20 November 2008

Mystery of the Downed Mystère

At the IAF Headquarters in Delhi, the Air Staff mulled over the response to PAF’s pre-emptive strikes of 6th September 1965 and came up with a belated plan to hit Sargodha. With Pathankot still nursing its wounds, it fell to the lot of Adampur and Halwara to spearhead IAF’s retaliation. Mystères[1] from Adampur were to open the proceedings on the dawn of 7th September. As the orders got delegated, Wg Cdr O P Taneja, Officer Commanding of No 1 Squadron was assigned to lead the first twelve-ship raid on Sargodha, while Sqn Ldr ‘Mickey’ Jatar of No 8 Squadron was to lead an eight-ship attack against Bhagtanwala. Both strikes had a planned Time-On-Target of 0530 hrs (PST), which was about fifteen minutes before sunrise, barely bright for accurate navigation and weapons delivery.

Despite marginal visibility, Jatar’s formation managed to reach Bhagtanwala; however, it turned out to be an exercise in futile rocketing and strafing of decoys at an emergency landing strip, which had been erroneously believed to be fully operational. A safe exit by the full complement was the only worthwhile achievement of No 8 Squadron.

Taneja’s raid was eventful though, with things starting to happen soon after take-off. Even before they had formed up in a stream of three sections of four Mystères each, two aircraft from the second section developed snags and aborted. The ground reserve, Sqn Ldr A B Devayya, was called up to fill in. Shortly thereafter, the third section had to abort the mission after its leader, Sqn Ldr Sudarshan Handa[2], lost visual contact with the formation ahead and drifted off course.

Although Sargodha had already launched a Combat Air Patrol of two Sabres and a lone Starfighter, the first inkling of IAF’s arrival was the sight of six Mystères pulling up to deliver their attack at 0538 hrs (PST). Taneja’s raid had achieved complete surprise and Sargodha lay at the mercy of No 1 Squadron. “The first we knew about the raid was when we heard the thunder of rockets followed by the stutter of cannon,” recollected Gp Capt Zafar Masud, Station Commander Sargodha.

As at other operational bases, Sargodha too had its squadron of wooden decoys. Taneja’s pilots were quick to train their guns and rockets on the enticing dummies, one of which obligingly caught fire. Implausible as it may seem, six of the real planes escaped unscathed, despite being dangerously exposed at the Operational Readiness Platform. Throwing away a singular opportunity of avenging Pathankot’s battering, the Mystères pulled out of their attack and exited.

Just as the six Mystères were re-forming on their way out, the lone reserve Mystère piloted by Devayya streamed in. Surviving the Anti Aircraft Artillery fire, which by now had become quite intense and focused, he carried out a quick attack and scurried off at low level. Flt Lt Amjad Hussain Khan of No 9 Squadron, who had been flying the Starfighter, was ‘vectored’ by Sakesar radar to catch up with the raid exiting south-east; obviously, the first target he saw was the straggler, Sqn Ldr Devayya’s Mystère.

Charging in at great speed, Amjad got behind Devayya’s low-flying Mystère and let loose a Sidewinder missile, only to see it plonk into the ground. With a poor heat discrimination capability, the first generation heat-seekers could not tell the difference between jet exhaust and hot terrain. Amjad had taken a chance at a mile-long shot but as he closed in, he switched to the deadly six-barrelled Vulcan revolver-cannon. Its 20mm bullets fired at such a tremendous rate that inside the cockpit, it sounded like a piece of canvas was being ripped up. Amjad recalls that as he opened fire, the bullets didn’t quite land on the aircraft. Realising that his pipper was a bit off-target he corrected and fired again. The Mystère broke to the right, appearing to pass through the steady stream of bullets. Certain that the stricken aircraft was doomed, Amjad broke off to improve his tally.

On the lookout for other Mystères, Amjad soon spotted one that was turning for him. To give himself enough manoeuvring room, Amjad pulled up for a ‘yo-yo’ bouncing upto 7,000 ft and then down to low level again. As he tried to get behind the Mystère, Amjad realised that he was up against a very determined pilot who was unwilling to give any quarter. Amjad was forced to do another ‘yo-yo’ to prevent an overshoot. The fight dragged on for a while and, with a series of turns into each other, developed into a classic ‘scissors’ manoeuvre. Manoeuvrability is not what the Starfighter was designed for. With diminutive, razor-sharp wings and a powerful engine, it could substitute as a rocket for astronaut training. However, the thin wings were woefully inadequate for agility required in the severe world of air combat. This lesson drove home late for Amjad as he pressed the trigger a moment too long for a shot of opportunity, while crossing the Mystère’s tail. With little residual lift available for manoeuvring and high rate of closure, the inevitable happened — the Starfighter rammed into the Mystère! His controls frozen, Amjad ejected with barely enough time for the parachute to blossom fully.

