21 November 2008

Shahbaz Over Golan

Post-haste summons for volunteers found an eager band of sixteen PAF fighter pilots on their way to the Middle East, in the midst of the 1973 Ramadan war. After a grueling Peshawar-Karachi-Baghdad flight on a PAF C-130, they were whisked off to Damascus by road. Upon arrival, half the batch was told to stay back in Syria while the rest were earmarked for Egypt. By the time the PAF batch reached Cairo, Egypt had agreed to a cease-fire; it was therefore decided that they would continue as instructors. But in Syria, it was another story.

The batch in Syria was made up of pilots who were already serving there on deputation (except one), but had been repatriated before the war. Now they were back in familiar surroundings as well as familiar aircraft, the venerable MiG-21. They were posted to No 67 Squadron, Alpha Detachment (all PAF). Hasty checkouts were immediately followed by serious business of Air Defence Alert scrambles and Combat Air Patrols from the air base at Dumayr near Damascus.

Syria had not agreed to a cease-fire, since Israeli operations in Golan were continuing at a threatening pace. Israeli Air Force missions included interdiction under top cover, well supported by intense radio jamming as the PAF pilots discovered. The PAF formation, using the call sign ‘Shahbaz,’ was formidable in size – all of eight aircraft. Shahbaz soon came to stand out as one that couldn't be messed with, in part because its tactics were innovative and bold. Survival, however, in a jammed-radio environment was concern number one. As a precaution, the Pakistanis decided to switch to Urdu for fear of being monitored in English. Suspicions were confirmed during one patrol, when healthy Punjabi invectives hurled on radio got them wondering if Mossad had recruited a few ‘Khalsas[1]’ for the job!

After several months of sporadic activity, it seemed that hostilities were petering out. While the Shahbaz patrols over Lebanon and Syria had diminished in frequency, routine training sorties started to register a rise. Under these conditions it was a surprise when on the afternoon of 26th April 1974, the siren blasted from the airshafts of the underground bunker. Backgammon boards were pushed aside and the coffee session was interrupted as all eight pilots rushed to their MiGs; they were airborne within minutes. From Dumayr to Beirut, then along the Mediterranean coast till Sidon, and a final leg eastwards, skirting Damascus and back to Base – this was the usual patrol, flown at an altitude of 20,000 ft. The limited fuel of their early model MiG-21F permitted just a 30-minute sortie; this was almost over when ground radar blurted out on the radio that two bogeys were approaching from the southerly direction ie, Israel. At this stage fuel was low and an engagement was the least preferred option. Presented with a fait accompli, the leader of the formation called a defensive turn into the bogeys. Just then heavy radio jamming started, sounding somewhat similar to the ‘takka tak[2]’ at our meat joints, only more shrill. While the formation was gathering itself after the turn, two Israeli F-4E Phantoms sped past almost head-on, seemingly unwilling to engage. Was it a bait?

Flt Lt Sattar Alvi, now the rear-most in the formation, was still adjusting after the hard turn when he caught sight of two Mirage-IIICJ zooming into them from far below. With no way of warning the formation of the impending disaster, he instinctively decided to handle them alone. Peeling away from his formation, he turned hard into the Mirages so that one of them overshot. Against the other, he did a steep reversal dropping his speed literally to zero. (It takes some guts to let eight tons of metal hang up in unfriendly air!) The result was that within moments, the second Mirage filled his gunsight. While Sattar worried about having to concentrate for precious seconds in aiming and shooting, the lead Mirage started to turn around to get Sattar. Thinking that help was at hand, the target Mirage decided to accelerate away. A quick-witted Sattar reckoned that a missile shot would be just right for the range his target had opened up to. A pip of a button later, a K-13 heat-seeker sped off towards the tail of the escaping Mirage. Sattar recollects that it wasn’t as much an Israeli aircraft as a myth that seemed to explode in front of him. (The letter ‘J’ in Mirage-IIICJ stood for ‘Jewish,’ it may be noted.) He was tempted to watch the flaming metal rain down, but with the other Mirage lurking around and fuel down to a few hundred litres, he decided to exit. Diving down with careless abandon, he allowed a couple of sonic bangs over Damascus. (Word has it that the Presidential Palace wasn't amused!) His fuel tanks bone dry, Sattar made it to Dumayr on the vapours that remained.

As the other formation members started to trickle in, the leader, Sqn Ldr Arif Manzoor anxiously called out for Sattar to check if he was safe. All had thought that Sattar, a bit of a maverick that he was, had landed himself in trouble. Shouts of joy went up on the radio, however, when they learnt that he had been busy shooting down a Mirage. The Syrians were overwhelmed when they learnt that the impunity and daring of the Pakistani pilots had paid off. Sattar was declared a blood brother, for he had shared in shedding the blood of a common enemy, the Syrians explained!

Sattar's victim Captain M Lutz[3] of No 5 Air Wing based at Hatzor, ejected out of his disintegrating aircraft. It has been learnt that the Mirages were on a reconnaissance mission, escorted by Phantoms of No 1 Air Wing operating out of Ramat David Air Base. The Phantoms were to trap any interceptors while the Mirages carried out the recce. Timely warning by the radar controller (Flt Lt Saleem Metla, also from the PAF) had turned the tables on the escorts, allowing Sattar to sort out the Mirages.

The success of Shahbaz over Golan is testimony to the skills of all PAF pilots, insists Sattar, as he thinks any one could have got the kill had he been ‘Shahbaz-8’ on that fateful day. The Syrian Government awarded the Wisam al-Shuja'a to all the formation members. Additionally, Sattar and Arif were admitted as ‘knights’ (al-faris) in the coveted Wisam al-Istehqaq al-Suriya, one of the country’s highest awards for 'honourable service and devotion'. The Government of Pakistan awarded Sattar and Arif with a Sitara-i-Jur’at as well. Sattar, an epitome of a fighter pilot, befittingly went on to command PAF’s elite Combat Commanders’ School and the premier PAF Base, Rafiqui. Many a fighter pilot trained by Sattar would swear by his audaciousness in the air. Even today, crew room lore persists that fighter pilots don’t come any bolder!

[1] Sikhs call themselves ‘khalsas’ or pure.
[2] The noise made by cleavers as the meat is chopped while being cooked in large metal pans. ‘Takka tak’ is also the widespread name of the meat delicacy.
[3] The identity of the pilot and his Unit has been obtained from US sources that prefer to remain unidentified; absolute confirmation of this detail is, therefore, not claimed.

This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005. It was also published in: Shaheen - Journal of the PAF, Summer 1999 issue; Defence Journal, April 1999; The News International daily newspaper, 26 April 1999; Ausaf daily newspaper, 26 April 1999 (Urdu translation); Family Magazine weekly magazine, 5-11 Sep 1998 (Urdu translation); Akhbaar-e-Jahan weekly magazine, 31 Aug-6 Sep 1998 (Urdu translation)

It is the Man Behind the Gun

Pakistani military planners had conceived the West to be the main theatre of 1971 War but the gains in Chamb, Hussainiwala and Fazilka turned out to be a measly sop for the loss of East Pakistan. Fierce resistance by Pakistani armour in Northern Punjab had stemmed a looming breach that threatened Shakargarh and Zafarwal, albeit at the cost of substantial territorial losses. In the Desert Sector, the Indian Army’s Southern Command had occupied vast tracts spread over 4,000 square miles. The stunned military junta was, therefore, desperate for a cease-fire, as the Pakistan Army valiantly tried to stave off Indian attempts at driving towards deeper strategic objectives. At this stage of the conflict, the PAF was still in the ring and on its feet. Close Air Support and Combat Air Patrols (CAP) over the battle area were being provided to the Army without any let up, till the curtain finally fell on 17th December.

On the last day of the war, two Sabres[1] led by Flt Lt Maqsood Amir of PAF’s No 18 Squadron took off from Sargodha, for a routine patrol over the battle area. The winter haze had not quite cleared up even by mid-day, so Maqsood asked the radar controller for a loiter height of 5,000 ft instead of the usual 1,000 ft, for better visibility. With his wingman Flt Lt Taloot Mirza in tow, Maqsood set up orbit around Pasrur, which was on the western edge of the battle area.

No 45 Squadron, equipped with MiG-21FL was based at Chandigarh. Just prior to the war, it had been split up into several detachments, one of which was deployed at Amritsar. A radar Surveillance Unit was also co-located at Amritsar and, given the proximity to the border, the Base was well poised for an instant response.

As expected, the reaction was swift when two MiG-21s scrambled to intercept the Sabre CAP. Sneaking in at low level, the MiGs were out of PAF’s radar cover but their VHF[2] radios were under surveillance. The IAF pilot-controller conversation was a good enough clue for the PAF controller, Sqn Ldr Rab Nawaz, to assess exactly what was going on. Carefully monitoring the radio calls of the ‘rats’ (code-word for MiG-21), he instructed Maqsood to fly at combat speed and keep a good lookout. The moment the MiG leader, Sqn Ldr Shankar, called ‘contact’ with the bogies, Nawaz instantly warned the Sabre pair that the threat was in the vicinity and they had better clear their tails.

