April 28, 2011

The Gujarat Beechcraft Incident - 1965 War


"It is a twin-engined, twin-tailed aircraft….with four side windows, probably an eight-seater….it is flying at 3,000 ft AMSL. Request further instructions.” Flg Off Qais M Hussain, who had been scrambled from Mauripur Station to check a suspicious radar contact south-west of Bhuj, was reporting to the Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) controller at Badin’s FPS-20 radar[1].

“Standby,” replied the GCI controller Flg Off Aziz A Khan, hesitantly, as he decided to consult the higher ups.

Qais, a rookie who had completed his conversion on F-86s from USA only four months earlier, belonged to No 18 Squadron and was part of a small detachment of pilots that was being rotated at Mauripur, while the rest of the squadron operated out of Sargodha. While on alert duty on 19 September, his F-86F pair was scrambled around 1545 hrs (PST). Qais, however, had to take off as a singleton since his leader, Flt Lt A I Bukhari, had aborted due to a starting problem.  Another standby aircraft, flown by Flt Lt A S Kazmi, took off after a delay of 6-7 minutes, but it never caught up with Qais and continued to hold over the border at 20,000 ft.

Initially, Qais had also been told to climb to 20,000 ft to conserve fuel, but was later directed to descend lower and try to spot the reported contact visually. Somewhere during the descent, Qais lost radio contact with Badin but luckily, Kazmi’s F-86 came in handy as a useful radio relay. Looking around intently, Qais caught a glint of bare metal in the afternoon sun. After having closed in and, having examined his quarry thoroughly, Qais passed his initial report to Badin via Kazmi. He then started orbiting over and around what was only later confirmed as a Beechcraft Model 18 commuter aircraft.

“When I saw this aircraft, I asked myself what was I to do with it,” recollects Qais. To his surprise, the Beechcraft pilot reacted to the interceptor’s presence by climbing up from its cruise altitude of 3,000 ft. Qais thought to himself that if shooting orders came, it would only make his job easy, compared to the trickier high-to-low shooting from stern, had the aircraft ducked down to low level.

“During the anxious wait of several minutes, I was wishing and hoping that I would be called back immediately, without firing any bullets,” recalls Qais pensively. However, the stark orders from Badin were relayed by Kazmi: “You are clear to shoot.” Adjusting himself behind the doomed Beechcraft, Qais fired a short burst from about 1,000 ft and saw a splinter fly off from the left wing. Speeding past the stricken aircraft, Qais readjusted for a second firing pass. Firing a long burst this time, he saw the right wing in flames. Moments later, the Beechcraft nosed over into a near vertical dive and exploded in a ball of fire near the village of Suthali, about half a mile from the coast (about 45 nautical miles WSW of Bhuj). Just then, Kazmi called out that Badin radar was reporting several aircraft – possibly Vampires from Jamnagar, it was thought – heading towards the scene of shooting.

Having flown a good 210 nm from home base and, been aloft for 30 minutes, the fuel state of the F-86 was low and precluded possibility of escape while hugging the ground. Qais was, however, fortunate to stumble onto a towering coastal cloud bank that he could hide behind, while climbing away. Reaching 15,000 ft over the border, Qais started a slow descent for Mauripur. His fuel tanks bone dry, Qais landed through a precautionary flame-out landing pattern.

The same evening it was learnt through All India Radio that the eight people on board the Beechcraft, including the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Balwantrai Mehta, had been killed; also on board were the Chief Minister’s wife, Mrs Sarojben Mehta, three members of the Chief Minister’s personal staff and a press reporter from the daily Gujarat Samachar. The crew of two included an ex-IAF pilot, Jehangir M Engineer, one of IAF’s four famous Engineer brothers[2]. He was the chief pilot of Maharashtra State Government but was on loan to Gujarat. The aircraft had taken off from the Gujarat capital of Ahmedabad and was on its way to the small town of Mithapur that lay 200 nm WSW, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. The aircraft had apparently drifted off-course considerably, for the crash site is almost 40 nm north of the intended destination.

An Indian inquiry into the incident submitted the facts four months later. According to the inquiry report, the IAF authorities at Bombay had refused to let the aircraft proceed on the flight. When the Gujarat government pressed for clearance, the IAF authorities agreed reluctantly, giving clearance for the pilot to proceed at his own risk.

