21 February 2011

Air Defence in Northern Sector - 1971 War

With just four low level radars available in the northern air defence sector, there was no possibility of providing uninterrupted coverage along the border, including the battle areas. The large gaps could be easily exploited by tree-top hugging intruders for knocking out PAF bases and radar stations, before turning their attention to the battlefield. It was surmised by the PAF Air Staff that the few low level radars could be best utilised for providing cover to the bases, thus at least ensuring PAF’s viability for the all-important task of tactical air support. The only problem with this scheme, and a major one at that, was the rear location of radars which offered barely three minutes early warning; this was considered insufficient even for vectoring nearby standing CAPs. It was hoped that some early warning by MOUs would contribute gainfully, by adding to the reaction time.

Gp Capt Rehmat Khan, the Sector Commander, Sector Operations Centre (North) located at Sakesar, had a patchwork of reasonably modern sensors at his disposal, but far short of the optimum numbers required for an effective air defence ground environment. High level radar surveillance in the northern sector rested with a high-powered FPS-20 radar at Sakesar, while a Condor radar each at Chuhr Kana, Muridke and Tatepur near Multan, provided medium level cover. Low level cover rested with four AR-1 radars located at Rafiqui, Cherat, Kallar Kahar and Kirana. The hill-top locations of radars at the latter three locations were seen as a significant plus, due to an extension in the radar pick up range by as much as 50%. Major towns like Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Lahore, Lyallpur and Multan, however, lay outside the low level radar cover.

Location of bases at Mianwali, Murid, Peshawar, Risalewala, Rafiqui and Sargodha served the air defence requirements over the battle areas reasonably well and provided sufficient redundancy. Day interceptors in the northern sector included 48 F-6, 32 F-86E, 32 F-86F and 23 Mirage IIIE/R/D. Of the latter, 17 Mirage IIIE sub-types also doubled as night interceptors. These had Cyrano II airborne radar, but it was practically useless in the look-down mode, being a simple pulse radar prone to ground clutter. It was, however, presumed that the Cyrano might be of some use in a ground controlled interception at night, if a less clutter prone low-to-high profile could be pulled off, somehow. Interceptors were equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles and cannon/guns for the air defence role.

The strategy of defending the bases, first and foremost, depended on being able to intercept the intruders before they released their weapons. With the inadequate early warning however, it seemed that PAF would have to be content with grabbing the ‘fleeing burglar’s loincloth,’ so to speak.

Intercepting the Intruders

The morning of 4 December promised action, as the IAF was expected to retaliate forcefully in response to PAF’s strikes against some of the Indian airfields, the previous evening and through the night. The PAF was ready, with fighters continuously patrolling the skies since first light.

No 23 Squadron pilots at Risalewala had been tidily scheduled for the day’s proceedings. Around 0930 hrs, as F-6s for the day’s sixth mission were taxiing out of their pens, an air raid warning was sounded. A mission abort was ordered and loudspeakers relayed instructions for everyone to take cover. Flt Lt Javed Latif who was on cockpit standby, started to unstrap from his F-6 for a quick egress. Momentarily glancing out of the pen opening to see what was going on, he was aghast to see a Su-7 diving down straight at his aircraft. “The scary sight of an intake pointing at me is still etched fresh in my memory,” recalls Latif. As he jumped out of his F-6 to take cover, a salvo of rockets landed smack on the pen.[1] Still scampering towards a trench, Latif was rattled by cannon fire from the second Su-7 as the bullets landed a few yards away. Then the raid was over as suddenly as it had started, and the AAA died down too, as if heralding an all-clear. Dusting himself and recovering his composure, Latif rushed to his pen to help put out the fire caught by the hessian camouflage covering. Luckily, his F-6 was unharmed except for a few nicks from slivers of falling plaster. “I was seething with anger at having been violated thus, and hurried to strap up again to settle the score,” recalls Latif.

Shortly thereafter, a scramble was ordered for the next pair but confusion reigned as the taxi way had been blocked by the F-6s of the previous aborted mission. This led to yet another abort at a critical time but the situation was salvaged when Latif, who was standing by for a later mission, took charge and hit the starter button on his own. Just as he was taxiing out, his crew chief came rushing towards the aircraft, signalling for a switch off as another air raid warning had been notified. “My mind was racing and I had already decided in a split of a second – I was going to take my chances flying and I was not going to repeat the fiasco of the last pair,” Latif recollects.

