INS Viraat embarks on farewell voyage to Kochi

Mumbai: India’s magnificent second aircraft carrier, ‘INS Viraat’, which in its previous avatar led the British task force that retook the Falkland Islands in 1982, lifted anchor on Saturday afternoon for her final voyage from Mumbai to Kochi, powered by her own boilers, prior to her scheduled de-commissioning.

The ageing 750-feet long ‘giant’ – as the name signifies – served the Indian Navy with distinction for almost six decades. It is expected to reach the Southern Naval Command base on Wednesday for the pre-decommissioning preparations, official sources said here.

This will entail a spell in a dry dock for dismantling and retrieving valuable and sensitive equipment including the engines, radars, big and small guns and other weaponry.

Kicking-off the dismantling process on May 6, her fleet of Sea Harrier aircraft flew off for the last time from her deck and was given a formal farewell at INS Hansa, in Goa two days later.

Ranked as the oldest functional, floating aircraft carrier in the world and the last British-built ship serving the Indian Navy, INS Viraat was the star attraction at the International Fleet Review held in Visakhapatnam in February this year.

As HMS Hermes, the vessel had served the Royal Navy from 1959 to 1964 and led South Atlantic Task Force on an 8,000 km voyage to free the Falkland Islands from Argentina, which had taken them over. Everyone had said it couldn’t be done, but the task force achieved the near impossible, much to the happiness of Iron Lady of Britain, the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Sailing at 28-knots plus speeds, the ship gave a spectacular performance with aircraft onboard operating round-the-clock, units from the ship shredding many enemy aircraft in the air and neutralizing other challenges on the ground during the 74-days long conflict in which Argentina lost to the UK.

After that war, she was kept as a reserve, decommissioned from active service in 1985 and in April 1986, India which was scouting for a second aircraft carrier to replace its ageing INS Vikrant, decided to buy the vessel for Indian Navy.

On May 12, 1987 – the ship capable of handling Sea Harrier jump jets with a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL), other fighter aircraft and all types of helicopters, plus a total crew complement of 1,600 – was commissioned under the White Ensign of the Indian Navy.

Built by Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering Ltd, Barrow-in-Furness, UK, the vessel’s keel was laid in 1944 at the height of the World War II. She was launched on February 16, 1953 and formally commissioned into the Royal Navy on November 18, 1959.

The vessel displaces 28,500 tonnes and one of her most striking visual features was the 12-degree ramp on the bows which improved safety as well as the radius of operation/payload carrying capacity of the Sea Harrier fighters.

She came with a Close in Weapon System for self-defence, Computer Aided Action Information Systems which gave the command a total picture of the tactical scenario based on information fed to the computer from all onboard sensors, enabling quick decision-making and warding off all threats.

After the dismantling process in Kochi – which may take around a couple of months – INS Viraat will be towed back to her base in Mumbai, for formal decommissioning, the date of which has not been finalized yet.

Moreover, the fate of the decommissioned aircraft carrier is also not clear whether it would be converted into a permanent floating museum, a tourism centre or relegated to a ships’ graveyard for breaking down to scrap – a la the first decommissioned aircraft carrier (INS) Vikrant, in 2014.