Indian Navy’s decommissioned aircraft carrier Viraat on Saturday set sail for the last time, on way to Alang in Gujarat, where it will be broken down and sold as scrap.
For Navy veterans who watched the huge vessel being towed away by a tug boat, it was an emotional moment as they stood near the Gateway of India, waving at the once ‘floating town’, aboard which they spent the best years of their career.
As Viraat began its final journey from the Naval dockyard, a Navy helicopter circling overhead provided a majestic backdrop to the vessel’s last voyage.
A Defence spokesperson said Virrat was to leave for Alang on Friday, but its departure was delayed by a day.
The aircraft carrier served the Indian Navy for 29 years before being decommissioned in March 2017. It had served in the UK’s Royal Navy as HMS Hermes and was named INS Viraat after being inducted in the Indian Navy in 1987.
There were attempts to convert ‘Viraat’ into a museum or a restaurant, but none of the plans fructified.
Alang-based Shree Ram group bought it for Rs 38.54 crore at an auction. Viraat will be dismantled at the Alang ship breaking yard, said company chairman Mukesh Patel.
“The vessel will likely reach Alang by September 21 if weather conditions remainfavourable,” he added.
Once the ship arrives, it will require clearances from the Gujarat Pollution Control Board and Customs before being brought ashore. Permissions will also be needed for recycling as per the Supreme Court’s 2013 guidelines, Patel said.
The ship will be scrapped in 9 to 12 months, he said.
Prior to being commissioned in Indian Navy on May 12, 1987, the aircraft carrier had served with UKs Royal Navy for 27 years under the name HMS Hermes, taking it to a total of 56 years of operational service, and making it among the oldest serving warships.
Under the Indian flag, Viraat played a crucial role in military operations such as Operation Jupiter, Operation Parakram and Operation Vijay.
Viraat was commissioned into Indian Navy on May 12, 1987 at Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
For the Indian Navy, Operation Jupiter in July 1989 was Viraats first major operation, as part of the Indian Peace Keeping operations in Sri Lanka in the wake of the breakdown of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1986.
Viraat also saw action during Operation Parakram in 2001-2002, post the terror attack on Parliament.
The last operational deployment of the ship was the participation in International Fleet Review at Visakhapatanam on February 2016.
The ship also participated in various international joint exercises like Malabar (with US Navy), Varuna (with French Navy), Naseem-Al-Bahr (with Oman Navy) and was an integral element of annual Theater Level Operational Exercise (TROPEX).
Viraat is the second aircraft carrier to be broken down in India. In 2014, Vikrant was broken down in Mumbai.
Four officers who served on board Viraat when it was operational, went on to become Indian Navy chiefs.
Nicknamed the Grand Old Lady, Viraat could carry a contingent of over 1,500 crew and officers. “She was like a floating city, a piece of our country wherever we went,” a former Navy officer said.
The warship served the British Navy for 25 years between 1959 and 1984. It was then called HMS Hermes and had played a major role in the Falklands War of 1982.
When the Indian Navy acquired the warship in 1986, the British Navy predicted that it would not be in service for more than seven years. But she went on to serve the Indian Navy for nearly 30 years, over four times the predicted life span.
Viraat was at sea for a whopping 2,258 days, covering 590000 nautical miles, and 22622 hours of flying operations, a Defence official said. It could carry 25 aircraft, including Sea Harrier fighters and Sea King 42 B/C, Chetak, Kamov 31 and ALH helicopters.
While operational, Viraat weighed about 27,800 tonnes.
Its boilers had run for over 80,000 hours and it was probably the only warship, constructed during the World War II, to have served any country for so long, the official said.
Many social media users lamented the failure of successive governments to preserve Viraat and another aircraft carrier Vikrant as maritime muesums to depict India’s rich naval heritage, instead of allowing them to be broken down and sold as scrap.
“#Viraat Callsign “Romeo Two Two” – End of an era, a glorious chapter in the history of @indiannavy. She departs #Mumbai today for her final journey. Old ships never die, their spirit lives on,” tweeted PRO Defence Mumbai.