A SPLIT second decision in air combat

On 19th September 1965, Four Gnats of No.9 Squadron were involved in an aircombat with four PAF F-86 Sabres. While two Sabres were claimed by the Indian pilots, one of the Gnats failed to return. This is the story of the Gnat pilot who failed to return, was written off as lost, but came back after the war. Wg Cdr V M Mayadev takes a critical look at the aircombat and what could have gone right. (or wrong)

The 1965 operations are in their golden jubilee year but the memory of air combat experience is as vivid as ever in my mind. I never wrote about it for all these years (except in my debriefing report in 1966), but now that the event is half a century old, I am sure it will be viewed objectively. Besides, I am also rolling downhill and if I don't share it now it may be lost forever as an untold story of an unknown soldier.

We went into air operations in 1965 without any combat experience, purely on the strength of operational training carried out in an expanding air force that had to induct aircraft rapidly. I moved up from Toofani to Mystere IV and Gnat via T33 trainer and F86 Sabre (at the Advanced Fighter course with the USAF) from October 1962 to September 1965. That is five aircraft in three years with proportionate time spent in ground school and conversion training. I was not the only one. I trust a large majority of young fighter pilots who fought the said war had managed to cope with a demanding training schedule to reach fully ops status on their respective aircraft when 1965 hit us. I am sure many could not take part in actual air operations as they had not acquired fully ops status on aircraft they had moved up to before the war started.

In hindsight I can say that we were too young and too happy to fly newer and better aircraft to realize that we had not had enough time to mature and become proficient on the type of aircraft we went into combat with. All else being equal, a pilot with 200 hrs on a Mystere was bound to be more combat ready than one who had 100 hrs each on Mysteres and Gnats in the given time frame. But that's a price one had to pay for expanding IAF rapidly with Gnats after the Chinese debacle to ensure that future Pakistani adventure was turned to misadventure.

What mattered most was that on the eve of hostilities I was on cloud nine (coincidently in 9 Squadron) and itching to go into combat to give Uncle Ayub a bloody nose if he chose to poke it in our affairs.

When Pakistani tanks moved in to grab the chicken neck, IAF was called in and I am proud to have been part of the lot that went headlong into battle. In spite of initial hiccups caused perhaps by inexperience, we frustrated the second attempt of our neighbor to grab Kashmir.

Initial days of the war saw Canberras, Mysteres, Hunters and the extraordinarily brave Vampires attacking the enemy in its home ground whereas we in Gnat squadrons were busy guarding vital installations at home mostly carrying out Operational Readiness Platform duties or Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) waiting for enemy air strikes. I moved to Adampur with Squadron Detachment and we CAPped that airfield from dawn to dusk. Maybe our CAPs were deterrent enough as PAF kept off Adampur right through the war.

In the first few days PAF did attack Pathankot and Halwara. In absence of a CAP, PAF's first raid on Pathankot inflicted heavy casualties on ground but CAP over Halwara prevented damage on ground there by shooting down intruders even though patrolling Hunters were downed by the raiders. As hostilities progressed PAF was committed elsewhere or deterred by our CAPs and airfield attacks stopped.

As demand for patrolling airfields reduced Gnats were utilized as escorts for Mysteres carrying out ground support attacks in the combat zone. I carried out many such escort missions uneventfully until what I sometimes call my second birthday...

On 19th September four Mysteres of No 1 Sqn went into Sialkot sector to support our Army with four of us in Gnats in escort. Our escort formation comprised of a leader, Sqn Ldr Denzil Keelor and his wingman Fg Offr Munna Rai plus a deputy leader Flt Lt Viney "Kaps" Kapila and me as his wingman. Denzil's section kept to the right of the Mysteres while our section kept to the left .We reached the battle area where anti aircraft guns started spewing fire and we could see tracers all around and above us as we were at low level. I spotted and reported two Sabres in front and to the left of us and with half a turn Kaps and I were behind them. When we turned , Denzil and Rai were behind us.

The Sabres did a hard turn to left and split. Kaps should have ordered me to split behind but didn't and I not only lost the chance of a lifetime to shoot a Sabre down but also almost lost my life.

Let's put the air combat on hold and discuss some background events that led to this.

The Briefing

During our morning briefing on tactics this situation was specifically discussed. The question asked was that if in combat the enemy splits do we automatically also split behind them and remain on the offensive. If you do not split behind the enemy, a situation develops wherein you have an enemy aircraft targeted by the leader and his wingman who is guarding him being targeted by the enemy who gains tactical advantage by splitting. Needless to say this situation is precluded if tactical advantage is retained by splitting when the enemy splits to ensure that each enemy aircraft is being chased by each one of us.

After a brief discussion on this point that was raised by me, Wg Cdr Reggie Upot, our Commanding Officer agreed that split we should, but not automatically. He ruled that the wingman would split when ordered by the leader. Perhaps he did not realize the importance of this split second decision (ironically on splitting in air combat), and underestimated the excitement on meeting the enemy when the leader may forget all else including his wingman. I was committed to follow this ruling because I had brought out this point little realizing that it was going to put a crippling limitation on my combat participation.

