A glorious era of the Indian Air Force came to a sad end as the Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh took off on his last flight towards the safe heavens shortly after his pyre was lit by his son on September 18, 2017. Marshal Arjan Singh, the guardian of India’s air warriors, left for his heavenly abode on September 16, 2017, following a massive cardiac attack.
Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), is largely regarded for the way he led the Air Force towards victory during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. A pilot and officer of the pre-independence era, Marshal Arjan Singh is the youngest ever officer to take charge as India’s Chief of Air Staff. He was just 44, when he became the COAS. Leading from the front, he has the unique distinction of having flown over 60 different types of aircrafts from right Pre-Second World War era biplanes to the more contemporary Gnats & Vampires.
Marshal Arjan Singh was selected to be a part of Empire Pilot training course at RAF Cranwell and started his flying career in 1938, when he was 19. Following the completion of his training period, he was posted on the No.1 IAF squadron flying out of the North Western Frontier Province. Flying the legendry Westland Wapiti biplanes and involved in the fight against the tribal forces, he rose through the ranks and soon took over as a Flying Officer, when his Squadron was re-equipped with the Hawker Hurricane aircraft.
His promptness and nerves of steel earned him a unique distinction with air warriors. He was soon promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1944. Through the World War – II, the Marshal was actively involved in flying operation alongside the Allied Forces, who were fighting in Rangoon, Burma. In 1944, the British recognised his leadership qualities and flying abilities and awarded him with the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross. Soon after, he was given command of the IAF display flight, which after the World War gave aerial displays across India flying the Hawker Hurricanes. One moment perhaps the Marshal will cherish for eternity would be him in the lead of a fly past comprising of well over a hundred IAF aircraft over the Red Fort in Delhi on 15 August 1947, India’s first independence.
After independence, his valour and leadership qualities, he was promoted to the rank of a Group and Captain and was given the command of Air Force Station, Ambala. In 1949, following promotion to the rank of Air Commodore, Marshal Arjan Singh took over as the Air Officer Commanding of Operational Command, which later came became the Western Air Command, where he had the distinction of having the longest tenure as the AOC. In the culminating stages of the 1962 war, he was appointed as the Deputy Chief of Air Staff and soon after promoted as the Vice Chief of Air Staff by 1963.
All through his astronomical rise through the ranks, the Marshal constantly interacted with all ranks of the air warriors and involved even the lowest of the officer cadre in decision making. Modernisation of air force asset and quality of the pilots and all support staff was one key mission he pursued with great determination. The government on 01 August 1964, appointed Arjan Singh as the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) in the rank of Air Marshal. A keen aviator and pilot by heart, Arjan Singh retained his flying category even after being appointed the air chief.
Under his able leadership, India began a massive air operation against Pakistani armoured forces that had targeted the vital town of Akhnur during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. When enquired by the then Defence Minister about the air force’s availability for immediate air support, the Marshal in his characteristic nonchalance, replied “in an hour”, true to his word, the Air Force struck the Pakistani offensive in an hour, ripping havoc across Pakistani armoured column. Thanks his forethought and command, the IAF retained an upper hand over the Pakistani forces even though the force relied on aging aircraft. His leadership qualities during the war earned him Padma Vibhushan and he was subsequently upgraded to the rank of Air Chief Marshal, thus becoming the first Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force.
Following the war campaign, the Marshal devoted his time towards post-war situation analysis and through this his highlighted the short fallings in the forces and through his unparalleled command successfully pervaded the government to fast track the modernisation of the air force. Thanks to his due efforts, the air force received a major boost to its strike forces through the addition of supersonic fighters. It was only because of these exhaustive reform programs, that the air force was successful in attaining complete aerial supremacy against Pakistani forces in the 1971 liberation war against Pakistan.
Following his retirement in July 1969, the Marshal was appointed as India’s Ambassador to Switzerland. Even though, he was retired the Marshal kept himself abreast with the latest happenings across the aerospace world. He actively interacted with the top echelons of the air force sharing his vast experience and knowledge in an effort help drive the modernisation of the air force.
One mission that remained close to his heart throughout his lifetime was the betterment of conditions for retired air force personnel. Having received little support from the government, the Marshal without a second thought, sold off his own property close to Delhi and raised over INR 2 Crore, all of which he utilised to setup a trust.
It was in 2002 that the Government of India in recognition of his services, conferred the rank of the Marshal of the Air Force onto Arjan Singh in making him the first and the only ‘Five Star’ rank officer of the Indian Air Force. In 2016 Air Force Station, Panagarh was renamed as Air Force Station Arjan Singh.
His demise marks the end of an era for the air force and also leaves a void that the air warriors will always feel.