Over-ruling the Air Traffic Control’s somewhat confused recall message, Latif checked if his No 2 was also taxiing out. Hearing no response, he decided to take-off alone. Changing over to the radar frequency, he heard an eager voice wanting to join up as his wingman. It was Flt Lt Riffat Munir on patrol from the fifth mission, whose leader had aborted due to a technical problem. The new partners were only too glad to find themselves as a viable combat entity again. It wasn’t long before the ground radar handed the pair over to ‘Killer Control,’ a cleverly-perched look-out tasked to visually guide the interceptors about the raiders’ position with the help of geographic landmarks. Flt Lt Ahmed Khattak’s confident voice called out that two Su-7s were pulling up for an attack from the north-westerly direction, and he pointed out their position over the main water tank. After jettisoning their drop tanks and charging their guns, Latif and Riffat confirmed visual contact with both Su-7s.

As the attackers approached the airfield, Latif easily positioned behind one of them while Riffat cleared tails. Firing all three of his cannon, Latif waited for some fireworks. Noticing that the aircraft was still flying unharmed, he fired another long burst till all his ammunition was exhausted. Just as he was expecting his quarry to blow up, he felt a huge thud. Thinking that he had been hit by the other Su-7, he broke right and then reversed left but found no one in the rear quarters. Checking for damage, he found that the left missile was not there and the launcher was shattered. The AAA shells bursting in puffs all around the airfield confirmed his suspicion that he had taken a ‘friendly’ hit, but luckily the aircraft was fully under control. Pressing on, he started to look for the escaping Su-7s and within moments, was able to pick one of them trailing a streak of whitish smoke. Convinced that it was the same one he had hit earlier, and assuming it to be crippled, Latif decided to go for the other Su-7. He spotted it straight ahead, flying over the tree tops at a distance of two miles. Engaging afterburners, he closed in for a Sidewinder shot but could not get a lock-on tone. To his dismay, he realised that the missile tone was routed through the circuitry of the left missile which had been shot off. Getting below the Su-7, he fired without a tone nonetheless, half expecting it to connect, if at all it fired. Moments later, he heard Riffat’s excited voice on the radio, “Good shooting, leader, you got him!” Not sure if he had really hit him as he had not seen any explosion, Latif was soon relieved to see the Su-7 roll over inverted and hit the ground.[2]

Flt Lt Harvinder Singh of Halwara-based No 222 Squadron went down with his aircraft near Rurala Railway Station. Riffat’s chase of the second Su-7 (flown by the mission leader, Sqn Ldr B S Raje) had to be cut short as he was getting low on fuel and his leader was out of ammunition. No 23 Squadron had drawn first blood after an eventful morning that saw Latif doggedly in business after surviving rocket and AAA hits.

Murid Base was particularly vulnerable to surprise attack from a north-easterly direction. Intruders from Pathankot could nestle against the Parmandal Range, before swinging in from Naushahra-Rajauri side in held-Kashmir. To counter this susceptibility, F-86Fs from No 15 Squadron were providing constant CAPs since first light. On the morning of 4 December at around 1030hrs, Flt Lt Mujahid Salik and Flg Off Sarfaraz Toor, who were on patrol, were directed by Kallar Kahar Radar to intercept a pair of Hunters heading towards the Base. By the time the F-86 pair collected itself for the interception, the Hunters were through with the raid and were egressing. The F-86s spotted one Hunter on the exit heading called out by the radar and Mujahid started to settle behind it. Toor, meanwhile, restively looked around for the second one which was being reported in the rear quarters. The F-86s had somehow ended up being sandwiched between the Hunters. Toor was lucky to spot the Hunter trying to catch up behind him, and instantly went into a tight break, blacking out in the process. The Hunter tried to hold a gun tracking solution for about 60 degrees before realising the futility of it all, and rolled out to join his wingman. Mujahid, in the meantime, had intently chased his quarry and managed to gun it down as it came up against a hill crest, about 24-nm east of Murid. The Hunters had made the cardinal mistake of exiting in line-astern after the attack, rather than quickly reforming in disciplined battle formation for visual cross cover. Flg Off Sudhir Tyagi, of Pathankot-based No 27 Squadron, had to pay with his life due to his leader’s solo flight, at a time when he (Tyagi) was falling into Mujahid’s clutches and needed support.

