Pathankot: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot who became the face of a tense military confrontation between India and Pakistan in February, on Monday flew a sortie with Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on a MiG 21 jet here.
The 30-minute sortie came nearly six months after Abhinandan Varthaman sustained injuries while ejecting from a MiG 21 Bison during aerial combat between India and Pakistan on 27 February. Varthaman returned to the fighter cockpit around two weeks ago after IAF’s Bengaluru-based Institute of Aerospace Medicine gave him the go-ahead to fly again following a thorough medical evaluation.
“It was an honour for me to fly with him,” the IAF chief, who is set to retire on 30 September, said after the sortie on the MiG 21 trainer aircraft. The 36-year-old IAF pilot was captured by the Pakistani Army on 27 February after his MiG-21 Bison jet was shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani jets during aerial combat. Before his jet was hit, he downed an F-16 fighter of Pakistan.
Abhinandan Varthaman was released on the night of 1 March by Pakistan. He was taken off flying duties because of his injuries. The IAF chief said he, too, ejected from a combat jet in 1988 and had to wait for nine months to return to the fighter cockpit.”Varthaman has got back his flying category in less than six months which is good,” said Dhanoa, adding it was perhaps his last sortie on a fighter jet before retirement.
As a young pilot, the Air Force chief flew the Mig 21 jet with Abhinandan Varthaman senior, Simhakutty Varthaman, who retired as an air marshal. Air Marshal Simhakutty joined the IAF in 1973 and has around 4,000 hours of flying experience.
Abhinandan Varthaman was conferred the Vir Chakra, the coveted wartime gallantry medal, for downing the F-16 jet of Pakistan during the aerial combat. The Vir Chakra is the third highest gallantry award after the Param Vir Chakra and the Mahavir Chakra. Days after he returned from Pakistan, Varthaman conveyed to the IAF brass his wish to return to fighter cockpit at the earliest.
After he was captured, Varthaman came in for widespread praise from politicians, strategic affairs experts, celebrities and others for his courage and grace in handling the most difficult circumstances. The IAF pilot underwent a nearly two-week debriefing by security agencies following his return from Pakistan.
IAF fighter jets bombed a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan on 26 February, nearly two weeks after the Pulwama strike. Pakistan retaliated on 27 February by attempting to target Indian military installations.