Flight Lieutenant Gaurav Chibber, Indian Airforce

Flight Lieutenant Gaurav Chibber, VM

Flt. Lt. Gaurav Chibber 24, was the youngest pilot in the Kargil war. He locked-onto(aquired) two Pakistani F-16s with air to air missiles while flying his Mig-29, scaring them away. This helped in warding off the potential threat they posed and enabled the IAF's strike force to destroy their designated target.

July 1999: Flight Lieutenant Gaurav Chibber, 24, had to postpone his wedding scheduled for last Friday. The war may have ended, the air strikes may be over, but Flt Lt Chibber has to get into his fully-armed fighter aircraft to guard the Kargil sky and ensure that the intruders are going back.

Marriage can wait, maybe sometime later this year, he says, ``if the Pakistanis permit''. But Flt Lt Chibber doesn't feel lonely, he has friends in Flt Lts Anuj Gupta, P A Shah, T S Mattu, Pinaki Bhowmick and Flying Officer J `Joe' Joshi. All, like him, in their early twenties. They see Kargil as the mission ``we had been dreaming about since joining the Air Force''.

For Ft Lt Anuj Gupta, from a west Delhi middle-class family, the call came when he was about to turn in for the night in his quarters at Udhampur fighter base. His orders were clear: Leave for Srinagar immediately. Air HQ had decided on air strikes to evict the intruders and he would be among those who would carry them out, beginning next day. The war had begun.``I flew the first mission on the first day,'' recalls Flt Lt Gupta, who, like Flt Chibber, also flies a Mig-29. ``I was supposed to reconnaissance the area. I wasn't scared, but there was this feeling of the unknown.''

By the morning of the second day (May 27), a fair group of young pilots had assembled at the Srinagar Air Force Station. Flt Lt K Nachiketa was among them. Senior officers briefed them on the operations, the terrain and the ``necessity to stick to our side of the LoC''. Separate briefings were held at Ambala and Avantipur Air Force bases.

But disaster struck later that afternoon. Flt Lt Nachiketa, on his first strike mission, had to bail out and landed in Pakistan. He was taken POW. Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, who was following him, was shot down by a Stinger missile. Next day, an MI-17 helicopter gunship, with four Air Force personnel, went down near Tololing. ``We felt low, because Nachi is a close friend. But we recovered quickly,'' says Flt Lt Gupta. ``Our seniors worked out new tactics and we started off once again. On one mission, I fired several rockets at the intruders' bunkers in Tiger Hill. Another was at Tololing.''

As the air attacks increased, so did the intruders' anti-aircraft fire and the number of shoulder-fired missiles. Given the ragged terrain, these young men and their machines were stretched to their limits. ``Yet we told ourselves, it was nothing compared to what our jawans were facing down below,'' says Calcutta boy Flt Lt Pinaki Bhowmick. Around the first week of June, Flt Lt P A Shah joined the operations with his Mirage-2000. The fire power now changed -- Mirage-2000s are equipped to fire laser-guided weapons -- and the air strikes became more telling.

Until then, air strikes had been ``pretty one-sided''. Suddenly, there was lot of Air activity on the Pakistani side. ``On one mission, I picked up three F-16s on my radar screen. They didn't attack. But we were ready,'' says Flt Lt Shah. ``We would have quite liked a duel, in case they strayed to our side,'' adds Mig-21 pilot Flt Lt Joshi.

On August 6, 1999, when Flt. Lt. Gaurav Chibber's MiG-29 was on a routine sortie over Himachal Pradesh, it suddenly developed problems and crashed into the pine forests. He died just days before he was to be awarded the prestigious Vayu Sena medal and was to get married.

An IAF court of inquiry later attributed the cause of the crash to disorientation experienced by the pilot while flying through cloud cover.

(Adapted from "Soldiers who man the Kargil skies" by Joy Purkayastha in Indian Express 25/7/99)