Defence airfields, continuously kept in line with the requirements of modern flying, and housing elaborate facilities seem to have become easy targets for conversion into civilian airports. This is a terrible waste, as facilities created at great expenditure will remain unutilised, while similar infrastructure will have to be duplicated at alternative locations by the Air Force.
In the early 1960s, the Government decided that Indian Air Force should vacate Delhi’s Palam airfield and hand it over to civilian aviation authorities. Another airfield was built at Hindon, near Ghaziabad, for the IAF.
The other civilian airfield, at Safdarjung in Delhi, was found to be too small. Suggestions to extend the runway westwards at Safdarjung were not adequately examined as a fully operational airfield at Palam was readily available. It proved to be a wise decision as Safdarjung could not have been revamped to handle current generation jet airliners, and Palam and Safdarjung were too close for present-day operations.
The IAF could not, however, be banished from Palam because it would have been inconvenient to operate the squadron for transporting VIPs from Hindon. Additionally, receiving and sending consignments by civilian airlines, especially to and from abroad, had to be done from Palam. Other similar activities made operations from Palam a must.
The decision to shift the IAF from Palam to Hindon set a bad precedence. Infrastructure development has been the slogan in recent years and adequately developed airfields are becoming essential for growth. Such airfields should be made available quickly, as a lot of time has already been lost due to various reasons, such as lack of funds, absence of foresight and planning, and so on.
Defence airfields have had to be continuously kept in line with the requirements of modern flying. This is because current generation Defence aircraft need as elaborate facilities as civilian jet airliners. Many would even assert that the requirements of Defence flying are more stringent as these aircraft usually carry a single-pilot crew against a complement of three or four air crew (in addition to cabin crew) flying a civilian aircraft.
Thus, decision-makers may be tempted to direct the IAF to build another airfield, while requisitioning its well-equipped and well-maintained airfield for civilian use.
Another factor favouring such a takeover is that IAF airfields are usually at some distant from civilian areas. But booming development/construction activities have now brought these airfields close to cities. Airfields, whether Defence or civilian, need a large area . Many times this land has some complication or the other.
In Palam, for instance, the airfield was once a village of 50-60 houses. The inhabitants obtained a sanction to continue to stay there. The IAF had to cordon off these houses with a security fence and provide the residents with a passage through a tunnel under the main runway. This tunnel became a security risk during the 1965 operations. Infiltrators could have easily blown it up, rendering the main runway unusable. The Defence airfield at Lohegaon, Pune, has to continue to provide passage to the villagers living on the other side of the airfield, in spite of the fact that Defence authorities have given the Municipal Corporation funds to build an alternative access to these villages.
These circumstances lead to canvassing by influential people to acquire Defence airfields. Pune, Kochi, Goa, Chandigarh and many other Defence installations have been considered for such a takeover during the last year or two.
Wisdom has prevailed so far, and the Defence services have been permitted to retain their assets. However, there is a need to fully appreciate the logic of not disturbing Defence airfields or converting them for civilian uses.
First, the layout of these airfields is specifically planned for Defence use. The airfield has to house many facilities underground for safety, so that work can continue even during operations/air-raids. Second, expensive blast-pens have to be built to protect the aircraft on the ground during an aerial attack on the field.
Third, accommodation to house facilities such as Operation Readiness Platform for launching fighters in the shortest possible time, base operations office, etc., are needed at Defence airfields. These facilities, worth crores of rupees, would be rendered useless when a Defence airfield is acquired for civilian use. Defence airfields have extensive network of efficient, quick and reliable communications. These are required because of the speed of contemporary Defence attack aircraft.
One would be lucky to get time to counter an enemy air attack; there is never a second chance. The communications not only connect various important places on the field, but must also link up missile bases, formations of other services, such as the Army and the Navy, early warning radar stations, and so on.
All these communications would be wasted when a Defence air field is converted for civilian use. Last, the configuration for Defence flying is different from civilian flying. The majority of Defence aircraft use landing parachutes to halt the aircraft after a short run on the ground. Defence aircraft need navigational/landing aids which should not add to the burden of the one-man crew, the pilot.
This would require substantial support from the ground controller. On the other hand, a jet airliner would be quite comfortable navigating/landing with facilities that need little help from ground control. Defence airfields need to be totally camouflaged to avoid easy detection during an air raid. This is an expensive proposition, not required by civilian airports. Further, the armaments that need to be stored at a Defence airfield impose their own restrictions on locating other buildings.
These restrictions are not applicable at civilian airports. Even landing of civilian aircraft, especially of not-so-friendly countries at sensitive Defence airfields should be restricted to avoid the air-crew of these countries becoming familiar with the airfield’s layout.
Converting a defence airfield for civilian use would thus lead to excessive wastage. Facilities created at great expenditure will remain unutilised, while similar infrastructure will have to be needlessly duplicated by the Defence authorities at alternative location.
(The author, a former IAF officer, is a Pune-based writer.)