Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who shot down a US-built F-16 of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in a valiant dogfight over Jammu and Kashmir on February 27, relived the heroic moments when he flew a sortie on his favourite MiG-21 on Monday in the company of IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa.
The IAF chief and Wing Commander Abhinandan flew the joint sortie on MiG-21 fighters from the forward airbase in Pathankot, reports say. The pilot had survived a hit to his own aircraft and bailed out to land in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) from where he was released following intense international pressure by India through diplomatic channels.
The Pathankot Airbase is home to IAF's 26 Squadron, one of the five squadrons of the Soviet-era MiG-21 fighters left with the IAF, a media report says. Only four of these squadrons have the upgraded MiG 21 Bison fighter jets, according to Hindustan Times. The 26 Squadron's fighters have not been upgraded and will be decommissioned by the end of this year.
Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa is also a MiG-21 pilot and was commended for destroying Pakistan Army's supply dumps along the Line of Control (LoC) during the 1999 Kargil War, ultimately turning the tide in India's favour.
Wing Commander Abhinandan's MiG-21 was part of a posse of IAF intercepters that scrambled to meet an intruding formation of Pakistani fighters after IAF's planes bombed terror training camps deep inside Pakistan in Balakot to avenge Jaish-e-Mohammed terror strike in Pulwama.
In the dogfight that ensued, Wing Commander Abhinandan got a lock on a PAF F-16, a US-built fighter known to be far superior to any of India's warplanes except Sukhoi 30MKI (Su30-MKI). Wing Commander heroically pulled off the kill despite knowing that his plane had also been 'painted' by the enemy pilot, taking a hit in the process. He was awarded Vir Chakra, the third highest wartime military gallantry award, for his historic feat.
The IAF, which is in the process of rapid modernization, is seeking to increase its fleet size to 42 squadrons to maintain a credible deterrence along the western and northern borders from the current 30. The IAF had earlier undertaken the MiG-21 fleet mid-life upgrade (MLU) to prevent the number of squadrons from falling further.
India hopes to induct the newly bought air superiority fighters Rafale built by French Dassault to keep the squadron strength up. India's own light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas is also ready for induction to strengthen the IAF.