There’s a “good chance” of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returning to a fighter cockpit soon but the final clearance will be given by the Bengaluru-based Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM) where the 35-year-old will undergo a series of tests in the coming weeks, two Indian Air Force officials with direct knowledge of the matter said on the condition of anonymity.
Varthaman created military aviation history by shooting down a Pakistani F-16 during a dogfight with the Pakistan Air Force over the Line of Control on February 27, seconds before his own MiG-21 Bison was hit by a missile forcing him to eject. Experts have hailed it as the first ever kill of an F-16 by a MiG-21 Bison, fighter jets of two different generations. He could be recommended for a Vir Chakra, India’s third-highest war-time gallantry award, HT learns.
The aerial skirmish took place a day after Indian Mirage 2000s struck targets in Pakistan’s Balakot in response to the Pulwama suicide attack in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force men were killed on February 14.
Varthaman was in Delhi last week for a medical review at the Air Force Central Medical Establishment, the same facility where he was first brought to on March 1 after his repatriation from Pakistan where he spent almost 60 hours in custody.
The medical establishment is a specialist facility where aircrews from the three services are assessed for flying fitness. Doctors at the Army Hospital (Research and Referral) have also been involved in his medical assessment and treatment. He was diagnosed with injuries to his spine and rib.
“In such ejection cases, specialists usually assess a pilot’s health for up to 12 weeks before they clear him for flying again. So we will know about Abhinandan by May-end. But going by the current health indicators and the officer’s determination to return to fighter flying, we hope to see him in a g-suit soon,” said the first official.
Varthaman has now returned to his unit in Srinagar — the air force’s No.51 squadron, which is also known as ‘Sword Arms’, said the second official.
In mid March, Varthaman went on four-week medical leave and took complete bed rest at his home base.
He is likely to be assigned “light ground duties” before moving to the IAM for the final clearance for fighter flying, the second official added. Varthaman’s wife Squadron Leader Tanvi Marwah (retd) and their seven-year-old son Tavish are with him in Srinagar.
“The 12-week timeline for assessing a pilot’s health after an ejection is not cast in stone. Pilots can also be given a grace period to recover fully. We have a tie up with the United States Air Force and if required, we can seek their opinion too,” said Air Marshal Pawan Kapoor, who retired as Director General Medical Services (Air) in December 2017.
Senior IAF officials, who did not want to be named, said Varthaman could be recommended for a Vir Chakra for bringing the PAF F-16 down.
“As the action happened on the other side of the LoC, he could be awarded the war-time gallantry award. The government will have to take that call, whether he gets a Vir Chakra or a Shaurya Chakra,” one of the officials said.
The Vir Chakra and Shaurya Chakra are the country’s third-highest war-time and peace-time gallantry awards, respectively.
The Mirage 2000 pilots, who carried out the Balakot strikes, could be recommended for the Vayu Sena Medal for gallantry, another official said, asking not to be identified.
On April 8, the IAF released radar images for the first time to rebut Pakistan’s claim that it hadn’t lost a US-manufactured F-16 fighter jet in the February 27 dogfight.
Apr 19, 2019 23:26 IST