"This one is dedicated to her. She would have been the happiest soul to see me achieve this. It is a special day in my life," Wg Cdr Prashanth Nair is said to have told his parents over phone from Nashik.
Thirty-nine-year-old Wg Cdr Prashanth lost his wife Dr Rekha to cancer in 2014. They were married for nine years and blessed with a daughter Prashasthi, now seven years old.
Wg Cdr Prashanth created military aviation history on June 25, when he successfully carried out the first flight of frontline fighter Sukhoi (Su-30MKI) fitted with supersonic cruise missile BrahMos. His buddy Wg Cdr M S Raju, was the co-pilot, playing the role of a Flight Test Engineer.
Both Test Pilots are posted to Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), a premier wing of Indian Air Force (IAF) in Bengaluru.
Mission mattered, despite tragedy at home
According to his family friend Rajesh Kumar R, a businessman, Prashanth stayed focus despite his wife's demise.
"We never knew what his mission was until we read it online and in newspapers. We only knew that he was a pilot. He is a real go-getter and never showed any disappointment after tragedy struck the family. May be pilots are trained like that," says Rajesh, who was Prashanth's one-time neighbour.
Rajesh says Prashanth was first from his family to join IAF, a passion he nursed right from his school days.
"We used to play football and cricket on the streets of Domlur (near HAL Airport). Prashanth always got fascinated when airplanes flew over our heads. I knew he was a plane addict. And, when he was in 10th, he was clear in his mind what to purse as a career," says Rajesh.
"I remember taking him to Eastwood High School in Cambridge Layout on his first day. I was senior to him and it was my responsibility to take care of him in school," recalls Rajesh.
Schoolmates plan to honour Top Gun
According to Bhuvanesh C, another ex-student of Eastwood, Prashanth, who passed out in 1993, was very unassuming in the school.
"But he was very a disciplined kid and always was the first to reach for the Assembly. We are really proud of his achievement and are planning to honour him soon," says Bhuvanesh, who was also the deputy head-boy of the school then.
Triju, a childhood friend of the Sukhoi pilot says that Prashanth always credited his parents and brother for all his successes in life. "He is a complete family man," says Triju, who is with the Indian Railways.
Another friend Sai Shankar, a financial analyst, says Prashanth's success would inspire many youngsters in India.
"His ability to stay focused even during testing times and his love for the job always has a positive bearing on all of us. Only the other day we came to know what project he was involved with all these years. We are all eager to meet him in Bengaluru," says Shankar.
A perfect middle-class success story
Hailing from a middle-class family, Prashanth's father Narayanan Nair was working with a private company and mother Padmaja is a homemaker. His younger brother Promod is a lawyer.
Prashanth recently got married again in April this year to Sunitha, who works with Global Business Travel India Pvt Ltd.
According to IAF sources, Wg Cdr Prashanth has been with the IAF for the last 17 years and he has flown the MiG-21 and MiG-23 in addition to Sukhoi. He was posted to ASTE five years back and he is with the BrahMos project for around four years.
We are proud of the pilots: BrahMos CEO
BrahMos Aerospace CEO S K Mishra told OneIndia that the pilots had to put in a lot of hard work ahead of the maiden flight.
"I am inspired to see the kind of dedication these pilots have put in. While every team member deserves credit, I have personally seen the efforts of the pilots. On the day of the flight, Wg Cdr Prashanth was a picture of absolute focus and he just signaled 'thumbs-up' and straight away taxied away. I knew what he was going through. We are proud of the pilots," says Mishra.
(The writer is an author, blogger and seasoned defence journalist in India. His just-launched book 'Precious Souls' captures inspiring stories of special children and their families. He is the Consulting Editor (Defence) with OneIndia. He tweets @writetake.)