On May 28, 1999, flight Lieutenant Kambampati Nachiketa got captured by the Pakistani Army after the MiG-27 fighter he was flying crashed in enemy territory. He was released on June 4th because of the mounting pressure from international media. He remained captive for a week and suffered a spinal injury while ejecting from his MiG-27 fighter. Everybody thought that his flying days were over, but not Nachiketa. He still flies for the Indian Air Force.
Kargil war was forced upon India in 1999. It was the most difficult war that the Indian armed forces ever fought and many gallant heroes emerged during the war through their grit and valour. Nachiketa, the 26-year-old officer from No.9 Squadron of the IAF was hitting enemy positions at altitudes over 17,000 feet with deadly 80 mm rockets.
Kargil was simply one of the harshest wars India’s armed forces had ever fought. Maybe that’s why the tales of valour and grit that arose from the Kargil war zone are so striking. Many heroes emerged in the ferocious war, and while we remember some of them, many names are still lost in the pages of history.
During the Kargil War in 1999, 26-year-old Nachiketa was a serving officer in the No.9 Squadron of the IAF that was operating in the war-hit Batalik sector. As a flight lieutenant, Nachiketa had been assigned the task of hitting enemy positions at altitudes over 17,000 feet with lethal 80 mm rockets. However, on 27th May, 1999 when he locked on to a target and was firing the powerful 30 mm cannon of his MiG 27 fighter bomber his engine ‘flamed’ out. This means his engine gone dead in the midair due to the fumes released by firing in the rarefied atmosphere of high altitudes are ingested by the engine during air intake. This is indeed a nightmare for any pilot across the globe.
Although, Nachiketa kept trying to reignite the engine all his attempts failed and he had to eject at a place called Munthudalo. This is an enemy territory with snow-capped mountain region. The harsh landing on a rocky surface caused a spine injury. After landing, he saw the tragic death of squadron leader Ajay Ahuja. Ahuja was hovering over the area in his MiG-21 in an effort to locate the landing area of Nachiketa when the Pakistani Anza missile had found its mark. Nachiketa could still remember the horrific sight of Ahuja’s plane bursting into flame.
Half an hour later Nachiketa was ambushed by Pakistani soldiers. He was still stunned by his hard landing and the sight of the explosion of Ahuja’s plane. He fought bravely unloading an entire magazine of bullets from his pistol at them, but had to surrender once his ammunition ended.
Nachiketa was captured and thrown into the dark confines of a prison in Rawalpindi. He was tortured ruthlessly by the Pakistani soldiers for important information. He was fortunate that a matured senior officer ordered his men to back off and stop the torture. As per the Geneva Conventions prisoners of war cannot be manhandled. Without the intervention of that officer Nachiketa might have been killed by the Pakistani soldiers.
He recalled that he was aware of the fact that he may not see tomorrow or get back to India, but never lost hope.
After remaining as a prisoner of war in Pakistan for a week he was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pakistan thanks to the mounting pressure from the UN and international media. He was then repatriated over the Indian border check post at Wagah following days of intense politicking by the Government of India to secure his release.
At the Wagah border Nachiketa told to the media that he is a soldier and is ready for his next mission. The spine injury suffered by Nachiketa forced him to quit flying fighter planes. He went through a series of remedial measures and joined as an Indian Air Force transport fleet pilot.
Many may call it a day considering the trauma, the agony and harshness experienced by Nachiketa during his captive days. But, not Nachiketa who continues to fly giant Ilyushin IL-78 and AN-24 midair refuelling transport aircraft for IAF Squadrons and became a Group Captain.
Nachiketa was awarded the Vayu Sena Gallantry Medal for his exemplary service during the Kargil war. He still misses flying fighter aircraft, but believes that flying in any form is equally challenging. The Kargil war saw many heroes who sacrificed for our country and it is our duty to remember each of them.