On July 4, three braveheart air warriors of the Indian Air Force led by Wing Commander Mandeep Singh Dhillon, Commanding Officer of the Tezpur-based Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) unit, met with a tragic end when their helicopter crashed in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh.
Co-pilot Flight Lieutenant PK Singh and Sergeant RY Gujar, the flight gunner, were among the other aircrew members involved in the mission involving evacuation of the landslide-hit civilians.
A police constable from Arunachal Pradesh, who was a passenger onboard, also died in the tragic crash.
On the ill-fated day, the crew reportedly evacuated 169 civilians to safety.
For "Mandy", as Dhillon was fondly known amongst his friends, saving lives was intrinsic to his life and profession. Never the one to shy away from volunteering on such mercy missions, his grooming came about at this very 'Hovering Angels' unit, which incidentally was his first operational unit and unfortunately, his last.
On a hill-flying mission in the Tawang sector, last year on May 19, upon learning that a number of Army jawans were injured in a vehicle accident on the road leading to Tawang, Dhillon volunteered to evacuate them. In a series of sorties, he evacuated 13 injured soldiers from Jaswantgarh to Khirmu, a helipad some distance away from where the injured could be rendered medical assistance.
With nearly 4,000 hours of total flying experience including 1,200 captain hours on ALH alone, Dhillon was one of the highly experienced helicopter pilots. A Qualified Flying Instructor, an Aircrew Examiner and anInstrument Rating Instructor and Examiner, only a few could match up to his professional excellence.
He was innately humane, selfless, modest and a compassionate soul.
Air Vice Marshal Manavendra Singh, erstwhile Commodore Commandant of Hovering Angels, currently Senior Officer-in charge-Administration at HQ Eastern Air Command, was Dhillon's first Commanding Officer when he joined the unit inJanuary 2000.He recalls, "Mandy was one of the very bright and upcoming officers. In no time, he achieved his operational status." A go-getter in every sense of the word, his passing away is a great loss to the IAF, he added.
"Besides being a thorough professional, he was one of the most loved persons in the station. During social activities he would make it a point to meet everyone. What a great loss!" said Air Commodore KVR Raju, Air Officer Commanding, Tezpur.
A second-generation IAF officer, Dhillon, who hailed from Patiala, was destined to follow his father's footsteps. From being a cadet at Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC), one of India's foremost feeder schools that groom young boys to join the Defence services as officers, to National Defence Academy (NDA) followed by Air Force Academy, it was only natural for Mandy to opt for the helicopter stream.
"Perhaps he wanted to add to the legacy of his father, Sqn Ldr PS Dhillon (Retd),who was a Flight Engineer in Mi-4 helicopters in the 1970s," said Group Captain PB "Papa" Nair, Dhillon's NDA coursemate. "He was quite popular amongst our course mates. He was more than a brother to me," added Nair.
An avid sportsperson and an excellent cross-country runner from his school days, Mandy was lauded by his seniors and admired by his peers and juniors alike. A gold medalist from his cadet days at RIMC and NDA in the grueling races that is a supreme test of endurance and stamina, Mandy imbibed much of his athletic prowess and genes from his father who was also a National coach in athletics.
"He was an astute visionary and had an eye for detail and always took the initiative to lead from front," said Flight Commander, Wing Commander Mudit Chaurasia. From the initial sense of shock and disbelief to denial, slowly but surely, the ALH Unit Dhillon once nurtured for over a year, is coming around, as the pilots have once again taken to the skies in their angelic missions of saving lives.
Recalling their life together in their near 14 years of matrimony, his wife Prabhpreet Kaur Dhillon, describes her husband as someone who was very compassionate and helpful towards anyone in need. Having grown up herself in the Air Force way of life (her father retired as an Air Commodore), Prabhpreet was well acquainted with the high-risk profession of her pilot husband.
"He would always volunteer for such rescue and relief missions ahead of others. Flying for flood relief or casualty evacuation always remained his top priority. He just wanted to help others in every possible way and also performed 'seva' in langars at the Gurudwara wherever possible," she recalled.
"He was a loving husband and a doting father to our daughter Sehaj and son Eshar," she added.
On that ill-fated day, she wanted her husband to take their daughter to the Station Medicare Centre as she was running fever. "But he said he would not be able to, as he had to go for a flood relief mission. And,in the process of saving other lives he ended up losing his own life," said Prabhpreet, wistfully remembering her last conversation with him.
Despite her profound loss, Prabhpreet, as the first lady of the Unit, was seen consoling family members of others who had lost their near and dear ones in the tragic accident. "Her courage in the face of adversity and personal tragedy was both astounding and admirable," said Air Cmdr Raju.
Antim ardas of Wing Commander Mandeep Singh Dhillon will be solemnized for two days, starting todayat their residence in Patiala. A number of people have been paying homage to the departed soul on social media as well.
Sqn Ldr PS Dhillon (Retd.), father of the martyr, has also requested the presence of the Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amrinder Singh (Retd), a respected veteran, to attend the antim ardas of the martyr.