Eighteen years ago, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja of the Indian Air Force's Golden Arrow Squadron had been shot dead by Pakistani soldiers after he ejected in Batalik Sector. He was trying to locate Flight Lieutenant Kambampati Nachiketa, who was on a bombing mission and had ejected after his engine flamed out. He was subsequently taken a prisoner of war. The Kargil war was at its height and India was coming to terms with the scale of the intrusion in Kargil.
Yesterday, to mark the day that Squadron Leader Ahuja was martyred, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, then commanding the Golden Arrows Squadron, led four MiG-21 aircrafts in a "Missing Man" formation to remember his fallen comrade. Squadron Leader Ahuja, who was later awarded the Vir Chakra posthumously, was then the Flight Commander of Golden Arrows Squadron. Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa himself flew several missions during the Kargil war. He too was awarded for his efforts in the war
On 27 May 1999 at about 10.30 am in the morning, six aircrafts -- four MiG 27 fighters on attack role and two MiG-21 fighters in escort role -- took off from Srinagar. Their mission was to bomb Muntho Dhalo, the biggest Pakistani supply base in the Batalik Sector. As the MiG-27 fighters struck Muntho Dhalo, first with bombs and then with rockets, the engine of the MiG-27 flown by Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa would flame out, forcing him to eject.
"Squadron Leader Ahuja had Gobal Positioning System (GPS) on his aircraft – something not very common those days – and therefore he decided to locate where Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa had ejected and send back the GPS coordinates so that he could be rescued"
Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja and Flying Officer Reddy were following-in on the attack in two separate MiG-21s to assess the damage caused by the bombing. Their mission was to photograph the damage. "Squadron Leader Ahuja had Global Positioning System (GPS) on his aircraft -- something not very common those days -- and therefore he decided to locate where Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa had ejected and send back the GPS coordinates so that he could be rescued," said a senior IAF officer who was part of the mission but didn't want to be named. He added, "A little later Flying Officer Reddy was low on fuel was sent back to base by Squadron Leader Ahuja. He knew that Muntho Dhalo was defended by missiles but decided to carry on and try and locate Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa. The worst would follow. Squadron Leader Ahuja was hit by Stinger missile. Although, he would eject safely and parachute down, he was shot dead by Pakistani soldiers."
The "Missing Man" flypast is an aerial salute given to fallen comrades-in-arms. Yesterday, four MiG-21 aircraft led by Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa took off from the Bhatinda Air Station, the erstwhile base of the Golden Arrow Squadron. They flew out in an arrow formation from the base. On its way back to the base one aircraft was missing from the formation -- the missing aircraft depicting the man who didn't come back from war. Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja's wife and son were at Bhatinda to witness the aerial salute.
"We must learn from the past, practise in the present so that we win in the future
Rarely, if ever, have chiefs flown themselves to remember and pay homage to their fallen comrades. "We must learn from the past, practise in the present so that we win in the future," Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said explaining why he decided to fly himself.