President Ram Nath Kovind, on Monday, awarded the Vir Chakra to Indian Air Force ace pilot Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman for his bravery. The Vir Chakra is India’s third-highest wartime gallantry award, after the Param Vir Chakra and the Maha Vir Chakra.
Though he was awarded in 2019, the investiture at the Rashtrapati Bhavan could not be held due to COVID-19 pandemic.
“Abhinandan showed conspicuous courage, demonstrated gallantry in the face of the enemy while disregarding personal safety and displayed exceptional sense of duty,” the citation stated.
Varthaman shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter aircraft during aerial combat on February 27, a day after the Balakot airstrike, before his own MiG-21 Bison was hit by a missile, forcing him to eject. Shooting down of upgraded F-16 by a MiG-21 was a rarest of the rare incident in the military's aviation history.
The upgraded MiG-21 Bison was on combat air patrol at 15,000 feet when it spotted an F-16 Falcon at 8,000 feet, approaching Indian airspace. Wing Commander Varthaman locked on the target at a 60-degree angle and launched the R-73 air-to-air missile, which hit the aircraft.
According to military observers, in the 51 years of the MiG’s existence, this is the first time it had shot down an F-16. Missile misfiring from F-16 is also said to be rare.
Varthaman was captured by Pakistani forces after his parachute was landed in their territory. But he was returned after 60 hours in captivity.
“Despite being captured by the enemy, he continued to display exceptional resolve in dealing with the adversary in a stoic, brave and dignified manner till he was repatriated on March 1, 2019," the citation said.
Varthaman was posted at Srinagar Air Force station, but his MiG-21 Bison squadron received a message that a large Pakistani air force fighter jets package was detected towards Line of Control. Despite knowing that Pakistan air force jets of F-16 were armed with advanced Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles and modern air-to-ground stand-off weapons, he hopped on to his jet to intercept.
“Displaying exceptional air combat acumen and knowledge of the enemy’s tactics, Abhinandan scanned the low altitude airspace with his airborne intercept (AI) radar and picked up an enemy aircraft that was flying low to ambush the Indian fighter interceptor aircraft… Abhinandan alerted the other formation pilots towards this surprise threat,” the citation said.
“He then consolidated the riposte, by gathering his wingman in an offensive formation against the hostile Pakistani aircraft now dropping weapons on Indian Army positions. This audacious and aggressive maneuver forced the enemy aircraft into tactical chaos.”
The citation said the wing commander then pursued a retreating enemy fighter bomber aircraft and in the ensuing aerial combat, shot down an F-16. “However, in the melee, one of the enemy aircraft fired multiple advanced BVR missiles, one of which hit his aircraft forcing him to eject in enemy territory.”
In retaliation of February 14, 2019, Pulwama attack in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers were killed on February 14, the IAF had launched an aerial strike on Pakistan's terrorist facility in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area run by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on February 26.