When Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa was shot down during the 1999 Kargil operations and taken prisoner by the Pakistani Army before being dramatically released, many thought his flying days were over due to a spinal injury he sustained while ejecting from his MiG-27 fighter - but he has proved the sceptics wrong.
Today a squadron leader flying AN-32 transport aircraft, Nachiketa has been approved for promotion to wing commander and could rise even higher, his peers in the Indian Air Force (IAF) say.
"I would even say that depending on the circumstances, he could even make (IAF) chief," Air Marshal AK Singh, Air Officer Commanding-in-chief Western Air Command, maintained, not exactly in jest.
Nachiketa, however, wouldn't speculate on this, only saying: "The IAF is my home; I will definitely stay in the Air Force."
Nachiketa is one the very few IAF pilots to have returned after their aircraft crashed in enemy territory. He was shot down on May 28, 1999, and held in captivity before being released a week later on June 4. He was later diagnosed with a back problem - a compression fracture - meaning he could never fly fighters again. However, after a series of remedial measures and retraining, he has been flying AN-24s since 2004 and is currently posted with the Chandigarh-based 48 Squadron.
Did he miss flying fighters?
"Definitely. But, then, even this flying is very good. In fact, all flying is very good and very challenging - be it fighters, helicopters or transports," Nachiketa said.
"I think I've reconciled (myself to not flying fighters) because, from a broader perspective, I think life has got much more than fighters," he added.
Detailing the dramatic events of the day he crashed, he said: "I had a technical problem with the engine; my engine shut and I had to re-ignite. But you have to be flying at a certain height before you can do so. In my case, since I was flying over a terrain of five plus km, I did not have the adequate height. As a result, I had to eject.
"About two to three hours after I ejected, I was ambushed and there was a fire fight. Regular Pakistani Army troops fired at me, I fired back. Eventually, I was captured because I was outnumbered. I had one pistol vis-à-vis five-six AK-56s," Nachiketa stated.
"After about a two-hour halt at a place in the Batalik sector, I was taken by a helicopter to Skardu. After a night halt, I was shifted to Rawalpindi. I stayed there for four days. Thereafter a decision to release me was taken and I came back via the Wagah border," he said.
Looking back at the incident, was it wise to have flown an aircraft like the MiG-27 in the mountainous Kargil terrain? "I think that is for the tactics and policy makers to decide. We just do whatever is best for us," Nachiketa replied, adding "With the available intelligence at that time, we thought it was a good decision."
Asked how his captors treated him, he said: "They took it in two phases. First they declared me uncooperative. Then it became quite bad. I don't want to go into specifics."
What did his captors question him about?
"They asked me about our forces, their deployment, the kind of avionics and ammunition which we have."
He replied in the negative when asked if he expected to come back after he was captured?
"Absolutely not. As per our background, from 1971 what we have seen, no one generally comes back."
Did he debate issues of life and death after being captured?
"The only thing I was planning from my side was escape. But that takes time. Initially, there is high security, then slowly there is dilution. Being released by Pakistan was a surprise."
Asked if the IAF trained its personnel about what to do if one is captured, he replied: "In all our training, starting from the cadet days, the entire focus is on survival. In the Air Force, we have a special survival course for aircrew so that we are better prepared to handle such eventualities."