In the normal course, Captain Deepak Sathe would have called his mother on Saturday to wish her on turning 83. Instead, a conversation they had last week, where he told Leela Sathe to not go out of home due to the coronavirus, would be among their last. Akhilesh Kumar spoke to wife Megha, who is expected to deliver their first child within days, just minutes before the Air India Express he was co-piloting with Sathe took off from Dubai on Friday afternoon. He told her to take care, adding, “Will call you as soon as I reach Kerala.” By 8 pm, Sathe, 59, and Kumar, 32, were dead, with the flight being operated as a part of the Vande Bharat rescue mission skidding off a Kozhikode airport runway into a valley. Kumar’s family said Megha is yet to be informed about his death.
Leela and retired Armyman Vasant Sathe, 88, who live in Nagpur, have now lost both their sons. Their other son, Vikas, a Captain in the Army, had died in the early 1980s in an accident. Around the same time, Sathe had himself escaped a serious bike mishap.
Leela said Sathe, a former Wing Commander of the IAF who commanded a missile squadron while in the force, was the pride of their lives. “We are a family of soldiers. He was a topper at the NDA and also the winner of the sword of honour at the Dindigul flying academy.”
Sathe is also survived by his wife Sushma and sons Shantanu and Dhananjay, both alumni of IIT-Bombay. The family is in Kozhikode to receive his body.
Kumar’s father Tulsiram, 62, said they only realised what had happened around 10 pm on Friday, from news on TV about a plane crashing and breaking into two.
“I didn’t know what to do. I told my younger son Lokesh to call Air India officials and check on Akhilesh. They told us that his condition was critical. Later, around midnight, they told me Akhilesh had died,” he said, adding that he last saw Kumar in March. The family lives in Govind Nagar in Mathura.
Kumar’s younger brother Bhuvnesh, who lives in Gurgaon, has gone to Kozhikode to collect his body.
Apart from his parents and wife, Kumar is survived by his two younger brothers and an elder sister. Megha, 29, is due to deliver within a fortnight. While the couple, who got married two years ago, lived at the Air India base in Kozhikode, Megha had moved to her in-laws’ home in June due to the pregnancy. The family said Kumar had applied for 15-day leave from August 21.
Kumar’s cousin Basudev said while Megha knew about the crash, she didn’t know her husband was dead. “We don’t want to upset her. We have told her he is in the ICU.” They are dreading what will happen on Sunday, when Kumar’s body is scheduled to arrive.
Tulsiram said Kumar always wanted to be a pilot. “He was smart and very studious. I pushed him to become an IAS officer but he wanted to fly.” He joined Air India in 2017. Kumar’s cousin Leeladhar said he was the first in their village to become a pilot.
Tulsiram takes comfort from the fact that while Kumar died, so many got saved.
But, he is not sure if he will let Lokesh, who also wants to become a pilot, follow his elder brother’s footsteps. “We are scared… I can’t lose another son.” Sathe’s cousin Neeraj Sathe wrote on a Facebook post that the 59-year-old was “an experienced aerial operator with 36 years of flying experience”. He had joined Air India in 2005 after 21 years with the IAF, Neeraj posted.
Neighbours at the Powai housing complex in Mumbai where the Sathes lived remember him as warm-hearted. Recalling that they would take their evening walks and exercise together, G K Srivastav, a retired IAF officer, regretted, “After the pandemic struck, our interactions were limited to phone calls and WhatsApp messages.”
A course mate at the NDA said Sathe was a keen squash and table tennis player, and stressed on fitness. His friends at St Vincent’s in Pune said they were planning to reach out to the family. The 1978 Class 12 batch of the school was organising a reunion, and Sathe had promised to come. “He was very quiet and well-behaved, passionate about his studies,” said a friend, Dr Hillary Rodrigues.
Retired IAF Wing Commander Kamal Deep said the fact that Sathe had also served as a test officer at the IAF showed how good he was. “Only top-notch pilots make it to that grade.”