The first Indian prisoner of war (POW) in the Kargil conflict, Kambampati Nachiketa, is all set to fly mid-air refuellers -- a small consolation for him after an injury caused by "physical hardships" during captivity kept him away from operating fighter aircraft.
"I am being transferred to Air Force Station Agra next month. Now I'll be flying IL-78 air-to-air refuellers," Nachiketa, who was captured by Pakistani forces on May 27, 1999 after his MiG-27 suffered a flame-out while destroying enemy positions in the Batalik sub-sector, said.
On that fateful day, Nachiketa, then a flight lieutenant, took off in a 'Hayena' formation led by Sqn Ldr A Mandhokot to bomb enemy positions with 80 mm canons.
Despite initial difficulties, the Vayu Sena Medal awardee identified the target and fired 40 rockets in one salvo and attacked again, this time with 30 mm guns.
"I then eased out of the dive, but felt a backward jerk due to sudden deceleration. The speed dropped to 500 kmph and realised the engine had flamed out. I immediately jettisoned the rocket pods and attempted a relight. Informing my leader Sqn Ldr Mandhokot, I further lowered the altitude to maintain the speed which had fallen to 450 kmph," he said.
With hills surrounding the area and no sign of the engine restarting, Nachiketa realised that eviction was inevitable and pulled the ejection handle.
While ejecting, Nachiketa saw his aircraft crash into the hills and go up in flames.
"After about 15 seconds of para descent, I landed on soft ice. I saw people running towards me. Bullets were being fired and I returned the fire from the small arms I was carrying. After holding forth for some time, there was an ambush and I was made a POW," he said.
Now a Wing Commander, Nachiketa was unwilling to discuss his experience during captivity but said he was made to undergo "physical hardships."
"It is an experience which is difficult to be described in words. Sometimes I felt that death would have been a better solution," he said.
He now suffers from back pain and this prevents him from flying a fighter plane. Doctors attribute his pain to the injury during para-landing and the physical hardships during captivity, he said.
Besides physical scars, the experience had been traumatic psychologically. "It took quite some time to heal. But in two or three years you reconcile with life and get on with it."
However, the trauma was bigger for his family, including his parents and sisters. "As a soldier, I am trained to bear this. The trauma had been bigger for my family," he said .
To a question, Nachiketa admitted that he was initially crestfallen at the prospect of being eased out of flying fighter aircraft, but has now reconciled to it.
"When you are in the cockpit, you have a role. Sometimes experience changes you so much that you accept whatever role you get. My experience has taught me not to regret what I have lost. It has made me stronger," Nachiketa, fondly known by friends and colleagues as 'Nachi' said.