The Dhamaka Incident

An unidentified bogey threatens the capital city on day one of the war

AT FOUR THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED METRES altitude, I broke through clouds. I was then looking straight into the round face of a bright full moon, the sky above me was clear and light grey, -becoming darker as it stretched out to meet the horizon, except of course towards the West where there was a misty golden effusion around the moon. It was hardly a time to pause and admire the placid vastness that surrounded me then. I was out there on a specific mission. The task assigned to me was to shoot to kill.

MiG-Pilot.jpg (72651 bytes) A pilot prepares for a sortie in a Type-77

It was the 3rd/4th night of December 1971 and the time was 01.33 hours. Only six minutes ago I was in a deep slumber, under the roof of a canvas tent in a far corner of the airfield. I had woken up with a jolt when the loud speaker that was placed on a small table a few feet away from my bed had blurted out: "Scramble, Mission One Zero One, Scramble". I had jumped out of my bed then, and had run towards the ghostly shape of my MiG-21, parked a few yards away. The ground crew who had been resting under the wings had already taken up their positions. The starter vehicle had roared to life and the green light on its hood flashed the "clear to start" signal as I climbed over the ladder and plonked myself into the cockpit.

Everything that followed thereafter was just a drill. We had been practising it over and over again, during the past nine years, ever since the MiG-21 joined the air defence system of the Indian Air Force.

Seventeen years of rigid training, first to learn to kill and then to teach to kill and here at last in those two seconds when the loud speaker had announced the code word "DHAMAKA" the opportunity had arisen for me.

As I shook the sleep out of my head and taxied my aircraft towards the take-off point, the runway lights came on and almost simultaneously the Air Traffic Controller's voice was over radio. "Mission One Zero One, you are clear to take off". Precisely two minutes and fifty seconds after I was woken up from my deep slumber, I was airborne and was folding up my wheels.

Evidently the city never sleeps. How incredible, I thought that the city should be so illuminated even at this hour and in spite of the black-out rules that the civil defence organisation had imposed on the local public. I made a mental note to lodge a complaint after landing back. Or may be, they will learn the hard way, when bombs start to fall on the city. That is if I fail to catch up with the intruder. But I should not fail. I then entered the clouds.

As I levelled off at an altitude of ten thousand metres, the interceptor controller came over the radio. "Alter course to one six zero degrees (1600), target heading for Pop Corn". So that was it then. Will he be descending below clouds to do the damage or will he let go from above, I wondered. If the former was the objective I had very little chance to encounter him. And if it was the latter, which I thought was more likely, the bombs would fall astray resulting in many civilian casualties in the dense population of 'Pop Corn'. And there, among those sleeping innocent lot, were a few who were very dear to me - my wife and two children!

"Request target range and altitude now". I was quite tense and rather cold when I asked the Controller for this information. 7arget range fifty kilometres and maintaining height, almost over Pop Corn now".

So, the damage had been done, before I could get close to him, I thought, I was annoyed and felt helpless at the same time. Just then I heard a voice over the radio, a different voice, rather gruffy and authoritative: "Panther Two, switch off your Nav lights".

No mistaking it. They are in a formation then, more than one aircraft. How many I wondered, and operating on our interception frequency! Target over Pop Corn now, still maintaining height range forty kilometres from you". The Controller interrupted my thoughts. If it was not for the clouds that stretched out like a screen below me I might have been able to spot the tiny yellow dots on the ground ahead of me, which in actual fact would be disastrous explosions and engulfing fire.

Target now altered course to two nine zero degrees (2900), alter your course to two four zero degrees (24CP), range twenty four kilometres". I made a violent turn onto my new course. They are still there as true as life. I can't let them get away. I glanced at. the air speed indicator, 1000 kms/hr. I switched on the radar to locate-the target and turned the cabin temperature to "Warm".

It must have been a minute, a miserably long minute, when there appeared a small green blip on my radar screen, twenty Vms ahead of me sure enough and at the same height. I have got the Johnny, I thought. Instinctively, I pushed the throttle upto the re-heat position. There was a kick from the back and the MiG-21 leaped forward. The plane turned supersonic and was flying at one and a half times the speed of'sound. The target blip on the radar screen was clearer now; range closing in, fifteen, fourteen, twelve, ten. I flicked on the missile lock-on switch and turned on the audio signal indicator. A few seconds and there was the "beep", "beep" note over the radio. My missile had locked onto the target alright. Range six kilometres - I was closing in like a 'ding-bat'. All I needed to do now was to gently squeeze the trigger.

Target in contact, weapon locked on, request clearance to launch". I was being good mannerly - the routine pilot-to-controller conversation, the training background, I suppose! Really unnecessary under actual operational conditions. No answer!

I repeated the same words a second time, then again a third time. Still no answer, I flicked off the trigger guard and checked the firing conditions. A little too close may be, but ideally placed in all other respects.

