Kashmiri ‘Rafale Man’ was part of surgical strike against Pak

New Delhi: The highly decorated Kashmiri officer of the Indian Air Force (IAF), who has been training pilots for Rafale fighter jets in Paris, was part of the 2016 surgical strike against terror launch pads in Pakistan following the attack in Uri.

Defence Air Attache in France, Air Commodore Hilal Ahmad Rather, who is being called as the ‘Rafale Man’ of Kashmir and is seen as a role model among a large number of Kashmiri youth, became part of the surgical strike because of his vast experience with flying fighter jets, sources told IANS.

Officials who know Commodore Rather and fondly call him ‘Hally’, as he is known in the Air Force circles, said that he spent four two-year tenures on the Mirage aircraft. He has more than 3,000 hours of accident-free flying record on jet fighter aircraft like Mirage-2000, MIG-21 and the Kiran aircraft to his credit.

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A fighter combat leader and a qualified flying instructor, he was the director of fighter operations in the active Western Command of the Indian Air Force from 2013 and 2016, where he was directly involved in the preparedness and training of all fighter aircrew and also operational planning in the sector, sources in the IAF said.

Rather commanded the sensitive Gwalior Mirage airbase which has remained a key element of literally all surgical airstrikes by the IAF, an official said.

Seen as a hard taskmaster, Rather ensured that the Rafale project rolls on time with all required weaponisation and other contract parameters being met. Hally’s precise planning and the flawless flight that took place across more than 7000 km with only one stop en route has enabled the timely arrival of the combat-ready Rafales in India amid tensions with China, his service seniors now retired, said.

Interestingly, years earlier, it was another Kashmiri — Squadron leader Rattan Lal Bamzai who retired as Group Captain — who was also credited with flying the first Mirages to India.

A meritorious topper from Sainik School Nagrota Rather comes from Anantnag town in south Kashmir. From topping CBSE exams in Sainik School to getting the Sword of Honour at the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad, for being the best pilot of his course, Rather has excelled throughout his professional career.

A friend of his told IANS that he also attended the highly acclaimed Air War College in the US for advanced military strategy studies where he graduated with academic distinction.

Air Commodore Rather has also been trained at the prestigious Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington, where apart from officers of all three services of the Indian Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force), candidates from foreign militaries also queue up for admission. He was later assigned as an Instructor at the same DSSC, Wellington.

Known for his result-oriented approach to work, Rather currently has the distinction of being one of the only four Indian Defence Air Attaches; India has Defence Air Attaches only in four of its missions abroad — in the US, the UK, France and Russia.

His school friends said that Rather was always fascinated by the sun, the moon and the skies from his school days since his father had named him after the crescent (Hilal in Arabic) before he was born.

“His role model has always been his father — who was a soldier from Ladakh Scouts — the Army’s highly decorated regiment before he joined the police. He always wanted to meet the expectations of his father — a brave decorated soldier himself,” a close friend of the Rathers said.

IAF’s annual gazette describes Rather as “the officer who consistently adopts a very systematic, fair-and-humane approach, which has improved the working culture, work environment and morale in the unit.”

Sources told IANS that when Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had visited France in October 2019 for the acceptance of the first Rafale fighter, the Air officer had briefed him on the Rafale fighter’s operational capabilities, which give a clear edge to the IAF against Pakistani and Chine’s air power.

Sources said that Air Commodore Rather made such an indelible impression on Rajnath Singh with his expertise on Rafale that the Defence Minister ensured that he stood close by him during the Shastra Puja ceremony held the next day.

Of the five Rafales that arrived on Wednesday from Paris, one was piloted by Group Captain Harkirat Singh, another super air-warrior of the Indian Air Force. “He will be commanding the first Rafale Squadron of the IAF and has been entrusted the care of the ‘Gust of Wind’, as the French translation of Rafale signifies,” an official source said.

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