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Our fine pilots

Our fine pilots

Balakot air strike hero Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhaman became a household name for his formidable professional conduct and impeccable show of integrity in the face of danger to his life. This 36-year old Air Force pilot flew a MiG-21 Bison during the airstrike at a terror camp in Pakistan's Balakot in February before falling in captivity on the Pakistani side and was subsequently released after much media furorie. Now, for a second time, making headlines for his fine flying, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa took off in a two-seater MiG-21 trainer from Pathankot Airbase in Punjab and flew for nearly 30 minutes. In this two-seater version of the Russian-origin legacy jet the Wing Commander co-piloted, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa did his last MiG-21 sortie for the Indian Air Force before his retirement at the end of this month. The Air Chief had commanded a squadron of frontline ground attack fighters and hit dug in defences in the freezing heights of Kargil during the war in 1999. We learn from him what the two pilots have in common: They have both ejected in the past and survived MiG-21 incidents, both went to war on MiG-21s, and the Air Chief Marshal had served in a MiG-21 squadron with Wing Commander Abhinandan's father, who retired as an Air Marshal. Addressing a media person, the Air Chief Marshal said that "This is my last sortie on a fighter jet. Both of us have two things in common - first, both of us ejected and second, both of us have fought Pakistanis. I fought in Kargil, he fought after Balakot. And third, I've flown with his father. It's an honour for me to do my last sortie in the IAF, in a fighter aircraft, with his son". Wing Commander Abhinandan took this flight and flew the MiG-21 almost six months after he sustained injuries while ejecting from a MiG-21 Bison during a dogfight between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets on February 27. Conferred the wartime gallantry medal Vir Chakra on the eve of India's Independence Day for shooting down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet, the story of this Wing Commander also reminds one of the numerous pilots India has lost, not to war but in peace time operations. The defence forces are largely a parallel system that is suppose to ensure that the functioning of a nation as a sovereign entity is not hampered due to external aggression of any kind. This is a very critical aspect pointing to a juncture when the functioning of the military intersects with the decision-making of our civilian government. A cause of grave concern that continues to persist has been the disturbing frequency of air crashes that kill pilots and other serving personnel. There was a movement by wives of Air Force servicemen in protest against systemic laxity due to which this issue has been virtually unaddressed. As much as we take pride in our Armed Forces, the safety of our soldiers cannot ever be taken for granted. It is the government's heavy responsibility to ensure the formidably trained defence personnel do not fall victim to any kind of laxity on their part.

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