The Life sketch of a National Hero – Wg. Cdr. Padmanabha Gautam MVC

By Editor Nov 5, 2020

The contributions of Wg.Cdr. Padmanabha Gautam, one such great son of this country, occupy a unique place in the history of this country. This humble and very humane man remains a shining example of a great soldier, flier, leader and an Air Force Officer.

  • Wg.Cdr.A.Raghunath
Wg. Cdr. Padmanabha Gautam

The nation has been blessed with many extraordinary individuals who have put the cause of the country above themselves at all times. Today, the citizenry enjoys peace and happiness due to the sacrifices made by such people from various walks of life. It goes without saying that the members of the armed forces have contributed significantly to the wellbeing of the country.

These people, who put the cause of the country above everything else, remain unsung, though their memories are un-erasable. While the country has recognised their sacrifices from time to time, it is necessary that their immeasurable contribution be recollected every so often, to keep them in the minds of the young and the old and also to motivate future generations to rise to the occasion when demanded.

The contributions of Wg.Cdr. Padmanabha Gautam, one such great son of this country, occupy a unique place in the history of this country. This humble and very humane man remains a shining example of a great soldier, flier, leader and an Air Force Officer. A brief sketch of his life is worth recollecting to reassure us that we can rest peacefully in the protective hands of the armed forces at all times.

Early Life

Wg.Cdr. Padmanabha Gautam bears a very rich lineage coming from a family of educationists, artists and theosophists. His father, Prof. Nilakanta Padmanbhan was an eminent professor of physics at Indore. His mother was a reputed Montessori teacher who established many schools. Gautam’s paternal family was steeped in the activities of the Theosophical Society. One of his aunts is the famous Bharatanatyam exponent, Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the founder of the famous dance school, Kalakshetra in Chennai, and an erstwhile nominee to the post of President of India.

Gautam’s parents served the country in a matchless way by offering three sons to the Indian Air Force and all three sons distinguished themselves. While Padmanabha Gautam became a legend as a bomber pilot, his two younger brothers, Wg. Cdr P. Ashoka and Wg.Cdr. Ajith were part of the much coveted group of test pilots in the IAF.
Padmanabha Gautam was born on 23rd July 1933. He had an unusual educational background; he was home-schooled along with his brother, Ashoka, and he did not attend regular school until the age of 12. The brothers joined the Rani Sanyogita High school, Indore in 1946 and completed S.S.L.C in first division. In 1948, Gautam joined Indore’s Holkar College, to study physics, chemistry and biology.

Cutting his teeth in the services

On completing his intermediate in first Division, Gautam joined the Joint Services Wing (JSW) in 1949 and passed out as an Air Force cadet in 1952 from the National Defence Academy. He then went on to join flying training at No.1 Air Force Training College, Begumpet in Hyderabad.

He underwent initial flying training on the vintage biplane, Tiger Moth followed by the WW-II plane, Harvard. His instructor during this time was Flt. Lt. Dilbagh Singh who later became the country’s Air Force Chief.

On the completion of training, Gautam earned his wings in April 1953 as a Pilot Officer and was posted to No.2 Squadron, flying the famous Battle of Britain machine, the Spitfire, at AF station Ambala, then commanded by Gp. Capt. M. M. Engineer.

The Bomber Pilot Par Excellence

While on an instructional tenure at Air Force Flying college, he was called upon to undergo Bomber Training on the Canberra at the Jet Bomber Conversion unit, Agra. On completion of his bomber training, he was posted to the renowned No.5 Squadron, the Tuskers. The squadron gave him the opportunity to fly the highest-flying aircraft, reaching the rarefied atmosphere of 48000 feet, where most of the fighters of the time were hardly any threat to it. Its weapons capability of a combination of 8000 lbs bombs, 20 mm guns and two pods of 58 mm rockets was unmatched amongst all aircraft of the Indian Air Force in the early 60s. Having mastered such a weapons platform, the Canberra became a menacing tool in the hands of Gautam.

The first battle inoculation-1961

A Flight Lieutenant in No.5 Squadron, Gautam was in the first batch of Indian Expeditionary Forces deputed to Congo in 1961. Flight Lieutenant Gautam was one of the pilots operating with the Canberra Unit in the Congo during 1961. On 6 December, 1961 he was ordered to attack Kolwezi airfield in Katanga. Despite extreme adverse weather conditions and heavy enemy opposition, he courageously and successfully carried out several attacks on the airfield and completely destroyed the Fauga aircraft which was harassing UN ground forces. He also shot up three other Katangese aircraft on the ground and neutralised other installations around it. Flight Lieutenant Gautam also carried out several other successful missions over Elizabethville in close support of the ground forces operating against Katangese.