At Kot Nakka, a village about five miles south of Pindi Bhattian, people were starting their daily chores when they heard the sound of jets. Recalls Bashir Ahmed, who was then 37 years old, “two aircraft approached from the direction of Sargodha and got into a turning fight for several minutes. Then the rear aircraft started firing its cannon; it was, however, so fast that it collided with the front one. We saw the pilot of the rear aircraft come down by parachute; it was later learnt that his name was Amjad. The other aircraft went down across Jhang canal close to Hinduana village. Its pilot did not eject and was killed.” Like Bashir, many other residents of Kot Nakka saw the collision[3]. According to them, the PAF pilot had heroically rammed his aircraft when he ran out of ammunition, a lore that survives to this day! After a regal horse ride till the village, Amjad was taken in a procession to Pindi Bhattian where he was applauded as a hero and profusely garlanded. Back to Sargodha by helicopter, Amjad was up for action the same evening.

Devayya had, in fact, survived the first volley of bullets and his aircraft was in control. Undaunted, he had chosen to fight on though he would hardly have enough fuel left to land back safely; but Devayya was destined never to return. Apparently incapacitated by the impact of the collision, he was unable to eject. His body was found intact, thrown clear of the wreckage; it was later buried by the villagers in the nearby fields[4].

Back at Adampur, an anxious Taneja kept waiting for Devayya so that he could join the mission debrief. Everyone hoped that Devayya was taking his time in No 32 Squadron Flight Lines while returning their borrowed aircraft. On inquiry from the Flight Lines, suspicions were confirmed that all was not well. With no details from any quarter, Devayya was eventually listed as missing in action.

Declared dead after a year as per regulations, Devayya would have remained an unsung hero had it not been, ironically, for John Fricker’s book Battle for Pakistan - The Air War of 1965, which was published in 1979. Retired Gp Capt Taneja read the details of Amjad’s dogfight with a ‘second’ Mystère with disbelief. He knew better that no other pilot had had air combat with a Starfighter that fateful morning, so it could be none other than Devayya. He reported the matter to Air Headquarters but no one moved.

The issue got taken up earnestly only in 1987 when retired Air Cdre Pritam Singh, a former Gnat pilot, came across Fricker’s book while researching for the Defence Ministry’s Official History of Indo-Pak War, 1965. With the help of Taneja and his formation members, Pritam pieced together scarce evidence to solve the mystery of the downed Mystère. Reading much into Fricker’s graphic description of how a Mystère was able to outmanoeuvre Amjad’s Starfighter and shoot it down[5], Pritam and Taneja made the cardinal mistake of relying only on one source and jumping to a conclusion. Fricker had, for the most part, hazarded a guess that was supposed to be a more plausible explanation, in contrast to Amjad’s claim of having ‘flown through the debris of his exploding victim.’ If only field research had received due consideration in Fricker’s work, the evidence of numerous eye-witnesses would have led to the right conclusion a long time ago.

For many decades the famous dogfight has confounded historians and air enthusiasts alike. The respective Air Forces cited both pilots for courage as well as their shooting skills. Flt Lt Amjad Hussain was awarded the Sitara-i-Jur’at soon after the war. Sqn Ldr Ajjamada Bopayya Devayya was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra in April 1988, after a passage of 23 years. Not withstanding the inexactitude of Devayya’s citation, it can be said that the medals are testimony to the dogged determination of two air knights, who gave their best in this truly classic duel.
[1] Mystère means ‘mystery’ in French.
[2] Handa repeated the strike a few hours later causing some damage at Sargodha; this included destruction of a Sabre, the only PAF aircraft lost on the ground during the war.
[3] Seven surviving eyewitnesses of Kot Nakka village were interviewed recently (2000). None of them had any doubt about firing by the Starfighter, followed by the mid-air collision.
[4] Devayya’s body was buried in Acre # 3367 (adjacent to Jhang Branch Canal, near Hinduana village) now belonging to Mr Mohammad Ali of Kot Nakka village.
[5] Given the considerable bit of envy evoked by the ‘F-104 dandies,’ it is entirely possible that Fricker may have been fed the story of Amjad’s ‘shooting down’ by some disconsolate character.

