Mission to Chamb

 

Flt Lt Apram Jeet Singh (now Gp Capt (retd))

The story of No.45 Squadron's stay at Pathankot airfield during the 71 war has already been narrated in part by Air Marshal K D K Lewis here and here. In this instalment, (then) Flt Lt Apram Jeet Singh -  narrates the tale of a fateful mission to Chamb in which his mission leader was shot down and his own aircraft was so badly shot up that the return flight was a touch-and-go affair.


 

I was among the first batch of pilots to convert onto MiG-21’s in India along with (now Air Marshals)  Ben Brar, Raj Kumar, Frisky Verma and Bharat Kumar. Most of us were from No. 1 Squadron that was flying the Mystere aircraft and  we converted to the MiG-21 in 1966. I flew the MiG-21 till 1969 , when I was posted to the Flying Instructors School ( FIS) as an instructor.

When the Indo-Pak war was in the offing in 1971,  I was still an instructor at Fighter Training Wing (FTW) at Hakimpet, flying Vampire aircraft. Six pilots were picked up from FTW to fly the Vampires in the war. The role given to us was ‘low level night blind bombing’ over Pakistani Army concentrations. The aim being to harrass the Pakistanis, not to allow them to move at night.

We moved to Chandigarh for training and night operations. At that time, No 45 Squadron which was equipped with MiG-21 FL (Type-77) aircraft was also based at Chandigarh. The Squadron had been given a task of manning a number of Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) at forward airfields, which included Amritsar and Pathankot. Since all the pilots were out of Chandigarh, Chandigarh ORP was manned by one pilot, Flt Lt Steve Lal from dawn to dusk. The Officer Commanding No 45 Squadron, Wg. Cdr. Anand, sometimes relieved him by manning the ORP.

Just before the war Flt Lt Lal was called to Western Air Command for an Inquiry. This meant that there was no one to man the ORP. The Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore E J Dhatigara, came to know that I was fully operational on the MiG-21 and ordered me to fly a few sorties and start manning the ORP.

When the war was imminent I was moved to Pathankot. At Pathankot, No. 45 Squadron detachment was made up of pilots who had come from all over the country. The only pilots belonging to 45 Squadron were Flt Lt Surjit Singh and Bhadsavle. The detachment commander was Sqn Ldr Denzil Keelor, and other pilots were Sqn Ldr K D K Lewis, Sqn. Ldr. Janak Kapur, and Sqn. Ldr. Sonpar. The detachment was manning the ORP, round the clock and at times escorting Sukhoi-7 aircraft from Adampur air base to the battle zone.

 

Click to Enlarge

 Pilots of No.45 Squadron's detachment at Pathankot.  Dett Cdr Sqn Ldr Keith Lewis standing third from right.

The fateful day - 8 Dec 1971.

When the war started on 3rd December 1971 we were given the task of escorting Sukhoi-7 aircraft from Adampur air base into enemy lines in the Chamb-Jaurian sector. We used to fly along the foot hills with the Sukhois and leave them on the return flight over Pathankot. The Sukhoi-7 aircraft would proceed to Adampur. During these missions, the Army reported that they were being attacked by Pakistani aircraft as soon as the IAF aircraft left the battle area.

Air Commodore L M Katre (later who became the Chief of Air Staff) was the Station Commander at Pathankot. He summoned Sqn. Ldr.  Keelor and ordered him to send two aircraft to the battle zone when the Sukhoi-7 leave the battle zone and fly a holding pattern behind the hills out of Pak radar pickup so that when the PAF aircraft came the Forward Air Controller would inform these aircraft and they would intercept the PAF  aircraft. 

The plan was good if it was executed as planned. On the morning of 08 Dec 1971, Denzil Keelor came from the operations room, where he had been briefed by the Station Commander and on entering the OPR said “we are going hunting, lets go”

As per the flying program Sqn Ldr Sonpar was to lead the mission and I was to be his wing man. But Denzil pulled him down from the stairs and said “AJ - follow me we are going hunting.”

That was my briefing! I did not know of the actual briefing Denzil had received from the Station Commander. I did not know what the aim of our mission was! Before I knew what was happening we were airborne heading towards the battle area and clearing each other’s tail.

At this stage things started going wrong. We were on an air defense mission,  but we flew straight over Pakistani army concentrations at a height of 300 feet.  The Pak army convoy was  escorted by tanks with ZSU-23 mm air defense guns.  Then for inexplicable reasons, Denzil decided to make a second pass over them.

