Bengaluru: On January 20, 2021, Air Vice Marshal Ajit Lamba (Retd) would have turned 85. And, as during several birthdays especially in the last few years, he had planned to gift himself some special moments. Doing something he was passionate about — flying.
His son Neil Lamba, a commercial pilot, said his father had booked a slot at Jakkur Aerodrome for his birthday flight. This time AVM Lamba wanted to take his grand-daughter Nanki Lamba with him. Nanki too is a pilot, making it three generations of aviators in the Lamba family.
In fact, when Nanki obtained her commercial pilot licence from Australia this year, AVM Lamba was very excited to share the news.
"So that's a third generation of pilots! Wanted to share with you! Regards, Ajit," he had messaged along with a photo of his granddaughter next to a plane.
In 2017 February, just before Aero India, AVM Lamba had called to say that he would be flying at the show. He was 81 then.
"Perhaps I will be youngest pilot at the Yelahanka Air Base flying. Hope to catch up with you there," he had chuckled. He flew the Hansa-3 of National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) at the show, creating a record of sorts in an international air show.
Despite his advancing age, he kept fit so that he could fly. His flying licence updated. His medicals done. Passion sky-high.
AVM Lamba had probably flown over 100 different types of aircraft while serving in the Indian Air Force (IAF), including fighters, trainers, transport planes and helicopters.
He was locked on to anything that could fly. And he was ever ready with reams of priceless stories from the skies.
In 2010, at his 70th birthday, his wife had gifted him a microlight named Pegasus.
"That was something special. But I had to sell the plane for want of parking space. A friend was ready to buy it, and one day I flew to his home in Coorg," he had recalled.
His near four decades of service with the IAF were action-packed, with, among other events, one ejection from a Gnat and over half-a-dozen engine-off landings. He joined the IAF in 1953, was commissioned two years later and retired in 1991, after 38 years of service.
He had to his credit over 7,000 hours of flying while in service, virtually on every platform of IAF. And then there were the flying hours he had logged in the last 29 years, after retirement.
For the record, AVM Lamba had a flying career spread over 65 years — a rare feat.
"Perhaps, I was born to fly," he said while receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award instituted by Inspired Indian Foundation, for his contributions to military aviation, in 2017. The legendary aviator received the award from India's first and only man to have gone to space, Wg Cdr Rakesh Sharma (Retd).
When not flying or not thinking of flying, AVM Lamba kept busy catching up with friends and family. Sundays at the golf course. Then a glass of beer. Books. Travel. Adventure. That was the life of this aviator.
With his son Neil being an avid biker, the veteran aviator too never missed a date with any modern bike that threatened to fly!
A couple of years ago, a photo of him astride a new Triumph bike at its Mumbai showroom had gone viral on social media. And, post this he had a small story to share.
"I had bought a second-hand Triumph Thunderbird in 1955 soon after getting commissioned into the IAF. I had paid Rs 1,500 then and now a brand-new bike would cost over Rs 18 lakh," he had said.
Another photo of his checking out a brand new Honda Goldwing too was a hit with avid aviators and bikers.
In 2003, during the centenary celebrations of the Wright Brothers' first flight, I had the opportunity to fly with AVM Lamba on the Light Canard Research Aircraft (LCRA). I remember him giving virtually a commentary-of-sorts as we flew over the (then) Bangalore skies, banking left and right.
"You can't do much on these planes, apart from flying," he had said wryly, probably hinting that I was lucky to have landed safe, minus some aerial stunts!
A year later, when he volunteered to give a flying experience to visually-impaired children, the ace pilot said it was a moving experience.
"I am lucky to have flown these children. I am blessed to have answered all their queries while flying. To see for them and to fly them is an unforgettable experience," he would often say.
Recalling his association with Marshal of IAF (MAF) Arjan Singh a few years back, AVM Lamba said the duo first met during the Indo-Pak War of 1965.
"The MAF had visited our No 7 Squadron as the then IAF Chief. Seeing 'LAMB' written on my flying overalls, he remarked: 'You got to be a LION in air and not a LAMB'," he said.
The highlight of AVM Lamba's career in IAF was his tenure as the Commandant of the prestigious Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) in Bengaluru between 1986 and 1991.
Among all the quotes and thoughts of India's ace aviator, the one on Test Pilots he shared in 2013, stands out.
"Test flying can, without doubt, be the most satisfying professional experience for a flyer. The Test crews at ASTE are a very elite group, almost never in limelight and are truly the unsung heroes of the IAF. Due to the tremendous responsibility they shoulder, they mature faster, grow grey, bald and definitely, more handsome," AVM Lamba had said.
It is impossible to capture the life and times of a legendry aviator in just one article. Even if it's an obituary like this.
On Wednesday morning in Bengaluru, the city that has shaped the lives of many planes and pilots, AVM Ajit Lamba left on a solo flight to the unknown. He had been fighting leukaemia for a while.
This January, Jakkur will miss the 'little boy' who would have otherwise landed there all set to fly.
But sources say God's co-pilot has already started to throttle up there!
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)