Tales of Glory | Flt Lt RK Kamboj: Dreamer, achiever and air warrior of highest order


This is a series of stories on officers of the Indian Armed Forces who gave their all to the motherland. We shall be publishing these stories over the next year on the date these bravehearts performed in the highest traditions of the Indian Armed Forces but left us forever.


Walt Disney’s quote “If you can dream it, you can do it” is apt and appropriate for the life that Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Kumar Kamboj led as a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force.

Piloting a MiG-21 fighter aircraft on an operational sensitive sortie in the treacherous and tough hilly terrain of the Kashmir Valley on 07 October 1998, Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Kumar Kamboj had achieved an important milestone in any fighter pilot’s career.

Born on 15 September 1969 in Ferozepur, Punjab, Rakesh Kumar Kamboj was affectionately called “Khabbu” by his classmates in Sainik School, Kapurthala, Punjab where he studied. The word Khabbu was derived from the Punjabi word “Khabbe” which means the left direction. Rakesh was a left-handed person. The name Khabbu stuck on for life.

Khabbu belonged to an illustrious family of Punjab. His father was a senior Punjab Police officer who retired from the rank of Inspector General and his mother was a homemaker.

As a student, Rakesh had only one ambition in life and that was to fly fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force. His room at home or in school had various posters and models of different aircraft. His talks hovered around an aircraft and its mechanics. Khabbu would purchase any book on aircraft on which he could lay his hands on. He had only one passion in life and that was to fly a fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force.

After a gruelling entrance exam and interview for the National Defence Academy (NDA) Khadakwasla which is ranked as the eighth toughest exam in the world, Rakesh Kumar Kamboj was selected for the 79th NDA course.

Khabbu was tall and had a fair and handsome personality. He looked like the noted film star Dharmendra. In fact, his coursemates and his classmates used to goad him to join the Indian film industry because of his handsome looks but Rakesh was clear on the mission of his life.

On joining NDA on 02 January 1988, Kamboj was allotted Delta Squadron. In the three years in NDA, Rakesh proved to be an all-rounder. He was a six-star Bronze Torchie which meant that he excelled in academics. He was in the NDA cricket team and was a good boxer too.

Khabbu passed out from the NDA on 01 December 1990 and after four weeks of leave reported to the Air Force Academy, Hyderabad on 07 January 1991 as part of the 148th pilot course.

Khabbu was part of the 148th pilot course in Air Force Academy, Hyderabad. Image courtesy Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd)

After successful completion of the training in AFA, Khabbu was commissioned as a Flying Officer on 14 December 1991 in the Indian Air Force and was allocated to fly transport aircraft.

But Rakesh did not want to fly transport aircraft as flying fighter jets was his dream, passion and mission in life.

Kamboj represented the same to the highest offices and seeing the passion in him, executive orders were issued for him to convert to flying fighter aircraft, a rarity till date.

Khabbu started flying MiG-21 aircraft and soon became the most dependable and indispensable pilot of any squadron he was posted in.

On 07 October 1998, Rakesh was assigned an operationally sensitive sortie in the Kashmir Valley. Khabbu’s chest swelled with pride as it is the dream of any fighter pilot to be chosen for this sortie.

Airborne at Nilgrant near Sonamarg, 84 kilometres from Srinagar and negotiating the airpath between two very close mountains after successfully completing the operational task assigned to him, the plane crashed after grazing a mountain feature and Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Kumar Kamboj was martyred in the service of the nation.

In memory of such a brave and fearless officer, the Punjab government decided to name a road and a chowk in Ferozepur in memory of Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Kumar Kamboj so that his name remains immortal and he is remembered forever.

We pay homage to Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Kumar Kamboj on this solemn day. You shall forever remain in our hearts and memories and will always be a source of inspiration to all of us. Our prayers for your eternal peace.

As the famous American scholar and author, Joseph Cambell said “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”.

The writer who retired from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army is an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He Tweets and Koos at @JassiSodhi24. Views expressed are personal.

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Tales of Glory | Flt Lt RK Kamboj: Dreamer, achiever and air warrior of highest order
Tales of Glory | Flt Lt RK Kamboj: Dreamer, achiever and air warrior of highest order
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