Indian Navy's INS Viraat, formerly the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes and perhaps the oldest warship in the world still in service, will sail into the sunset next week as the Naval Ensign and the Commissioning Pendent is lowered for the last time, drawing the curtain on a splendid period in India's naval history.
Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff of the Royal British Navy Admiral Sir Philip Jones, and veterans who have served with Viraat are expected to be at the decommissioning ceremony. Admiral Sir Philip Jones served alongside the HMS Hermes.
Construction of HMS Hermes started in 1944 as the World War–II entered its final stages. With the war in the Atlantic ending after Nazi Germany surrendered in 1945, the construction was stopped.
The Viraat arouses loyalty and emotion.
Viraat had many firsts when she was commissioned into the Royal British Navy in 1959 - each crew member had a bunk instead of hammocks, and the interior was completely air-conditioned, says Admiral AK Chawla who commanded the Viraat.
Viraat is also perhaps one of the few ships in the world that underwent as many as four role changes in her life. Till 1970, HMS Hermes served as a strike carrier. She was then converted to a commando carrier and few years later – in 1976 - into an anti-submarine warfare carrier.
And finally in 1980 into a 12 degree ski jump – also referred to within the Navy as the famous "Nose job" – to launch fighters was incorporated doing away with the previous steam catapult jump. This, made all the difference to 1982 Falklands war where she was deployed by the Royal British Navy.
Back from Falklands, the ageing ship was put on operational reserve and awaited the inevitable - decommissioning.
The future of the Viraat remains uncertain.
Fortunately for her, India too was looking to replace its then aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. After a brief refit she was inducted into the Indian Navy in 1987. On board it carried up to 26 aircrafts which included two squadrons of British-made jump jets - Sea Harriers – and helicopters.
Though built in 1940s, Viraat's design made it an extremely adaptable and flexible war fighting machines.
"It had one of the most versatile designs ever providing for large redundancies that allowed it change its role frequently," Admiral AK Chawla said. "Viraat belongs to the pre-digital age, used gears and wheels mainly, and yet easy to manoeuvre. The kind protection – armour and the redundancies in the form of fall back systems– ensured even if it was hit it could perform its tasks," Admiral AK Chawla said and added "very few ships today can match it."
The design and stability of the ship allowed it to launch and recover aircraft in rough seas when weather forces others warships to suspend air operations. "Indeed the Viraat arouses loyalty and emotion," Admiral Chawla said.
It will take at least ₹1000 crore to turn Viraat into a museum.
With the Indian Navy, Viraat was part of several operations including Operation Pawan and Parakram.
Living in an aircraft carrier isn't easy. Temperature inside the boiler room of Viraat often touches 50 degrees Centigrade. And, perhaps keeping this mind the Captain of the ship goes down to the boiler room each day after dinner for a cup of hot coffee with the men.
Future of Viraat:
The future of the Viraat remains uncertain. Earlier, INS Vikrant – India's first aircraft carrier – was sold away as scrap after Indian Navy could no longer maintain it. Andhra Pradesh wants to turn the Viraat into a museum. The Ministry of Defence, however, is yet to take a decision. "It will take at least ₹1000 crore to turn Viraat into a museum, this is besides the daily running cost, besides the museum will have to sustainable if the ship is to be preserved," a senior Navy officer told Huffington Post.
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