IAF Turns 90: Here Are 3 Stories That Define Valour Of Our Flying Bravehearts

From fighting wars, leading disaster management efforts to carrying out peacekeeping missions and even tricky rescue operations, the IAF has served the country in more ways than one
IAF Turns 90: Here Are 3 Stories That Define Valour Of Our Flying Bravehearts

On October 8 this year, the Indian Air Force (IAF) completed 90 years of being in service. Starting off as a force with six officers and 19 Hawai Sepoys under a British officer back in 1933, the IAF is one of the largest air forces in the world today.

From fighting wars—under the British and then under the Indian government—and leading disaster management efforts to carrying out peacekeeping missions and even tricky rescue operations, the IAF has served the country in more ways than one. In the victory or failure of all those missions, the innumerable stories of the ones who fight them, the things that come in their way and how they valorously deal with them, get lost. 

This IAF Day, take a look at three such stories that make the force what it is. 


On June 1, 2016, 30-year-old Squadron Leader Rijul Sharma was all set to take off his fighter jet over the Gulf of Kutch off the Gujarat coast. It was the perfect day for an air test sortie: clear sky, bright sunshine and a light breeze. 

Sharma flew the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum or Baaz (Urdu for falcon), as it is known in the IAF, for the No. 28 squadron, out of Air Force Base Jamnagar. On that June day, he had been ordered to conduct a “torture test”—an airframe and engine sortie which pushes the airframe’s capacities to maintain operational readiness. 

After taking off at 10 a.m., Sharma immediately went into a steep climb of up to 1,000 metres and then levelled out. Post the systems and engines check, he rocketed up to 11,000 feet to clear a patch of cloud cover before levelling out again. 

When Sharma broke the sound barrier at Mach 1.1 (1,358 kmph), the real test began: a system check at 11,000 feet flying at 1.2 times the speed of sound.

At that speed and altitude, Sharma’s main enemies were blunt force trauma, temperature and the wind chill factor. Airframes are not designed to withstand the force and pressure generated by an aircraft flying at 1,000+ kmph with a non-aerodynamic helmeted head facing the full brunt of the elements.  

Everything read normal and there was no need for concern but just as he was about to begin the second set of manoeuvres, he heard a sound that he had never heard in his cockpit: a sharp whistling noise. Sharma realised that a part of his canopy had torn off and suddenly felt a sharp pain after one of the pieces hit his right shoulder.

Now, he was also fighting numbness and falling unconscious, a very real danger. He knew he had to put those emergency, on-the-fly decision-making skills to use and reduce the aircraft’s speed to keep himself awake and minimise the force on the airframe.

It was only after slowing down to 500 kmph, at subsonic speed, that Sharma could hear the deafening roar of the wind. The Baaz was still in stable flight but shaking due to the lack of a proper canopy and loss of aerodynamics.

The slower subsonic speed had caused a loud bang which broke Sharma’s listless state and flying at 500 kmph, now, at 10,000 feet was still fast enough for his head to be thrown around every time the jet moved. This was when Sharma tried contacting Air Traffic Control, screaming himself hoarse about emergency landing. 

By this time, he had lost all muscle control in his right hand due to his injured shoulder. Flying exclusively left-handed, Sharma had to also see if his MiG-29 was capable of handling landing forces. He knew that it was only possible by actually landing and there would be no way to eject during final approach or landing. While he could have ejected well before, he chose to bring down the fighter in a controlled landing and nailed his landing single-handedly without any canopy—all while fighting the numbness in his body. 

His medical report stated that he had received a blunt force injury with internal consequences but no flesh wound. While it seemed like he would have to spend a while in the hospital, Sharma was discharged in a few days and was airborne within a week.

Through his controlled landing, Squadron Leader Sharma saved a strategic asset—the frontline MiG-29 fighter jet—with neither any civilian loss of life and property nor his own. Landing his aircraft safely allowed for a thorough study of the incident as well. 

