By AVM Rajeev Hora
Evening of 18 December, while trying to reach his son Kishore, I rang up Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava’s mobile number by mistake and I heard an all too familiar voice telling me that the subscriber was out of reach! Well, he sure was this time and probably reaching for the stars on a second WW biplane! We had just come back home after performing the last rites for Retd Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava VM who left for his heavenly abode on the 17th of December 2014.
But somehow, as we traced our feet back to our homes a few utterings overheard during the funeral still hung in the air- We have lost an icon! End of an era! The Grand old man of Flight Testing! We probably don’t realize what we have lost today! So loving, so humble! And all of it was so very true as every Tester (as Test pilots and Flight Test Engineers are fondly known as), in town wanted to be there at that moment which actually never felt like mourning but a final celebration of an extraordinary life!
The same day obituary in the Times of India read ‘A brief period of illness ended a remarkable life, lived to the fullest, centred on others and the Indian Air Force’! What a way to capture the lifetime of probably the greatest aviation enthusiast and Tester the country has ever produced! A flyer-writer who was our link to the past, a man who regaled us with the adventures of yore and had always an amazing story to tell! The Devons, the Liberators, the Spitfires and so many other ac of that vintage used to suddenly come to life in his presence!
Although 1994 was the first time I came across Gp Capt Bhargava, I learnt from the old timers that he was a permanent feature as a Guest Lecturer in the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment, the flight test establishment of the IAF, despite his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. No training course was considered really complete without his talk on flight-testing which had all the elements of a Chuck Yeager autobiography! Well he sure was our very own Chuck Yeager! I still remember going back home rather despondent after attending his talk as to why I was subjecting myself to the horrors of the ‘stability and control’ précis whereas this old man could so easily ‘guestimate’ the same by having one distant look at the inadequate size of the fin of the Ajeet trainer prototype taxiing out!
Well, he was indeed good at guessing! We all were aware of his frail health this season as he refused many a social invitation. But this time when he gave me a call from the hospital, he made a specific mention that he had passed my phone number to his family members, just in case they required any sort of help. His premonition or guess was spot-on and the he really did not recover from the high-risk surgery that the doctors had advised!
Gp Capt Bhargava’s father was an ICS officer in the British Raj days and he spent his childhood in Bulandshahar and Gorakhpur. The aviation bug bit him rather early in life and he was commissioned in Oct 1950 in the 53rd Pilots Course. He flew Spitfires and Vampires before attending the Empire Test Pilots School in UK to graduate as one of India’s pioneer test pilots.
In his test flying career with the IAF, besides production test flying, he flew the first flights of the HAL Pushpak, the HS-748 ‘Avro’ and the Messerschmitt HA 300 Fighter designed by Egypt. The first flight of the HS-748 earned him one of the first Vayusena Medals awarded to the IAF – in 1962. He was also the first commandant of ASTE (then A&ATU) and served as the Station Commander of Jodhpur. After his career in the Air Force, he was with the Flight Safety Directorate of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bangalore before retirement.
Gp Capt Bhargava’s long spell in Egypt were full of interesting challenges as he worked with the Egyptian Air Force to build and test fly their own aircraft. His family still remembers how he would fly aerobatics over the Nile river. But the most exciting was the day when he got airborne in the Messerschmitt prototype for the first time. His colleagues took over the ATC and Cairo television broadcast the flight live. It was an intensely emotional for the Egyptians who thanked him repeatedly and in tears!
Apart from that, the greatest number of his entertaining and spellbinding stories were about the No 7 Squadron. Those were probably the years he enjoyed the most, though it’s difficult to choose. His family, friends and acquaintances always thought of him as being synonymous with the Air force. Every waking moment centered on the Air force, long after he left it formally. In truth, he never did leave! His articles kept gracing the pages of publications like Air Forces Monthly, Air Enthusiast, Flypast, Air International and Indian Aviation for many years. His talks in various seminars were pure gold and were so eagerly awaited. His wonderful wife Mohini would often jokingly accuse him of bigamy as aviation was indeed his first love! He also led his daughters Mala and Meena to become so intensely involved in the whole thrilling world of flying at a young age that they would often listen in to flying exercises being executed through a VHF radio!
A keen blogger, he kept himself abreast with the latest technologies till his very last and would often invite youngsters to help him with his IT stuff. Some people also don’t probably know that he was a wonderful statistician and could conduct a two hours extempore class on statistics any time. But more than any other attribute, his will to help out people in need really stood out. One of my last conversations with him was from his hospital bed just three days before his final goodbye when he was desperately struggling with his own deteriorating health wherein he requested me to help sort out the pension papers for the kin of a long departed colleague!
The Indian aviation world is indeed a lesser place in his absence. We at ASTE are so happy that we were able to confer the first ‘Life Time Achievement in Flight Testing’ award to him just a few months before his demise. No one deserved it more to be the first recipient! ! He was indeed a very happy man, a learned man, a very kind man and a truly great man!
They don’t make aviators and gentlemen like him anymore! It is said that a man stops feeling immortal when he loses his parents!
Suddenly the world of flight-testing seems mortal and we know why!
(Blogger's Note: This a brilliant tribute to late Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava (Retd) [21 Aug 28 to 17 Dec 14 written by ASTE Commandant AVM Rajeev Hora, which went live on kbhargava.com. It is evident that this piece is straight from the heart and hence flawless and moving. Probably among the best tributes I have read in a long time. Good one, AVM! A rare coincidence though, from now on we shall remember December 17 every year on two counts. The first flight of Wright Brothers and the final flight of Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava. R.I.P. Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava. We shall continue to spread the aroma of your life. Tarmak007)