As Maqsood threw in a left hand turn to look around, he was astonished to see two MiG-21s diving down at the Sabres from 8 o’clock, high position[3]. He recalls being struck by the aircrafts’ small delta wings and sleek, long fuselages; he also did not miss their desert camouflage, an oddity in the lush Punjab plains. The apparent toy model features of the MiGs, however, made a lethal transformation in front of Maqsood’s eyes when he saw a fiery streak shoot off from one of the aircraft!

Inducted in the IAF as an antidote to the PAF’s remarkable Starfighter, the MiG-21 was a far more manoeuvrable aircraft, with few aerodynamic vices. Compared to a Sabre, its small, heavily loaded wings were not suited for tight turning in the horizontal plane, but it had sufficient excess thrust to lift the fight into the vertical. Additionally, the MiG’s acceleration was impressive and, it could catch an adversary as fast as it could move out of its clutches. All things considered, the MiG-21 could fight on its own terms. The Sabre, on the other hand, had few options against a bi-sonic fighter. Happily, slow speed combat was the Sabre’s forte, thanks to a fine slatted wing[4]. Being able to force an overshoot was, thus, the name of the game.

With an adversary firing from the rear, the drill is to ‘break’ into it with maximum rate of turn, thus compounding the gun-tracking problem. Incredibly, Maqsood hesitated! Noticing that the MiG’s profile appeared somewhat frontal, he reckoned that enough lead was not being allowed. A good gun tracking solution would require the attacker to point ahead; this would consequently show more of the belly and lower wing surface to a defender. Concluding that he was out of harm’s way for the moment, Maqsood coolly settled for an energy-conserving hard turn. This would eventually make the MiGs hit a square corner as they ran out of turning room, he imagined.

What Maqsood did not know was that a K-13 missile had been launched and the flash that he had seen was not of cannon fire, really[5]. A missile launch would have required him to go for a maddening ‘break,’ leaving little energy for a fight back. Fortuitously, the hard turn had sufficed all the same; it not only defeated the early generation missile but also cramped the attackers for space.

Sensing an overshoot, Shankar eased up for a ‘yo-yo’ to give himself enough separation, before he swooped down again. A defender endowed with better acceleration could have escaped at this juncture, but knowing his Sabre’s limitations, Maqsood had to stay on and fight. Under the circumstances, a smart tactic was needed that could throw off the attackers. Maqsood picked the barrel roll from his repertoire. The comical-sounding manoeuvre was somewhat of a misnomer in the deadly world of air combat. While an essential of any aerobatics display, the barrel roll had turned the tables on an attacker in many a dogfight.

Basically, the roll involves a corkscrew flight path on the inside of an imaginary barrel. Since the aircraft flies in three dimensions during the process, the resultant forward motion is distributed or ‘vectored’ in the three planes. An unwary pursuer is thus not able to arrest his rapidly increasing rate of closure. This is exactly what happened to the two MiGs that zipped past, as Maqsood went through the complex motions of rolling, pitching and yawing, while ‘doing the barrel.’

Recovering to level flight again, Maqsood was in a bit of a quandary whether to fire his six 0.5” Browning guns or the Sidewinder missiles. For the latter he had to wait some seconds, till the MiGs had opened up to an optimum range of several thousand feet. Suddenly, the trailing MiG turned hard to the left, apparently having noticed the Sabre behind. Maqsood did not let go of the opportunity; he placed his gunsight over the target, and started firing. The bullets seemed to land square behind the canopy and after just four seconds of firing, the aircraft started to trail thick black smoke. Maqsood noticed something fly out of the aircraft before it rolled over and dived into the ground in a big ball of fire. Perhaps it was the ejection seat that had shot out of the burning aircraft, but Maqsood was more concerned about his No 2 who was not visible in the rear quarters.

Having stuck around through the arduous manoeuvring as wingman, Taloot found it too tempting to let go of the other MiG in front and started chasing it. As expected, the chase was futile but in the process he split up with Maqsood. Luckily, the two re-joined with the assistance of the radar controller, who was interrupting his instructions with a relay of the disconsolate MiG leader’s calls. “Shortie has ejected,” Nawaz heard Shankar tell Amritsar, as he kept his ear to the VHF monitor.

Flt Lt Tejwant Singh had ironically gone down to the Sabre, an aircraft that he had himself trained on during the Combat Crew Training Course done in USA in 1964. His friendship with some of the PAF pilots[6] during the course may also have been instructive in some ways, for to ‘know thy enemy’ is a familiar dictum of warfare. The superior performance of the MiG-21, versus the Sabre, was another factor of consequence in the dogfight. In the final analysis, however, it is the man behind the gun that makes the difference, as Maqsood demonstrated in this classic air battle. His skills were duly acknowledged with the award of a Tamgha-i-Jur’at.

Some years later, Maqsood decided to go back to the classroom, while a Wing Commander. Majoring in aerospace engineering as the only officer in a class full of cadets, he was the top graduate and won the University’s[7] prestigious gold medal. Having demonstrated his expertise with both ‘the sword and the pen,’ Maqsood is well qualified to judge what it takes to be a successful fighter pilot. Air combat is a mind-game,” asserts Maqsood, profoundly. “An analytical mind, together with sharp reflexes can carry the day – a superior machine not withstanding.”


[1] The version flown by No 18 Squadron was the Canadair Sabre Mk-6 (known as F-86E in PAF).
[2] The IAF used Very High Frequency (VHF) while the PAF used Ultra High Frequency (UHF) for radio communications.
[3] The MiGs had ‘blown through’ the Sabre formation head-on, without having been observed. Subsequently, the MiGs got behind the Sabres through a low-to-high conversion.
[4] The ‘slats’ on the leading edge of the Sabre’s wings drooped down at slow speeds and allowed air to rush through the narrow slot that was consequently created; this fast moving air passed over the wings and re-energised the turbulent airflow, thus delaying the onset of stall.
[5] The IAF MiG-21s were usually configured with two K-13 missiles and a centre-line drop tank each, the latter replacing the optional 23mm belly gun pack.
[6] 2nd Lts M Arshad Choudhry and Salim Baig Mirza were Tejwant’s course-mates at Nellis AFB, USA. In a twist of fate, Baig was there to cheer up Tejwant when the latter was in custody as a POW in Rawalpindi. Maqsood Amir also briefly met his victim during the latter’s transit to the POW camp.
[7] PAF’s College of Aeronautical Engineering was then affiliated to the NED University of Science and Technology, Karachi.

This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005.

A Hard Nut to Crack

The much-awaited II Corps offensive on the Western Front got overtaken by events as the 1971 Indo-Pak War headed for a mortifying finale for Pakistan. PAF had been conserving its assets for the all-important battle, which was not to be. Enough pressure was, however, maintained to tie down IAF effort for air defence, as also to demonstrate an offensive resolve. Continual attacks on the forward airfields of Amritsar, Pathankot and Srinagar, were thus part of a carefully considered strategy. In the event, an Indian Army two-pronged offensive in Shakargarh sector had rendered neutralisation of these airfields most crucial.

No 26 Squadron, based at Peshawar, had been assigned to take care of Srinagar airfield. Daily attacks by Sabres had been causing some damage, but the runway repair gangs were ensuring that the airfield was not out of permanent service[1]. The morning of 14th December saw yet another bombing raid led by the Squadron Commander, Wg Cdr Sharbat Ali Changazi. Accompanying him were Flt Lts H K Dotani, Amjad Andrabi and Maroof Mir, whose Sabres were armed with two 500 lbs bombs each. Escorting the 4-ship package were Flt Lts Salim Baig Mirza and Rahim Yusufzai. Altogether it was a formidable force and, given the familiarity with Srinagar, it seemed like it would be another milk run.

After a 25-minute flight through the picturesque hills and vales of western Kashmir, Changazi’s commanding voice broke the radio silence, “Leader pulling up, contact with the target.” The time was 0730 hrs (PST). Dotani, Andrabi and Mir followed at short intervals, none missing the easily visible airfield complex. Popping up to 5,000 ft above ground, they dived one by one to release their bombs on the runway. Baig and Yusufzai loosened into an orbit overhead the airfield, looking out for any interceptors through the relentless Anti-Aircraft Artillery barrage.

Flg Off Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon of No 18 Squadron was rolling for take-off as No 2 in a two-Gnat formation, just as the first bombs were falling on the runway. Said to have been delayed due to dust kicked up by the preceding Gnat, Sekhon lost no time in singling out the first Sabre pair, which was re-forming after the bombing run. Changazi was, however, quick to detect the attacker behind his wingman. “Gnat behind, all punch tanks,” yelled Changazi. No 3 (Andrabi), who was just pulling out of the attack, was horrified to see the Gnat no more than 1,000 ft and firing at Dotani. “Break left,” called Andrabi, as he himself manoeuvred to get behind the Gnat. Dotani, who had been turning frantically, found his low-powered Sabre tottering at the verge of stall[2]. Unable to hang around any longer with such a precarious energy state, he decided to make a getaway. No 4 (Mir) in the meantime had completed his bombing run and, having no visual contact with the rest, decided to head home as well. The Gnat Leader, Flt Lt Ghuman, had also lost visual with his wingman just after take-off. Said to have failed in re-establishing contact, Ghuman remained out of the fight leaving Sekhon to handle the muddle all by himself.

