One Vs Four : The complete story of Alfred Cooke's epic air combat.
- Category: The India-Pakistan War 1965
- Last Updated: Sunday, 13 September 2015 04:02
- Written by Book Excerpt - The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965
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The story of Flt Lt Alfred Cooke's air combat remained untold for many years. While the stories of the Keelors and the Gnats and Halwara Hunters were told with great pride over the years, the story of a similarly epic air battle conducted by Flt Lt Alfred Cooke and his wingman Fg Offr S C Mamgain, were suprisingly not very well known. In early 2000, Samir Chopra, one of the the co-authors of the book "The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965" managed to meet Cooke in person and record his experiences. what they received was not just his story, but also the treasure trove of his gun camera photographs. Cooke's epic battle should be etched in the annals of the IAF's history.
The morning of September 7th at Kalaikunda started with a gloom. Early in the day, a force of six F-86 Sabres attacked Kalaikunda and wrought considerable damage on the airfield. Four Vampires and Two Canberras were destroyed. The Pakistanis followed it up by another raid of six F-86 Sabres at around 10.30 am. Thats where this story picks up...
At around 10.30 am, the pall of gloom at Kalaikunda was swept aside as an alarm was raised, warning of incoming Sabres. The four Sabres came roaring in low led by Flight Lieutenant Haleem. Squadron Leader ‘Mama’ Sahni - the radar officer at 55 SU in Kalaikunda – briefly picked up a blip on his scope near Port Canning. He immediately alerted Wing Commander Dicky Law, the OC Flying and informed him of the possibility of multiple aircraft coming in for another raid. Law looked up his roster; two Hunters were flying a CAP to the north of Kalaikunda, taking care of Dum-Dum and Barrackpore. Law told Sahni to call this section back to Kalaikunda to intercept the incoming raid immediately.
Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke and Flying Officer SC Mamgain of No.14 Squadron, were on CAP 60 miles north of the airfield at 20,000 feet. Cooke, a lanky 6’ 3” youngster, universally regarded as the squadron’s top air defense pilot, had grown up dreaming of being a fighter pilot as he watched Hurricanes, Spitfires, P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings tangling in practice air combat near his childhood home of Agra. Now, with 600 hours of Hunter flying under his belt including grueling practice in low-level aircombat with ‘Piloo’ Kacker, the moment of truth for Cooke had arrived. ‘Piloo’ had constantly defied IAF regulations on low-level combat training to put Cooke through his paces – it would stand Cooke in good stead for what lay ahead. Even as his mentor and dear friend ‘Piloo’ was baling out over Sargodha, Cooke was getting ready to put his training at the hands of Kacker to good use. The stage was set for the one of the greatest air battles in the history of air combat in the subcontinent.
Earlier in the day, while having breakfast at Dum-Dum in their tent, the pair had received a scramble order and took off. They were under the control of 411 SU at Rampur Hat, approximately 130 nautical miles away from Dum-Dum. Cooke and Mamgain were vectored to an area about 80 miles north of Dum-Dum at 25,000 feet. 411 SU informed the pair that there were two bogeys at 25,000 feet just east of the India/Pakistan border, and that they were only to engage in case the bogies crossed the border and entered Indian airspace. Cooke and Mamgain orbited on their side, and presumably the PAF Sabres did the same, about 15 kilometers away. No visual contact was made. As the bogeys left, Cooke and Mamgain returned to Dum-Dum at approximately 9 AM.
The excitement for the day, so far a case of simple false alarms, began with the next call from 411 SU. Cooke and Mamgain were given another scramble order and vectored north of Dum-Dum to approximately the same area covered by the previous sortie. Two PAF bogeys were reported flying at 25,000 feet on the Pakistani side of the border. The IAF pair was told to orbit at 25,000 feet on the Indian side of the border and to only engage the bogeys if they crossed over into Indian airspace. The pair complied but as before made no visual contact with any PAF Sabres.