Rushing back to his parent base at Peshawar from Karachi, where he was running an official errand, Flt Lt Salim Baig Mirza reached his unit at daybreak of 4 December. It wasn’t long before an exhausted Baig and his mission leader, Flt Lt Khalid Razzak, found themselves strapped up in their F-86Fs for air defence alert duty.

After waiting in their cockpits for an excruciating three hours, the pair was scrambled and directed to fly in a south-easterly direction at 5,000 ft. Barely ten miles out of the airfield, ‘Killer Control’ surprised the interceptors with a report about an attack on the base by enemy Hunters. Rushing back at full speed, Baig spotted one Hunter just south of the base, and guided his leader towards it.

While Khalid dived to position behind the Hunter, Baig stayed higher looking for more; he soon saw another Hunter maneuvering to get behind his leader. Khalid had, by then, commenced firing his guns at the first Hunter. In a snap, Baig rolled over and swooped down to get behind the second one.

The dogfight had rapidly descended to a dangerously low height of about 100 ft, with four fighters flying in a very tight circle at a speed of around 400 kts. “The first Hunter that was being shot at by Khalid was somewhat out of range,” recalls Baig. “About a mile behind him was the second Hunter blazing away its four 30mm guns but the bullets were impacting the ground way short of the target, as I could make out from the small puffs of dust.” Baig, being the last one in the tail chase, had started firing a long burst at the second Hunter from about 3,000 ft. He was closing in fast, aiming to quickly finish it off before Khalid fell in harm’s way.

In the melee, Baig was continuously warning his leader about the position of the second Hunter which was rapidly closing in. Sensing the critical situation, Baig warned his leader to break off the attack which he did, just in time. “At the same instant, I saw a puff of thick black smoke appearing from the right wing root of the Hunter that was still in my gunsight,” remembers Baig. A few seconds later, the aircraft rolled over and crashed in a huge ball of fire. Its wreckage was found about five miles south-west of the base near Bara village. Flg Off K P Muralidharan had been unable to eject and went down with his aircraft.

The Hunters were able to inflict some damage to a maintenance hangar. However, the luckless pair had found a bevy of dummy aircraft on the tarmac too inviting, and had gone in for a second strafing attack; this resulted in grave consequences as it allowed the interceptors to catch up and position themselves for the kill.

While the F-86 pilots were excitedly focused on the kill, the lead Hunter managed to escape. It was later learnt that Sqn Ldr Bajpai was able to put down his bullet-riddled aircraft at Jammu airfield, only to wreck it completely after slamming into a truck at the end of the under-construction runway.

Shortly before sunset on the same day, Sakesar radar reported a raid heading towards Mianwali. Sqn Ldr Ehsan and Flg Off Qazi Javed of No 25 Squadron, who were on ‘cockpit standby’ in the hessian-covered pens, started their F-6s and within minutes, were taxiing out for take-off. Just then, Javed reported seeing two Hunters pull up for an attack. Sensing that they had been caught on the ground at the wrong time, Ehsan decided on a hasty take-off and pushed up the throttles to execute a sharp turn on to the runway. Unfortunately, use of excessive power caused him to veer off into the ‘kutcha.’ Stuck in the mud, he became an unwitting spectator as the Hunters delivered their attacks.

In the meantime, Javed decided to take-off without his leader. Just as he lined up, he saw the lead Hunter strafing way far to the left of the runway. With half his worries suddenly over, Javed started rolling but danger from the second Hunter remained, as it had all the time to aim carefully and take a hearty shot. Anxious, Javed craned his neck back only to see the Hunter’s cannon blazing at him. “I thought his dive was too shallow, and at the close distance he was, the bullets would overshoot,” Javed recalls his rather masterly prediction. Mercifully, the bullets did land 200 feet ahead and towards the left, so Javed continued his take-off.

Once airborne, keeping the Hunter in sight was a problem in the fast-fading light. Speeding at 900 kph, Javed remembered that he had not jettisoned his drop tanks. When he did get rid of them at such a high speed, he induced a porpoise but was somehow able to ride it out. Charging in at 1,100 kph, he had closed in to about a mile and a half, which was just the right range for a Sidewinder shot. He fired his first missile and when he did not see it connect, fired the second one. That too went into the ground. “All this while the Hunter pilot seemed totally oblivious of what was going on and his leader was nowhere in sight, so I gleefully decided to press on for a gun attack,” says Javed. “Since things had been happening too fast, I had forgotten to charge my guns after take-off. Having done that, I first fired with my centre gun till all its ammunition was spent.[3] With the Hunter still flying unharmed, I decided to continue firing with the side guns. After a few frustrating bursts, I closed in to about 1,000 ft and fired a real lengthy one. Luckily, the last few bullets of the volley struck the right wing as I noticed a flash. The aircraft pitched up and rolled over to the right. I only learnt of the pilot’s ejection later, as I had to break away to avoid overshooting the out-of-control Hunter.”

