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Deepak Sathe, pilot of crashed AI plane, would’ve ensured minimum fatalities, says IAF mate

Captain Deepak Sathe was a former IAF Wing Commander who flew the MiG-21 and was later a test pilot before retiring after 22 years in service. He then became a commercial pilot.

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New Delhi: Captain Deepak V. Sathe was a decorated fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force (IAF) for 22 years after which he started flying for Air India before moving to Air India Express.

An alumnus of the National Defence Academy, the former Wing Commander was not just a veteran MiG-21 pilot who was part of the Ambala-based 17 Squadron, but was a test pilot at the Aircraft & Systems Training Establishment in Bengaluru.

The squadron had seen action in the 1999 Kargil war and was recently resurrected for the newly-procured Rafale fighters, the first batch of which was delivered to India last month.

Sathe and co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar were among the 18 killed in the Air India Express plane crash Friday night at Kerala’s Kozhikode. The aircraft had skidded off the runway, falling down a valley and breaking into two. The plane was part of the Vande Bharat mission set up to bring back Indians stranded overseas due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sathe, a Mumbai resident, is survived by his wife and two sons.

Also read: Air India Express crash in Kerala is flag carrier’s deadliest tragedy since 2010

‘Sathe a rare crop of IAF test pilots’

Former IAF pilot Wing Commander Sandeep Sharma (Retd), who was senior to Sathe by a term at the NDA, said Sathe would have taken great efforts to ensure the aircraft did not catch fire as that would have increased the fatalities.

“He surely ensured the aircraft did not catch fire because if that would have happened, the fatalities would have gone up,” he said.

Survivors of the crash had also lauded Sathe for his presence of mind in saving their lives.

“I remember once we were driving from Delhi to Bhatinda and we had come across a bus which had met with an accident. He immediately stopped his car on the highway and started giving resuscitation to the victims,” he said.

Sharma said the fact that he was among the rare crop of IAF test pilots shows how good he was as a professional pilot. Being a test pilot is a job fraught with risks and the selection process for them is one of the toughest and most rigorous.

Ace student, cadet who was always willing to help

Sathe, the son of a retired Army officer, was from the 58th course of the NDA and was part of the Juliet Squadron, the same as current vice chief of Army Staff, Lt.Gen. S.K. Saini.

An NDA journal accessed by ThePrint states Sathe was a Battalion Cadet Captain, which implies that he was an outstanding cadet. It adds that he was excellent in academics and was a captain of the NDA Golf and Squash teams.

According to reports, the accomplished pilot graduated from the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad with a Sword of Honour in June 1981 and was a good squash player. He had also been an instructor in the IAF training academy and retired from the force in 2003.

Former Wing Commander Sharma said the fact that Sathe was awarded the 58 NDA President Gold Medal and was a test pilot with the IAF spoke volumes of him as a sharp professional.

“He was an easygoing person who never shied away from helping others and went out of his way for that. He was good in studies … and won a gold medal but spent hours helping out people who were not so academically sound, to understand their problem,” he said.

Sharma added that his son, also an IAF pilot, Squadron Leader Rijul Sharma, had learnt a lot from Sathe in the initial days of his career.

Tributes poured in for Sathe as soon as the news of the accident spread.

Former IAF pilot Air Vice Marshal (retd) Manmohan Bahadur wrote in a tweet that WingCo Sathe was a comrade in arms at ASTE, the IAF’s flight testing establishment.

“RIP Tester,” he tweeted.

Also read: ‘Small kids trapped under seats’ — What AI Express crash looked like to first responders


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  1. Being TOP of the class in air force doesn’t guarantee in successful transition to Multi Pilot cockpit environment.22 years of Air Force experience flying as a solo pilot and being Mission oriented can seriously hamper communications and Crew resource management and decision making during critical phases of flight.Trying to land with 12 knots of tailwind on wet runway after an unsuccessful attempt to land on the primary runway is not a sound decision and taking into account the landing distance on runway 10 with an aircraft probably at its max landing weight with good to medium braking action is just marginal.I am not trying to malign the Pilots in question but again good airmanship would have been to divert to your available Alternate Airfield or if fuel permitting try to hold till the weather becomes a bit better.

    • This is assuming the landing gear works. As per recent reports there was a failure in the landing gear due to which the pilot had to perform a belly landing.
      Please read facts before posting baseless arguments

  2. It’s a terrible loss and may his soul rest in peace.
    A true fighter till the end and I’m sure God will have a special place for him as he not only risked his Life at the dying hour but also ensured that the fatalities remain low – may the concerned authorities recognize his sacrifice and honour him posthumously.

    His family and the country lost a true fighter.

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