Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot who became the face of a tense military confrontation between India and Pakistan in February, on Monday flew a sortie with Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on a MiG 21 jet here.
Photo-journalists and a video crew were taken inside the Pathankot airbase to record the 30-minute sortie, seen as an attempt by the IAF to publicly acknowledge Varthaman’s bravery in shooting down a Pakistani F-16 jet during the February 27 aerial combat.
Both Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa and Varthaman, without his signature handlebar moustache, posed for photographs while standing on the cockpit of the twin-seater trainer aircraft.
“It was an honour for me to fly with him,” the IAF chief, who is set to retire on September 30, said after the sortie which began at around 11.30 am.
The IAF, in a tweet, said it was the last sortie flown by air chief in a fighter aircraft before his retirement.
Varthaman, 36, was captured by the Pakistani Army after his MiG-21 Bison jet was shot down in the dogfight. Before his jet was hit, the IAF pilot downed an F-16 fighter of Pakistan.
A number of foreign media reports doubted the assertion about downing the F-16 jet of Pakistan Air Force. The IAF strongly rejected the reports.
Varthaman was released on the night of March 1 by Pakistan. He was taken off flying duties because of his injuries.
The IAF chief said he, too, ejected from a combat jet in 1988 and had to wait for nine months to return to the fighter cockpit.
“He (Varthaman) has got back his flying category in less than six months which is good,” said Dhanoa, adding it was his last sortie on a fighter jet before retirement.
“Both of us ejected and both of us fought the Pakistanis,” he added.
Varthaman returned to the fighter cockpit around two weeks ago after IAF’s Bengaluru-based Institute of Aerospace Medicine gave him the go-ahead to fly again following a thorough medical evaluation.
As a young pilot, the Air Force chief flew the Mig 21 jet with Varthaman senior, Simhakutty Varthaman, who retired as air marshal.
Air Marshal Simhakutty joined the IAF in 1973 and has around 4,000 hours of flying experience.
Abhinandan Varthaman was conferred the Vir Chakra, the coveted wartime gallantry medal, for downing the F-16 jet of Pakistan during the aerial combat.
The Vir Chakra is the third highest gallantry award after the Paramvir Chakra and the Mahavir Chakra.
Days after he returned from Pakistan, Varthaman conveyed to the IAF brass his wish to return to fighter cockpit at the earliest.
After he was captured, Varthaman came in for widespread praise from politicians, strategic affairs experts, celebrities and others for his courage and grace in handling the most difficult circumstances.
The IAF pilot underwent a nearly two-week debriefing by security agencies following his return from Pakistan.
IAF fighter jets bombed a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan on February 26, nearly two weeks after the Pulwama strike.
Pakistan retaliated on February 27 by attempting to target Indian military installations.