Dakota in a Combat Zone

The official history of the No.43 Squadron carries the following tantalising tidbit . "On 6 September 1965, the squadron had its first direct encounter with the enemy. Three aircraft took off from Amritsar in the evening with for Hunter escorts when they were attacked by a formation of four Sabres and a B-57 bomber. The Hunters latched on the Sabres. The B-57 got a chance and fired at the last DAKOTA, which was still on the ground about to take off. The DAKOTA was not hit and got airborne safely." . This incident did not get told anywhere else till now - as Sqn Ldr Arunesh "Bacchu" Prasad puts on record what happened that evening.


In August 1965 when Pakistani infilitrators entered the Kashmir valley, I was posted to No 43 Squadron which was based in Srinagar. The Squadron was equipped with Dakotas flying supplies into Ladakh. As a consequence of being in Kashmir, we got involved in the happenings in the valley from the very beginning. From airlifting casualties from places like Poonch, Rajouri and Kargil to delivering prisoners caught by the Army to places like Jammu, Udhampur and even Delhi. In fact on two of our aircraft the Para doors were removed and machine guns fitted to take on the infiltrators from the air. The CO Wg Cdr HS Dhillon, carried out two missions but the exercise was found to be fraught with danger and abandoned as fast as it had begun.

On the night of 1st September the Squadron was ordered to move out of the valley. We had no idea of our final destination but early morning on 2nd September we flew out of Srinagar and landed up in Ambala. Immediately on landing we were given tasks and on that day I flew three sorties between Ambala and Pathankot delivering ammunition. I remember while loading up for the first sortie, so many cans of ammunition were loaded that the fuselage came to rest on the tail wheel. When we protested, only so many cans were removed as were enough to clear the wheel from the fuselage and we were ordered to get the hell out of Ambala. Flt Lt VK (Pappu) Koshal was the Captain and I his co-pilot and we just about managed to get off the ground. The aircraft was very tail heavy and consequently unstable and difficult to fly. We climbed to five hundred feet, and entered the valley along the foothills somewhere between Nahan and Kalka. We followed the valley all the way to Pathankot staying just South of Gobind Sagar. After the last sortie late that evening, the Squadron was ordered to Sarsawa which was to become our base till the summer of 1967 when it moved to Jorhat.

From Sarsawa we were flying every day mostly to places like Ambala, Pathankot and Halwara delivering whatever was required by these bases in the run up to the war which commenced in full force on 5th September.

HJ908

6th September 1965

On 6th September we were given a task to fly out a Care & Maintenance Unit from Sarsawa to Amritsar. Three aircraft were detailed the first being flown by the CO Wg Cdr (Killer) Dhillon, followed by Flt Lt NS (Billy) Mehta in the second aircraft and the third aircraft was flown by Flt Lt VK Koshal with me as his co-pilot. The other members of our crew were late Flt Lt RM Advani as the Navigator and Sgt Swaminathan was the Signaller. We were to arrive at Amritsar at dusk and were briefed to follow the railway track all the way. We were also briefed to maintain RT silence and to avoid flying over bridges for fear of being shot down by our own forces. At Amritsar we were to be provided fighter cover while the aircraft were being unloaded.

Approaching Phagwara, we turned right to avoid a bridge and as we straightened out we saw four aircraft heading straight at us. Before we or they could take evasive action they were past us. And they were really close missing us by maybe a wing span. They turned out to be PAF F86 Sabres flying the Finger Four and to this day I can remember the pilot in the closest aircraft looking at us. Probably as surprised to see us as we were to see them. We immediately made a blind transmission saying "Four bandits heading East just north of Phagwara bridge". We then hit the deck and Swaminathan was in the Astro Dome looking out in case we were pounced upon. I wonder where they were headed though some enemy aircraft were shot down over Halwara that evening.

When we landed at Amritsar the first two aircraft had already departed. Parked on the tarmac we kept the right engine running while off loading was being done from the doors which are on the left side in a Dak. As soon as the load was off we started the left engine and headed for the runway. We were still lining up when Amritsar came under attack. Suddenly the whole sky above us was lit up by an umbrella of ack ack and we could see aircraft getting into dog fights. We took off with our fingers crossed hoping we don't get shot down by our own anti aircraft fire. Just as our wheels lifted off the ground we saw an F-86 turning towards us, streaming tracer from its nose. But before we were hit a shell or perhaps gunfire from a defending fighter struck the intruder and it blew up right in front of us. It was providential that we were not struck by falling debris. Swaminathan stood looking out of the Astrodome all the while.

All this must have happened in a matter of seconds and then suddenly we were out of it and into total darkness. Not one light could be seen anywhere in Punjab and before long we were lost and making a beeline due east. Halwara or Ambala wouldn't answer our calls for a homing and we flew around till we came to one very brightly lit town. To this day I am not sure which this place was though later it was assumed it might have been Patiala. We kept flying figures of eight over this town for what seemed like an eternity before Ambala finally came up and gave us a homing.

All three aircraft landed within minutes of each other and we were told to guard our own aircraft since an attack was expected over airfield. It was bitterly cold out there in the open and we shivered in our overalls. At first light we took off and returned to Sarsawa.

Map of the general area showing the path of the Dakotas (Blue) and the PAF attacks into India (Green)

Later when in discussion with Wg Cdr Dhillon and Flt Lt Mehta we discovered that they too were lost and flew around one brightly lit town. Navigation and formation lights were forbidden and if we were over the same town, which in all probability we must have been, God knows how many times we missed colliding with each other. But there was a war on and these things do happen.

Epilogue:

The aircraft Flt Lt Koshal and I flew on that day was Dakota IJ294. Flt lt Advani was shot down in a Canberra during the War of 1971. Sgt Swaminathan went on to get a commission and his last known unit was No. 6 Squadron. Wg Cdr HS (Killer) Dhillon retired as an Air Commodore and is now no more. Flt Lt Billy Mehta went on to fly Canberras and then transferred to Air India. Sadly he too is no more. Flt Lt Pappu Koshal and I also went on to fly Canberras and later ended up in Air India as well. Pappu Koshal retired as a Wg Cdr and now whiles his time between his homes in Delhi and Mumbai. I live a quiet retired life in Gurgaon, home to a hoard of IAF old foggies. 


The author recently retired as an accomplished Commander on the Boeing 747 for Air India.  

Webmaster's Notes: 
1. The Dakotas on their way to Amritsar possibly ran into a four Sabre formation led by Sqn Ldr  M M Alam on way to attack Adampur. This formation was intercepted by a Hunter formation led by Wg Cdr Zacharaiah.