On February 19, 2001, a routine flight from Delhi to Kargil nearly turned into a tragedy. Air Marshal VK Bhatia, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C), despite lacking qualification for the AN-32 aircraft, insisted on flying the aircraft himself for the inauguration of the Kargil Airfield. This decision, fueled by ambition and a desire for personal glory, almost cost the lives of all onboard.
The Kargil Airfield, located close to the Line of Control (LOC) with Pakistan and surrounded by high hills, presented inherent challenges. Despite concerns raised by the qualified co-pilot Air Vice Marshal A C Chafekar about the risks, Air Marshal Bhatia remained determined to land at Kargil.
Air Vice Marshal A C Chafekar has written a detailed account of that event in his book Shades of Blue. Chafekar says The flight proceeded as planned until a loud “thud” jolted the aircraft. A shoulder-fired missile from the Pakistani side had struck the aircraft, causing a fire warning and severe damage, particularly to the right engine. Even in this critical situation, Air Marshal Bhatia clung to the hope of landing in Kargil, ignoring warnings from others. Only after a firm refusal and a course change towards Leh did he relinquish control.
Upon landing in Leh, the true extent of the damage became evident. The missile had ripped through the engine, narrowly missing the fuselage and wing. The crew’s survival was attributed to a combination of factors, including the impact angle and malfunctioning missile fuses.
This incident serves as a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in prioritizing personal ambition over safety protocols, especially in sensitive operational environments. It highlights the importance of qualified personnel adhering to established procedures and prioritizing the well-being of all onboard.