The purpose of the risky visit to Mithapur remains unclear. One could speculate, though, that the Chief Minister may have sought to publicly demonstrate solidarity with his coastal constituency in the wake of Pakistan Navy’s earlier attack on Dwarka which, while tactically insignificant, was wholly morale-shattering. After all, the Chief Minister had, only earlier that morning, presided over a mass National Cadet Corps rally in Ahmedabad “to boost the country’s defence effort.”[3]

Regrettable as the news of civilian deaths were, no one at Headquarters No 2 Sector at Badin had feared that civilians would be on board an aircraft in the thick of the war zone. The Sector Commander, Wg Cdr Mehmood Hassan and the Officer Commanding of the Operations Wing, Sqn Ldr Abdul Moiz Shahzada had hastily surmised that the aircraft was proceeding on some sort of a reconnaissance or air transport mission. Shooting down of the aircraft was, thus, deemed an indisputable answer to the prevailing quandary. The niceties of territorial inviolability had obviously no room for debate, for this was clearly not a peace-time situation.

Both India and Pakistan had utilised civilian registered aircraft for transportation of military supplies, equipment or manpower and, for maritime reconnaissance during the 1965 War (as well as 1971 War). The inherent military potential of any aircraft was well understood and, was suitably exploited. The onus of safety of these platforms lay on the host country, as the lines between their civilian and military usage were blurred during hostilities. Except for United Nations or Red Cross / Red Crescent aircraft whose identity is unmistakably displayed, all other aircraft could be construed as liable to serving military objectives, not withstanding their civilian registration markings. Proper codification of aviation law to remove any doubts on the issue did not exist in the 1965 era and, in fact, was first made part of the Geneva Convention as late as 1977.

It would be worthwhile to study a portion of 'Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions’ of 12 August 1949, and 'Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) Article 52’ of 8 June 1977. Even a cursory reading reveals that total or partial destruction, capture or neutralisation of those ‘objects’ that can make effective contribution to military action by virtue of their nature, location, purpose or use, is defensible. The statute clarifies that while civilian ‘objects’ per se shall not be the attacked, it clearly makes an exception ‘if these objects serve military objectives.’

Rather than attempting to seek cover of a later legislation through retroactive application, it would be instructive, purely from an academic standpoint, to see how the incident stands up to contemporary international legalities. It can be seen that the object under discussion namely, the Beechcraft aeroplane, by its nature, was capable of transporting military stores/personnel as well as performing land or maritime reconnaissance (visually at least); its location was also in an area contiguous to the land and maritime war zones. The actual purpose of the flight – which, in the event, turned out to be VIP movement – borders on the suspect when seen in the light of the other provisions mentioned heretofore, which unequivocally qualify the aircraft as ‘serving military objectives.’

Unfortunately, the safety of the aircraft stood compromised from the outset. Sadly, the loss of innocent lives has cast a shadow under which, more than anyone else, Qais has had to live for over four decades. He looks back ruefully, though he has no doubt that he was doing his duty.

___________________

[1] Badin’s FPS-20 radar was designated as the Master GCI Station for HQ No 2 (Air Defence) Sector which was co-located at Badin.
[2] ‘The Times of India’ News Service, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 20 September, 1965.
[3] ‘Express’ News Service, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 20 September, 1965.

Author's Notes:

1)  Based on his familiarity with the ‘scramble-identification-shooting’ loop, and the not infrequent pilot-controller miscommunication during interceptions especially on a faulty radio, the author is inclined to consider the intriguing possibility of a case of mistaken identity. In such a scenario, the staff at HQ No 2 Sector would have found Qais’ initial report broadly matching the description of a C-119 ‘Packet’ transport aircraft of the IAF, to the extent of being ‘twin-tailed, twin-engined, with four side windows.’ In all likelihood, no one knew what a civilian Beechcraft Model 18 looked like, whereas the unique C-119 military transport aircraft was a recognisable silhouette in Aircraft Recognition charts and manuals readily available in all Ops Rooms. The prompt shooting orders may have, thus, come straightforwardly, not withstanding the civilian registration number called out by Qais earlier.

2) In his recent letter (Aug 2011) to Mrs Farida Singh, the daughter of the downed pilot, Qais stated that on being spotted the Beechcraft pilot started "waggling his wings seeking mercy". This detail was not mentioned by Qais to the author when this article was first published in April 2011. In view of the apparent 'submission' by the Beechcraft, the possibility of shepherding the aircraft (through visual signals) for a forced landing at Mauripur could be debated. It has to be remembered, however, that for a young Flying Officer, this would have been an unthinkable violation of the clear shooting orders given by the HQ No 2 Sector. In any case, the Beechcraft would not have had enough fuel to make it to distant Mauripur. Searching for one of the disused airfields in the area for a forced landing,  would also not have been feasible due to the already low fuel state of both aircraft.

