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A Historic Feat, Capture, and a Grand Return: Balakot Hero Abhinandan Varthaman

Looking back at Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman's bravery that won him his Vir Chakra.

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Video Editor: Rahul Sanpui

"Keeping aside his own personal safety, he showed immense dedication and exemplary courage before the enemy."

Said Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman's citation as he marched to receive his Vir Chakra – India's third highest gallantry award. The Indian Air Force (IAF) officer had shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet over the Line of Control (LoC), in a historic feat, in February 2019.

Varthaman was captured by the Pakistan army after his landing. He braved custody there and returned home after over sixty hours, with a smile.

But what exactly happened on 27 February 2019? And what happened after? Here's looking back at Abhinandan Varthaman's act of bravery that won him his Vir Chakra

A Historic Feat, Capture, and a Grand Return: Balakot Hero Abhinandan Varthaman

(Graphics: Erum Gour)

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The Historic Feat

On 26 February 2019, the Indian Air Force's (IAF) Mirage-2000s conducted an airstrike against a reported Jaish-e-Mohamman (JeM) terrorist camp, across the Line of Control (LoC), in Pakistan's Balakot, in a major 'non-military pre-emptive action.'

This was in response to the suicide attack in Kashmir's Pulwama, in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men were killed by terrorists on 14 February 2019.

The next day, around 9.55 am, in retaliation, the Pakistan Air Force launched a formation of up to 24 fighter aircraft, comprising advance F-16 and JF-17 jets. They were detected heading towards LoC.

Then Wing Commander, Abhinandan was part of the Indian pushback team from the Srinagar-based 51st Squadron. Within minutes, flying his MiG-21 Bison, he scanned the airspace with the radar of his aircraft and picked up an enemy F-16 jet that was flying low to ambush the Indian fighter jets.
A Historic Feat, Capture, and a Grand Return: Balakot Hero Abhinandan Varthaman

(Graphics: Erum Gour)

Varthaman bravely engaged the Pakistani fighter jet despite its technological superiority.

A Historic Feat, Capture, and a Grand Return: Balakot Hero Abhinandan Varthaman

(Graphics: Erum Gour)

Wing Commander Abhinandan then pursued a retreating enemy fighter bomber aircraft, and in the ensuing aerial combat, he shot down an F-16 jet with his onboard missile, seconds before his own MiG-21 Bison was hit by a missile.

His shooting down of the Pakistani fighter jet was historic. Experts claim it was the first ever kill of a modern F-16 jet by an ageing MiG-21 Bison, in aviation history.
A Historic Feat, Capture, and a Grand Return: Balakot Hero Abhinandan Varthaman

(Graphics: Erum Gour)

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The Capture and a Hero's Return

Hit by the missile, Varthaman was forced to eject, but on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC). He was captured by the Pakistani forces. "Despite being captured by the enemy, he continued to display exceptional resolve in dealing with the adversary in a stoic, brave and dignified manner till he was repatriated," said his citation.

A video clip initially surfaced showing blood on Abhinandan Varthaman's face, after the capture. Later, the Pakistan Army released video footage showing him having tea and saying that he was being treated with honour.

On 28 February, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced in the country's Parliament, "The Indian pilot who we had captured, as a peace gesture, we'll return him to India tomorrow."

Abhinandan Varthaman returned home, crossing the Wagah border with a smile, on 1 March 2019. The valour, mettle and patriotism that he showed in Pakistan won hearts. His confident and calm demeanour while on enemy soil, earned him a hero’s welcome.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised Abhinandan's bravery, saying that he made the country proud.

A Historic Feat, Capture, and a Grand Return: Balakot Hero Abhinandan Varthaman

(Graphics: Erum Gour)

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Who is Abhinandan Varthaman

Abhinandan Varthaman was subsequently promoted to Group Captain. Born in Thirupanamoor, a village near Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, he studied at a Sainik school. He graduated from the National Defence Academy and was commissioned in the IAF in June 2004.

Varthaman comes from a family of air warriors. His father and grandfather also served in the air force. His brother serves in the IAF too. His wife Tanvi Marwaha is also a retired IAF Squadron Leader.

Abhinandan's father Simhakutty Varthaman is a retired Air Marshal, who ironically worked as a technical officer in Mani Ratnam's 2017 movie 'Kaatru Veliyidai' – the story of an Indian pilot who is captured by the Pakistan Army during the Kargil war.

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