| Squadron Leader Nachiketa in the cockpit of an AN 32
New Delhi, May 21: Kambapatti Nachiketa, the Indian Air Force pilot who ejected across the Line of Control and was taken prisoner by Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil war, is flying close to the edge again.
Nachiketa himself does not say what his current tasks are ' that is against service rules ' but flashes a smile during a sortie from Delhi to Chandigarh. All he will say is that he is flying to and from forward airfields in Jammu and Kashmir.
Now a squadron leader, Nachiketa has converted to flying AN32 transport aircraft and is dropping supplies for the army at Siachen. He is posted in the 12 Wing of the IAF in Chandigarh, the main airbase for transport operations to the Siachen glacier and to positions along the LoC, including Kargil, which now has an airfield.
Flying the AN32 in the rarefied heights of Siachen, where weather and altitude are always threatening, is altogether different from flying the MiG27M fighter, the aircraft Nachiketa was flying seven years back on May 26, 1999, when he bailed out in Pakistani-held territory.
A 26-year-old flight lieutenant during the Kargil war, Nachiketa has been taken off combat aircraft flying for reasons that are not publicly disclosed. It is possible he opted to switch to a transport squadron. It is equally possible he was assigned to a transport squadron for medical reasons.
Ejecting from fighter aircraft can cause medical problems for the parachutist and cause him to be taken off combat flying.
That May morning, Nachiketa took off from his base in the IAF’s squadron No. 9 “Wolfpack”. His task was to fly his MiG27M close to the LoC, photograph intruder-held positions in the Batalik sector and attack identified targets with 80mm rockets. The political leadership had approved use of air power to strike at intruder-positions in the Kargil heights but had not authorised crossing the LoC. IAF pilots were severely handicapped.
Nachiketa’s escort on a MiG21 was Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja.
Nachiketa (Nachi) fired at a target twice before Ahuja and ‘ops control’ heard him on the radio reporting a snag:
“Nachi...engine flame-out ... relighting ... Nachi ejecting now.” Nachiketa bailed out.
Ahuja in his MiG21 circled the area, trying to identify the wreckage and where Nachiketa may have landed. In doing so, he was shot down by the Pakistani air defence. Ahuja was killed. The wreckage of the aircraft was spread over a 10-12 km area inside Pakistani territory.
Nachiketa descended for about 20 seconds dangling from his parachute. He landed in knee-deep snow and was immediately surrounded by a patrol of the Pakistani army and taken prisoner. Three days later, Nachiketa was paraded on Pakistan television.
On June 4, 1999, even as the Kargil war was on, Nachiketa was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which escorted him back to India to the relief of his family and friends.
In October 2000, Nachiketa was decorated with the “Vayu Sena” medal and feted as a war hero. A year earlier, on August 14, 1999 ' Pakistan’s Independence Day ' the Pakistan Army had decorated Naik Talib Hussain and Gunner Shafqat Ali of its air defence unit with the Tamghur-i-Jurrat for shooting down Nachiketa’s MiG27M.