During this second pass, both of us got shot up by the anti-aircraft guns. We were both in a dive when hit by the fire. As soon as I got hit, I started pulling up, and Denzil was pulling up as well. There was a thick cloud and I couldn’t see him. Both of us lost contact with each other. That was the last I saw him. I had lost my R/T (due to the AA fire) and there was no contact. Infact Denzil’s aircraft was shot down, and he ejected and came down in no-mans land.

My aircraft, on the other hand was shot up badly.  The only damage that I could see was the wing. The front leading edge of the left wing was split open. The aileron control rods were in the leading edge and it was broken. I had lost the left aileron and was operating only on the right aileron.

In addition, I had lost all the hydraulics, and the control of the tail section. (Tail chute operation,  the electrical control of the tail plane). The dorsal fin had been shot up cutting all controls, the fin had split open with multiple hits.  Loss of hydraulics also meant that the jet port operation was gone and there was no afterburner. 

With the disabled aircraft, I had to reduce speed and fly at low heights to avoid enemy radar. I landed back at Pathankot air base, touching down at one and a half times the landing speed without the tail chute, flaps or the airbrakes. I landed the aircraft safely but that aircraft never flew in the war again.  I realized all the damage to the aircraft only after landing. I  returned to flying combat missions the very next day. 

  This photograph of A J Singh's MiG-21 shows the port leading edge completely torn open by the AA fire. The aircraft C1103 was so badly damaged that it never flew again for the rest of the war.
Thirty one years later -  MiG-21 C1103 was spotted at Chabua in 2002, flying with the Operational Conversion Unit.   

I didn’t know if Denzil had ejected or anything. Only later I came to know once I got a call from Jammu saying that there is a person here in the Jammu Hospital who claims he is an Indian Pilot. It was Denzil, he landed in no-man’s land was nearly picked up by the Pakistanis. An Indian patrol picked him up as a POW and carried him to the hospital. That’s when I got a call at Pathankot about him trying to verify his identity.

During peace time we train with one aim in mind - To defend our country and defeat the enemy whenever war comes. With this aim in mind we are reminded again and again about the chain of command and obeying orders. Unfortunately that day things went wrong as the briefing was not followed to the letter and this resulted in the mission being a loss. As a result two MiG-21s and a pilot were put out of action. 

 


 

Commissioned into the IAF in June 1963, then Flt Lt Apramjeet Singh flew 21 operational missions during the 1971 war. For displaying exemplary skill and courage in bringing his aircraft back to base safely, he was awarded the Vir Chakra in 1973. He was also the founding CO of No.102 Squadron "Trisonics" equipped with the MiG-25 Foxbat.

Article Copyright 2010 Gp Capt A J Singh. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Gp Capt A J Singh is prohibited. 

Photograph of C1103 from Chabua provided by Phillip Camp of UK. Photograph of Author from "Courage and Devotion to Duty" by Air Marshal Bharat Kumar.


Webmaster's Note (June 2014):

The following note was left on the website contact form in June 2014.  No return email address given so we are unable to verify the veracity:

Your aircraft were shot near Jhanda where we were attacking 5 ASSAM DEFENCES.

I was commanding the attacking company (supported by a) troop of tanks -Obsolete Shermans (that) were under command. Two broke down and one left was being commanded by Maj Ashraf of 26 Cavalry. When your aircraft came from east , in the first run both of you fired at the lone tank standing in the open . The aircraft missed the tank was ten yards away. I saw Maj Ashraf sitting behind the MG on top . Both came again , Infantry and Maj Ashraf fired.

Both were hit. The tank was again missed. One aircraft was crippled and another went and then nose dived. Pilot ejected and wind drift sailed him towards 5 Assam over us. No one fired on my orders at the ejected pilot.  The Seat and debris are with us.  There was no convoy or a column of tanks. It was one tank (and infantry) that destroyed two aircraft

-Major Tanvir Hussain (Retd) Sitara-e-Juraat

There are two inconsistencies in the above account from Major Hussain.

On the day this event occurred, the Battle of Jhanda was long over.  Indian troops had retreated east of the Munnawar Tawi River and were no longer in occupation of Jhanda.  

One has to make assumptions that Major Hussain is confused about dates and locations and thus may have been referring to a later incident with that of an earlier battle (Jhanda on 4 Dec).  With that in context, it should be stated that both the Author as well as AVM Keelor had earlier confirmed to the author that the MIGs have not fired at the ground targets. The MiGs were configured for Air Combat and the question of strafing ground targets and  'missing' does not arise.