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.


Nagaraj, India said...

"it can be said that the medals are testimony to the dogged determination of two air knights, who gave their best in this truly classic duel".
I am moved by appreciation the author has for Indian pilot. This professional approach of his makes me read his blogs.

Anonymous said...

Nagaraj...what you said is true... The author is an amazing man. We need people like him.
Just to let you know...Iam from the same town from where Devayya comes.. KODAGU (Coorg district). And my grandmothers sister was married to Sqd Leader. Devaiah! and i just met her last evening. Thanks Kaiser. One day i hope and will see his grave :-( (my grandmom and others also wish the same i guess)

Unknown said...

well done Kaiser for giving so clear account of this great battle.

Abhi said...

One question Sir, compared to gnats what was the technical superiority of Sabre and Star fighters, haven't seen you mentioning that but anywhere

Kaiser Tufail said...

Abhi, here are my comments about the Gnat, Sabre and Starfighter (though this post covers a dogfight between the Mystere and the Starfighter):

GNAT - The ‘Jew’s Harp’ would not be a misplaced moniker for the diminutive Gnat, which vied for a place amongst an ensemble of more daunting fighters. A fine blend of performance and manoeuvrability, it had a relatively high T-W ratio for a subsonic fighter, giving it good acceleration, while its low wing loading and relatively higher aspect ratio conferred it with an impressive turning ability. Due to its small size, the Gnat surprised its opponents on many an occasion when it was sighted too late. This attribute especially, made it a formidable fighter in air combat. The Gnat’s size was, however, also a liability in so far as it did not permit large external loads, and restricted it to the role of a point defence interceptor. Propensity of its guns to jam was a sore point with pilots, as was claimed to have happened in combat on more than one occasion. The Gnat had a reasonably good fuel fraction, which at first sight would appear quite unlikely.

SABRE - Though of Korean War vintage, the F-86F Sabre continued to soldier on in many air forces, due largely to laurels earned during that conflict. It was a good fighter from the point of view of manoeuvrability, as the low wing loading and high aspect ratio would suggest. Its low T-W ratio however was no help in preventing speed from bleeding off in sustained combat. Paradoxically, this was an advantage that turned the tables on many an opponent because of the Sabre’s superb low speed handling, thanks to a fine slatted wing. An excellent all-round view from the bubble canopy was a delight for the Sabre pilots. The Sabre’s six guns with a total of 1,800 rounds provided enough firing time to target several aircraft, as was demonstrated at least once in the 1965 War. The Canadair CL-13 Sabre Mk-6 (named F-86E in the PAF, not to be confused with the regular North American Aviation ‘E’ model) was slightly better endowed than the ‘F’ model in terms of T-W ratio, due to a more powerful engine.

STARFIGHTER - The F-104A Starfighter’s high T-W ratio coupled with a streamlined supersonic design, positively impacted acceleration, maximum speed and rate of climb. A good fuel fraction ensured that it could maintain its high performance long enough. As far as manoeuvrability is concerned, the Starfighter was an utter disappointment due to the very high wing loading and low aspect ratio. Its Gatling gun firing 66 rounds a second was a marvel, as much as the platform on which it was mounted. Armed with Sidewinder missiles and endowed with fantastic pursuit performance, the Starfighter generated enough awe, if not a high turn rate, to keep its adversaries at bay!

Unknown said...

Well chronicled Kaiser! With your signature mix of professionalism and objectivity. Giving credit where due.
Though about the F104, dare say that in reality, it carried more a pretense of being a conveyor of 'shock and awe'. Rather then being that in actuality. Considering that its effectiveness (due its design features) lay in the high level plane. (Say 25,000 feet and above). While during the decades when Indo-Pak wars took place, Air Operations would be carried out at Medium to Low Level.So guess Brij Pal Singh Sikand, perhaps acted in haste by landing at the abandoned airfield of Pasrur!!! Just a view! S M Abbas

Srinivas said...

Air commdre .. Do not know much of your flying skills but must say your writing skills are A1.. It is a pleasure reading your blog ..
BTW I seem to notice Pak military folks who have ventured into writing .. The ready is very pleasurable ..
Brig. Shoukhat Qadir, Ayaz Amir and now you