The fight had turned into a classic tail chase, with a Sabre followed by a Gnat, which in turn was followed by another Sabre. “I am getting behind one but the other is getting an edge on me,” is how Sekhon had described the situation to his controllers. With two more free fighters watching over, the lone Gnat was practically up against four Sabres. Andrabi had, by now, closed in behind the Gnat’s rear quarters and was firing steadily. He was sure that he would get the Gnat, he excitedly forecast on the radio. His Sabre was incessantly spewing out a stream of 0.5” bullets but, despite good aim and textbook range, remained off the mark. What should have been a quick kill dragged on clumsily, testing everyone’s patience and nerves.

The Sabre had enough firepower to riddle a whole formation with bullets, so everyone was dumb-founded when Andrabi’s voice crackled on the radio, “Three is Winchester!” It meant that he had exhausted 1,800 rounds and his guns had stopped firing. The Gnat was still turning circles and it seemed that unless help came fast, Andrabi would soon be at the receiving end.

Changazi was carefully monitoring the dogfight while looking out for the elusive Gnat Leader, whose fleeting glimpse he had caught a while ago[3]. On hearing that Andrabi was spent, Changazi called him to join up as his wingman. Dislodging himself from the Gnat’s tail, Andrabi dutifully moved towards his leader. As the two were forming up, Sekhon took advantage of the slack, straightened out and jettisoned the drop tanks. In the flurry of activity, Sekhon had overlooked a vitally important step and, it was just as well that he shed dead weight for the next round. Nimbler than before, the Gnat could be seen to turn ever more tight as it started to catch up onto Changazi and Andrabi’s pair. Perched on top, the escorts watched in astonishment as the Gnat snatched degrees at a dizzying rate. The situation was getting stickier by the minute and in a couple of turns the Gnat was in a menacing position.

Silver-tongued and gravel-voiced, Andrabi was a class unto himself when he took to the radio. A smattering of expletives ensured that his calls were never disregarded even in the toughest of air combat manoeuvres. Thus, when Andrabi shouted for help against the attacker whose lineage he had declared suspect, everyone took notice! The escorts instantly dived down to grapple with Sekhon, who had turned out to be a hard nut to crack. While Yusufzai covered up as wingman, Baig easily manoeuvred to get behind the Gnat, much to everyone’s relief.

Baig had the privilege of opening his Squadron’s account by shooting down a Hunter near Peshawar, ten days earlier[4]. Since then, he had been in the thick of action in almost every sortie that he went up for. This experience, coupled with his unflappable personality, came in handy as Baig calmly positioned his pipper on the canopy of the Gnat and opened fire. Less than three seconds later the Gnat started to spew thick black smoke. Baig knew it was all over so he stopped firing and watched for the next move.

Meanwhile, the Base Commander and some senior pilots who were in the Air Traffic Control tower to monitor the dogfight, heard Sekhon’s frantic call to his leader, “I think I have been hit. Ghuman, come and get them.” With the mission leader still nowhere to be seen, the baffled ground supervisors tried to help Sekhon with the emergency but to no avail. Baig, who was following behind, saw the Gnat level its wings and head for the airfield, as if to indicate that for him the fight was over. Suddenly, the Gnat went inverted as it dove down uncontrollably from very low height. In all likelihood, the aircraft’s flight control system had failed. Sekhon attempted a last minute ejection as his canopy was seen to fly off, but the height was too low for the ejection system to function fully. The wreckage of the Gnat was found in a gorge, a few miles from the Base.

As the Sabres were reforming for recovery, Andrabi was surprised to notice that his left drop tank was still there, while the right one was gone. The aircraft was skidding to one side, something that he had not felt during the heat of the battle. He now reckoned a bit late why the bullets had not found their mark. Much to everyone’s relief though, Baig had saved the day and the formation made it back to Peshawar, unscathed[5]. Baig’s kill, however, did not get duly noticed, as the mission was seen to be a close call by the Air Staff at the PAF Headquarters. His citation for gallant action thus only made it to the ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ category. An award not withstanding, Baig is highly regarded in the PAF for belonging to the elite club of fighter pilots with multiple kills.

Sekhon, on the other hand, was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest award for wartime gallantry and the only one received by an airman. His was a commendable effort indeed, as he had kept the field single-handedly to the very end.

[1] An interesting aside to the attack-and-repair game were warnings delivered to the Garrison Engineer (GE) , Srinagar, through leaflet drops by Sabres. The GE was warned not to repair the runway, else his house would be bombed! The leaflets were inserted in the speed brakes and were released through a momentary pip, just after the actual bomb release – a dicey prank indeed.
[2] PAF was flying two versions of the Sabre in the 1971 War - the North American F-86F and the Canadair Sabre Mk-6 (ex-Luftwaffe). The F-86F model that equipped No 26 Squadron had a markedly low-powered engine, which did little to help sustain speed and turn rates in combat.
[3] The Gnat Leader was briefly observed by Changazi at a higher altitude than the rest and, flying reciprocal to the direction of the engaged fighters. He was not seen again by any one.
[4] Flg Off Kotliezath P Muralidharan of No 20 Squadron was shot down on 4th Dec 1971, following a raid on Peshawar airfield.
[5] Contrary to IAF’s citation for Sekhon’s award, none of the Sabres was hit during the dogfight.

This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005.

20 November 2008

Cheapest Kill

The morning of 7th of December was quite hazy, particularly at lower altitudes where the dust of Punjab plains mingled with the moist, cold air, giving the sky a murky appearance. It was just four days since the 1971 Indo-Pak War had broken out. While the PAF was conserving its air effort in the early stages of war, IAF’s intensity of air operations was building up at a fast pace.

Flg Off Man Mohan Singh was ferrying a Gnat from Halwara, to beef up a detachment of No 2 Squadron at Amritsar where these aircraft were deployed to perform air defence duties. As Mohan was nearing home, the controller at Amritsar Radar asked him to delay his landing while a pair of Su-7s took off. After holding off for a few minutes, Mohan resumed a northerly heading for the Base.

Sqn Ldr Farooq Haider, a veteran of the ’65 War, was sitting as the duty controller in No 403 Radar Squadron which was located in the outskirts of Lahore. Watching the radar scope intently, he had picked up a blip as it approached Tarn Taran, south of Amritsar. With the adversary nearing its home Base, Farooq had to act fast. He commenced the interception with steady instructions on the radio.

“Your target now over Tarn Taran, heading 360; do not acknowledge.”

“Target 20 (degrees) right, five (miles), turn hard left 360, do not climb; do not acknowledge.”

“Target 12 o’clock, two (miles), go full bore; do not acknowledge.”

“Okay, target is one mile ahead …”

The IAF had been expecting PAF fighters to sneak in below radar cover. Thus, to be doubly sure about any undetected intruders, the IAF used a capability that it was well equipped for – eavesdropping into pilot-controller conversation. Listening in to what was going on, the IAF controller was completely dumbfounded at the development, for he had not yet picked up any blip on his scope. All of a sudden, he frantically shouted on the radio to announce the presence of interceptors in the Gnat’s rear quarters! It was no surprise that the controller's warning to Mohan sounded eerie, as if a spectre was being reported. With the interceptors’ distance rapidly reducing and shooting down of the Gnat almost a certainty, the controller followed up with a panic ‘break’ call. Mohan reacted as any fighter pilot would have done in that situation. He yanked back on the control stick and threw in a very tight turn to shake off his pursuers.

Farooq noticed that the blip had disappeared from the radar screen shortly after manoeuvring had commenced. Normally, he would have enquired about the fate of the target from the interceptor pilots within moments of the shooting. This time, however, he had to be discrete. “Maintain radio silence and recover at low altitude,” he called out. Meanwhile, Farooq and his fellow controllers wondered if the vanished blip meant that the aircraft had landed at its Base.

India’s Official History of Indo-Pak War, 1971, published thirty years later, covers the air operations with a diary of action which includes important events like air raids, aerial victories and losses on both sides. A keen reader would notice acknowledgement of the loss of a Gnat on 7th December 1971 in which, “the pilot tried to take evasive action when warned of Pak aircraft in the vicinity. He lost control and crashed[1].” The only inaccuracy with the account is that Pakistani aircraft were nowhere near!

Standing CAPs were a rare commodity due to excessive demands on PAF’s limited assets. Farooq had, therefore, reacted to the emergent situation in a most ingenuous way. He impulsively decided to fake an interception in the knowledge that his calls would be monitored. The thrill of playing a prank was better than getting frustrated at the sight of an enemy blip pacing away unscathed. In the event, Farooq’s trick resulted in a bargain of great value, which can be gleaned from the amazing fact that not a gallon of fuel was expended, nor was a single bullet fired. Arguably, it stands as the cheapest kill of air warfare.

[1] Chapter X – ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 427.

This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005.

A Sword for Hussein


Commitments under the newly signed pact with Egypt, as well as the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Israeli rage in the Arab world forced King Hussein bin Talal’s hand at the outbreak of the Six Day War of 1967. Any doubts that he may have had about Jordan entering the war were overcome by a misleading telephone call he received from the Egyptian President at mid-day on 5th June. In a bizarre ‘all is well’ report, Nasser assured Hussein that scores of Israeli aircraft had been downed, and that Egyptian armoured columns were pushing across the Negev Desert for a link-up with Jordanian forces in the Hebron Hills. As a matter of fact, the Egyptian Air Force lay in smoking ruins after the Israeli Air Force had delivered a knockout blow! Oblivious of the factual position, King Hussein ordered his armed forces to attack immediately after Nasser’s call.