After about 15 minutes of orbiting the 411 SU controller informed Cooke that Kalaikunda was under attack again and asked if they had enough fuel to go there and intercept. Cooke checked his fuel and asked Mamgain about his fuel state – the two pilots both had enough to Kalaikunda to carry out the interception. Cooke informed the Controller at 411 SU and immediately asked for “pigeons back to base”. They were told that they were approximately 120 nautical miles away and given a heading for Kalaikunda. The Hunters headed back at approximately .9 Mach (500 knots).
During the flight to Kalaikunda Mamgain was falling back at one stage; Cooke lost visual contact with him and kept calling out on R/T “Keep up, keep up” and even throttled back a bit to assist him. As Mamgain was still lagging and as Cooke needed him level, Cooke told him to catch up and get into position – or else, he would ask the Controller to vector him onto Mamgain. These stern words from a man Mamgain respected dearly broke through his apprehension. Remarkably, Mamgain caught up, and informed Cooke that he was scared. With candour, Cooke admitted he was scared as well - this was the first time that any one of them would be facing hostile aircraft. In a moment of solemnity, Cooke informed Mamgain of their duty to defend their base and their squadron. Cooke continued to talk to Mamgain, urging him to use all his skills in the dogfight that lay ahead.
Cooke led both Hunters in a shallow dive at .9 Mach towards Kalaikunda, calculating his speed and rate of descent so as to arrive 10 kilometres short of Kalaikunda at 500 feet, aiming to keep any and all Sabres in front and above. As planned, about ten kilometers from Kalaikunda the IAF pair was now down to about 500 feet and flying at about 500 knots. Once below 10, 000 feet they had lost R/T contact with 411 SU and had tried contact with Kalaikunda but to no avail.
On arriving at Kalaikunda, as Cooke made visual contact with the Sabres, the IAF pilots were treated to a chilling sight: three PAF Sabres were employing a classic front gun racecourse pattern of attack as another kept top cover. Three Sabres were making the attack run on the western side of the airbase i.e., the runway, while the other kept top cover on the eastern/ATC hangar side of the runway. Cooke’s response was immediate, a classic piece of bravado, as he called out to Mamgain, “Look at those bastards! – Lets get them – I’m taking these three this side – you break and take on the ones on the other side. Good luck!” As Cooke was to note later, this was not in accordance with tactics, as normally the wingman would have stayed glued to the leader’s tail. But Cooke, seeing the three Sabres on the western end had thought there were three on the eastern side as well. Under the circumstances, he decided the best thing to do was to take a chance, split up and take on three Sabres each: a remarkable decision.
Flight Lieutenant Haleem was leading the Sabre formation, with Flight Lieutenant Basheer as his wingman. Flight Lieutenants Tariq Habeeb Khan and Afzal Khan formed the second pair in the formation. It is not clear which of the pilots were in the attacking three. One Sabre was in its strafing run as Cooke and Mamgain pounced. Though the Sabres were operating on the extreme range of their endurance, they outnumbered the Hunters two to one.
The first Sabre -Flt Lt Afzal Khan
Cooke got behind one Sabre, fired at it and chased it so low that one can see the trees in his gun camera film. In the confusion that ensued, Cooke got behind Afzal Khan’s Sabre in what became a classic dogfight employing scissor maneuvers. Both the Sabre and the Hunter did their best to cut speed, fall back, turn and get behind each other or to break out by accelerating when their speed fell too sharply. Cooke seized the initiative on one such occasion: as Khan tried to straighten out of the turning dogfight and break out, Cooke used his better acceleration to catch up and open fire with his 30mm cannon, hitting the Sabre which broke up in the air. Flight Lieutenant Afzal Khan, the pilot, was killed.
