On April 1, 1954, Mukerjee was appointed Commanderin-Chief of the Indian Air Force—the first Indian to hold the post. In 1955, when the title of Commander-in-Chief was replaced by Chief of the Air Staff, Mukerjee automatically became the IAF’s first CAS. During his tenure, the IAF inducted several state-of-the-art aircraft, like Dassault Mystere, Hawker Hunter, BAe Canberra and Folland Gnat.
When Subroto Mukerjee became the first Indian Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1954, it marked a grand culmination of a string of firsts—the first Indian to command an air force flight, a squadron, a flying station and, finally, the service itself.
Mukerjee was born in Kolkata on March 5, 1911. His uncle had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, and was the only Indian ace of that war, so it was but natural for young Subroto to aspire to the career of a pilot. However, there was a small problem: the Royal Air Force (RAF) did not accept Indians. Fortunately, this discriminatory policy was reversed just about the time he would have been considering what profession to pursue. In 1929, Mukerjee appeared for the entrance examination of the RAF College, Cranwell, and was one of the first six Indian cadets selected to undergo two years of flying training. On October 8, 1932, the youngsters were commissioned as Pilot Officers in the RAF. On the same day, the Indian Air Force Act was passed by the Indian Legislative Assembly, and the IAF was born.
When, in 1936, the Pukhtoon (Pathan) tribesmen of the North West Frontier on the India-Afghanistan border rebelled, the IAF was assigned a major role in curbing them. Mukerjee was immediately involved in counter-insurgency operations across the harsh terrain of the region. But his courage and vision were not confined to air alone. In 1936, he introduced ‘inter-community messes’ in the air force, where Hawai Sepoys (airmen) dined together, overcoming barriers of caste and creed. In 1939, he was promoted to Squadron Leader and took over command of the IAF’s No. 1 Squadron.
In August 1940, Mukerjee was operating in the Daur valley in support of the land forces. Once when he flew over a remote army post, the besieged troops indicated that their ammunition was nearly exhausted, and they would soon be overwhelmed by their attackers. Mukerjee realised their desperate plight. At once he instructed his air gunner to remove the spare ammunition from the magazine of their machine gun. Then putting the ammunition in a stocking, they successfully dropped it to the troops in a low pass. The ammunition helped the troops to hold out till another aircraft came and dropped some more and saved the situation. This was an early instance of air maintenance. In June 1945, Mukerjee was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
When India became independent, the air force did not have Indians senior enough to command it, so the first three Chiefs were British. Mukerjee was groomed for the coveted post which one day would surely be his. He assisted the Air Chiefs in reorganising the service and went to the Imperial Defence College in England for further training in 1952. On April 1, 1954, he was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force. At that time he was just 43 years old, an age at which most of today’s IAF officers are getting ready to assume command of stations. When the Change in Designation Act, 1955, was passed, the title of Commander-in-Chief was replaced by Chief of the Air Staff, IAF, and Mukerjee automatically became the first CAS. During his tenure, the IAF inducted a variety of state-of-the-art aircraft, like the Dassault Mystere, the Hawker Hunter, the BAe Canberra and the Folland Gnat.