APJ Abdul Kalam grew up in Rameswaram chasing dreams of becoming a fighter pilot but failed. That childhood dream was brought to life for about 40 minutes in June 2006 when he strapped himself into the co-pilot’s seat in the cockpit of a Sukhoi-30 warplane at the Lohegaon airbase outside Pune.
Kalam, 74 then, was like a kid in a candy store, recalls the IAF’s fighter ace who flew the President. “He was like an eight-year-old inside the cockpit. His exuberance and curiosity were unbelievable. He crackled over the intercom that he had fulfilled his childhood dream,” says air commodore Ajay Rathore, then commanding IAF’s 20 Squadron nicknamed Lightnings.
Kalam was quite vocal about his failed dream and even wrote about it in his book My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions. The Su-30 sortie was the closest he could get to that dream.
Rathore, then a wing commander, recalls the President wanted to fly at supersonic speed, was inquisitive about the displays in front of him and wanted to experience combat maneouvres. “He was rushing ahead of me on the tarmac. He wasn’t nervous at all.”
Airborne, Kalam wanted to test the limits of his endurance and asked Rathore to perform some tricky maneouvres. “I told him I’d be hanged if I tried stunts. He said, ‘I will hang those who try to hang you.’ We did go supersonic and performed some maneouvres, keeping his age in mind,” says Rathore.
A few months later, Rathore went to the Rashtrapati Bhawan to present Kalam a portrait of his made by an artist at the fighter base. Rathore recalls, “He addressed me as instructor and took me around the Rashtrapati Bhawan gardens. I was touched by his humility.”
Rathore met Kalam again on a commercial flight in 2013. The President instantly recognised his ‘instructor’ and made Rathore sit next to him.