The aircraft fell about 14 nautical miles north-east of Mianwali. Flg Off Vidyadhar Shankar Chati of the Pathankot-based No 27 Squadron, when interrogated about the circumstances of his shooting down, said he suspected he had been brought down by ground fire! Duck shoot it was, over the idyllic Khabbaki Lake, but Chati should have known better where the bullets really came from. Ironically, the pilots of No 27 Squadron who had been declared the ‘Top Guns’ of IAF’s Western Air Command during a gunnery meet prior to the war, had failed to shoot up the conspicuously exposed F-6s on the runway.

The test of the Mirage’s capabilities as an interceptor came on the night of 4 December, when Flt Lt Naeem Atta was scrambled from Mianwali. The ground controller vectored Atta on to an intruder heading west, towards Mianwali. “The controller was able to position me three miles astern of the low flying target, but in a pitch dark night, there was no prospect of visual contact,” remembers Atta.

As the Salt Range loomed ahead, the target started climbing to avoid the hilly terrain. “Unexpectedly, this meant that the target was also easing out of ground clutter and there was a good probability that it would be painted by my radar,” recalls Atta. Unknown to him, the Cyrano radar had been in standby mode, as Atta had not been careful in selecting his switches in a hurry. On the radar controller's reminder, Atta rechecked the selection to transmit mode, and was soon able to report a blip on his radar scope at an optimum IR-missile shooting distance of one-and-a-half mile, dead tail-on. Following radar lock-on, the missile’s seeker head swung to the heat source, and a growl in Atta’s earphones confirmed a launch-ready condition; the intruder’s fate was sealed. Moments after launching the AIM-9B Sidewinder, Atta saw a huge fireball silhouetting an aircraft in the night sky.

Next morning, the wreckage of a Canberra (IF 916) was confirmed at the village of Nara located at the western edge of the Salt Range, not too far from Khushab town. The aircrew, including the pilot Flt Lt Lloyd Moses Sasoon and navigator Flt Lt Ram Metharam Advani, belonging to the Agra-based Jet Bomber Conversion Unit, were killed on impact.[4]

The high-powered FPS-20 radar at Sakesar, had received considerable attention on the first day of the war. Shortly after mid-day on 5 December, a pair of Hunters from No 27 Squadron was again able to sneak in and attack the radar with rockets and cannon.

Patrolling nearby, over the picturesque Salt Range, were two F-6s of No 25 Squadron flown by Wg Cdr Sa’ad Hatmi and Flt Lt Shahid Raza. They were immediately vectored by the radar towards the exiting Hunters but it was a while before Hatmi spotted the pair. As the Hunters sped away over the hilly terrain, Hatmi wisely decided not to waste his missiles in the unfavourable background clutter. Using his guns instead, he made short work of one of the Hunters which fell 15 miles east of Sakesar. The pilot, Flg Off Kishan Lal Malkani, was killed.

Next, Flt Lt Shahid Raza, who had all along kept the second Hunter in sight, closed in and opened fire with his guns which found their mark. The pilot, Flt Lt Gurdev Singh Rai, who was the leader of the mission, and had twice visited Sakesar on the previous day, ran out of luck this time. He met his end when his Hunter crashed near the small town of Katha Saghral at the foothills of Salt Range.

The attack by the Hunter pilots was not in vain, as they managed to pull off two strafing runs each. The FPS-20 surveillance radar and the FPS-6 height finder antennae were badly damaged, while considerable electronic equipment and cables were destroyed. The radar remained out of operation for three days, before spares were rushed in and repairs carried out.

Later that afternoon, a lone intrepid Hunter was able to sneak in for yet another successful attack on Sakesar radar, adding to the damage and destruction caused by the previous Hunter pair.[5] After the attack, however, a clean getaway for a singleton, right under the noses of patrolling interceptors, was an improbable prospect. As expected, the Hunter was intercepted by two Mirages scrambled from Mianwali. The pair was led by Flt Lt Safdar Mahmood, with Flg Off Sohail Hameed as his wingman.

