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‘Papa Bravo Nair’: Tracing IAF top gun’s flight as Gaganaut

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BHOPAL: Call sign: “Papa”. Ensign: The golden wings of Gaganyaan.

Group Captain Prasanth Balakrishnan Nair

looks like he was born with the flight suit (now spacesuit), but how did the ace

test pilot

,

fighter pilot

and top gun get his nickname “Papa”?
Over a quarter of a century ago, when Nair transitioned from the ‘ragad-patti’ (grind) of National Defence Academy (NDA) to Air Force Academy (AFA), someone wanted to know his name.

“Flight Cadet PB Nair, sir,” he replied.
“PB what?” Pat came the reply, “

Papa Bravo Nair

, sir.” And the name stuck. Not one to ever have things lost in translation, Group Captain Nair has always been clear about his target. “He never lets anything get between him and his ambition,” someone close to him said.
From his early days at NDA, when every first-termer struggles to find his bearings – especially those from civilian backgrounds, like Nair – what propelled “Papa” was his never-say-die spirit. A “Killer” attitude, as his NDA squadron calls itself.

“There’s not an exam he has not topped,” said one of his Kilo Squadron mates.
Nair ranked 27th in his NDA qualifying exam – quite a feat considering the pass rate is less than 0.1%. He was a “gold torchie” in all six terms at NDA, a badge given for excellence in academics. Again, an astounding effort when merely surviving military training requires one to dig deep for every last drop of josh, every single day.
Nair graduated from NDA among the top rankers and moved to AFA, where he again excelled in every aspect of flying. He won the coveted Sword of Honour and was commissioned as a fighter pilot. He would move on to becoming a test pilot – the pinnacle of flight skills.

“Becoming a test pilot means completing an MTech course in just 11 months while risking your life four times a day while you take planes beyond their envelope,” said a fellow test pilot.
One needs nerves of steel, and ice-cold blood in your veins to be a test pilot, said another who’s been there and flown that.
Nair aced this, too. He clocked 3,000 hours as a test pilot, topped the prestigious United States Staff College course, cleared his Defence Services Staff College-Wellington course with distinction, commandeered a Sukhoi-30 squadron and became a top-grade flight instructor.
He has flown two dozen types of fixed-wing aircraft, including the Su-30, MiG-21, MiG-29, Hawk, Dornier and An-32. All the while, the winds of destiny were nudging Nair beyond the clouds. IAF motto says, “Touch the Skies with Glory.” Nair was primed to go beyond.
His experience and a steely resolve paid off for Nair when selections started for Gaganyaan mission in 2019. The first medical tests were conducted in October of that year. Nair cleared all, competing with much younger officers.
Last year, when Group Captain Nair attended a reunion at NDA, the joke was that he was one among the 0.1% who could still fit into his first-term muftis. Turns out he was fitting out to be a spaceman! The top gun is now gunning for the stars. Papa Bravo Nair!
‘Moment of pride’: Actor reveals marriage to Nair
Group Captain Prasanth Balakrishnan Nair’s selection as one of the four astronauts-designate for Gaganyaan mission wasn’t the only secret he had to keep until Tuesday. His recent marriage to Malayalam actor Lena was kept confidential, too, lest it spill the beans on the top secret.
The big reveal came on Instagram, hours after PM Narendra Modi handed coveted “astronaut wings” to Nair and his three fellow astronauts-designate at a formal event in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram.
Lena took to her handle to announce that she was married to the 47-year-old test pilot, a post that quickly went viral. The Kanyaka Talkies and Spirit actor posted pictures of her and Prasanth together, including at a traditional wedding ceremony on Jan17 and another alongside Isro chairman S Somanath from Tuesday’s event.
“It is a historic moment of pride for our country, our state of Kerala and me personally,” she said of her husband being included in India’s first crewed space mission.
“In order to maintain the officially required confidentiality, I was waiting for this announcement to let you know that I got married to Prasanth….in a traditional ceremony through an arranged marriage,” Lena wrote.
The actor was unavailable for comment.

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