London: Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots have begun training on the Agusta Westland AW 101 helicopters that have been purchased for ferrying dignitaries, the first of which are to be delivered by end - 2012.
Finmeccanica group CEO Giuseppe Orsi told India Strategic during a media interaction at the Farnborough Air Show that the first batch of the IAF pilots had arrived in Britain as scheduled and were undergoing training at the Agusta Westland facility.
He did not give any details but said that some of the pilots would be trained in Britain as instructors also and they would in turn train their colleagues in India.
Agusta Westland, incorporating the former British Westland Helicopters, is a Finmeccanica group company now. It has delivered some 300 helicopters of different types to 22 countries since the merger of Augusta and Westland in 2000.
The week-long air show ended July 15.
IAF had selected the three-engined AW 101 for its VIP squadron in 2010 in a euro 560 million ($827 million) deal for 12 helicopters inclusive of training. The delivery of the 12 helicopters would be completed in 2013.
The AW 101 had also been selected by the US Army for White House use, but President Barack Obama had the deal cancelled as part of the measures to reduce defence expenditure.
The helicopter was selected after field trials whose results were evaluated by the IAF and the Special Protection Group (SPG), responsible for protection of the prime minister and select political leaders. It was chosen over the American Sikorsky S92 Superhawk and is considered to have got the nod as it had features that suited security requirements.
The IAF has been using Soviet-vintage Mi-8s and some Mi-17s to fly the prime minister and other dignitaries, but both the IAF and the security agencies have been sweating over their continued use. It has also been felt that the VIP helicopters have to be modern, with the best of the communication equipment, and also secured against terror threats.
It is understood that the AW 101 machines are being fitted with missile jammers and electronic warfare counter-measure gadgets as indeed like those of the US or other presidents around the world. No details are available though.
According to IAF sources, eight AW 101 helicopters are being configured for VIP use and the remaining four for carrying support crew, security personnel, baggage and training.
The VIP Squadron, officially designated Air HQ Communication Squadron, was set up in 1952. According to an IAF statement, "the primary role of the squadron is to convey VVIPs/VIPs of India and visiting foreign heads of state and government".
Besides flying Indian leaders for duties and varied missions like aerial survey of disaster-struck areas, the squadron has the distinction of flying the first president of independent India and thereafter all the VVIPs of the country.
The foreign dignitaries transported by this squadron include erstwhile Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, China's Zhou Enlai, Palestine's Yasser Arafat, UN Secretary General U Thant, South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Britain's Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.
The squadron had the unique privilege of flying Mother Teresa also. The list of such distinguished dignitaries, though, is endless.
The Squadron had acquired Boeing 737s in the 1980s and recently they were replaced with newer generation models with some equipment similar to that also installed on the US President's Air Force One. The US government gave a special sanction once the Indian authorities made a request for some of the equipment.