'One of the things that gives a downed pilot strength is the knowledge and confidence that his government will do everything in its power and more to get him back.'
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, just 'Abhi' on the name tag of the green overalls that all IAF pilots wear in operational areas, would have been in the Operational Readiness Platform at the end of the runway of the air force base in Kashmir when he heard this call.
His MiG 21 aircraft would have been ready with all checks complete. The external battery that revs the jet would be powered on. His helmet would have been in the cockpit.
In the two minutes of hearing 'SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE', he would have put the switches in his cockpit on and the jet would have roared off the runway.
Fighter aircraft operate in pairs and the two pilots would have taken off one after the other.
In the lead position, WnCo Abhi would have been told by the fighter controller sitting in the radar scope where the threat from the enemy F-16 aircraft was emanating from. He would have turned in that direction and then depended on the radar to pursue the enemy aircraft to chase it out of Indian air space.
The pilot would have engaged the F-16 and the two aircraft would have tried to outmaneuver each other. The F-16 would have been shot down with missiles loaded onto the MiG 21. It is not known how the Indian MiG 21 went down.
In a combat situation when both pilots are in a dog fight, it is sometimes not possible to keep track of where a pilot is, especially in Kashmir where the boundaries are not well defined on the Line of Control.
"Our guy unluckily fell on their side of the border. That's just bad luck," says a fighter pilot.
Pilots are also trained in survival techniques in different terrain, even in water. The survival equipment is carried on board and is part of the survival pack which is on a pilot when he ejects from an aircraft.
The son of a retired pilot, whose father, an air marshal, has flown almost all fighter jets in the Indian Air Force -- it is a difficult time for Abhi's family, friends and for Indians at large.
'Abhi is alive, not injured, sound in mind, just look at the way he spoke so bravely... a true soldier. I am so proud of him,' his father Air Marshal S Varthaman (retd) wrote in a Whatsapp message to veterans and well wishers.
It's a sentiment that the whole of India shares. We all want him home soon.
Two former IAF MiG-21 pilots tell Archana Masih/Rediff.com what happens when a pilot is downed in enemy territory and why Indian Air Force pilots are a class apart.
On what happens when a pilot ejects in enemy territory:
Says a former pilot who has flown the Mirage 2000 and MiG 21: The first thing on ejection, the pilot would have tried to orient himself and make an escape, but the Pakistanis saw him coming down and captured him.
When you fight a war, the possibility is always there that you might get captured and killed.
All pilots know such a thing can happen when they go across.
The first duty is to evade and escape, unfortunately Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is captured. The Pakistanis could have hidden him/denied having him in their territory, but the videos are out and it is known that he been caught with no significant injuries.
They have no choice. They have to return him. They are bound by international convention to return him safe and sound.
They can't torture him. They can't kill him.
Imran Khan might just return the pilot to de-escalate the tension.
I don't think Pakistan as a country can afford or is keen for a war. Their economy will not permit it.
Their army and air force do not have the latest equipment and machines and they would not want a showdown with India.
I don't think the Pak army wants it, the politicians want it or the people want it. They will create a little drama, then save face and call it off.
Says a former MiG 21 pilot:
The information a captured pilot is supposed to give is to provide his rank, name, number and religion.
What they extract by other means depends on them.
The other standard operating procedures are to conceal yourself from the enemy, travel by night, and aim to come back to your country as soon as possible.
Evidently, he didn't get a chance to do that.
My feeling is that they will send him back. Pakistan already has a bad name for harbouring terrorists. After scoring brownie points and exploiting this in the media, and after they have exhausted his usage they will return him to India.
On how the pilot landed on the other side of the Line of Control:
Mirage 2000 and MiG 21 pilot: Before an ejection, a pilot is either doing an attack or fighting combat in an enemy territory.
If you are engaged in an attack you have better orientation because you are navigating, you know which side you are going, but if you are in combat, the entire focus is on the enemy.
The two aircraft are trying to outmaneuver each other and try to shoot the other guy down.
In a combat situation, both are in a dog fight it is sometimes not possible to keep track of where you exactly are.
In Kashmir the boundaries are not well defined -- there is an International Border and the LoC -- which is probably why he couldn't keep track and landed on the other side.
How fighters engage with enemy aircraft:
Mirage 2000 and MiG 21 pilot: Our pilot was probably doing a combat air patrol. The PAF F-16s came in and our pilots got airborne.
They have intercepted the F-16s, combat has taken place, the F-16 has been shot down by one of the combat pilots -- and then he has been shot down by the PAF aircraft or by ground fire.
Normally, combat air patrols are kept at 2 minute readiness.
Whenever a fighter gets airborne, they do so in pairs. The F-16s would also have come in pairs.
Two aircraft seem to have been shot down. Their guy falls on their side of the border and our guy unluckily also falls on their side of the border. That's just bad luck.
MiG 21 pilot: We don't know what has happened to our MiG 21, whether it is shot down or had a technical malfunction. We have no clue whether it was shot down by the F-16, a surface to air missile or has an aircraft problem -- it is all speculation.
How soon can he be sent back:
Mirage 2000 and MiG 21 pilot: Depends on the political situation.
MiG 21 pilot: They returned Nachi (then Flight Lieutenant, now Group Captain Nachiketa) soon because there was intense pressure from India and the US. Unless things start precipitating and go up the escalatory ladder.
Imran Khan is making conciliatory noises. Returning him could aid him and de-escalation could take place. If he is not returned, then options are open.
A generation of pilots hasn't seen action across the border. How are they psychologically ready for a situation like this when they haven't seen anything like this in recent years:
Mirage 2000 and MiG 21 pilot: It is not what you have seen but what you are trained for.
Our armed forces is continuously training for this eventuality, day after day.
Fighters get airborne 2-3 times a day for strike practice, combat practice etc.
There are exercises done every few months between various bases.
Sometimes the entire air force engages against each other, whether you have gone across is immaterial.
Pilots are continuously preparing for war in peacetime.
None of these boys have seen action, but they carried out such a meticulous and successful mission in Balakot.
MiG 21 pilot: It may not have happened to a generation of pilots, but it has happened to pilots before them and those experiences are passed down the line.
Based on those experiences you are trained. Similarly, Wing Commander Varthaman's experience will also be passed down.
Landing in enemy territory without your aircraft is not a good place to be in.
A pilot getting into their hands is a sad thing. One of the things that gives a downed pilot strength is the knowledge and confidence that his government will do everything in its power and more to get him back.