Those are the bare bones of the story. The details as recounted by Cooke make for exhilarating reading - an account notable for the range of emotions expressed - from the moment of engagement to the kill:
I went straight for the Sabre who was in a dive for front gun attack. There was another one just turning to dive for his attack- this guy warned the Sabre in the dive that I was coming for him and he abandoned his front gun attack and pulled out of the dive and did a hard right turn. I was closing in very fast. Got my gunsight on him momentarily and fired a short burst (1/4 sec) as he pulled away from me and I overshot his line of flight. I lost sight momentarily and when I made visual contact again I got behind the Sabre. He jettisoned his drop tanks and I did the same. I was terrified when I saw how easily he could out-turn me. They employed the classic scissors movement – Turn – Reverse – Turn. The wider turning aircraft would land up in front. I did notice that that his speed would drop off very quickly and that he had to dive towards the ground to build up speed again. At this stage of the dogfight I made sure that I was always above him and tried to stay behind him. I made use of the better thrust/weight ratio of the Hunter to achieve this. I noticed that his leading edge slats would open when turning and this would increase his rate of turn but he would sacrifice his speed in do doing. When I saw this, my mind went back to the classroom when I was a cadet learning about the Principles of Flight – how slats increase the stalling angle and give you more lift. However, with it comes increased drag and unless you have increased power to overcome the drag – speed will drop off. I knew then that these guys were going exactly as per the Book and I knew verse + chapter what they were doing. When his speed dropped off he would dive down to build up speed and then start fighting again – pulling out of the dive at tree height (50 ft or less) with me following- hoping that I would “mush” into the ground. I got my gunsight on him when we very low and took a shot at him. I started firing at a range of 600 yards and I could see that he was below tree-line height. I did not realize that I was that low and that my wing tip was actually hitting the scrub. I stopped firing to get away from the ground and saw his aircraft explode into a ball of flame and I could not avoid flying through the fireball and debris.
Cooke’s baptism by fire had just begun but Piloo’s training had already paid off.
The citizens of Kharagpur had a grandstand view of the roaring air battle from the top of their homes. The IIT students cheered loudly every time the Sabres - or the Hunters, it didn't seem to matter - seemed to be on the receiving end. During the scissors, Cooke could see Khan’s face clearly and still remembers him wearing a white helmet like his own with the name stenciled on the back. Khan’s Sabre crashed near the IIT campus on a farmer’s hut killing two civilians.
The remains of Afzal Khan's F-86 Sabre that crashed outside of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. Several students made it to the site to pick up souvenirs and mementos. A reconstructed eye-witness account of an IIT Student of this epic battle can be heard on Youtube.video made by CyberSurg based on an account by Rajan B.
Meanwhile Mamgain went after the two Sabres trying to sneak in on attacking the ground targets. The Sabres had already finished one attacking run when Mamgain arrived on the scene. The two Sabres immediately turned and engaged Mamgain. In the dogfight that followed, Mamgain hit one of the Sabres and claimed it shot down.
The Second Sabre - Flt Lt Tariq Habib Khan
Cooke then immediately latched onto the tail of a second Sabre, which had attempted to get behind him, and fired at it, damaging it severely. Large bits of the Sabre’s wings were torn off as Cooke’s bullets repeatedly found their mark. We return to Cooke’s own words as he chased his second opponent:
On recovering from this [Afzal Khan’s kill] a quick look around and I saw another Sabre behind me. I took violent evasive manoeuvres and during the criss-cross scissors we would cross very close to each other. I got into an advantageous position behind him and started firing while he was trying to get away from me by diving and turning towards the ground – (All this action took place between ground level and about 4000 feet). While firing at him I noticed that he steepened his bank and dive even more and something at the back of my mind warned me that that he was being warned by another Sabre who could be behind me. I kept on firing and closing in rapidly on him and I could see pieces of his aircraft disintegrating. I stopped firing, as I was so close (100 yards) that if I did not break away I would collide with him.
The third and the fourth
The Sabre damaged by Cooke disengaged to escape and head back to base. Other Sabres were around – including the one that Cooke had suspected of being on his tail:
On recovering from this I immediately pull upward to the right and saw another Sabre behind me. I out-manoeuvred him and got behind as he pulled up in a vertical climb and then winged over to go into a vertical dive with me following and firing at him all the time. In the vertical dive I kept firing at him as he pulled out of the dive and moved away from me. I was mesmerised and so full of adrenaline that it took me some time to realise that I would be flying into the ground unless I pulled out of the dive myself. I pulled back on the joystick with my finger on the trigger and got out of the dive with guns still firing until I had expended my ammunition.
