BY QUAID NAJMI
Mumbai, Sep 19 — The Indian Navy’s once majestic and imposing aircraft carrier ‘INS Viraat’ – now decommissioned – started on its swansong voyage to Alang port in Gujarat, the country’s biggest graveyard for all such condemned ships, officials said here on Saturday.
The British-built carrier, in her heyday served the Indian Navy by remaining at sea for 2,258 days and covered 10,95,000 kms (590,000 nautical miles) – equal to encircling the planet 27 times, and clocked 22,622 hours of flying operations by its aircraft in the country’s service.
Towed by two other vessels for her final voyage, she will reach Alang port in around 3 days, signalling the end of a glorious era of Indian maritime history, said a naval official.
The vessel was bought by Shri Ram Green Ship Recycling Industries Ltd, Gujarat, for Rs 38.50 crore in an auction conducted by MSTC Ltd.
Formerly known as ‘HMS Hermes’, she had served the British Navy for a quarter century from November 1959 to April 1984 and rubbed shoulders with royalty for a brief period.
It was in 1974 that Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, had flown helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron aboard the ‘HMS Hermes’.
The second Centaur-class aircraft carrier in India, as INS Viraat she served 29 years and earlier 27 years as HMS Hermes, making it a total of 56 years of operational service – notching a Guinness World Record.
It was commissioned into the Indian Navy as its second aircraft carrier, ‘INS Viraat’ in May 1987 after extensive refurbishments and beefing up its fighting capabilities.
Having a call sign of ‘Romeo Two Two’, she served with merit, but the Indian Navy finally decommissioned her in March 2017 and since then, it was docked at the naval dockyard here.
With a crew of 1,500 and 150 officers, she could carry a huge load of combat-ready aircrafts and helicopters, and she took part in several operations during her long career at sea.
These included the UK-Argentina conflict over the Falklands Islands in 1982, later the Operation Parakram in October 2001-July 2002, Operation Pawan at Sri Lanka from July 18 to August 17, 1989, Operation Vijay in 1999 during the Kargil War, and several other creditable achievements.
With a full load displacement of 28,700 tonnes, the 226.50 metres long and 48.78 metres wide ‘Viraat’ was capable of operating Sea Harrier jump jets – a Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) fighter aircraft, and almost types of naval helicopters.
The ship was like a mini floating township with attendant logistics and infrastructure like libraries, gyms, an ATM, a TV and video studio, a full fledged general hospital with two full-fledged operation theatres and a dental hospital, tailor and saloons, a massive laundry to wash 800 pairs of uniforms daily, and a generator which produced nearly 9 MW of power.
“Its painful to see an important piece of Indian and Britain’s naval history sail on its final journey to a scrapyard, not on its own steam but towed by tugs. Any other country would have made all out efforts to retain such a glorious ship as a museum-ship. But we have consigned this seven decade-old warhorse to a scrap heap. A 76-year-old maritime history of two nations peddled for just Rs 38.50 crore!” lamented defence expert Sarosh Bana.
Initially, at least three states – Maharashtra, Goa and Andhra Pradesh – had shown interest in converting it into a floating museum and in 2018 Maharashtra even set aside Rs 852 crore for docking it in Sindhudurg district.
In May 2019, the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) floated a proposal to convert ‘Viraat’ into an integrated tourism facility on PPP basis, but found no takers.
Bana said this becomes the second Indian aircraft carrier to be broken down as scrap after ‘INS Vikrant’ met the same fate in November 2014.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: q.najmi@ians.