Four brave hearts of the “Mighty Armour” Mi-17 Helicopter Unit of the Sarsawa airbase – Squadron Leader Rajiv Pundir, Flight Lieutenant S Muhilan, Sergeant PVNR Prasad and Sergeant RK Sahu made the supreme sacrifice in the icy heights of Tololing as their Mi-17 suffered an enemy missile hit in one such mission on May 28, 1999.
The crew had dared the enemy on several occasions during the two previous days flying nine strike-missions before finally embracing martyrdom. All four were awarded the Vayu Sena Medal for gallantry posthumously.
Ten years on, the IAF continues to remember their valiant sacrifice. At a special commemoration event held at Air Force Station, Sarsawa, 10 kms from Saharanpur City, in western UP- rich tributes were paid to the martyred quartet, today. Wreaths were laid at the magnificent war memorial dedicated to their memory after the Kargil victory.
A candle-lighting vigil was held on Sunday evening at the War memorial. The dark night radiated with overwhelming déjà vu feelings that were only matched with the luminance of the hundreds of candles flickering on late into the night. Close on the heels of a remembrance ceremony held at the Bhisiana airbase near Bathinda honouring the supreme sacrifice of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja on Friday last, pilots of the “Mighty Armour” also flew an unheralded foursome, ‘finger-four’ formation in honour of the quartet.
Two “Dhruv” Advanced Light Helicopters belonging to the “Himalayan Dragons” Helicopter Unit led the ‘finger-four’ formation of the Mi-17s. The only recorded ‘missing man’ formation ever flown by a helicopter formation in any Air Force around the world was flown to honour the martyrs, today. And for those flying in the formation, the honour was indeed rare, as much as it was flown to honour the IAF heroes.
A ‘missing man’ formation is the ultimate tribute reserved for a military aviator – a tradition believed worldwide to have originated from the halcyon days of aviation, dating more than a century back – to honour the dead or a missing comrade, at a solemn memorial service.
For Mrs Sharmila Pundir and Mrs Bina Muhilan, who were among the first to place wreaths, revisiting the airbase was like a homecoming. Overwhelmed by the warmth, honour and support, Mrs Pundir recalled that it was due to the moral support provided by the IAF that her family today are resolute although the feeling of a great personal loss remains.
Among other senior IAF officials present included Air Commodore KK Gohil from HQ Western Air Command (WAC) and Air Commodore AK Sinha, who it may be mentioned was the formation leader in all the Mi-17 strike missions as a Wing Commander. He was awarded the Vir Chakra – the third highest gallantry award for bravery during war.