Veteran journalist remembers his visit to INS Viraat in the midst of controversy that the aircraft carrier was used by former PM Rajiv Gandhi for a picnic. He witnessed the live exercise conducted by the aircraft carrier from the Bay of Bengal to the Andamans and remains convinced that it was no picnic
By Dilip Bobb
The late prime minister’s son Rahul Gandhi has clarified that this was no cruise ship, and he is absolutely right. I was one of the first journalists to be allowed to grace her formidable decks when the INS Viraat (originally HMS Hermes) formed the spearhead of a battle group that was conducting a live exercise from the Bay of Bengal to the Andamans—the same route later taken by Rajiv Gandhi and his family on their official visit. I was the lone journalist invited to witness the live exercise and landed on the massive deck of the carrier by helicopter from the naval base in Calcutta’s Eastern Naval Command. At first sight, the 40,000 tonne aircraft carrier looked exactly as advertised—a deadly force multiplier bristling with missiles, torpedoes, radars and anti-aircraft guns. This was a floating airbase considering the number of fighters, mostly Harriers, and helicopters lined up on the deck. In addition, for the format of the exercise, she was also carrying a large number of armed army personnel along with three amphibious landing craft below decks. Her naval complement on board consisted of around 120 officers, 1200 sailors and pilots, co-pilots and engineers for the 35 aircraft lined up on the 260 m deck.
On the initial guided tour conducted by a senior officer, I was awed not just by the size of the carrier but just how all available space had been utilized to accommodate the vast range of equipment and armaments apart from the massive turbines housed in the engine room which drive this monster of a ship. It’s like being entombed in a steel cocoon—narrow walkways lead past the cramped quarters with bunk beds where the ship’s crew—officers and men—stay when they are not on duty. On that tour, I hardly found space to swing a cat, as the saying goes—let alone throw a party for friends and family. Aircraft carriers are built for war not peace, strictly utilitarian in design and space. The only recreation areas are the messes where the officers and men have their meals, and a bar below decks where they can relax when off duty. This is a floating city complete with a hypermarket, a post office, a huge refrigerated area for stocking fresh and frozen foods, a dry cleaning service and space for extra missiles and ammunition. Even the aircraft on deck take up two levels since there is a lift which takes them below the main deck when they are not operationally required. As Rahul Gandhi said this is no cruise ship. The admiral of the fleet, in my case Vice Admiral Mihir (Micky) Roy, commander in chief of the Eastern Naval Command, has an enviable suite complete with an old fashioned bathtub and white glove service at his dining table but the rest of the carrier is one huge mass of steel bulkheads and pipes and wiring that having a party on board an aircraft carrier like the Vikrant would be physically impossible merely for lack of space. The Prime Minister has a habit of shooting from the lip, as in his latest gaffe over the cloud cover over Balakot, and as a civilian guest on board an Indian aircraft carrier, I can say with the utmost conviction, it is no picnic.
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