Sharma’s Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) citation reads: “Weighing against the option of ejecting and displaying courage of an exceptional order, Sqn Ldr Sharma decided to recover the aircraft. In the process, he totally disregarded his critical shoulder injury and the discomfort posed by high speed, high altitude and low temperatures.”

Dealing With Destruction

When a tsunami struck the west coast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after an underwater earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale on December 26, 2004, millions of lives were scarred. Loss of life and properly made the islands witness heart-wrenching scenes of absolute destruction.    

The most important government property on the island, the Integrated Defence Staff’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), India’s only tri-service theatre command, was also impacted.

Destruction to airmen quarters Air Commodore Nitin Sathe

Against that backdrop, Nitin Sathe was appointed the Task Force Commander for the IAF’s Court of Inquiry (CoI) investigation there. 

Whenever lives are lost at a government property or the property is destroyed, it has to be written off as a loss by an official along with a full report and only once the report has been filed can the gratuity be processed. To do this in the island, the CoI was formed. 

“There were seven-eight officers with me on the flight (to the island), and, in total, 70 men in two aircraft. One of them was flown by the Vice Chief of the Air Staff himself," says the retired air commodore, adding that along with the operations for the Uttarakhand floods, the 2004 tsunami operation was the IAF’s largest operation.  

Recalling those moments, Sathe says that they had not thought about what they would see, so they just had to visualise what would happen. He says they were just told that everything was broken, people were dead and they had to start revamping the entire ANC station. 

So how did they go about it? He says that during the long, 4.5-hour flight, he said, ‘Okay, this is what I visualise: we will have nothing to eat or drink, there will be no place to sleep, there will be mayhem around. So, what do we need to do immediately?’ 

“Orders were passed that 'A' will look after the accommodation for all of us, 'B' will look after our food, 'C' after counting people and 'D' will see what all is happening. Then, we will see the actual ground situation and determine the plan of action. Everyone already had their primary duties but the secondary duties, like the CoI, were discussed,” he explains. 

Sathe says that they had promised the Chief of the Air Staff that the base had to stand on its feet again in 100 days. “On the 100th day, we had our fighters operational. The island eventually took a year for complete rehabilitation,” he concludes. 

Local stands amid the destroyed housing Courtesy: Air Commodore Nitin Sathe

The Cold Call

While many are aware of the historic Operation Meghdoot of 1984, which pre-empted Pakistani action with India ultimately gaining control of Siachen, former air vice marshal Manmohan Bahadur writes that most people are unaware of the fact that the Siachen operations had actually commenced on September 20, 1978.

A young Bahadur had graduated from the Helicopter Training School and was posted to Jammu’s No. 114 Helicopter Unit. September 17, 1978 onwards, he was on detachment to Leh where he was tasked with supplying mail and fresh ration to Colonel Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar’s High Altitude Warfare School expedition to Siachen glacier, the world’s highest battlefield controlled by India.

When a call for a casualty evacuation from the Siachen Base Camp came in on October 6, 1978, the force sprung to action. Bahadur was co-pilot to Squadron Leader M.L. Monga in his Chetak helicopter. Once airborne, both of them were on oxygen feeds as they crossed the Nubra Valley to reach Siachen and almost flew till Indira Col, the border of the glacier, while searching for the expedition. 

It was only when light started fading and they began flying back that the expedition was spotted. After a quick and low reconnaissance for a suitable landing spot, the helicopter landed at 15,500 feet in six inches of snow. 

Handing over control to Bahadur, Monga got the two casualties in and then they took off. There were no issues while conducting this manoeuvre despite the Chetak’s technical abilities, altitude, temperature and location.

Manmohan Bahadur with a Chetak Helicopter Unit at a helipad near Gurez. Courtesy Manmohan Bahadur

This was the first landing on the Siachen glacier and it was definitely not the last. Ever since, the IAF has continued to fly there daily to provide mail and other things to the troops on the world’s highest battlefield.

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