One down, two chased off. But another Sabre lurked and in fact, Cooke’s No. 2, Mamgain, was in danger of getting shot down by that Sabre before Cooke intervened:
I was very shaken at this stage and I turned back towards the airfield to get my bearings and equilibrium back. It was then that I noticed my No. 2 Mamgain over the airfield doing a leisurely turn at about 1500 feet with a Sabre about 1500 yds behind him and closing in fast. I warned him and gave him a “break port” order and then came up to taken on this Sabre also.
Cooke would have been justified in escaping at that point himself, as he had no ammunition left. But Cooke chased this Sabre anyway armed with little more than film in his gun camera. He stuck to the Sabre’s tail as the PAF pilot made some desperate moves in an effort to try and get away from Cooke:
This guy tried to shake me off by doing loops and barrel rolls right over the airfield. I got behind him to firing range and tried to take a shot but there was no ammo – I closed in even closer and tried another shot, but again, no luck – no ammo. While I was behind him during this aerobatic display I called up No. 2 to come and take over and shoot this bastard down – I got no answer and thought the worst – that Mamgain may have been shot down- I called up again on R/T pleading with any other Hunter who could be airborne to come and take over and shoot this bastard out of the sky. It was at this stage that I noticed grey puffs of smoke appearing in front of me and all around me and I realised that the AA was firing at me as well.
Wing Commander Law commented on the amusement evoked by the PAF pilot’s aerobatics display as he was chased by Cooke: rarely can have a pilot gone through such desperate evasive maneuvers while not realizing that his adversary was out of ammunition. The unnerved Pakistani pilot finally disengaged, started climbing and headed towards East Pakistan. Cooke followed about 2000 yards behind. The chase took Cooke all the way to the border, whereupon he finally called it a day and decided to head for Dum-Dum. But his adventures had not yet ended. Once Cooke was away from the not-so-friendly AA fire he looked around and noticed that he had sustained some damage to his portside wingtip and saw the pitot tube bent up about 70 degrees. Gun film would reveal that this had probably happened on one of his close approaches to the ground – most probably as he took his shot at Afzal Khan’s Sabre. This meant that Cooke had no air speed indicator (ASI).
By this stage, Cooke was up to about 10,000 ft and had made R/T contact with 411 SU. Cooke reported the dogfight and told 411 SU that he was very low on fuel, had no ASI and asked to get Hunters airborne from Dum-Dum to shepherd him in and cover his landing. 411 SU had no joy trying to contact the 14 Squadron detachment at Dum-Dum. In the meantime, Cooke was over Calcutta and changed to Dum-Dum Airport’s civil frequency and told them that he was coming to land in emergency. The ATC informed Cooke that there was a Pan American Boeing 707 on long finals. This failed to impress Cooke; he insisted that he was very low on fuel and cut in ahead in front of the Boeing 707 to put his Hunter onto the runway at what felt like excessive speed. Cooke deployed the tail chute and using heavy braking was able to safely bring the aircraft under control and turned on to the taxi track. While taxi-ing back to the Bull’s dispersal area his engine cut out about 600 yards from the parking area. The Hunter was out of fuel. A day of action quite unlike any other for pilots in this war had come to an end.
The ground crew ran over and Corporal Bhasin asked Cooke to jump out of the cockpit, as there was no ladder with them. Cooke jumped and the burly Bhasin caught him like a baby. Cooke slumped, his overalls soaked in sweat. The airmen were perturbed to find that Cooke had no drop tanks and that his gun ports were blackened. The stern Flight Sergeant was even more concerned because Cooke had damage to his left wingtip and there were branches and leaves stuck there. He said, “Sir, I’ll have to tell the CO that you have been flying low!”
The actual Gun Camera video showing Sabre No 2 and 3.
La Fontaine spoke to Cooke after he landed; the adrenaline of combat had momentarily wiped out Cooke’s recollection of any details of the fight. Later in the evening, after the remaining pilots had seen the gun film a startled La Fontaine was moved to say: “It was frightening, bits and pieces of the Sabre were flying off and the trees were scraping the wing tips.” In conversation with Cooke La Fontaine said, “Alfred, you fired at four different Sabres!” “I don’t know sir!” replied Cooke, “I just can’t remember!” Cooke returned to Kalaikunda later that night, spent and exhausted. He would be able to reconstruct the battle with amazing detail once he had recovered from the intense adrenalin rush. The dogfight had felt like a blur – not just of emotions but of visual impressions as well: Cooke went into a turn, there was a Sabre in front of him, he fired and broke away “to avoid the trees”, another Sabre came up in front of him, and, “I fired again”. More trees; break away, fire at the Sabre again and so on. It had been fought at frighteningly low-level and often at dangerously close range. It had seen one pilot, Cooke, take on four different Sabres and fight them in contrasting styles. His mastery of the Hunter and his knowledge of how to best exploit its strengths against a formidable adversary like the Sabre had seen him emerge triumphant.
