Is It a Bird, Is It a Plane? It’s a ‘Flying Elephant’!

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    In the 1970s, there must have been magic in the air, or something even stronger, for it was a time of ‘dancing elephants’ and ‘flying fish’ up in the sky.

    These crazy phenomena were first observed more than 40 years ago, on January 26, at a Republic Day parade in New Delhi. On that magical day, the President of India was treated, as always, to a dazzling display of India’s military might. The finest military hardware was being paraded, soldiers marched down Rajpath, and there were colourful cultural performances and death-defying stunts to entertain spectators.

    And then it happened.

    An elephant started hovering in the sky. Why, it even did a little jig!

    The ‘dancing jumbo’ lingered for a few minutes before disappearing, slowly, into the wild blue yonder.

    Masquerading as a flying elephant was a Chetak helicopter. Manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) from 1969 onwards, the Chetak was a licenced, modified version of the French Alouette III. It was a prized addition to the Indian Air Force (IAF), which naturally wanted to put on an unforgettable display. Enter the ‘flying elephant’.

    Named ‘Chetak’ after the legendary horse of the 16th-century Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap, this light utility helicopter has been the workhorse of the IAF for close to 45 years.

    HAL built 300 of these choppers, which have since been used to train pilots, in search and rescue missions, casualty evacuation and even in light attack operations.

    And, oh, it can even dance! The flying and dancing jumbo of that Republic Day in the 1970s is believed to have been flown by Group Capt Brij Mohan Datta, who headed IAF Helicopter Unit 116. It took exceptional skill to fly a chopper covered almost entirely in fabric, with only slits for the pilot to see through. Maximum speed was a mere 110 kmph. What if a piece of fabric were to rip off and get caught in the rotor blades?

    Dressing up Jumbo must have been exciting for the tailor brought in for this very unusual assignment. It took him a month to sew together the panels that made up the animal’s legs, trunk and body, which had to fit snugly around the chopper itself. Then, with decals and delicate appliqué work, the tailor had to bring the beast to life by adding tusks, eyes, toes and decorative elements. It wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t realistic.

    And, guess what? This wasn’t the last time the Chetak played dress-up. While there are no reports of ‘flying elephants’ at later Republic Day parades, images of ‘flying jumbos’ have surfaced over the years, most likely at other ceremonial events. Spotted a few years later were two ‘elephants’ flying in formation.

    Here’s another unusual sight – a Chetak pretending to be a fish at Goa’s Dabolim airport in the 1970s. The attention to detail is marvellous, isn’t it?

    And would you believe it, here’s a Chetak mimicking the dodo. The national bird of Mauritius, this flight of fancy was mounted in 1993, on Mauritius’s Independence Day. Turns out, India had sold a few Chetaks to the Mauritius police force.

    In the decades since the Chetak first took to the skies, the IAF has played a stellar role in securing India’s borders, maintaining national security and in countless other missions. But, oh, for a bit of magic once more!

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