Indian Air Force (IAF) chief and veteran MiG-21 pilot, Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa, who will retire this month, flew his farewell sortie on Monday in a MiG-21 Bison fighter, with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as his co-pilot.
As the MiG-21 accelerated down the Pathankot airbase runway for its notoriously fast take-off, the sortie was laden with symbolism. Dhanoa and Varthaman are amongst the few IAF pilots who have flown combat missions against Pakistan — Dhanoa during the 1999 Kargil conflict and Varthaman on February 27, the day after the IAF strike on Balakot in Pakistan. Both pilots have experienced ejection by parachute from their stricken MiG-21s. Finally, in a tradition-bound military, where sons often follow their fathers into service, Dhanoa has flown extensively with Varthaman’s father — himself an Air Marshal who retired recently.
“I’ve flown with his (Varthaman’s) father. It’s an honour for me to do my last sortie in an IAF fighter aircraft with his son,” said Dhanoa after the sortie.
Varthaman was cleared to return to operational flying a couple of months ago, after recovering from injuries sustained during his ejection over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Varthaman was captured by Pakistani ground troops and released unharmed two days later.
His gallantry in combat and in Pakistani captivity brought him the award of a Vir Chakra on Independence Day. The IAF claims that, before Varthaman was shot down, he shot down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16 fighter.
While the PAF denies the claim, it would be a creditable achievement for a MiG-21, a four decade-old, Soviet-era fighter, to shoot down an F-16 — the PAF’s premier combat aircraft.
During his tenure as IAF chief, Dhanoa — who is regarded as a ‘flyer’s flyer’ — has flown several sorties in the MiG-21, to bolster confidence in the IAF’s oldest fighter. While it is not unknown for senior Air Marshals to fly ceremonial sorties as co-pilots in the rear seat of fighters, with the aircraft actually being flown by a younger front line pilot, Dhanoa often captains the sortie himself.
In Pathankot on Monday, Dhanoa took the pilot’s front seat and flew the entire sortie, while Varthaman occupied the co-pilot’s rear seat.
Notwithstanding Dhanoa’s forthright advocacy of the MiG-21, the fighter has only a short tenure left in service. There are just four-five squadrons remaining in service (each squadron has about 20 aircraft), and they are likely to be phased out by 2022-23. They are to be replaced by the Tejas light combat aircraft, but the Tejas production line cannot yet manufacture the fighter in the numbers that are required.
The retirement of the MiG-21 fleet is likely to see the IAF’s fighter strength dropping below 30 squadrons, against the 42 squadrons it is authorised.