Now back to the combat situation.

So old Murphy had a satisfied laugh, The CO ruled out automatic split, my leader Viney Kapila, did not ask me to split and I continued to follow him to the peril of my life. I must admit that I had a feeling that I was not asked to split because the other section of our formation of four would get behind the enemy who split and went behind me and deal with him.

Kapila was preoccupied with the Sabre in front of him and was silent on the radio. He jettisoned his drop tanks to improve maneuverability. I saw his drop tanks fall off and immediately jettisoned mine as otherwise it would have been impossible to keep up with him. Kaps continued to position himself for a shot and I followed him around waiting for the targeted Sabre to blow up.

Before that could happen I suddenly found that almost all the warning lights glared at me, my aircraft had been hit by enemy fire and went out of control and I made that all important life saving decision to eject and implemented it. After a few somersaults my parachute opened and I saw my aircraft hit the ground and a Sabre followed by a Gnat wiz past in front. This was most likely the Sabre that shot me down, and the Gnat flown by Denzil trying to chase him.

The earth was approaching fast, I was going to land on the bund of a muddy paddy field. Somehow I managed to maneuver my chute and landed smack in the muddy field.

Before I could open my harness and get my wits about, I was facing the wrong end of a 12 bore gun and a hostile crowd with guns and lathis. I took a few blows but luckily before major damage was done Pakistani Rangers appeared and took me over from the hostile crowd.

I was blind folded and taken to Gujranwala jail where I spent the night in a cell; no bed, no toilet, no mess, hardly any food and no idea of what the future held. Suddenly from being part of a powerful fighting machine I was alone, vulnerable and against a hostile enemy in a situation I had hardly anticipated.

After interrogation by the PAF, during which I rattled out whatever was put across in our media and said "I don't know" to questions I imagined to be of significance, I joined my colleagues at the POW camp. And there I stayed until we came back home to a hero's welcome four months later on 22 Jan1966.

The Home Coming: IAF POWs are flown home to Delhi in January 1966. M M Lowe rushes to greet his family while his colleagues look on.

L to R BS Sikand, ON Kacker and Lal Sadarangani on the left. The author Vijay Mayadev and KC Cariappa (in hat) on the right most part of the photo.


That was my story during the '65 war and I would have said all is well that ends well and got along with my life but there was a twist in the tale.

Post War:

On rejoining my Squadron I learnt about the parts played by the rest of our formation. Munna Rai, who was No.2 to Denzil had lost contact and was asked to get out of the melee and return home, which he did. I was told that after disengagement, of Denzil Keelor and Viney Kapila, who had lost contact with each other, one diverted to Halwara and other landed at Adampur. Two Sabre kills were claimed. I heard that I was reported downed by ground fire. No one had seen me eject and I was presumed KIA. The split by the enemy and our failure to split behind them and disastrous consequences thereof in losing an aircraft and its pilot were presumably never reported and discussed in detail.

As per the norm then established, the Government announced Vir Chakra awards to Denzil Keelor and Viney Kapila for the Sabre kills claimed by them. Though the claims of the Sabres were something to celebrate, the fact that a Gnat was lost and a pilot was presumed killed – were good enough reasons that many of my colleagues in the squadron had reservations on the combat de-brief as reported by Denzil. Notably there was no mention of Split by the Sabres and our failure to split behind them in the absence of an order by the leader as laid down in briefing. There was a simmering disquiet under the surface after hostilities ceased .

In December it was reported that I had ejected, lived and was a POW awaiting repatriation. On my return to the squadron, my side of the combat was known. My being vocal about our combat as reported was not taken kindly and in the right spirit by Denzil. This translated into hostile attitude towards me by him. This was resented by the rest of the Squadron. I had to take up this matter with the Station commander who advised me not to worry as Denzil was about to be posted out to a Signal Unit (SU). He was indeed posted out and the Squadron settled down to be a happy family.

Later on, when I met my deputy leader, Viney Kapila, I asked him why he had not asked me to split. Kaps was honest enough to say sorry and admit that he 'boobed' and I never held it against him. We maintain cordial relations till date.

Making mistakes during air combat when adrenaline is rushing and the situation is dynamic is natural and I have no quarrel with anyone. In hindsight I feel that the second Sabre that split in front of us could have moved between Denzil and me and shot me before Denzil could react positively.

However, concealing it by reporting me as downed by ground fire could be fair only in love and war, especially as chances of my survival at such low level combat were extremely remote. Old Murphy's law ensured that if someone could survive under impossible conditions he would, and I indeed did.

I wanted to relate this story to highlight the parts played by each of the four comrades who went into battle together. Two got medals, one bore the brunt of the bad decision not to split and could have paid with his life but was lucky to survive. Most of us whether in or out of uniform tend to think that only those with a medal are brave and others who form a vast majority of combatants fall into the "just ran" category and make little contribution to the war effort. This is my tribute to the many unsung heroes who made the supreme sacrifice and were unable to tell their stories, Sadly sometimes their stories were not told truthfully so survivors could hold their heads high.

Copyright 2014 Wing Commander V M Mayadev (Retd). All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of author is prohibited