Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi was among the best fighter pilots of the Indian Air Force.
He perished when the Hawk aircraft he was flying had a mid air collision in Bengaluru on February 19.
Those who had flown with him tell Archana Masih/Rediff.com about the skilled flyer who had a fan following among young pilots.
Just like his beaming photograph, Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi was a cheerful man. A man, other officers in the squadron approached when they needed a pep talk.
"He was a talented pilot -- one of the best flying instructors and exuded immense confidence. He had a fan following among the junior pilots," says an Indian Air Force officer who knew him and served with him.
"He disarmed you with his smile, was the rocket of any party, and a thorough professional at his job."
Wing Commander Gandhi perished when his Hawk aircraft crashed after a mid air collision during an aerobatics display in the run-up to the Aero India show in Bengaluru.
Two other IAF officers, who ejected from their aircraft, sustained fractures and injuries. They are out of danger and recovering in the Command Hospital.
Wing Commander Gandhi had flown the Sukhoi-30, Mirage 2000 and MiG 21s and was selected among the best pilots of the Indian Air Force to train on the Hawks in United Kingdom for two years when the aircraft was inducted into the IAF in the mid 2000s.
He was posted to Bidar near Hyderabad which is home to the Surya Kiran, the IAF's aerobatics team consisting of fighter pilots.
Pilots with the best flying skills make it to the team.
Every position has a fixed syllabi, every pilot has a special responsibility and needs a lot of practice. Pilots in the formation do not change positions ad hoc.
"His adaptability and flying skills were such that he was like fish to water," says an IAF officer who has been his flight commander in the past.
The Surya Kiran team excels in close formation flying. The tragedy must have left them shaken. It is still not sure whether the team will undertake a display till the Court of Inquiry completes its investigation into the cause of the accident.
"You feel sad, but have to get back into the cockpit. The tradition in the squadron is that in the next opportune moment following a crash, the whole squadron gets into the cockpit and flies led by the commanding officer. You don't let it fester."
"Mission is always first," says the Sukhoi-30 pilot who knew Wing Commander Gandhi and his young family well. When he called his own wife to inform her of Wing Commander Gandhi's death, she already knew and was sobbing.
The deceased officer had married his childhood love, Himani, a software engineer in the United States and had a long distance marriage. His Facebook post read that he had wanted to grow old with her. The couple have a five-year-old boy Riaan and loved their holidays together.
During the time Himani was having an extremely busy year, he had brought his little boy to live with him in Bidar.
His wife and son flew back to India on hearing the sad news. "I heard she showed tremendous calm -- asking where did she have to reach, Bangalore or Bidar," says an IAF officer.
The bonding in the IAF embraces officers's families in good times and bad. They rally together, doing their best to comfort the bereaved, who most often are young wives and children.
An officer who has carried many coffins of lost brothers home, says after a crash, sometimes there is not much left to constitute a body and a male member of the deceased is told not to open the coffin.
"We want them to remember them as they were in good times," says the officer who saw his first fatalities in the Kargil conflict.
Wing Commander Gandhi, a native of Hisar, Haryana, had been a fighter pilot for over a decade.
He was an asset, especially, when posted as an instructor to a previous fighter squadron that took on freshly commissioned pilots and gave them basic training before sending them off to different squadrons.
"In the air force, an instructor's job is very important. From flying, to tying laces, to studies, to how to behave in a squadron, in parties, to personal problems -- he is like a mentor. He is responsible for training, teaching and grooming them to become good officers," says the IAF officer who served with Wing Commander Gandhi at that time.
"He would put young cadets at ease and was a great mentor."
Surya Kiran pilots usually do two sorties a day and serve in the squadron for 3 years. Honing of skills is a continuous process in the air force and military flying is a very intensive job.
"No sortie is a joyride, every sortie has a specific mission to achieve," says the fighter pilot as he comes to grips with the loss of another brother officer.