Acknowledgement is made to Air Cdre (R) Abdul Moiz Shahzada, Wg Cdr (R) Aziz A Khan and Flg Off (R) Qais Mazhar Hussain for their description of the incident. 

© KAISER TUFAIL

This article was published in 'Defence Journal', April 2011 issue.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

The question is.. what was the F-86 doing inside Indian Airspace..?

Anonymous said...

umm.. there was a war going on remember?

Aviator said...

We Should Not Forget That Both Sides Where At War In 1965 September.F-86 Was Inside Indian Airspace Because Of This War.

As For P.N.S Atlantic It Was Peace Time Than Why Was It Shot Down,Even If It Had Gone Across The Boarders By Mistake.

Anonymous said...

gr8

Syed Hasan Abbas said...

Well concluded. There is a difference in the time of peace and time of war! But, seriously, i doubt the PAF's capability of doing any such thing again (if and only if required) due to many factors one of which is, the shortcomings of the latest & more advanced equipment! We never looked / tried to look beyond American market (& now Chinese only). Plus, we never tried to gain the technology! I am astonished that even in 50's & 60's, IAF was operating American aircrafts when only Pak was an ally of the US not India. But these things are not new for us now!

Anonymous said...

Nearly half-a-century after shooting down an Indian civil aircraft under orders during the 1965 war with India, a Pakistan Air Force pilot has sent a condolence message to the daughter of the pilot of the aircraft he downed.

Qais Hussain, a flying officer during the 1965 war, made this gesture via email, expressing his condolences. The email is addressed to Farida Singh, daughter of the IAF pilot Jahangir "Jangoo" Engineer, one of the famous Engineer brothers in the force.

The email, with the subject line "Condolence", dated Friday, Aug 5, 2011, is copied to Naushad Patel and Jagan Pillarisetti, the Indian contacts who helped Hussain reach out to the bereaved family. Hussain forwarded the email to a group email for Pakistan Air Force colleagues, saying, "Most of you would recall that I had shot down an Indian civil aircraft after being scrambled from Mauripur in 1965 War."

Referring to an April 2011 article by Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail ("The Gujarat Beechcraft Incident - 1965 War", which gives details of the incident, he says it was Naveed Riaz, the Lahore-based businessman and aviation enthusiast, who helped him get in touch with the Indian contacts through whom he then managed to reach Jahangir Engineer's daughter.

Hussain wrote to Farida Singh, "The incident happened 46 years back but it is as fresh in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. The aircraft flown by your father had drifted off course by many a mile and in his search for the destination, he had been going up and down in the border area of Rann of Katchh for quite some time and it made our radar controllers uncomfortable.

"I happened to be strapped up in my aircraft along with another pilot (my leader) in his, on two minutes take-off alert. We were scrambled but I had to take off alone, and with help from my radar controller, intercepted your father's aircraft which was considered to be on a recce mission to open a new war front. I caught sight of him at 3000' and made a pass so close that I could read his markings and the number of the aircraft. Your father spotted my presence immediately and he started climbing and waggling his wings seeking mercy.

"Instead of firing at him at first sight, I relayed to my controller that I had intercepted an eight-seat transport aircraft (guessing by the four side windows) and wanted further instructions to deal with it. At the same time, I was hoping that I would be called back without firing a shot. There was a lapse of 3 to 4 long minutes before I was given clear orders to shoot the aircraft.

"After the shooting, I had a sense of achievement and satisfaction that I had completed my mission and destroyed any recce data that might have been collected to open a new war front. I landed back at Mauripur, Karachi, with my fuel tanks bone dry and was greeted by my seniors and other squadron colleagues. Later that evening, All India Radio announced the names of the occupants who had lost their lives in that aircraft...

"Mrs Singh, I have chosen to go into this detail to tell you that it all happened in the line of duty and it was not governed by the concept that 'everything is fair in love and war', the way it has been portrayed by the Indian media due to lack of information. I did not play foul and went by the rules of business but the unfortunate loss of precious lives, no matter how it happens, hurts each human and I am no exception. I feel sorry for you, your family and the other seven families who lost their dearest ones.

"I hope and pray that you and your family stay well

"My best regards...

"Qais"

Kaiser said...

From: Farida Singh
10 August 2011 09:49
Subject: Re: Condolence
To: Qais Hussain

Dear Mr. Hussain,

Firstly, thank you for your condolences on the passing away of my brother Noshir.