Diving down from the hills, the Hunter had built up speed, but not enough to elude the far swifter Mirages. With the help of instructions from the ground controller, Safdar was able to catch up and settle behind the Hunter, to start his shooting drill. A couple of well-placed bursts of the 30-mm cannon got the Hunter smoking. As Safdar held off while watching his quarry in its last throes, Sohail picked up the smouldering aircraft and let off a Sidewinder missile to finish it off.

Just before the aircraft impacted the ground, the pilot ejected but it was too late. Sqn Ldr Jal Maneksha Mistry of No 20 Squadron was found fatally injured. The wreckage of the Hunter (A 1014) was strewn near the small town of Kattha Saghral.

Chamb was one of the few sectors where Pak Army had made significant advances, and the Indian XV Corps desperately sought destruction of heavy guns that had been reported in the area. On 6 December, a pair of Su-7s from Adampur-based No 101 Sqn was tasked to locate and destroy the guns. The Su-7s sought out what appeared like hutments concealing the artillery pieces and were rocketing the place.

Flt Lt Salimuddin Awan and his wingman Flt Lt Riazuddin Shaikh, who were patrolling in their Mirages over Gujranwala-Sheikhupura area, were vectored by ground radar onto the two Su-7s. Salimuddin, who was carrying a R-530 radar-guided missile along with two Sidewinders, decided to get rid of the bulky – and rather useless weapon – by just blindly firing it off, so as to lighten up for the chase.

Spotting the Mirages, the Su-7s jettisoned their drop tanks and rocket pods and started exiting east. With the Su-7s doing full speed, a long chase ensued till Riazuddin found himself close enough to fire a missile, but it went straight into the ground. Salimuddin then moved in, and on hearing the lock-on growl, pressed the missile launch button, not once but twice, to be sure. Two Sidewinder missiles shot off from the rails, and moments later, Riazuddin called out that one of the Su-7s had been hit. Salimuddin instantly switched to the other Su-7 and fired his 30-mm cannon. Just then, Salimuddin noted the outlines of Madhopur Headworks near Pathankot, which was not surprising, as they had been chasing the Su-7s for several minutes inside enemy territory, along the Jammu-Kathua Road. Recollecting themselves, the Mirages turned back and recovered at Sargodha with precariously low fuel. Monitoring of VHF radio confirmed a message transmitted to Adampur that an Su-7 had been “fired at … the pilot ejected”.

It was later learnt that the wingman, Flt Lt Vijay Kumar Wahi had succumbed to his ejection injuries. The leader, Sqn Ldr Ashok Shinde, was lucky to bring back his Su-7 which had been damaged by bullet hits. High-speed pursuit was a forte of the Mirage, a lesson learnt by the IAF the hard way, and one time too late.

On the afternoon of 8 December, two patrolling F-6s of No 23 Squadron flown by Wg Cdr S M H Hashmi and Flt Lt Afzal Jamal Siddiqui were vectored on to two Su-7s, just as they were exiting after attacking Risalewala airfield. Hashmi caught up with one of the pair, about ten miles east of the airfield, and let off a Sidewinder at the straggler. The missile homed on unmistakably and the Su-7 exploded above the tree-tops; the pilot was not seen to eject. The remains of Flt Lt Ramesh Gulabrao Kadam[6] were later discovered around the wreckage near the small town of Khalsapur.

Hashmi immediately started looking for the other Su-7, and to be sure of his No 2’s safety, called out for his position. Afzal replied but the transmission was garbled, which Hashmi interpreted as his No 2 being visual with him, and assumed that he was somewhere in the rear quarters. Just then Hashmi picked contact with the second aircraft and did not think twice before launching a missile.

If there was any profile difference between the similar-looking planforms of the Su-7 and F-6, this was surely one time to have had a closer look. His No 2 was nowhere in sight and his frantic unanswered calls to Afzal seemed to confirm Hashmi’s worst fear. Had he mixed up his quarry in the murky winter haze? Afzal, who was chasing the second Su-7 at high speed and had ended up ahead of his leader, was not able to clearly convey his position on a broken radio. Hashmi, an otherwise unflappable squadron commander, should have known better, for he had been too eager for a second kill which unfortunately ended up as a horrific fatality for his wingman.[7]

On one occasion an F-6 was completely outwitted by an Su-7 that it was trying to intercept. Flt Lt S S Malhotra of No 32 Squadron, was flying as a singleton on a photo recce mission over Risalewala on 13 December. Just after completing the photo run, he spotted a patrolling F-6 and took a pot shot before exiting. It was only later that Malhotra learnt of Flt Lt Ejazuddin’s ejection over his home Base.