'Hold fire, Mission One Zero One., hold fire- The Controller's voice was so loud and sudden I almost pressed the trigger. "No damage done at Pop Corn. Target doubtful, request identify target if possible". The Controller rattled on - all in one breath.

Good Heavens! Identify at this time of the night and when I have only a radar contact! What if those boys made an evasive turn now. After all, they were monitoring our conversation on the same frequency. I had heard them a while ago! Am I going to miss him after all?

It was a painful deliberation on my part to take my eyes off the radar screen and look out. When I did, I was once again looking at what now seemed a mocking face of the same full moon. And right in the middle of that large pale, yellow mass was a red light blinking, on-off, on-off. I knew then he was no enemy. Suddenly, before I could even focus my eyes, a large silhouette of an aircraft loomed before me. I had by now switched off the re-heat, put the throttle right back to minimum power and extended the speed brakes. But in spite of it all, my overtaking speed was too high. A violent yank on the control stick and I overshot him on his right hardly a few feet away.

A Boeing 707! The anti-collision lights were all blinking, the cabin lights filtered through the oval shaped windows. Against the moonlight, the large letters of the Airline written on the fuselage were clearly legible.

My first reaction was of intense fear. How close I was to him. Indeed, I almost collided with him. How many innocent passengers I wondered, some asleep, some peeping through the windows to have a first glimpse of India. All of them unaware, undoubtedly, of the terrible disaster they had just escaped.

My second reaction that followed immediately was of utter disappointment. Here was I, all worked up and excited of my first kill and expecting a juicy bomber - and it turns out to be a fat airliner!

Then I was Very angry, I could not hide my annoyance when I transmitted the results of my interception to the ground controller.

"Turn on to international frequency and order the Boeing to land at the airfield. He has violated traffic rules" the Controller sounded annoyed too. When I turned my radio to the international frequency, there was already a conversation in progress between the Air Traffic Controller and the Boeing Captain, "You are to land at the airport immediately", the Controller was ordering. I am proceeding to my destination as per my flight plan, you may contact our representatives and lodge your complaint, the Boeing Captain had argued.

I did not want to interrupt their conversation. I was not interested any more. Besides, I was rather exhausted, too much had happened in too. short a time and also too little fuel in the tanks of my killer plane for any fancy conversation with the Captain who sounded so argumentative.

There was an unusually large crowd of pilots and technicians to receive me when I taxied back to the parking point. They looked rather glum and equally disappointed when they saw the missiles still suspended under my wings. Before I could even unstrap, they were shooting questions at me. I quenched their curiosity with a short answer "False Alarm", and headed for the telephone.

The interception controller's explanation was quite simple. The Boeing was not scheduled. Besides, she was not following the predetermined route for international aircraft. She was outside the flight corridor by as much as 110 kilometres!

I then got the Air Force Officer Incharge of Movement Liaison at the airport on the line. I may have sounded wild and demanding. "Be patient Sir, the culprit is landing here shortly: I shall call you back and give you the Captain's explanation shortly", said the officer.

At 02.33 hours, the Boeing touched down. I watched the huge but sleek airliner make a perfect landing and turn towards the rather empty parking lot in front of the terminal building. At 03.15 hours, the Airlines Movement Liaison Officer rang up to give the explanation.

The flight call sign "Sugar Foxtrot, with 108 passengers on board had taken off from Bangkok, destination Teheran. Evidently the Commander of the flight was not aware of the war that had broken out between Pakistan and India few hours ago. Nor was he informed of the NOTAM, number G.057, issued by the civil aviation authority, prohibiting flights over Indian territory by foreign aircraft. He must have found it rather strange that there were so few landmarks visible over the country and to make it worse for him all the navigational radio aids at various check points en route over India were off. No wonder then that he was 110 kilometres outside flight corridor groping about his way in darkness. I could understand his predidament. However, I was not too convinced by his explanation.

The Captain, I was told, was none too polite or friendly when the Indian civil authorities summoned him for an explanation. Evidently, he had sobered down when he was apprised of the terrible truth and his narrow escape from utter disaster.

"Please pay my compliments to the Captain and tell him to send to my tent a bottle of Champagne and two glasses". I hung up.

There was still the mystery of that radio call "Put off your Nav lights", to be solved. I learned later that "Panther" formation was one of our own bombers on its way to Karachi.

When at 04.05 hours, the Flight 191 took off, I stood watching the "Big Beauty" turn port and set head her destination. I could see in my mind the. passengers (a hundred and eight of them!) unstrap their seat belts and slide back to a more comfortable position; still a little annoyed perhaps for the "unnecessary" delay to their flight.

The runaway lights went off suddenly and with that darkness closed in around me. The Boeing was still visible in the sky, the red lights blinking on, off, on, off, as it went. I watched her till the clouds swallowed her up.

When I walked into my tent, 'One Zero Two' put his head out of his mosquito net and asked me. "When is that Champagne coming!!