How Queen Victoria still rules our skies

Nationality and registration marks of Indian civilian aircraft, which are prefixed with ‘VT’, are a colonial legacy dating back to the early decades of the 20th century. Experts feel that it is time we get a call sign in sync with our current national identity.

Published : May 09, 2022 17:00 IST

Air India planes parked at the IGI Airport in New Delhi bearing the fuselage sign prefix ‘VT’.

Air India planes parked at the IGI Airport in New Delhi bearing the fuselage sign prefix ‘VT’.

Nearly a century and a half after Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative British Prime Minister, had Queen Victoria proclaimed as Empress of India, her name still lords over Indian skies. All civilian aircraft registered in India even to this day continue to be emblazoned with the letters “VT”.

The allocation of the prefix letter “V” traces its genesis to 1912 and the London “International Radiotelegraph Convention”, when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) issued British India and the other colonies radio call sign blocks beginning with “V” to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria.

And with international law mandating that the nationality and registration marks of an aircraft—the letters painted on the fuselage—be in consonance with the country’s radio call signs, India, like several other Commonwealth countries, has persisted with the letter “V”. To the present day, besides India (VT), aircraft registered in several other Commonwealth countries, including Australia (VH), Bermuda (VP-B, VQ-B), Cayman Islands (VP-C), the Falkland Islands (VP-F), Gibraltar (VP-G), St. Helena / Ascension (VQ-H), Bermuda (VQ-B, VP-B), Antigua and Barbuda (V2), Belize (V3), Saint Kitts and Nevis (V4), Namibia (V5) and Brunei Darussalam (V8), continue to bear registration markings beginning with the letter “V”.

Adapted from maritime law, where the national flag is used to indicate a ship’s country of registration, the letters affixed or painted on an aircraft indicate its nationality and registration. And though the principles of nationality and registration of aircraft were initially considered during the International Air Navigation Conference held at Paris in 1910, it was only nine years later in October 1919 that a formal codification of the principles, rules and specifications took place at the International Convention Relating to the Regulation of Aerial Navigation, or the Paris Convention. Chapter II— Nationality of Aircraft and Annex A to the Paris Convention—encapsulated the rules and specifications with regard to aircraft nationality and registration.In accordance with Standard 3.3 of Annex 7 of the Paris Convention, the nationality mark of an aircraft was selected by the country from the series of nationality symbols included in the radio call signs allocated to the country by the ITU. Further, the nationality marks for aircraft were selected from the first one or two symbols of the three  radio call signs allocated to the country by the ITU.

As a consequence, in 1919, all the British colonies, Protectorates and Dependencies, including India, were allocated markings beginning with the letter “V”. Captain Amit Singh, an aviator and flight safety expert who has delved into the issue of aircraft registrations, points to the table of markings in Annex A of the Paris Convention, which lists India as

“Indes Britanniques” (French for British India) and shows that “VT” had been allocated.

Interestingly, several aircraft registered in India between 1919 and 1928 bore the registration mark G-I followed by three letters, like G-IAAA, G-IAAB, G- IAAC, G-IAAK, and so on. Captain Amit Singh attributes this to the July 1919 decision of the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) to allocate civil aircraft registration prefixes to each member nation. Said Capt Singh: “British Commonwealth countries were allocated the letter ‘G’, with the next one or two letters indicating the countries within the Commonwealth. England used ‘G-E’, New Zealand ‘G-NZ’, Canada ‘G-CA’ India ‘G-I’, and Australia ‘G-AU’.”

However, after June 1928, after ICAN  adopted the revised table of nationality and registration markings for aircraft and other radio call signs that had been recommended the previous year by the International

Radiotelegraph Convention in Washington, United States,  all Indian aircraft began having  the marking “VT”. Other British colonies also saw a change—Australia was allocated the prefixes “VH”, “VI”, “VJ”, “VK”, “VL” and “VM”.

Captain Amit Singh is of the view that “VT” is not in consonance with post-independent India’s national identity and that the government should change it. Said Captain Singh: “The government of India has been unable to determine the source of this nationality mark on aircraft. The government was ill advised about the subject by their experts and the statement made last December in Parliament on the issue was out of context and poorly drafted.”

Answering a question in Parliament on “whether the government has taken cognizance of the fact that during British Rule, aircraft of India had been given the VT code”, and if “VT” was an abbreviation for “Viceroy

Territory”, the government said that the “ITU has allotted three series of call signs to India i.e. ATA-AWZ, VTA-VWZ and 8TA-8YZ” and that “the call sign VT was assigned to India during the International Radiotelegraph convention of Washington, 1927 signed at Washington on 25th November 1927”. The government also stated that “VT” did not stand for “Viceroy Territory”.

The government said that changing to call signs “closer” to India or Bharat, such as “I”, “IN”, “B”, “BH”, “BM” or “HT” was not possible since they were already assigned to other countries. Said Captain Singh: “VT may not stand for ‘Victoria Territory’ or ‘Viceroy territory’, but we need to get rid of the colonial past (V for Victoria) that has been tagging our sovereign nation since 1919, when the prefix ‘V’ was allocated to India under the country name ‘British India’ to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria. This tag must be deleted.”

Captain Singh also does not agree with the government’s contention that if markings are changed, aircraft will have to be grounded, repainted and cannot fly until all markings are changed. Said Captain Singh: “Airlines use decals to apply stickers on aircrafts instead of painting. They are less expensive and easier to apply. Usually, vinyl film decals are used and they can be affixed in a matter of a few hours. There is no need to strip the existing paint and there is practically no drying time required. Airlines have in-house teams which put on the decals for branding purposes and sometimes the whole aircraft is wrapped using the vinyl film.”

Commenting on the possible letters,he said there were plenty of options, including I1A-I1Z, B1A-B1Z, R1A-R1Z, which would give the markings I1, B1, R1. There is also the possibility, he said, of interchanging letters with Italy or Russia who have reserved IN and RI.

Said Captain Singh: “Nationality provides a sense of identity and belonging. In aviation phonetics, the letter ‘I’ is pronounced as India. Therefore, every aviator and citizen of India would feel proud to announce his or her aircraft registration as India One followed by a three-letter combination.”

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