An Incredible 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. 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, therefore, 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 gave a panic ‘break’ call. Mohan reacted as any fighter pilot would have done in that situation. He yanked back on the control column 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.”[8] 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.

A Classic Dogfight 

On the last day of the war, two F-86Es Sabres 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.

As expected, the reaction was swift when two MiG-21s of No 45 Squadron scrambled from Amritsar, to intercept the Sabre CAP. Sneaking in at low level, the MiGs were out of PAF’s radar cover but their VHF radios[9] 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. 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.

Maqsood recalls being struck by the aircraft’s 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!

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.[10] 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 friendship with some of the PAF pilots[11] 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 dogfight.

Damage at Bases

The PAF was able to inflict punishment on fleeing raiders only after they had attacked PAF bases and radar installations. For the most part, all raiders went through with weapons delivery. Some of the raids that caused significant damage or destruction on the bases are discussed here.

During an attack on Chaklala on 4 December, two Hunters from Pathankot-based No 20 Squadron damaged a salvaged C-130, along with some damage to the ATC building.[12] Next morning, two Hunters, again from No 20 Squadron, destroyed a UN Twin Otter and a US embassy Beech Queen Air commuter aircraft parked on the tarmac.[13]

On 4 December, two Hunters from No 20 Squadron attacked Murid and were able to destroy an F-86F and damage another, in a strafing attack.[14] Not having learnt a lesson from this attack, the base took the worst beating of the war on the morning of 8 December, when two Hunters from a four-ship formation, yet again from No 20 Squadron, were able to knock out two armed F-86Fs parked in the open. The ensuing inferno caused sympathetic detonation amongst several F-86s parked in hessian-covered pens, nearby. Three more F-86s were thus destroyed and two damaged. Many spare drop tanks were also destroyed.[15]

The forward airfield of Chander was successfully attacked at night by Canberras on several occasions. On the nights of 3/4, 4/5, 5/6 and 6/7 December, a Canberra each, cratered the runway regularly – and accurately – till it was rendered unfit for operations. The night raids were overlaid with day attacks by Su-7s. On the morning of 9 December, a pair of Su-7s delivered fragmentation bombs in the airfield area, rendering any operational activity, including runway repair, untenable. Luckily, the airfield only figured out as a turn-around facility for emergency recoveries, and its immobilisation did not upset PAF plans in any way.

In an attack on the midnight of 3/4 December, a Canberra cratered the fair weather strip adjacent to the main runway at Sargodha. Debris kicked on to the runway took a few hours to be cleared. On the night of 5 December, during an attack by a Canberra, Sargodha runway was cratered, and remained unusable for several hours. A second bomb dropped in the same run landed at an engineering facility, killing two officers who were at work. One of the vintage 3.7” guns of 52 Medium Air Defence Regiment was able to exact instant retribution, so it seemed, when a well-aimed shot hit the intruder. The Canberra struggled to stay aloft for a few minutes, but finally went down near Bhalwal, killing its crew of two.[16]

On the morning of 4 December, a four-ship formation of No 32 Squadron Su-7s operating out of Amritsar, struck Rafiqui Base. The rocket attack resulted in damage to an F-86E parked outside a pen, as also to a transiting B-57 that was being serviced on the tarmac. One dummy aircraft was also destroyed.[17] Early at dawn of 6 December, a Canberra was able to make two craters about half way down the runway, rendering it unusable for the next three-and-a-half days.

Blitz Unchecked

The IAF had a free hand in its interdiction campaign against the railway network, along with a few attacks against targets of strategic importance. Lack of low level radar cover meant that intruders came in completely unobserved and unmolested by interceptors. Shortage of AAA assets resulted in these target areas being unguarded, leaving the attackers with little to worry about during weapon delivery.

The railway network on Sialkot-Shahdara Section, Jhelum-Lahore Section, Lahore-Sahiwal Section, Shahdara-Lyallpur Section, Kasur-Arifwala Section, Mandi Sadiqganj-Samasatta Section and Bahawalpur-Lodhran Section, was attacked incessantly. Twenty-five railway stations on these sections were targeted, with Wazirabad and Kasur receiving as many as five visits each. In general, the railway sectors selected for attacks were mostly those along which the Indians expected, or were aware, that Pakistan Army reinforcements might materialise.

