Arjan Singh: The maverick Marshal who gave India its modern air force

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, IndiaWritten By: Surya GangadharanUpdated: Sep 18, 2017, 12:24 PM IST

Arjan Singh was promoted to the five-star rank in 2002 for his contribution in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Photograph:(ANI)

In 1945, a story goes that Arjan Singh then a young pilot with the Indian Air Force, made a low pass over a colleague's home in Kannur, Kerala to boost his morale.  It's not clear who the colleague was but I would imagine in those days when aircraft were not as common as they are today, it may have stirred the emotions of not just the colleague but of the entire mohalla.  Who knows, it may have resulted in others from Kannur joining the IAF. 


The incident tells us something about the personality of Arjan Singh. Many years later, he and his wife set up the Marshal of the Air Force and Mrs Arjan Singh Trust with a corpus of 2 crores. The money is managed by the president of the Air Force Association who uses it to help ex-air force personnel and their dependents who might be in need. There are other examples of him gifting land parcels in his village to those who had none. 


It underscored Arjan Singh's connect and concern for the men who served under him.  Retired Air Marshal Brijesh Jayal recalled that as a young officer, he had the opportunity to observe Arjan Singh on his official visits to his squadron.  Jayal wrote: "He made it a point to fly in a Canberra and crawl out in white overall with his staff officer in tow. The Canberra was itself a new jet bomber and unlike those of us who had gone through jet conversion, the Marshal of the Air Force had learnt the skills while additionally handling his command responsibilities." 


Jayal added: "To see the commander emerge from the cockpit, discussing post-flight issues with the technical staff like any other aircrew, not only made his visits appear more informal and put people at ease, but also made it possible for him to establish an immediate rapport with the operators in the field, gain their confidence and get a first-hand feel of how the IAF was adapting to the challenges and how the leadership must respond." 


Arjan Singh saw enough action.  He led No.1 Squadron comprising Hawker Hurricanes into combat missions during the Arakan campaign against the Japanese in 1944 and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of 22 IAF pilots to wear the coveted decoration. 


He had a long tenure as Chief of Air Staff, Aug 1964-1969.  He is credited with laying the foundations for the modernisation of the IAF, overseeing the induction of the MiG series fighters from the former USSR. In fact, the MiG-21 was reportedly the last aircraft he actually flew. That fighter became the mainstay of the IAF for over 50 years with the last of these vaunted jets retiring next year. 


Arjan Singh led the IAF in the 1965 war when many of its aircraft were destroyed by the Pakistan Air Force during raids on Kalaikunda and Pathankot air bases.  But he is credited with re-building the force to measure up to its biggest challenge in 1971, when it came into its own for the liberation of Bangladesh.