Parked on the flight lines at Mafraq Air Base were Hunters of No 1 Squadron, the only fighter outfit of the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF). Strapped in the cockpits since morning, the pilots were eagerly awaiting a go-ahead for strikes against Israeli airfields at Kfar Saba, Kfar Sirkin and Netanya. The past few days had been occupied with preparation of maps and low-level flight profiles. The excitement and tension had reached a pitch, and all pilots were ready to get into action.

Flt Lt Saif-ul-Azam of the Pakistan Air Force, who had been on secondment with the RJAF since November 1966, was to lead one of the strike missions. At about 0900 hrs, he was told to hand over the lead to a Jordanian pilot and rush to a Hunter that had been readied for an air defence mission. Saif hurriedly strapped into the other aircraft, and along with his wingman Lt Ihsan Shurdom[1], stood on standby eagerly waiting for the hooter to sound the ‘scramble.’

A few days earlier, Saif and his other PAF colleague, Flt Lt Sarwar Shad had been called by the RJAF Commander to ascertain their position in case of war. Both promptly offered their services, while suggesting that the opinion of the Government of Pakistan be obtained for further details. It was tentatively decided that they would fly as ‘volunteers’ in Jordanian uniforms. Official Pakistani clearance to fly only air defence missions was received just in time, which had required Saif to hurriedly switch roles on the tarmac.

After half an hour of impatient waiting in the cockpit, Saif belatedly learnt that the Israeli Air Force had struck Egyptian airfields. Sitting helplessly on the ground waiting for orders was nerve racking, and all pilots squirmed in their cockpits to seek revenge. Mafraq was sure to be attacked, as everyone guessed, so it was some relief when two formations finally took off at 1150 hrs and headed west. A short while later, in a show of solidarity, a formation of six Iraqi Hunters overflew Mafraq on their way to Lydda airfield in Israel. The heightened air activity reached a crescendo when orders were relayed for all aircraft to scramble as fast as they could. Saif and his wingman Ihsan were the first to get airborne in the fervent melee, followed by four more Hunters. Air Traffic Control announced the bad news that one of the Hunters flown by Major Firas Ajlouni had been strafed and had caught fire. The unfortunate pilot could not get out of the burning aircraft.

After take-off, Saif contacted the radar for further instructions. The radar controller announced a vector and the interceptors headed in the required direction. Soon, another vector was announced and the pair changed heading. It was not long before the controller declared that there were too many aircraft, and it was difficult to make out who was who. Saif was, therefore, asked to be on his own. Noting the controller’s dilemma, Saif called out to his wingman to stay close. Visibility in the hot, dusty desert was barely a mile, and there were no signs of enemy aircraft. Saif rechecked with the controller if there were any aircraft approaching Mafraq. His fears were confirmed when he received a reply in the affirmative.

Turning around, Saif headed for the Base. About four miles short, he spotted four aircraft flying in battle formation at low level. The camouflage of the aircraft seen through haze seemed similar to that of the Iraqi formation that had passed overhead some time ago, so Saif was led to believe that they must have been returning after the raid. Following them for a while, he watched with amazement as they changed into echelon formation, getting ready for an attack! Realising his mistake in recognising the Israeli Mystères, which looked similar to Hunters from a distance, Saif promptly manoeuvred behind the trailing aircraft of the formation. As the aircraft was turning for the attack, Saif closed in and let off a smugly-aimed fusillade from the Hunter’s four immensely powerful 30mm cannon. The Mystère[2] caught fire and its pieces started to fly off; Saif had to pull up to avoid hitting the debris. Moments later, the aircraft crashed near the perimeter fence of the Base, with the pilot Lt Hananya Buleh still inside the stricken aircraft.

Looking around for other attackers that he had lost during the shooting, Saif noticed the smoke trail of two Mystères charging off towards the west at full power. As Saif turned hard for them, Ihsan, called a bogey on the right. Saif directed Ihsan, who had tenaciously stuck around during the tight manoeuvring, to break off and go after the singleton while he went for the pair on the left.

Saif managed to get behind the trailing Mystère, which had started thrashing about to spoil his aim. During the frantic turn reversals, Saif fired four times but his bullets stayed off the mark. Desperate for a kill, Saif was at wits end when he noticed his quarry loosening the turn and straightening out for home. Closing in to about 600 feet, Saif squeezed the trigger for a fifth time. The Mystère started to trail smoke from its right wing as the Hunter’s guns scored hits[3]. The aircraft ducked down, and before Saif could confirm if it had been terminally despatched, he saw the leader of the enemy pair turning to attack him[4]. Low on fuel and ammunition, Saif wisely decided to disengage and turn for Mafraq.

Reckoning that Mafraq runway had been rendered unfit for use, Saif called all aircraft to hold north of the airfield while he checked the feasibility of landing there. His call for joining instructions was surprisingly answered by a welcome clearance, and the controller followed it up by declaring the runway fit for landing. A sharp-eared Ihsan suspected something wrong, and instantly broke into Arabic to check the identity of the controller. He also wanted to know the name of Ihsan’s dog, which was some sort of a cross-check code. The Jordanian controller then came up on the radio, and warned them not to land at Mafraq. Ihsan’s presence of mind saved the pair from the trap of an Israeli spoofer, who had cleared them for a landing that was certain to be an unqualified wreck.

All the airborne aircraft diverted to Amman International Airport, which had not yet been visited by the Israelis. The pilots were lucky to have landed shortly before the Israeli Air Force struck the airport. Their aircraft, however, could not escape destruction as they were caught parked in the open. The pilots helplessly watched as the later-version Super Mystères delivered attacks with a new type of rocket-boosted ‘dibber’ bomb, which penetrated deep into the runway surface and cratered it badly. The attacks were delivered from shallow dive angles, which minimised exposure to Anti-Aircraft Artillery guns. Civilian facilities on the airport were strafed and badly damaged. Several transport aircraft and helicopters were also destroyed.

After an eventful morning, the pilots gathered at the Operations Headquarters in Amman to exchange notes about the encounters that had taken place. Ihsan had claimed a Mystère while his leader was busy chasing the exiting pair. One of the Hunter pilots, Capt Wasfi Ammari, had ejected near Amman after having been shot down by an Israeli Mirage[5]. RJAF’s sole fighter squadron had put up a spirited fight, though the pilots felt dejected over the losses suffered. The worst blow was the destruction of 13 Hunters on the ground at Mafraq and Amman International. Many of these were being serviced on the flight lines after their morning missions; invaluable expertise in the shape of many technicians was thus lost as well. Sadly, the small RJAF had been virtually wiped out.

An hour later, the pilots were surprised to have in their midst, King Hussein, who had come to cheer them up for their brave effort in Jordan’s first major air war. In the gloomy situation that was prevailing, King Hussein was a paragon of fortitude and courage. He was cognisant of his decision that had brought upon the Jordanians the tribulation that they now faced. He explained the circumstances in which he had decided to go to war. His message was that of faith and hope in the face of adversity. PAF’s Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations), Air Cdre A Rahim Khan, who was visiting Jordan at that time, was also there to express his solidarity with the RJAF personnel.

As if to unburden himself of the debt he owed to the pilots of No 1 Squadron, King Hussein again visited them in the evening. Turning to Saif, he told him to get into his car, a privilege that was extended only to the most honoured compatriots. They drove off to the main hospital to see PAF’s Flt Lt Shad who was convalescing after an appendicitis complication. Later, the King along with Saif drove off to Mafraq, about 40 miles from Amman. Saif recalls that during the drive, King Hussein kept reassuring him like a younger brother. He said that it was a minor setback in a battle and not a defeat in a war, words that were most encouraging and inspiring for Saif. The King was hopeful that more could be done as the war had not yet ended. With young men like Saif around, all was not lost and the fight could go on. After all Saif[6] had been, quite literally, a sword for Hussein. Thus armed, the King was unwilling to give up easily…


During the drive from Amman to Mafraq Air Base, King Hussein had told Saif that he had talked to President Abd al-Rehman Arif and offered the services of his pilots to carry on the war from Iraq. President Arif had agreed to provide the aircraft, and soon orders were issued for a move to Iraq.

Around midnight, an expedition consisting of RJAF pilots and support personnel moved in a road convoy, on their way to the cryptically named H-3 Air Base[7] located about 40 miles inside Iraq’s western border. The night in the desert was cold and the ride was rough. The past 24 hours had been turbulent, and the physical and mental strain was showing. Partly dozing, partly awake, everyone seemed anxious to get to his destination and become part of the war effort again.

The seemingly endless drive continued as it dawned on the morning of 6th June. The quiet of the desert was broken only by the noise of vehicles and an occasional Iraqi military convoy heading west. Tired and hungry, the party prepared for a roadside breakfast halt. A large number of military transports were dispersed on both sides of the road, and Iraqi troops were resting before their onward journey to the Israeli border. All of a sudden, a formation of four Vautour[8] light bombers, escorted by a pair of Mirage-IIICJ fighters roared overhead, flying east along the road towards H-3. The RJAF convoy promptly halted and everyone dispersed in the desert, just in case the returning raiders decided on a shot of opportunity at the gathering.