Sixteen trains were also attacked on these sections, while many track segments were damaged. Five of the attacked trains happened to be of ‘special military’ category. The damage incurred on these trains was, however, inconsequential. Neither was any Army movement impeded, nor were any vital supplies interdicted.

It was widely rumoured that enemy agents had been placed at sensitive places for passing timely information about movement of the trains to the IAF via clandestine transmitters. It was also apprehended that such agents might have been receiving information about military trains from sources planted in one of several government departments which had advance information about movement of trains. In the event, the widespread rumours about radio transmitters were unfounded. However, given the facility with which clandestine activities could be undertaken in the socio-culturally similar Punjab area, there are reasons to believe that information about the movement of trains was often available to the enemy. The large number of employees also makes the railway system particularly vulnerable to penetration by enemy intelligence, and the IAF seems to have exploited this weakness well.

Even if one were to avoid reading too much into the purported help from clandestine sources, it would be clearly seen that due to vulnerability of the railway system at large, the IAF felt free to attack it at leisure. Absence of interceptors and AAA only made the interdiction campaign uncomplicated and effortless.

In concert with its interdiction campaign against the railways, the IAF tried its hand at bombing some targets of economic value whose destruction could hamper the war-making potential, albeit over a long term.

On the morning of 6 December a flight of three Hunters from No 20 Squadron[18] attacked Attock Oil Refinery, located at the outer reaches of Rawalpindi. Two strafing runs by the Hunters set fire to several fuel tanks. The AAA defences were taken by surprise, but by the time the guns opened up, the damage had been done. The Hunters survived the AAA barrage, and with no interceptors on patrol, they made good their escape.

The next economic target taken was the power house of Mangla Dam. On the morning of 7 December, a four-ship Hunter formation, again from No 20 Squadron, carried out a rocket attack, but the results were inconclusive due to hung rockets with several members. Another three-ship raid was flown the same afternoon, and some damage was claimed. The dam was defended by AAA, but the attackers were able to catch them unawares by ingressing low. Lack of early warning also precluded the possibility of any interception.

IAF’s lackadaisical strategic bombing campaign in the northern sector did not go beyond the three-odd missions. Interdiction of the railway system was seen as a far more lucrative exercise, due to the complete absence of any sort of defences. Also, interdiction promised rapid results which were of consequence to the on-going land battles, whereas the strategic strikes required a long-term concerted campaign, and were antithetical to an envisaged short war. The IAF strategic bombing effort could, however, be seen as an attempt to further stretch the already thinned Pakistani air defences.

PAF Survives as ‘Force in Being’

For defence of the VAs and VPs in the northern sector, PAF flew a total of 1,417 sorties employing F-6, F-86E/F and Mirage IIIE; these included 1,317 day sorties and 100 night sorties. A total of eleven enemy aircraft were shot down by PAF fighters, all while egressing, after attacking PAF bases or radars.

It was apparent that IAF had changed its strategy of hitting PAF bases, as it turned out to be disruptive at best, and except for one case when Rafiqui was closed down for a considerable period, PAF operations continued apace. The losses incurred by the IAF during these strikes were morale-shattering, though its ability to generate the required flying effort remained unaffected.

Despite scarcity of AAA resources in the battlefield, the Army had whole-heartedly provided cover to all operational PAF bases in the northern sector. AAA proved to be a useful complement to the interceptors, and in a few cases, was able to get hold of the intruders in the terminal phase of the attack, after they had managed to sneak in unseen. Two aircraft were shot down by the guns at Rafiqui, while one was shot down at Sargodha.

The real success of AAA came about over the battlefield where 17 IAF aircraft were shot down in Chamb, Shakargarh, Lahore and Suleimanki Sectors. The role of the Army AAA in helping to maintain a favourable air situation, especially over the battlefield, is indeed commendable.

Defence of the country’s communications infrastructure and energy resources had been put on hold, as the order of priorities seemed to indicate. The looming concern was the do-or-die land battle, which required a totally fixated approach to tactical air support. For this purpose, the PAF managed to remain a ‘force in being’ while inflicting sufficient damage on the IAF during the latter's onslaught.


