India’s majestic INS Viraat, the world’s oldest serving aircraft carrier, sailed into pages of history on 6 March with the final lowering of the Naval Ensign and Commissioning Pendant in a solemn ceremony at sundown.
The formal decommissioning function was presided over by Indian Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, First Sea Lord and Royal Navy Chief, Admiral Sir Philip Andrew Jones, and the carrier’s Commissioning and Commanding Officer Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha.
Over 1,300 guests, including past and present officers from the Indian Navy and Royal Navy, attended the event, marking the culmination of several pre-decommissioning functions during the past few days.
Speaking to mediapersons on board, Admiral Lanba termed the decommissioning as “both a moment of pride and sorrow”.
On the former warship’s future, he said he would be happy if any state government came forth with a feasible plan to convert it into a museum.
Among other plans being considered it to sink the ship and convert it into a major tourist attraction for divers, he added.
Monday’s elaborate but solemn ceremonies included the release of a Special Cover by Army Postal Service and a book on the history of INS Viraat, which was known as HMS Hermes during her tenure with the Royal Navy.
The country’s second Centaur-class vessel, it served 29 years under the Indian flag, preceded by 27 years with the Royal Navy, earning a Guinness World Record as the oldest serving warship on earth.
In her heyday, the 226.5 metres long and 48.78 metres wide ship with a full load displacement of 28,700 tonnes, was manned by 150 officers and 1,500 sailors.
The pride of the Indian Navy housed the Sea Harrier jump jets, a shot take off and vertical landing fighter aircraft, as well as helicopters like the anti-submarine Sea King MK42B, Sea King MK42C, SAR (search and rescue) Chetak, indigenously-built Advanced Light Helicopters ‘Dhruv’ and Russian twin rotor Kamov-31 among others.
The 12-degree ramp on the bows of Viraat was her most striking visual feature which helped improve the safety factor and radius of operation/payload carrying capacity of the Sea Harriers.
At the height of operations, an average food complement prepared on board daily included 350kg rice, 7,000 parathas, 200kg mutton, 80kg dal, 300kg of vegetables and other items, all in her kitchen.
It was like a mini-floating township with other logistics infrastructure comprising libraries, gymnasiums, on-board ATM and TV and video studios.
The ship housed a full-fledged 16-bed hospital with two operation theatres, blood transfusion facility, X-ray machines, ECG, full-fledged pathology lab, and dental centre to tackle medical emergencies with attendant medical staff, a laundry which washed over 800 pairs of uniforms daily, a tailor and a barber shop.
In 1975, Prince Charles of Britain, then a newly qualified helicopter pilot, had joined the 845 Naval Air Squadron on flying duties from the then HMS Hermes in the Caribbean and off Eastern Canada.
Even after she joined the Indian Navy, there was a room named after Prince Charles where he resided on the warship, and many photographs showing her glorious history were recently part of an exhibition named “Heritage Route”.
Unlike all other Indian Navy ships, Viraat housed a chapel and a graveyard on board, which was reminiscent of her British military era, and the new owners (India) retained these as they honoured a chapter of her history.
Armed with a motto of ‘Jalamev Yasya, Balamev Tasya’ (Sanskrit for One Who Controls The Sea is All Powerful), the ship played major roles for the country in Operation Jupiter, Operation Parakram and Operation Vijay, and other operations and duties.