Thunderbolts – Formation Aerobatics Team of IAF
It was 1980 and Air HQ was formalizing its plans to celebrate 50th years of foundation of IAF two years later in 1982. IAF authorities thought that the most visible and unique way that IAF would impact the hearts and minds of the people in the country in its Golden Jubilee year must come from a show from the air and the idea of forming a Formation Aerobatic Team (FAT) started to germinate in the minds of the decision-makers at the Air HQ. It was a bold idea as IAF never had a Formation Aerobatic Team though instances of aerobatic performance in formation by few bold aircrew of Hunter squadrons was known but had not received any official recognition. After fair number of discussions in the highest level of decision-making, it was decided that Wing Commander PS Brar, popularly known to everyone as ‘Ben Brar’ would be the leader of the team.
The Hunter squadron that was chosen for the task was 20 Squadron known as the ‘Lightnings’. It was a highly decorated squadron of 1971 war whose pilots
were awarded several awards for their wartime exploits. The Squadron moved to Hasimara from Hindan. Soon the idle dispersal started to reverberate with screams of Avon 203 engines and serviceability started to pick up. But more importantly, a sense of belief and purpose started to creep in amongst the men and officers.
When the team readied for its first nine aircraft display, the earliest audience was Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi accompanied by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh sometime in December 1980. Impressed by the performance of the team, they were given permission to give a glimpse of the THUNDERBOLTS to the country in a six-aircraft formation over the Rajpath and Rashtrapati Bhawan in January 1981 followed by a nine-aircraft display over the Tilpat Range. Both shows were a spectacular success and it heralded a new era of formation aerobatics into the IAF.
The final team of nine pilots that went about performing all through the country in the Golden Jubilee year of the IAF were Flt Lt VP Singh (VP), Sqn Ldr GR Mallesh (Mally), Flt Lt Kuldeep Singh (Kilo), Flt Lt SS Sawhney (Kaka), Flt Lt AR Nigam (Nigs), Sqn Ldr AK Shyam (Shyamji), Flt Lt P Kumar (Pinky), Flt Lt A Gupta (Suzy) and Flt Lt VK Bali (Vijay).
The Thunderbolts saga was an unqualified success and it heralded a new era of formation aerobatics into the IAF. The experience, knowledge and expertise of forming an aerobatic team with nine aircraft from the scratch laid a solid foundation for the later generation of teams named Surya Kirans with Kiran ac and now with Hawks. In 1982 as the IAF went about celebrating its Golden Jubilee it was Thunderbolts that stole the show wherever they performed and kept the audience mesmerized and spellbound with their magical performance. The ballet in the air brought tears in the eyes of many spectators. It was also the best way the IAF could motivate the younger generations to join the Air Force as a career.