As expected, about fifteen minutes later the egressing Israeli aircraft pulled up and started strafing the Iraqi vehicles. After a single pass, they continued onwards with their exit[9]. Two vehicles caught fire and several soldiers were injured. It took some time for everyone to gather again. There were outbursts of rage, and some questioned the wisdom of travelling during daytime. One senior commander suggested a 24-hour halt in the desert, but the young pilots did not like the idea at all. There was much grumbling and disagreement.

Saif, being the lone foreigner, kept out of the discussion, but two young pilots approached him and wanted to know his intentions. Saif said that since he was from the PAF, he was obliged to obey orders to reach H-3 at the earliest, and if the party decided otherwise, he would take a ride on Iraqi transports plying up and down. He was in a bit of a quandary too, as he could not interfere with the contingent commander’s decision. While discussions were going on, a group of youngsters suddenly appeared and asked Saif to take over command of the contingent! Embarrassed about the situation he found himself in, he argued that a coup d’etat in the middle of the desert – that too during war – was the last thing he could contemplate. He was, however, firmly told that since they had decided to arrest, and even shoot the commander, it was logical for the next senior to take charge. It took some persuasion on Saif’s part to cool things down.

Saif met the commander separately and tried to explain that the youngsters were raring for a return bout with the Israeli’s, and their emotional state had to be understood. He also explained that under the circumstances, a certain amount of risk had to be taken. The commander was quick to grasp Saif’s argument and ordered everyone to board the transports. A serious situation was thus averted.

The RJAF contingent reached H-3 safe and sound. The Iraqi Air Force personnel were effusive in welcoming them. Before they could move off to their billets, however, the Base Commander revealed a change in plans. It was decided that in view of the vulnerability of H-3, as demonstrated in two previous raids, operations would be undertaken from Habbaniyah Air Base, about 50 miles west of Baghdad. H-3 was to be used as a staging base.

Habbaniyah Air Base, with the meandering Euphrates on one side and the picturesque Lake Habbaniyah on the other, had been host to three Hunter squadrons, including a conversion Unit. A nearby satellite airfield, commonly known as ‘Plateau,’ housed a Tu-16 bomber squadron. Both Bases were under the command of Col Hamid Sha'ban[10].

After setting course in the afternoon, the contingent reached Habbaniyah at 2100 hrs. For about two hours, nobody seemed to know what to do with the new arrivals. Finally, arrangements were made to house them and some time later, food was served. As it happened, the Base had learnt of their arrival only a short while ago, and messing arrangements for a large contingent took some time. True to Arab tradition, the food was sumptuous, and the Iraqi hosts were most friendly and hospitable. After a hearty fill, the exhausted and drowsy visitors retired, somewhat hesitant of what lay in store for the next day.

A gentle nudge and a whispering voice woke up Saif early at dawn on the morning of 7th June. Looking around, he found the same Iraqi Lieutenant who had met him the night before. The young officer conveyed the Base Commander’s message, “He needs four pilots to volunteer for the first mission to take-off shortly, and you are requested to lead!” Saif had heard of such detailing of volunteers as party jokes in the PAF, but this was the first time it was being played on him.

Once at the Base Headquarters, the RJAF pilots were hurriedly introduced to the senior commanders and other officers. There was no time to be wasted. Intelligence information had indicated that a large formation of Israeli planes was expected to repeat a strike on H-3. Saif was, therefore, to lead a four-ship formation to intercept the raiders.

Saif immediately got down to briefing the pilots. His formation consisted of Lt Ihsan Shurdom, his trusted wingman of RJAF, along with Lt Samir Yousaf Zainal and 2nd Lt Ghalib Abdul Hameed al-Qaysee of Iraqi Air Force. It was a truly international group, meeting for the first time over a cup of tea. Not knowing much about each other’s experience and operational training standards, they were committed to be comrades-in-arms. They were ready to engage the enemy, a desire sustained by their common Faith.

While they were having late breakfast, they received a message[11] to take-off immediately. Within minutes, the four-ship Hunter formation was on its way to H-3. Climbing to 25,000 ft, the formation members maintained radio silence till the controller announced, “Expecting enemy attacks on H-3.” Moments later, he called out confidently, “Leader, there is a big formation pulling up over H-3, descend and engage it.”

The Israeli formation consisted of six aircraft. A section of four Vautours of No 110 Squadron was led by the Deputy Squadron Commander Capt Shlomo Keren in a two-seater, with Capt Alexander Inbar-Meltzer as his navigator. The other members were Col Yezekiel Somech (Base Commander of Ramat David Air Base), Capt Yitzhak Glantz-Golan and Lt Avshalom Friedman in single seaters[12]. Two Mirages of No 117 Squadron doubled up as armed escorts, each carrying two bombs; Capt Ezra Dotan led the escort formation, with Capt Gideon Dror, as his wingman.

The Hunters were five miles short of H-3 when Saif started diving down towards the airfield and called out for arming the guns. Soon, he spotted two Vautours approaching from the west. “Right boys, follow me and let us descend faster.” Ihsan chipped in, “Sir, how about punching the drop tanks?” Saif realised his mistake and ordered all to jettison their 230-gallon tanks. Engrossed in spotting the aircraft, Saif had overlooked a vital check but was relieved to know that his formation members were alert.

As Saif manoeuvred to get behind the Vautours, Samir called out, “Two Mirages behind you.” Looking back, Saif saw the pair about 4,000 feet behind, turning for them. In an instant, Saif decided to split his formation, with himself and Ihsan (No 2) going for the Mirages while Samir and Ghalib (Nos 3 & 4) went for the Vautours. Turning hard to the right, Saif cramped the Mirages for manoeuvring space, forcing them to pull up for a ‘yo yo.’ Reversing his turn, Saif noticed one of the Mirages still turning right, apparently having lost sight of the Hunters. Saif managed to turn inside the Mirage, and started to catch up fast. At the extreme limits of range, the Mirage could not light up its fuel-guzzling afterburner, or else it could have easily out-run the subsonic Hunter. In the event, the Mirage had to face the Hunter’s lethal cannon. Uttering ‘Bismillah[13],’ Saif pressed the trigger for about two seconds. The bullets landed squarely on the wings, as sparks flew off the metal skin. Suddenly, the Mirage was engulfed in a big ball of fire; the pilot, Capt Dror, ejected in full view of the Base personnel watching from the ground.

“Leader, you have finally won the bet, it’s a Mirage,” called Ihsan on the radio. “You bet it is, but stop being funny and look out for more,” responded Saif. Several months ago, Saif had a dream in which he saw that he had shot down an Israeli Mirage. When he narrated his dream in the squadron, the pilots seemed so impressed that instead of laughing it off as a joke, they got into an animated discussion on the basics of air combat. Ihsan had then bet that if Saif ever shot down a Mirage in real life, a precious gift and a grand party would follow. Now, in the middle of air combat, Ihsan had not lost his wit and humour one bit!

Breaking off to the right after downing the Mirage, Saif spotted a Vautour coming head-on, about 2,000 feet below. Without batting an eyelid, Saif inverted his aircraft and pulled through for a ‘split-S.’ The manoeuvre can go awry if there is insufficient clearance from the ground, but Saif pulled back on the control stick to the point of almost blacking out. When he levelled off, he found himself behind the Vautour, charging in with a very high rate of closure despite the speed brakes opened and throttle pulled back to idle. The distance was now only 200 feet, too close for the safety of his own aircraft were the much larger Vautour to explode like his previous victim. Deciding not to miss the chance, Saif opened fire and after three bursts of his cannon, saw parts of the aircraft fly off. His own aircraft juddered as if hit by something; Saif had to look around to be sure he was not being shot at.

Capt Golan lost control and ejected from his disintegrating Vautour. Saif called up the ATC tower to spot two white parachutes, which he thought to be those from a two-seat Vautour. Actually, the chutes were those of Dror, who had ejected from the Mirage at a higher altitude a little earlier, and Golan who escaped low from the Vautour. Both now found themselves parachuting in formation, ironically, Dror still escorting Golan!

Low on fuel, Saif was planning to exit when he heard Samir call out excitedly, “Leader, I have shot him, I have shot a Vautour, I have shot a Vautour.” Saif had to quieten him down, lest he block vital communication on the radio. In the melee, Ihsan also called that he had shot a Vautour.

As Saif started to gather the formation, he saw a Mirage (flown by Capt Dotan) chasing a Hunter right over the airfield. It was Ghalib's Hunter, and it was trailing smoke. Turn by turn everyone called him on the radio to eject but he did not respond. The aircraft went into a shallow dive and hit the abandoned oil tanks near the airfield. The sad incident overshadowed the otherwise successful mission.

Everyone’s fuel was marginal after such heavy demands on the engines. Samir’s fuel state was most critical so he decided to land at H-3, despite some damage to the runway. Saif and Ihsan made it to Habbaniyah, but only after a cruise at high altitude. Spotting the airfield in unfamiliar area was, luckily, not a problem as the road to Habbaniyah was conspicuous in the desert. Allowing Ihsan to break-off and land first, Saif followed through a straight-in approach.