Amazingly, Cooke had tangled with all four Sabres: his gun camera film shows that he fired at four different Sabres and hit three. The first obviously got hit and broke up. A second Sabre, hit repeatedly, is seen with a tank hung under its left wing. The third Sabre had a tank hung on the starboard wing. This is followed by another Sabre, which Cooke remembers as being clean with no underwing tanks. However, a closer look at the film reveals the fourth Sabre as carrying a starboard drop tank as well. But it seems clear that this was the fourth Sabre, as the second (Tariq Habib Khan’s) had already disengaged and the third had escaped after making a steep dive.
There are conflicting reports about the actual number of Sabres shot down. Dicky Law, the OC Flying, who watched the entire aircombat, reported seeing two Sabres go down: one in the immediate vicinity of the airfield and another that flew some distance away from the town. The Sabres had in fact circled the Dhudkundi range before coming in to attack Kalaikunda. This coupled with the fact that they had to exit out of Kalaikunda at high speed with Hunters in the chase burned up the meagre fuel reserves of the Sabres. This is corroborated by reports from a police station near the border of a lone jet aircraft coming in low, trailing smoke and the pilot ejecting just across the border. Radio intercepts also reported ejections due to the low fuel situations of the Sabres. Mamgain’s gun camera evidence was inconclusive but, keeping in mind Dicky Law’s report of two Sabres being downed, was given the credit for a Sabre kill. The PAF only admitted the loss of one Sabre – that of Afzal Khan’s. Years later, the PAF was to admit the loss of another Sabre, that returned too badly damaged to be recovered, apparently written off after returning from this raid due to ‘lack of spares’. The extent of the spares required is not known. Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habib Khan, who suffered a drop tank hang up just before the combat, was flying this Sabre: the one recorded in Cooke’s film. If the report is to be believed, Cooke had two kills that day. (More recently in 2015 : Air Commodore Sajjad Haider, in a correspondence denied that the any second Sabre was damaged and attributed it to incomplete research by an earlier author)
"I thought, wow, what a compliment, thanks very much – did it feel like there were nine Hunters in the sky?"
- A.T. Cooke
Unfortunately for Cooke, the Hunter he flew that day (BA 250) was loaded with ball ammo rather than HE ammo. Tariq Habib Khan’s Sabre would have met a more spectacular end than just being ‘written off due to lack of spares’ had that been the case. The ball ammo probably saved the third Sabre from going down, since it was the recipient of only a short burst or two. In the annals of aircombat, Cooke’s battle ranks as a classic. Later, in its official history, the PAF would claim that nine Hunters took on the attacking Sabres. The PAF versions are a backhanded compliment to the Indian pilots, as Cooke would comment years later, on finding this particular story:
I thought, wow, what a compliment, thanks very much – did it feel like there were nine Hunters in the sky?
Flt Lt Alfred Cooke and Fg Offr S C Mamgain were both awarded the Vir Chakra for their courageous action over Kalaikunda on that day. Cooke left the IAF in 1967 and settled down in Australia. On the 50th Anniversary of the war, Flt Lt Alfred Cooke iwould be visiting his Squadron , No.14, currently flying Jaguars at Ambala . During his visit he will be presenting the Vir Chakra Medal he earned for his feat to the Squadron.
Excerpted from The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965 by P V S Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, (Manohar Publishers, 2005).
After this article was uploaded, it sparked interest on various Internet fora. Ultimately NDTV Correspondent Vishnu Som noticed it and expressed interest in interviewing Alfred Cooke. The interview, for which we have provided many of the still images can be viewed below:
An Air Force Legend's Finest Hour