Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who spent some days in Pakistani custody after shooting down a modern Pakistani F16 jet after which his MiG-21 was shot down in a dogfight with Pakistan Air Force jets a day after the February 26 Balakot airstrike, will likely be conferred the Vir Chakra on Independence Day, sources said Wednesday.
The 36-year-old IAF pilot had suffered injuries while ejecting from his MiG-21 Bison during the aerial combat between Indian and Pakistani air forces on February 27.
Vardaman, who became the face of a tense military confrontation between India and Pakistan, is set to fly MiG-21 within a few weeks as a medical board cleared his return to fighter cockpit.
Official sources said IAF's Bengaluru-based Institute of Aerospace Medicine has given the go-ahead to Varthaman to fly again following a thorough medical evaluation.
In the high-altitude dogfight that ensued, flying a 1960s aircraft, Wing Commander Abhinandan used his close-combat R73 missile to shoot down a Pakistani F-16 - an unheard-of feat. He was released by Pakistan after 48 hours on March 1. While he was in Pakistan custody, he showed extreme courage and grace in handling the most difficult circumstances in the neighbouring country.
Varthaman was captured by the Pakistani Army on February 27 after his MiG-21 Bison jet was shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani jets during aerial combat. Before his jet was hit, he downed a more technologically advanced F-16 fighter of Pakistan. Varthaman was released on the night of March 1 by Pakistan.
While announcing the decision to release Wing Commander, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had attempted to paint a 'good gesture' narrative despite the truth being that he had been left with no option because of the relentless and inexorable pressure screw India had applied on Pakistan across multiple dimensions, demanding the immediate release of its heroic pilot.
Days after he returned from Pakistan, Varthaman conveyed to IAF brass his wish to return to fighter cockpit at the earliest.
IAF fighter jets bombed a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan on February 26, nearly two weeks after the Pulwama strike. Pakistan retaliated on February 27 by attempting to target Indian military installations.
(With PTI inputs)