A large crowd had gathered at the flight lines. As Saif switched off and came out of the aircraft, he was lifted up and paraded all over the place. Everyone was shouting, “Death to Zionism, death to Israel.” Saif had tears of joy in his eyes. He recalls thanking Allah for the success and also prayed for young Ghalib, whom he had met barely for half an hour before the fateful mission.

Some airmen had also gathered around Saif’s Hunter, and were expressing their amazement at the nerve of the intrepid pilot who had rammed into the Israeli aircraft when he ran out of ammunition! They could not have been blamed for their mistake because the Vautour’s flying debris had damaged the Hunter’s wingtips, and some metal pieces were embedded in its fuselage after the close-range shooting.

When Saif reached the squadron, he was told that two Israeli aircrew had been captured at H-3, and were under despatch to Baghdad. He was more interested in his wingman Ihsan who was nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that he was supposed to have landed earlier. No one seemed to give him a satisfactory reply, except that Ihsan would be there shortly. Saif’s concern was short-lived, as Ihsan arrived after about fifteen minutes with a grin on his face. Saif discovered the truth when Ihsan confessed that he had landed at the nearby ‘Plateau’ airfield, mistaking it for Habbaniyah.

The epilogue to the raid on H-3 was a report received from Saudi Arabia confirming the crash of a two-seat Vautour-IIN on its northern border with Iraq. Both the pilots had been found dead. Capt Keren and Capt Meltzer[14] had tried to nurse the stricken aircraft back through a safer route after being hit over H-3, but their luck ran out. If one were to go by Lt Samir’s radio calls alone, his claim of a Vautour could easily prevail but, in all earnestness, it could also have been Ihsan’s kill.

The plethora of accomplishments by the Israeli Air Force did not prevent a scathing indictment of the conduct of operations over H-3, in the post-war debrief. Col Eleizer Cohen, in his book Israel’s Best Defense alludes to it by stating, “The damage to H-3 was peripheral, and the losses – a killed pilot and navigator, two pilots captured and three aircraft downed – were heavier than at any other base[15].” Maj Gen Mordechai Hod, the Commander of the Israeli Air Force is said to have remarked that the critique of H-3 fiasco made him feel almost as if he had lost the war. Whatever factors may have been discussed during the debrief, there is little doubt that the Israelis were aware of the H-3 rout being the handiwork of a determined team, under the able leadership of a first class PAF pilot. That Mossad was ignorant of this fact would be under-rating the capabilities of a notoriously efficient intelligence outfit.

Saif-ul-Azam’s exploits in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War were a display of true grit in an otherwise dismal showing, which made him a hero in several countries. The Government of Jordan admitted him to the prestigious Wisam al-Istaqlal, while the Iraqi Government conferred the Nawt al-Shuja’a. The Pakistani Government rewarded him with a Sitara-i-Basalat[16]. Earlier, in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, he had shot down an Indian Gnat[17] for which he was awarded the Sitara-i-Jur’at. He has the unique achievement of downing four different types of aircraft while flying with three different Air Forces. He eventually donned the uniform of yet another Air Force when he moved to his new homeland, Bangladesh, in 1972.

[1] Shurdom later rose to be the Commander of RJAF.
[2] The raiding aircraft were the Mystère-IVA of No 116 Squadron, though some writings have erroneously mentioned them as Super Mystères.
[3] The Mystère pilot Capt Z Porat, who managed to land back with a damaged aircraft, attributed it to AAA fire.
[4] Captain Mario Shaked, the IAF pair leader, incorrectly claimed downing Saif’s Hunter.
[5] Wasfi was shot down near Amman by a Mirage-IIIC flown by Capt Oded Sagee after a long chase, following RJAF’s raid on Kfar Sirkin airfield.
[6] Saif means ‘sword’ in Arabic.
[7] A chain of pumping stations for an oil pipeline from Kirkuk in Iraq, to Haifa in what is now Israel, was denoted by H-series during the time of British Mandate, hence the nearby Air Base named thus. It was also known as Al-Walid Air Base.
[8] Vautour means ‘vulture’ in French.
[9] This minor incident narrated by Flt Lt Saif-ul-Azam is also described from an aerial vantage point by Maj Herzle Bodinger, the leader of the Vautour formation, in Israel’s Best Defense by Col Eliezer Cohen (page 235). Bodinger later rose to be the Commander of Israeli Air Force.
[10] Shaban later rose to be the Commander of Iraqi Air Force.
[11] Israeli’s contend that the Syrians notified the Iraqi’s about the impending raid after the strike package unwittingly overflew a Syrian radar site near Dar’a, on its way to H-3.
[12] Of the 20 Vautours available to the Israeli Air Force in 1967, a few were two-seat models; every four-ship formation included a two-seat Vautour-IIN in the lead along with three single-seat Vautour-IIAs.
[13] ‘[I commence] In the name of Allah.’
[14] Meltzer is said to have attempted a late ejection, which proved fatal. The bodies of Keren and Meltzer were returned to Israel two months after the war.
[15] Page 252.
[16] The Sitara-i-Basalat (Star of Courage), conferred for ‘valour, courage and devotion to duty during operations not involving the enemy,’ was found to be an expedient solution at that time, as the Pakistani Government did not want to cast its armed forces in a mercenary role when participating in combat operations abroad. This pretence was later set aside and PAF pilots were conferred with proper gallantry awards.
[17] Saif-ul-Azam shot down an IAF Gnat flown by Flg Off Vijay Mayadev on 19th Sep, 1965 near Sialkot.

This article is based on two excerpted chapters from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005. It was also published in Defence Journal, June 2003 issue.

‘Bo Kaata’

Faced with unexpectedly stiff resistance from Pakistan Army, the Indian offensive launched on 6th September 1965 in the Lahore-Kasur sector had floundered badly. Having failed to capture the vital bridges on BRB[1] Canal, XI Corps formations were unfavourably poised for further offensive operations towards Lahore. On a similar note, though Pakistan Army’s counter-offensive spearheaded by 1 Armoured Division had resulted in the capture of Khem Karan, further advance had been checked by Indian forces. For either side, the only prospect of a breakthrough under these stalemated conditions lay in meaningful intervention from the air. Control of the air was, therefore, vital for unhindered air support to land operations.

Relentless battering by the PAF had left the IAF mauled in the battle for air superiority. Having suffered several times more aircraft losses at the hands of an air force that was much smaller, the mood in the IAF was unquestionably distraught. PAF pilots thus found it opportune to fly Combat Air Patrols (CAP) with impunity, to the extent of setting up station on the border and, sometimes even inside enemy territory.

On the afternoon of 20th September, four Sabres took off from Sargodha for the usual CAP along Lahore-Kasur axis. The formation consisted of a motley of pilots – crème de la crème of different Units. The leader of the formation was Sqn Ldr Sharbat Ali Changazi, whose Mongol lineage was as conspicuous as it was daunting. He had managed to pull strings to be relieved from liaison duties with the Army and, had been attached to the Base a few days after the outbreak of the war. Entering the cockpit after months of medical unfitness following a scooter accident, Changazi was rearing for a clash in the air. His wingman (No 2) was Flt Lt Anwaar-ul-haq Malik of No 5 Squadron, who had shot down a Mystère[2] on 7th September. Earning him the admiration and envy of his formation members, this achievement also gave Malik an air of unbridled confidence. The Deputy Leader (No 3) was Flt Lt Nazir Jilani, one of the Flight Commanders of No 11 Sqn. Flt Lt Amanullah, who was undergoing training on F-104s at the outbreak of war and had just switched back to F-86s, completed the formation as No 4.

Climbing to 20,000 ft, the Sabres headed southeast towards Kasur. The haze was bad and they could not see much of the ground. The sooner they had set up orbit, Sakesar radar warned them of IAF’s prompt reaction. “Four bogies climbing well inside enemy territory, heading north,” called the radar controller, racing everyone’s pulse.

The IAF had been working at ways to snare the Sabre CAPs for some time and, it was thought that a ‘mixed bag’ fighter sweep would do the trick. This time around, two Hunters and two Gnats were scrambled from Halwara. Sqn Ldr D P Chatterjee led No 7 Squadron’s Hunters, with Flt Lt S K Sharma as his wingman. Flt Lt A K Mazumdar and Flg Off K C Khanna formed the Gnat pair from No 2 Squadron.

Luck seemed to be in short supply as events unfolded for the sweep aircraft. Amritsar radar announced that it had lost the enemy blips on the radar scope, but directed the fighters to continue towards Amritsar and then head west. Arriving over Lahore, they found no trace of the Sabres, which was not surprising, given the poor visibility. Over enemy territory and clueless about where the blow would come from, was not the recommended method of flying a sweep mission. Worse, the Hunters and Gnats lost mutual contact too, and the pairs were on their own.

When the Sabres reached Lahore they had a dependable ground radar scanning through the hazy sky. A tight cross-cover formation also helped keep a double check on their tails as the Sabres circled over the historic city. Lahorites had earlier seen the Sabres in action on the morning of the Indian attack when No 19 Squadron had administered a classic work over to the armoured columns that threatened their city. Now, with the air situation again in control, Lahorites were ready for an encore.