Throughout the operations Flight Lieutenant Gautam displayed commendable courage and devotion to duty in the face of enemy. For his courage, devotion to duty and exemplary performance, he was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal.

The Second Gallantry operations-1965

On his return, after very commendable operations with the UN forces in Congo, Sqn. Ldr. Gautam was posted as the Commanding Officer of the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit to pass on his unique skill of flying the Canberra bomber to other aspiring bomber pilots.

During this tenure, he was called upon to participate in the Indo-Pak war of 1965. In this war, titled ‘Operation Riddle,’ he led raids on Peshawar as lead aircraft, marking the target with Target Indicating bombs and incendiary flares. In these missions, it was invariably the pathfinders that indicated the targets. Success or failure depended a great deal on the accuracy of the pathfinder. Their job was invariably unenviable. Heading much in front of other bombers, these Canberras were specialists. They marked out the way to the target and the target as well. Six aircraft flew all the way to the Afghan border to bomb the Peshawar airfield and successfully attacked the target. All the six aircraft returned without loss, in spite of interception by Pakistani Starfighters carrying missiles. This raid is a legend in the Canberra’s war record with the IAF.

It is also a fact that the aircrews of the Canberras were amongst the most vulnerable in enemy skies. They flew the only aircraft in conflict in which they could not defend themselves as other fighters could.

Sqn. Ldr. P. Gautam received the Maha Vir Chakra at the end of the conflict for gallantry in leading bomber attacks at very distant targets on the nights of 13th and 14th September. His navigator for these raids, Flt.Lt. S. N. Deshpande, was awarded the Vir Chakra.

The citation for the Maha Vir Chakra reads:

Squadron Leader Padmanabha Gautam, Commanding Officer of a Bomber Conversion Training Unit, skilfully adapted his unit to its operational role at short notice and led it in a number of difficult and dangerous missions. He undertook six important offensive and tactical close support operations over Pakistan territory, during the period from the 6th to the 21st, September, 1965.

In complete disregard of his personal safety in the face of heavy enemy ground fire and of the risk of attack by Pakistani Sabre jets, Squadron Leader Gautam carried out his missions successfully, with courage and determination. These missions included reconnaissance deep into enemy territory and the bombing of Akwal and Gujarat airfields and enemy troop concentrations in the Gujarat and Chawinda areas.

Throughout the operations, Squadron Leader Padmanabha Gautam’s devotion to duty, professional skill and gallantry were in the finest traditions of the Indian Air Force.

Repeat of Valiant Service Abroad-1968

On completion of his tenure as the Commanding Officer of the Bomber Conversion Training unit, Gautam was posted to Iraq, as part of the Indian Training Team. In this tenure, he trained Iraqi pilots to fly the MiG -15, and MiG17. An emergency during a training flight caused a forced landing on the runway. True to form, Gautam displayed exemplary skill and presence of mind saving two precious lives as well as an expensive aircraft of the Iraqi Air Force. He was commended by the Iraqi Air Force for this act.

Leading the Cobras in the Bangladesh Liberation Operations-1971

Gautam returned from Iraq in 1969 and took over No.16 Squadron-The Cobras- based at Gorakhpur, operating his favourite Canberra Bomber. In December 1971, the squadron was deployed to undertake bombing missions under “Operation Cactus Lilly”-to liberate Bangladesh. This involved bombing missions to be carried out on two fronts – West Pakistan, and erstwhile East Pakistan.

Gautam led six missions under ‘Operation Cactus Lilly,’ from 3rd December to 15th December 1971, carrying out three missions over West Pakistan and three missions over East Pakistan. For all six missions, the navigator of his aircraft was Sqn. Ldr. K.K. Dutta (KKD).

Gautam’s first mission was on 3rd night/4th morning over Mianwali. He and Dutta took off from Gorakhpur and landed at Ambala, where the aircraft was to be loaded with special bombs. Though it was planned to attack the runway at the airfield with special bombs, since the ‘Y’ plan bombs could not be made ready, the aircraft was loaded with conventional 8 X 1000 bombs to be dropped from 7000 feet. They returned to Gorakhpur after refuelling at Ambala after a successful completion of the mission.