[1] The pilot of this Su-7 was the OC of No 222 Squadron, Wg Cdr Allan Albert da Costa.
[2] A warhead’s proximity detonation, unlike a direct hit, may not cause an explosion every time.
[3] It was advisable to fire the centre gun and side guns separately to prevent rattle and vibrations, which could loosen or dislodge electrical connectors of radios, etc.
[4] The Canberra's 'Orange Putter' tail warning radar (an active device) was prone to picking up ground clutter, and was usually turned off by the pilots to avoid false alarms at lower altitudes. It is likely that Sasoon had also kept it off.
[5] It is difficult to attribute the exact extent of damage/destruction at Sakesar to either of the two Hunter formations.
[6] The pilot belonged to the Tactics & Air Combat Development Establishment based at Ambala.
[7] Wreckage of Afzal’s F-6 revealed Sidewinder warhead shrapnel embedded in the exhaust area, which quashed speculation that the F-6 may have flown through Kadam’s exploding Su-7.
[8] Chapter X – ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 427.
[9] The IAF used Very High Frequency (VHF) while the PAF used Ultra High Frequency (UHF) for radio communications.
[10] 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.
[11] Flg Offrs 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.
[12] This attack was led by Lt Arun Prakash (an IN pilot on depuation to the IAF), with Flg Off B C Karumbaya as his wingman.
[13] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr R N Bharadwaj, with Flt Lt Gahlaut as his wingman.
[14] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr A A D’Rozario, with Flg Off S Balasubramaniam as his wingman. Two other formation members missed the target and exited.
[15] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr R N Bharadwaj; other formation members included Flt Lt A L Deoskar, Flg Off B C Karumbaya and Flg Off Heble.
[16] The aircrew of the downed Canberra included Flt Lt S K Goswami (pilot) and Flt Lt S C Mahajan (navigator) of Agra-based No 5 Squadron.
[17] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr V K Bhatia; other formation members included Flt Lt A V Sathaye, Flt Lt V V Tambay and Flt Lt M S Grewal.
[18] This attack was led by Wg Cdr C V Parker; other formation members included Sqn Ldr K N Bajpai and Flg Off De Monte.


Aviator said...

Correction To My Last Comment.It Was December !971 War & Not September 1965.

Faisal said...

Thank you for the incredible story about my father (Incredible Kill). Listening to his war stories is always a treat. I hope to see all of them published someday.

pritam said...

Late afternoon on 4th Dec 1971 four SU-7s were intercepted by two Sabre F-86s of the PAF,about 20km NE of Sargodha. The SUs were on a counter air msn to Sargodha. One Sabre,unseen by the No 3 and 4,flying in broad frontage to the right,fired its guns and one Sidewinder msl. Both of the Sukois were hit. The SU leaders aircraft
was badly damaged and he turned LEFT towards base.The second Su (No.2) survived the damage and engaged the lead sabre,forcing it to break off its attack.The leader and the rest of the formation
continued turning right towards Amritsar. The 4th SU ( No.2) engaged the attacking Sabre till it did a last ditch monouver.Out of the 3 retreating Sus one (No3) had engine trouble and got seperated from his leader and wingman, and, alone, was being attacked by another sabre.This second sabre was spotted and engaged by the lone SU (No.2) forcing it to break off its attack.A classic dog fight ensued place, the SU using the vertical plane and the F-86 its tighter turning radius.During this engagement the SUs guns jammed so it fired 32 air to ground rockets at the Sabre!They obviously missed.

Yes!The IAF formation made a big mistake turning the wrong way.

Anyone know who the unlucky PAF pilots were who missed shooting down 4 Sukois and then luckily survived one agressive SU due to his gun jamming?

Cavlino said...

I noticed that almost all the pilots identified to have been killed in this well written account also appear on India's list of 54 PoW's supposedly still in Pak custody.
Did the PAF keep a record of how the pilots' remains were handled or disposed off? Is there any record of where they were burried? This may help a long way to bring closure to the families of unfortunate pilots

Unknown said...

Great piece! I just have a question regarding the priorities of the PAF here, based on your following remark: "the all-important task of tactical air support"

Is CAS really "all-important" though, priorities wise? Shouldn't CAP/Air-Superiority and Strike, be more of a priority for any air force? The USAF, these days, takes a lot of heat for hating the CAS role (which it originally adopted to preserve funding) but has recently tried to distance itself from this task completely. And I see good reason why it should. I would think the Army is much better suited to provide its own tactical CAS using gunships/Attack helicopters/CruiseMissiles etc... and leaving the Air Force to prioritize strategic requirements first, since after all, if Strike and Air Superiority succeed, then Tactical CAS can always be carried out with impunity afterwards...