THE 1971 LIBERATION WAR

SUPERSONIC AIR COMBAT

VAYU AEROSPACE REVIEW VI/1997


Jamnagar Air Base: 12 December 1971, 1402 hours: Two MiG-21FLs at the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) are scrambled to set up a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) at 3 km (10,000 feet) over the airfield. Minutes earlier, Mobile Observation Posts along the Saurashtra sea coast had reported two bandits flying low, crossing the coast line in the general direction of Jamnagar, with its vital air base. Shortly, the airfield is under attack, the bandits (Now identified as F-104A Starfighters) carrying out a front gun attack on aircraft parked near the runway 24/06 dumbbell (which were decoys). The second F-104, spotting the MiG-21s turns off and heads north. The lead F-104 continues at high speed along the runway but as he exits, one of the MiG-21s dives down and positions himself behind, but still above, the F-104, allowing the air defence guns to continue firing. The F-104 clears land, is over the sea, continuing at heading 2400, maintaining very low level and high speed. The MiG-21 drops down behind, to about 100 feet, at 1200 km/hr with full afterburner.

An air-to-air missile (K-13) is launched from the MiG-21 but the F-104 is taking evasive measures, firing flares to misguide the heat seeking missile and the K-13 is deflected away from the intended target. The MiG-21 pilot now selects 'guns' but as he is closing in, the F-104 suddenly pulls sharp to his right in a desperate manoeuvre, perhaps to throw off a second missile. The MiG-21 now rapidly closes distance and from 300 metres, fires three sharp bursts with the GSh-23 cannon at the F-104 which is immediately stricken, pulling up momentarily as it starts to flame and the pilot ejects. The MiG-21 goes fast past and pulls up, its pilot turning around to see the parachute has deployed, the F-104 pilot falling slowly under a bright orange canopy into the Gulf of Kutch a shark in tested sea. The MiG-21 pilot circles the engagement area, calls up base to dispatch a rescue launch to the exact spot and them returns back to base.

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An artist's rendition of the moment, Flt. Lt. Soni opened fire at the fleeing F-104 Starfighter. Click on image to see in larger format.

The MiG-21FL pilot was Flt. Lt. Bharat Bhushan Soni, with the No.47 Squadron detachment of the IAF based at Jamnagar. The F-104A pilot was Wg. Cdr. Mervyn Middlecoat of No.9 Squadron detachment, PAF based at Masroor air force base, Karachi and a veteran of the 1965 operations. In spite of an extensive search, there was no trace of Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat or the Starfighter's wreckage. Some 15 years later, some unidentified aircraft parts were recovered from the sea bed near Jamnagar port by Indian naval divers which are purported to be those of an F-104.

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A smiling Fl.t Lt. B.B. Soni in the cockpit of his MiG-21FL which has just returned, looking at the celebrating IAF officers on the ground.

Bharat Soni's family were one of those impoverished by the partition of India in August 1947, he being just three years old when the refugees came across to Eastern Punjab, settling down at village Ramdas, 3 km from the border. Bharat passed his Matriculation and moved to Delhi to start work as a stenographer. Determined to better his lot, he joined evening classes at Dayal Singh College in Delhi, while working during the day. However, a degree was not to be. Chancing upon an Air Force recruitment advertisement, Bharat applied and went through the various tests and interviews, even while his family were uncertain about him taking up such a 'risky career'.

Commissioned in May 1965, Rharat had topped the course to get the Chief of Air Staff's medal for outstanding performance. After flying Vampire trainers at Hakimpet, Fg. Off. B.B. Soni was posted to Hunter and Gnat Squadrons before converting to the MiG-21FL. During the 1965 conflict, Bharat was posted as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) but soon after, while on a holiday in a Punjab village, met with a road accident which damaged one of his kneecaps. While this did not affect his medical fitness, or operational efficiency as a fighter pilot, the mishap ruled out participation in strenuous sports. Bharat thereafter kept himself in good shape through regular exercise and healthy diet. On to the December 1971 conflict, No.47  Squadron (Black Archers) commanded by Wg. Cdr. H.S. (High Speed) Gill had detachments in different parts of the country to provide air defence  of vital areas, plus fly escort missions for fighter bombers on strike sorties.