The second mission on the western sector by him and Sqn. Ldr. Dutta was also to Mianwali on 4th night and 5th morning. Unlike the previous night, the special bombs under ‘Y’ plan were prepared and loaded in time for the mission.

They undertook the mission and found themselves facing heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns (ack-ack). They dived to 100 to 200 feet to fly parallel over the runway and release this special bomb. The only light visible was the ack-ack tracers which illuminated the runway. They had to fly under the arcs of the ack-ack along the runway.
The heavy fire did not deter Wg.Cdr. Gautam and Sqn. Ldr Dutta in adhering to the plan and release the special bombs which spread the jelly and the spikes over the runway at this important air field, affecting PAF operations the next day.

While they were flying low over the runway, the ack-acks were firing just above their aircraft, almost at the same height as the aircraft. It was providence that the guns failed to score a hit on Gautam’s aircraft. During the post- flight debriefing, Wg.Cdr. Gautam expressed that the risk level in such sorties was of extreme nature, as experienced by him and Dutta in the final stage of the raid.

Nevertheless, in the annals of the Indian Air Force, Wg.Cdr.Gautam and Sqn Ldr. Dutta’s mission on the 4th night over Mianwali, operating at 100 feet, being exposed to tremendous risk, stands as an exceptional act of bravery and highly skilful flying and navigation at low level.

In his book, My life In the IAF, Air Chief Marshal PC Lal says that the type of bomb used under the ‘Y’ plan created curiosity and interest amongst the defence forces of foreign countries too. The efficacy of such a bomb could not be proved conclusively due to limited usage as well as doubts regarding the adhering ability of the jelly.

Wg.Cdr. Gautam’s third mission over West Pakistan was an interdiction mission over Raiwind rail marshalling yard about 15 NM south of Lahore. They did the first run over the yard with rockets and three subsequent runs with 20 mm front guns. Heavy ack-ack was experienced during these runs, but they came back unscathed.

The subsequent three missions were flown over East Pakistan. Out of these, the first being on 11th December, was a daytime attack as a single aircraft over an army concentration near the west bank of river Sitalakha, East of Dhaka.

The fifth mission of Gautam and Dutta was also over East Pakistan on the 13th of December. It was a bombing mission over Tezgaon, Dhaka’s well-defended military-cum-civil air base. This mission was carried out as Hi-Lo-Hi mission from Gorakhpur.

The sixth mission flown by this crew was the last mission of the war, flown on 15th December to bomb Kurmitola Airfield at Dhaka. Though they were to bomb the airfield from 7000 feet, because of the cloud cover up to 4900 feet, they descended below the cloud and released the bombs over the airfield at 1630 hrs. In this three aircraft raid, the last aircraft fown by Flt.Lt.Brian Wilson and Flt.Lt.R.B Mehta was lost to ground fore ocver Dacca.

Wg.Cdr. Gautam was awarded a Bar to Maha Vir Chakra for gallantry during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation Operations. He is only the second person from the IAF to have been decorated twice with a Maha Vir Chakra, the other officer being Wg. Cdr. J.M Nath for gallantry during 1962 Indo-China war and the1965 Indo-Pak war. Gautam’s navigator, throughout the 1971 war, Sqn. Ldr. Dutta was awarded the Vir Chakra for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Curtains on a Valiant son of India

On completing his tenure at No.16 Squadron, in 1972, Wg.Cdr. P. Gautam was posted as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of No.4 Wing, Pune. During his curtailed tenure as COO, No. 4 Wing, Gautam converted himself to fly the famous MiG-21, which had given a creditable performance in the 1971 operations.

On the morning of 25th Nov 1972, while taking off from runway 27 at Pune, the engine of his MiG-21 FL aircraft failed. Since this version of MiG had an ejection seat which could operate only above a height of 300 meters, he had no possibility of ejection. His aircraft crashed into rocks and burst into flames engulfing the greatest hero of the IAF, leading to his very untimely demise.

Most of the stalwarts of the Canberra operations assembled at Pune to bid farewell to Wg.Cdr. P. Gautam, a personification of all the qualities of a very able leader, pilot and an exemplary human in all respects.

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