The exact date is difficult to pinpoint. Some claim that the legend of India’s ‘dancing elephant helicopters’ started in 1977 when the first one of its kind took to the air. Others say that it began earlier. Whatever the case, these colorful adaptations, designed to display military might, industrial strength and the country’s cultural diversity, have entered popular folklore.
But to find the origins of these so-called ‘flying elephants’, it is necessary to go back to 1969. In that year, India started building a licensed version of the popular French Aérospatiale Alouette III. It was manufactured by HAL and named Chetak – after a warhorse belonging to the 16th century King Maharana Pratap. The name meant devotion, bravery and resistance to occupation.
By modern standards, the Chetak is a light utility helicopter at best. But at the time it was an impressive machine. More than 300 of them were built – not including the original French Alouette IIIs purchased by India – mostly serving with the Indian Air Force (IAF), and it was only in the 2010s that the service began to consider replacing them. A participant in many local conflicts, the aircraft became something of an icon in India, akin to the Vietnam War-era Bell UH-1 in the US or the Mil Mi-8 in the post-Soviet countries.
Animal in the sky
However, it wasn’t until the annual Republic Day parade, held in New Delhi at some point in the 1970s, that the Chetak was lifted into stardom.
On January 26, soldiers marched along the Rajpath Boulevard, tanks rumbled by, and trucks carried performers showcasing all kinds of impressive stunts. There were few surprises until an unexpected guest appeared.
A flying elephant.
It was one of the helicopters belonging to IAF Helicopter Unit No. 116. According to some accounts, the unit was still equipped with original French Alouette IIIs, which could, in theory, mean it was the late 1960s. The entire body of the aircraft was covered in richly decorated textiles, complete with four hollow ‘legs’, two massive ‘ears’, a pair of ‘tusks’, and a massive ‘trunk’.
The aircraft created a furore in the crowd, and rightfully so. One of the national animals of India, and a powerful symbol of its might, the elephant was a spectacular sight to behold, even though all the dressed-up helicopter could do was fly slowly in a straight line.
The ‘modification’ was done by one of IAF’s tailors by attaching pieces of fabric. Even the canopy was enclosed, leaving just narrow slits to see through, and the pilot would not dare to accelerate beyond 110 kilometers per hour (70 mph) for the fear of losing the decals and possibly damaging the machine.
Over the years, there have been further examples of Chetaks being dressed up as animals. While unusual helicopters don’t show up in other Republic Day parades in the late 70s and the 80s, there are several photos floating around the internet, likely from other events.
One of them shows a Chetak dressed up as a fish. Another one from 1993 depicts a Dodo bird – a national animal of Mauritius – after several Chetaks were sold to the Mauritius Police Force.
There is yet another photo of Chetaks in their elephantine garb which sheds light on the tendency of some eyewitnesses to say that those helicopters “danced”.
In the photo, two helicopters fly past each other, both sporting elephant-like makeovers. The decorations seem a lot simpler this time, with larger openings on the canopy, likely providing pilots with much better situational awareness. Dressed as such, Chetaks could perform some basic aerobatic maneuvers. The photo looks to have been taken at an army base or something similar, but it’s possible that the two aircraft performed at a public event, giving rise to the legend of dancing elephants.