Ace pilot and former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Hrushikesh Moolgavkar, passed away at the Command Hospital in Pune late on Thursday night. He was 94.
A towering figure in independent India’s Air Force, Moolgavkar served as Chief of Air Staff from February 1976, till the end of his tenure in October 1978.
Born in August 1920, he was at college in England when war broke out in Europe following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. On his return to India the following year, he was quickly commissioned into the Royal Indian Air Force in November 1940 as an acting pilot officer.
At a time when the forces of the former British Empire were fighting a bitter war against the seemingly invincible Japanese, young Moolgavkar was plunged headlong into the Burma campaign — one of the Second World War’s most harrowing action zones in the South East Asian theatre.
Carrying out several sorties against the Japanese, including bombing and reconnaissance missions, Moolgavkar had a near-fatal accident, severely damaging his spine in 1945 when his Spitfire crashed on take-off from Cox’s Bazaar (in modern-day Bangladesh). He had a providential escape when two British commando officers noticed the wrecked Spitfire and pulled him out of the aircraft.
This tryst with death, recorded memorably in his biography, Leading from the Cockpit: A Fighter Pilot’s Story, was ironically at a time when the tide had begun to turn for the British Empire against Japan in Burma.
Following India’s Independence, Mr. Moolgavkar, now a Wing Commander, played a significant role in the first Kashmir War, leading the operational sorties in 1948. He was later awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for his “exceptional gallantry and leadership.”
As an acknowledged air ace, he was reputed to have flown more than 60 types of aircraft ranging from Hurricanes to Mysteres to Sukhoi-22s and was said to be flying till his retirement in August 1978.
He was awarded the prestigious Param Vishisht Seva Medal in 1975.
Moolgavkar is survived by his son, Dr. Prakash Moolgavkar and daughter, Jyoti Rai.