The detachment at Jamnagar comprised six MiG-21FL (Type 77) aircraft (S/N C699, 711, 720, 750, 765 and 1115). Only one of these, C750 had been fitted with the new Russian GSh-23 twin barrelled 23mm cannon, in a GP-9 gondola fitted under the aircraft's centreline. Together with the ad-hoc gyro gunfight, this experiment had just been proven but few additional gun gondolas had been fitted when war broke out. Initial role of the No.47 Squadron detachment at Jamnagar was air defence of Vital Areas (VAs) and Vital Points (VPs) as also to provide short range cover for IAF Hunters and Canberras departing for and recovering from air strikes. Ft. Lt. B.B. Soni flew a total of 15 such air defence missions till December 10th, which included air defence of Okha Port.

On December 11th, three aircraft were tasked to carry out a rocket attack against the vital Badin radar complex in Southern Sind. The C.O., Wg. Cdr. H.S. Gill led, with Flt. Lt. Soni as No.2 and Sqn. Ldr. Vinay Kapila, the Senior Flight Commander, as No.3. The MiG-21s flew to the target at low level over the rocky terrain. While pulling up for a right hand attack on the target from line astern, Flt. Lt. Soni reported "two bandits at 9 o'clock, 6 km distance." The strike leader had meanwhile rolled into the attack, Flt. Lt. Soni engaged afterburner and turned towards the threat, warning the other MiG-21s that the bandits too had turned towards them. Distracted from the lead MiG-21 which continued its attack on Badin's radar complex, the bandits, identified as Sabres, concentrated on Flt. Lt. Soni's aircraft but passed ahead and in front of Sqn. Ldr. Kapila's aircraft. Reacting instinctively, Sqn. Ldr. Kapila fired a full salvo of 32 x 57mm air-to-ground rockets at the Sabres without changing the selection mode. Even though the rockets missed the Sabres, it must have given them them some jolt. The MiG-21FLs then disengaged and returned to bases did the Sabres to theirs.

12th December 1971 was the day that Flt. Lt. Soni notched his F-104 kill. On December 13th, another strike was launched against the Badin radar complex. Four MiG-21s were detailed, the strike pair led by Sqn. Ldr. Kapila with Wg. Cdr. Gill as his No.2, Flt. Lt. I.S. Boparai leading the escort pair, Flt. Lt. Soni being his No.2. The target area was obscured by a heavy sand storm, making it difficult to hold the standard strike and escort formations because of very poor visibility conditions. Adding to the difficulties was intense antiaircraft fire and the formation broke away from target as chances of visually acquiring the radar site were very unlikely. However, possibly in an attempt to get below the raging sand storm, the MiG-21FL flown by Wg. Cdr. Gill was seen ploughing into the ground, leaving a streak of fire along its path. Till today, 25 years later, the C.O.'s fate remains unknown.

The two opponents of the dogfight, Flt. Lt. Bharat Bhushan Soni (left) and Wg. Cdr. M.E. Middlecoat (right).

Wg. Cdr. Mervyn E. Middlecoat, S.J., who led the ill-fated PAF air strike on Jamnagar air base on December 12th, was on a training visit abroad when the war with India broke out on December 3rd. In an earlier war, that of September 1965, he had been running the PAF's 'ace' No.9 Squadron, flying the supersonic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter from Sargodha. During the 3 week war, he flew 17 air defence sorties and 3 photo missions over forward IAF bases. being awarded the Sitara-i-Jurat. Six years later, on recall to war service, he was detailed on a strike mission to Jamnagar the day after his return to Pakistan. As per the official PAF citation, he was engaged by two enemy MiG-21s....in the encounter his aircraft was hit by an enemy missile...was heard to be ejecting in the Indian territory....officially declared missing in action." For his devotion to duty, determination and courage Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat was awarded Bar to the Sitara-i-Jurat.


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