I am somewhat overwhelmed at receiving this letter, even though I was expecting it as Jagan Pillarisetti had been in touch with me recently on this.

It took courage for you to write this. And for me, too, (I say this humbly) it takes the same to write back . But my father was Courage and Grace at their finest and I now speak on behalf of him, my extraordinary, gracious mother (who survived my father by just 16 years), my late brother Noshir and my elder sister in Canada who is unfortunately legally blind.

Yes, this was the one incident which defined our lives henceforth. But in all the struggles that followed, we never, not for one moment, bore bitterness or hatred for the person who actually pulled the trigger and caused my father's death.The fact that this all happened in the confusion of a tragic war was never lost to us. We are all pawns in this terrible game of War and Peace.

A little more about my father. An ace pilot if ever there as one. A WWII veteran fighter pilot, a great leader of men, a willing team player, strong in body and spirit. This would have been just the view of an adoring daughter, had it not been reflected by all those fortunate enough to know him. Most of all was the generosity of spirit, and his intuitive understanding of the pain of others. Hence it is now easy for me to reach out my hand to receive your message. This incident is indeed a prime example of what damage strife and mindless battles can drive even good men to do.

Thank you again for your gesture. I know it was not an easy thing for you to do.

In closing, I would like to say that I have no idea as to how your email has made the front page in some prominent dailies here. (Jagan knows how publicity-shy I generally am). A friend told me about it and I then re-checked my inbox and opened your mail this morning, 4 days after you sent it.
However, I am glad that it is now public as it can do nothing but heal wounds, not just on a personal scale but in a much wider arena. And most of all, my father would have liked that it goes towards bringing a spark of forgiveness between our two peoples, who after all were one.

Warm regards,

Farida

Anonymous said...

We have fought three wars...lost so many lives on both side of the border...Stories of Courage and Self Sacrifice for their individual countries and their families who eventually probably suffered the most silently. And yet we still do not not realize that War at the end is nobody's Victory...Lets try and be friends and at Peace and do things together, after all probably we all have a common History and an Ind entity fought the Independence together...

Anonymous said...

both of them rose above all by their courageous acts in thei life.no else of any side are good to comment on their act or the past. Be good spirits.both of them rose above all by their courageous acts in thei life.no else of any side are good to comment on their act or the past. Be good spirits.

Anonymous said...

"I believe there are rules of engagement during war and peace. I think the best decision by the Sector Commander Badin would have been to give orders to sheperd (forced) the aircraft to land on one of the bases in Pakistan, which would have raised the morale of our Armed Forces sky high and the Indians morale would have plummeted specially that certain VIP's were on board. Capturing of the Indian VIP's would have been a big trophy, plus 8 innocent lives would have been saved, if the right decision at the right time had been taken." -- Even I thought of the same thing, could not we have saved lives was shooting down the only option...Also a question being a civilian if the Pilot knew that it had VT markings Civil aircraft markings and indicating to surrender and in Indian Territory, even though ordered by the Sector Commander and the OC Operations could he have not fired or would it have resulted in court martial ?

Suresh Pillai said...

I was interested in the incident from today's report in thehindu daily.
It was unfortunate this incident happened. All this stemmed up from the sibling quarrel which led to the partition of the Joint family. Why do not we even consider burying the past and living peacefully and helping each other rather than playing pawns to others?

Anonymous said...

I understand that this was a war time incident, but attacking a civilian aircraft in it's own sovereign territory is nothing short of a war crime for whatever rhyme or reason. The whole incident is appalling and deeply regretful.

pmathur said...

Dear Air Commodore Tufail,

When this news reached us in India, about Flg. Officer (Retd) Hussain writing to Ms. Singh, most of us were full of admiration, at what I believe is courage, to reach out, seek forgiveness, and to be forgive.
Based on this story, I had posted a blog on Facebook, the link to which is submitted below. I invite you to peruse the same.
I am a military enthusiast, and belong to a family which has given many soldiers to the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.
I feel happy that thank to the Internet we are able to share experiences.

http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150265163268692

Ishfaq said...

Dear Air Cdre Tufail,

I am trying to write an article based on the 65 incident in the local newspaper. I shall quote you extensively, if you do not object. Please let me know. Salam and Eid Mubarak.

Kaiser said...

Ishfaq, go ahead.

Sebsonik said...

Great Sir,
At least tell those politicians to stop bickering about and causing more harm than what it has caused to the partitioned India and Pakistan. Now Religious sentiment have grown bigger than needs to be culled or else we loose much more than lost in the past. Lets live in peace and harmony as God created us to live. Sebastian PP.