During the orbit over Lahore, Amanullah spotted a couple of specks through the haze. “Two bandits about 5,000 ft below, 11 o’clock,” he warned. The sooner this call was heard, drop tanks were jettisoned and master firing switches armed, almost as reflex actions. Moments later, the specks transformed into silhouettes of two Hunters. Jilani and Amanullah, who were closer, peeled off to dive after them. In the meantime, Changazi and Malik spotted a Hunter, which they presumed to be part of another pair that had perhaps sneaked in. Actually, it was Chatterjee who had split from his wingman during the defensive turn and, Changazi was only too pleased to tackle a singleton. Thus, within seconds of the encounter, two pockets of clashing fighters emerged – each with two Sabres jostling a Hunter.

Lahorites’ boundless passion for kite-flying, including an almost frenzied desire to bring down any other contender’s kite, has few parallels in leisurely sport. ‘Capturing’ a falling kite from the sky is considered akin to scalping and the loud-throated jeers that follow, signal bloody victory. With such zest for aerial frolics, it was no surprise that the people of Lahore thronged the roof tops when they heard the roar of jets overhead.

Changazi was the first to get his gunsight on the Hunter after out-manoeuvring it, despite a hung drop tank. After two short bursts from the Sabre’s guns the Hunter started emitting smoke, but desperate evasive manoeuvring continued for a while. Malik continued with a banter, which included a running commentary on what was going on; he noted with anxiety that the Hunter was still thrashing about despite his Leader’s relentless barrage. Changazi’s jugglery with the rudder finally offset the skid on the asymmetrically configured Sabre and, a volley landed squarely on his victim’s fuselage. The Hunter straightened out and fell into a listless dive, trailing thick black smoke. Chatterjee was apparently incapacitated as his aircraft plunged to the ground in Lahore’s Manawan locale[3], in full view of thousands of on-lookers.

The dramatic encounter got Malik so captivated that he forgot about ground control’s original report of four bogeys. The hitherto unseen Gnat pair had been lurking around, hoping for a chance pick-up on the Sabres. Majumdar and Khanna were doubly lucky, for not only had they caught the flash of the dogfighting aircraft, they were able to sneak behind the Sabres unnoticed. Changazi got an inkling of trouble when he heard the unmistakable noise of cannon-fire as bullets whizzed past his canopy. Aghast that the Gnats had closed in to firing range, he broke into a defensive turn. More appalling, however, his wingman was nowhere to be seen. Repeated calls to Malik went unanswered, though Jilani and Amanullah could be heard engaged with the other Hunter.

Prolonged absence from the cockpit had not dulled Changazi one bit, for he managed to shake off the agile little Gnats with ease. That, however, was hardly comforting; for the loss of his wingman had taken the sheen off his Hunter kill. Malik had, in fact, taken 30mm hits from Majumdar’s Gnat and his right wing and fuselage had been shattered, causing him to teeter on the verge of a spin. With his panels rattling, radio lost and cockpit full of smoke fumes, he desperately tried to stay aloft but to no avail. He was lucky enough to nurse the stricken aircraft away from the border and managed to eject over Lahore’s Harbanspura area; he was picked up without any major injury.

To the Lahorites, the thrill of watching aircraft come down like kites was almost juvenile. Oblivious of the identities of downed aircraft, they proclaimed spontaneous victory with their celebrated hoots. ‘Bo Kaata[4]’ was the refrain of the day, signalling another fallen kite. There were so many aircraft pirouetting in the skies, it seemed like a re-enactment of the annual kite-flying festival heralding the onset of Basant[5].

Jilani and Amanullah had, in the meantime, been engaged with the Hunter flown by Sharma. While they were turning to get him, another Hunter had fired from behind, causing Amanullah to break away viciously. With eight aircraft milling around, it was hard to tell exactly what was going on. Evidence, however, seems to suggest that it was Chatterjee who had tried a pot shot at Amanullah’s Sabre, before getting embroiled with Changazi. Furthermore, once the Gnats were through with downing Malik’s Sabre, they promptly rallied around a beleaguered Sharma who had tenaciously held off the attackers for quite a while.

The dogfight had now developed exactly on the lines of the just concluded one. Jilani had thus to act fast to shoot the Hunter or else, expect bullets from the Gnats’ cannon to whiz past any time. Happily for Jilani, the combat had degenerated to the slow speed regime where the Sabre excelled. Manoeuvring with well-honed skills, Jilani managed to place his gunsight on the Hunter’s fuselage and let loose a volley. The Hunter started to spew smoke but Sharma was able to nurse his stricken aircraft into friendly territory before ejecting near Katron.

The thrilling dogfight over the skies of Lahore was an apt finale to PAF’s splendid performance in the battle for air superiority. The 2-1 tally in PAF’s favour was gratifying indeed; however, the whole formation had to pay for Malik’s downing as none of the scoring pilots was rewarded for gallantry. The concept of group retribution had been stretched a bit far, but nevertheless, it did signify PAF’s regard for teamwork rather than individual glory. On the IAF’s side, Flt Lt Ajoy Kumar Mazumdar was awarded a well-deserved Vir Chakra for shooting down a Sabre. However, the downing of No 7 Squadron’s two Hunters added upto an atrocious total of eight aircraft lost in air combat, which was 50% of the Unit’s inventory. The fact that this was more than the entire PAF’s air combat losses[6], rightly established Lahorites’ victory cry as no rude jeer.

[1] Bambanwala-Ravi-Bedian Link Canal.
[2] Malik shot down a Mystère-IVA flown by Flt Lt Babul Guha near Sargodha.
[3] The wreckage, along with the remains of the pilot were found near West Pakistan Textile Mills, located in the precincts of Manawan Police Station.
[4] Difficult to translate, the closest connotation would be, ‘there goes!’ More literally, it might mean, ‘there, it’s been cut.’
[5] Derived from ‘vasanta,’ the spring season of ancient Hindu calendar.
[6] During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, PAF lost 7 aircraft in aerial engagements against IAF’s 16.

This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005. It was also published in the daily newspaper Dawn (Books & Authors Supplement), 15 May 2005.

Speed Shooting Classic

The evening of 6th September 1965 saw mixed fortunes for the PAF after its pre-emptive strikes against IAF’s forward air bases. Pathankot had been administered a crippling blow, with ten aircraft destroyed and several more damaged on the ground[1]; however, the strikes against Adampur and Halwara proved largely futile. The latter strike was particularly costly, as PAF had lost two of its top pilots. The mood at Sargodha air base was therefore as vengeful as it was sombre.

Propping himself on a table in the oft-frequented bar, Sqn Ldr Muhammad Mahmood Alam, the plucky Squadron Commander of No 11 Squadron set the tone for the next day’s operations with a fiery oration. Addressing the fighter pilots of No 33 Wing who had huddled together in this popular hangout, Alam promised to avenge the blood of Rafiqui and Yunus, the two downed airmen of Sargodha. Only hours before, Alam had brought down a Hunter while leading a dusk strike that was intercepted on the way to Adampur. Brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, Alam assured the gathering that the Sabre could out-manoeuvre the Hunter, a proposition that did not have many takers thus far. Now, with a kill to prove his point, he bayed for more blood.

Sargodha came to be at the business end of IAF’s retaliatory strikes that commenced at dawn on 7th September. Just after the exit of the first Mystère raid, two pairs of Sabres and a singleton Starfighter were scrambled to replenish the ongoing Combat Air Patrols. Within a few minutes of getting airborne, they were directed by ground control towards an incoming raid. After flying eastwards for 10-15 minutes, they were told to turn back as the raiders were already overhead Sargodha. The time was 0547 hrs (PST).

Sqn Ldr D S Jog of No 27 Squadron based at Halwara, was leading a formation of five Hunters that included Sqn Ldr O N Kacker, Flt Lt D N Rathore, Flt Lt T K Choudhry and Flg Off P S Parihar. They had initially pulled up to attack Chota Sargodha[2], a disused, non jet-capable airstrip of World War II vintage, which somehow figured out as vital in IAF’s war plans. Unable to locate any aircraft, the formation turned for the main Sargodha Base which lay about eight miles east; however, with attack mechanics not quite under control, the Hunters ended up targeting ‘a factory-like installation’ which, as the Sargodhians would know, was Sultan Textile Mills! Beating a hasty exit through the barrage of Anti-Aircraft Artillery fire, the Hunters headed home but the mission was not quite over.

A pair of Sabres led by Flt Lt Imtiaz Bhatti swooped down on the two trailing Hunters but to his dismay, Bhatti found another pair of Sabres already in a dive, looking set to shoot. The redoubtable Alam and his wingman Flt Lt Masood Akhtar had beaten him to the ‘go for the bogeys’ call by Killer Control, an eagle-eyed lookout tasked to assist in visual sighting of raiders. Bhatti had to be content with being a grandstand spectator of what was to become a celebrated mission. The lone Starfighter flown by Flt Lt Arif Iqbal continued to perform its role of a ‘bouncer,’ keeping an eye for troublemakers in the area.

