The IAF has recommended Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman for a top wartime gallantry award, while also transferring him out of the Srinagar to another base on the western front till he is found medically fit to fly again.
Defense sources said Varthaman, who shot down an F-16 before his MiG-21 was also downed during the aerial skirmish with Pakistan Air Force on February 27, has been recommended for a Vir Chakra, which is the third highest wartime medal after Param Vir Chakra and Maha Vir Chakra. Varthaman, of course, was later released on March 1 after being captured by the Pakistan Army on February 27.
The Mirage-2000 pilots who conducted the “successful” bombing of the main Jaish-e-Mohammed facility at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in the pre-dawn air strikes on February 26, in turn, have been recommended for Vayu Sena (gallantry) medals.
Though the IAF refused to comment officially, sources said Varthaman was “routinely transferred”’ to another airbase in Rajasthan and not because of any security concerns for his safety in J&K. “His tenure with the IAF’s No.51 squadron also called the ‘Sword Arms’, was getting over. Moreover, the final clearance for him to fly again will be given by the Bengaluru-based Institute of Aerospace Medicine, where he will undergo tests next month,” said a source.
IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa had earlier said that whether the 35-year-old Varthaman flies again would depend on his medical fitness because ejection from a supersonic fighter leads to stress and other injuries on the pilot’s spinal cord. “Once he gets his medical fitness, then only he can get into a fighter cockpit,” he said.
Another official on Saturday said, “As for the gallantry medals, the IAF headquarters is yet to collate all the awards to be conferred on August 15. It’s a confidential process. The medals are officially announced only after the President inks the file.”
Repeatedly rubbishing Pakistan’s claims, the IAF has reiterated that it has very credible evidence that not only did Pakistan deploy F-16s in the intended strike on Indian military installations across the Line of Control on February 27, but also that one of the US-origin jets was shot down by the MiG-21 being flown by Varthaman.
The evidence marshaled by the IAF ranges from “electronic signatures” captured by an Indian Phalcon AWACS aircraft and ground radar stations to intercepted radio transmissions among Pak Army units and “physical sightings” of two parachutes coming down in the Sabz Kot and Tandar areas around 8-10 km apart in PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir). The fate of the Pakistani pilot shot down is still unknown. Pakistan had backtracked after initially declaring that a second pilot, apart from Varthaman, had been admitted to a military hospital after being injured after ejecting from his jet.