained from flying and repairing the Wapiti that enabled the Indian Air Force to gain the success it did. Indian pilots had developed a distinct style of flying low and slow in the Wapiti to avoid detection that served them well in the jungles of Burma even as Indian air men won praise for keeping planes running in tough conditions.It is thus perhaps as a tribute to this that the Indian Air Force has preserved the last airframe of its first plane.
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Aashique Ahmed Iqbal is a DPhil candidate in History at the University of Oxford.