The rear pair of Hunters kept a good lookout and on spotting Alam’s Sabre, did a sharp defensive turn into him. Alam pulled up to avoid an overshoot and then repositioned again. Still out of gun range Alam pressed on, but with the Hunters doing a full power run, he settled for a missile shot against the last man. Firing a Sidewinder from a dive at very low altitude, Alam was not surprised to see it go into the ground. The best way of launching the early model Sidewinders at such altitudes was to get below the target and fire with a cooler sky for a background, thus easing the missile seeker’s heat discrimination problem. However, with the Hunters skimming the treetops, going any lower was out of question. Alam’s predicament was soon resolved when the Hunters pulled up to clear a stretch of high-tension cables. In good range, dead line astern and hearing a loud growl that signalled a positive heat source, Alam couldn’t have asked for better firing conditions. He let go his second Sidewinder, but didn’t see it hit directly. With an apparent proximity detonation, the missile warhead had dangerously ruptured the Hunter’s fuel lines. Jog’s formation members heard desperate messages of illuminated warning lights and engine rough-running from the stricken pilot. Overshooting the crippled Hunter, Alam noticed with amazement that its canopy was missing and there was no pilot inside. With other Hunters as well as his own wingman to keep an eye on, Alam had obviously missed the ejection sequence. Looking around, he noticed the pilot coming down by parachute. Bhatti, who was watching from a distance, recalls, “While Alam was chasing, I continued to look out for other Hunters as I hadn’t yet given up the prospects of achieving a kill. We were just short of the river when a flash in the sky caught my eye and I observed an aircraft go down in flames. I learnt later that the pilot had ejected shortly before the aircraft hit the ground.”

Sqn Ldr Onkar Nath Kacker had come down near Burjlal, a village (now abandoned) by the bank of Chenab River, about 25 miles south-east of Sargodha. Quick-witted, he got rid of his map and log card as well as the badges on his flying coveralls. As the villagers rushed towards him, he cleverly introduced himself as a PAF pilot. The gullible village folk, who had never seen a fighter pilot for real, were easily taken in. An instant hero, Kacker became the centre of adulation as large crowds gathered. Seeming to be in a hurry to get back to duty after a refreshing cup of tea, he demanded arrangements for a horse-ride till the main road so that he could flag a bus for his home Base, Sargodha! Kacker almost made a getaway but for a sharp-eyed villager, Imdad Hussain Shah, who noted Kacker’s demeanour with some suspicion. A smart check of the flying suit brand gave away the ‘Made in India’ label and, an ashen-faced Kacker found himself trussed up in front of the speechless villagers. A few hours later, a search party from Lalian Police Station arrived and mercifully, saved Kacker from a crowd that was angry and sneering by then. He spent the next five months as a POW[3].

Alam had lost sight of the other Hunters, but with ample fuel he was prepared to fly some distance to catch up with them. Soon after crossing the Chenab River, his wingman Akhtar called out, “Contact, Hunters one o’clock.” They were flying at 100-200 ft and around 480 knots. As Alam closed in to gunfire range, the Hunters did a half-hearted defensive turn which did nothing to spoil his aim; rather, it set them up in line astern for easy shooting in a row. Alam fired at the last Hunter against the glow of the rising sun and saw fuel spew out of the drop tanks, which had taken hits from the Sabre’s six guns. In a hurry to score fast, Alam shifted his aim ahead on to the next aircraft and fired another short burst. The Hunters seemed to fly across Alam’s gunsight like a gaggle of geese, and he obliged repeatedly, four times in all.

Headed towards Sargodha, Wg Cdr Toric Zachariah, Officer Commanding of No 7 Squadron based at Halwara, had been leading the third raid with five Hunters. The formation included Sqn Ldr A S Lamba, Sqn Ldr M M Sinha, Sqn Ldr S B Bhagwat and Flg Off J S Brar, the latter two performing the role of armed escorts. Flying at low level, they were expecting a criss-cross with No 27 Squadron Hunters that were on their way out. However, just after crossing Sangla Hill, Lamba noticed two Sabres at 11 o’clock position, about 4,000 ft high, diving down. He immediately ordered a hard turn to the left and Zachariah followed up with instructions to abort the mission and exit. Bhagwat and Brar, however, made the fatal mistake of engaging without jettisoning their external stores[4]. Weighed down by ordnance, the Hunters had no chance and were picked off in quick succession. The wrecks of the two aircraft along with the remains of the pilots were found in the fields near Siranwali Bulher and Chahoor Mughlian, two villages near the small town of Sangla Hill[5].

Jog’s formation meanwhile, collected itself and sped away, having miraculously survived Alam’s onslaught. Jog and his wingman Choudhry had, however, received hits and their aircraft were badly holed up, as they were to discover later after landing[6]. Rathore and Parihar had remained unscathed. The four Hunters that had been hit were, in fact, from different formations; by an amazing coincidence and bad timing, they had ended up in a horrific jumble!

No 27 Squadron’s egressing and No 7 Squadron’s ingressing formations were about a mile apart when they flew past each other’s port sides, near Sangla Hill. As Alam dived down upon Jog’s Hunters tail-on, Lamba had spotted Bhatti’s pair appearing at a frontal aspect; thinking that they were being attacked, he called a hard turn to the left. Once Alam was through with firing at Jog and Choudhry in about half a turn, Bhagwat and Brar were neatly placed in line of fire for the second half.

If Lamba had somehow known that Bhatti was really out of the fight, having had a hung drop tank a short while ago, No 7 Squadron’s strike could have pressed on. However, with Arif’s Starfighter lurking on top, the inevitable would only have been delayed a few more minutes. A warning call by Jog might have helped, but that was possible only if he had enough time to change over to Zachariah’s radio frequency. It all happened so fast that even Alam was confounded.

Zachariah’s pilots, as might have Jog’s, considered themselves fortunate that Alam wasn’t aware of the mass exodus that was under way. Unleashing his wingman could have doomed several more of the fleeing raiders. Nonetheless, three Hunters shot down and two damaged was not a bad tally, considering that for some anxious minutes, Alam and his wingman were up against nine of them!

Obviously pleased with himself, Alam announced to the radar controller that he had shot down five Hunters. An ace-in-a-mission must have sounded like a splendid achievement and, the news spread like wildfire right up to the highest echelons. Alam had barely stepped back in the squadron when Radio Pakistan announced the unparalleled feat of jet combat. The die had been cast; confirmation of the kills was now of little consequence. Alam’s prolific shooting in the war had, however, left a tidy balance in his account. Besides the ‘damages’ which, in the heat of combat got overestimated as kills, Alam went on to bag five aircraft[7] in just three dogfights, including the speed-shooting classic at Sangla Hill. For his superb performance in that mission, Alam was awarded a ‘Bar[8]’ to the Sitara-i-Jur’at that he had already earned a day earlier for his first successful encounter with the Hunters. He continues to remain the top-scoring pilot of the sub-continent, a region that has witnessed numerous dogfights in two major conflicts. Alam is rightly worthy of a place in the annals of air warfare as ‘one of the great aces of jet age[9].’


[1] India’s Official History of Indo-Pak War, 1965 acknowledges ten aircraft destroyed and three damaged, during the Pathankot raid.
[2] IAF is uncertain if the strike reached Chota Sargodha, as gun camera ciné seems to suggest that the target may have been mistaken for Wegowal.
[3] Six surviving eyewitnesses of erstwhile Burjlal village (now relocated in Changranwala due to floods) were interviewed recently (2000). All clearly remembered having seen Kacker’s aircraft being hit, catching fire and, tail section breaking up, contrary to Kacker’s claim of experiencing an engine flame-out at exactly the same instant. Details of Kacker’s escape charade were narrated by surviving villagers. His POW interrogation report also recounts the incident.
[4] The wreckage of Bhagwat’s Hunter included ‘twelve bombs of various sizes,’ as recorded by security staff that seemed unfamiliar with aircraft ordnance; these were actually T-10 rockets. This important configuration detail seems to have been overlooked in Carless’ painting as well.
[5] The remains of Sqn Ldr Bhagwat were taken away by officials of Sangla Hill Police Station and buried in its precincts; those of Flg Off Brar were buried in Acre # 21, Square # 56, now belonging to Mr Noor Muhammad of Siranwali Bulher village.
[6] IAF accounts state that Jog and Choudhry saw the Sabre fire at them and they took evasive action. The timing of the Sabre’s attack is, however, incorrectly stated as being just after the exit from Sargodha. Alam fired his guns four times in succession near Sangla Hill only and, not on any other occasion. No other pilot fired his guns during the engagement.
[7] Alams kills:
– 6th Sep, One Hunter, Sqn Ldr Ajeet Kumar Rawlley, No 7 Squadron, KIA, near Tarn Taran.
– 7th Sep, Three Hunters; Sqn Ldr Onkar Nath Kacker, No 27 Squadron, POW, Burjlal; Sqn Ldr Suresh B Bhagwat and Flg Off Jagdev Singh Brar, No 7 Squadron, KIA, near Sangla Hill.
– 16th Sep, One Hunter, Flg Off Farokh Dara Bunsha, No 7 Squadron, KIA, near Amritsar.
[8] A metallic ‘bar’ on a ribbon denotes an additional award.
[9] Tribute by Jon Guttman in ‘Pakistan’s Sabre Ace,’ Aviation History, Sep 1998.

This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005. It was also published in Defence Journal, Sep 2001 issue, as well as the daily newspaper, The News International on 6 Sep 2006.