When Lightning Strikes!

Throughout the decade in the 1980s, a generation of Indians grew up looking at 9 Hunters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) flying in a diamond formation, executing loops, rolls, dives and different aerobatics in a show of skill, performance & precision. The formation, better known as the 'Thunderbolts' thrilled crowds at many air shows, flying the length & breadth of the country performing their routine over & over again, without hitch. This unit was meant to carry the message of the Indian Air Force to the general public.


Squadron Crest of No.20 Lightnings


THE THUNDERBOLTS: Hunters of No.20 Squadron flew as  the formation aerobatics team "Thunderbolts" in the 1980s. Painting Copyright : Polly

Though people knew the formation as a showpiece of the IAF and the name 'Thunderbolts', they never quite knew that it was one of the most highly decorated squadrons of the Indian Air Force. No.20 Sqn., which had the unique distinction of flying the same type of aircraft, the Hunter for a period of 38 years! Flying in two air wars, No.20 Lightnings earned an impressive tally of two Maha Vir Chakra and eight Vir Chakra Awards. Something which many a squadron would covet.

The Lightnings were raised on 01 June 1956, at Halwara under the command of Sqn. Ldr. K.M. Ram, and were initially equipped with the Vampire Mk.52, a type that was relegated to the second line in the Indian Air Force, as new Canberras, Hunters and Gnats were being inducted in the IAF. No.20 Sqn was equipped with the Hunter Mk.56 in 1959 at Ambala. It was to fly the aircraft till 1997!

The squadron moved to Palam in 1960, to provide air defence cover to the capital. The squadron's crest embodies, three bars of lightning in conjunction with the Himalayan Eagle. It's Sanskrit motto translated means, Fast and Fearless.

This squadron first saw action in 1965, when it sent a detachment of Hunters to Halwara, and operating along with the other two Hunter squadrons, they earned laurels in many an interdiction mission. Three pilots, Sqn. Ldr. B.K. Bishnoi, Flt. Lt. C.K.K. Menon and Flt. Lt. D.S. Negi received Vir Chakras for a particular mission in which they interdicted an ammunition train with cannon & rockets and destroyed it. The squadron suffered some losses like Flt. Lt. K.C. Cariappa who baled out to become a prisoner, and Fg. Off. F.D. Bunsha, who was killed on attachment to No.7 Battle Axes Squadron. The squadron ended the conflict with a tally of three Vir Chakras and a Vayu Sena Medal.

A beautiful profile of the Hawker Hunter Mk.56. The picture is a recent one, during the last days of the Hunter's stint with No.20 Lightnings Squadron.

Immediately after the 1965 War, No.20 Sqn. moved to Hindon, its new airbase outside Delhi under the command of Wg. Cdr. N.C. Suri (later Chief of Air Staff). In March 1969, Wg. Cdr. C.V. Parker came over from Jamnagar where he had raised and commanded the IAF’s first Hunter Operational Training Unit (OTU), to take command of the Lightnings.

Wg. Cdr. C.V. Parker was no stranger to the Lightnings. He had earlier served with the squadron as a Flight Commander during 1962-65. Parker had missed the earlier war in 1965, as he was on deputation to a training program in the United States. During that time, on hearing the commencement of hostilities, he tried in vain to cut short his stay in the US and return back to his unit. When he had taken command of the Squadron, Parker was all set to make up for his absence from the earlier war.

The squadron re-equipped with the F Mk.56A aircraft and moved to Pathankot airbase in July 1971, where they started training for their designated roles. No.20 Sqn's role, as it was primarily conceived, was of air defence. Later, all Hunter squadrons had been marked out for support & offensive operations. When war did break out in December 1971, No.20 Sqn focused on counter air and interdiction, with close air support coming later.

Training was conducted in earnest, with the role of No.20 being delegated to counter air sorties and economic targets. The latter was a novelty, as far as the Indian AF's strategy was concerned. In the previous conflict, economic targets were never attacked. This time, a number of key industrial targets have been identified whose destruction would be detrimental to the Pakistani war machinery.

Wg. Cdr. Parker had an establishment of 15 single- seater Hunter and 2 trainers. He had 18 pilots (including himself, four trainee pilots), 6 ground duty officers and 335 airmen under his command. The main focus of the Squadron during this period was on training throughout the period leading up to the war. It was a wise decision as No.20 Sqn. had one of the lowest attrition rates, amongst the squadrons, in spite of the effort it had put up in the air war.

In October 1971, Parker has a surprise visitor to his squadron. One fine day, an impromptu inspection was called in and the visitor turned out to be Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, in one of his surprise visits to forward units. All the pilots turned out in flying gear for inspection. As Parker came in to receive the CAS, Lal remarked, "Parker, I understand that you lay lot of emphasis on physical training, maybe that's why one of your pilots is still in his PT Shoes!"

Wg. Cdr. Parker could detect a hint of well intended sarcasm in the Lal's remark. Parker looked at the pilots for the offender, and realised what had inspired Lal to remark on that. Parker replied to Lal, "Sir, the pilot is not wearing PT shoes, he is a naval pilot, wearing his white uniform shoes." Even Lal was unaware of the details of how a naval officer came to be deputed to an operational IAF squadron.

In the late 1960s it was decided that the Navy and the Air Force would depute two pilots each to operational units to learn about the workings of each other. Accordingly Lt. Arun Prakash and Lt. Peter Debrass, from the IN, were deputed to the IAF. Debrass went and joined No.9 Sqn on Gnat aircraft, and Arun Prakash came to the Lightnings. The CAS had been unaware of the details and he did not know of that the pilot was attached to the Lightnings.

On being appraised of the situation, Lal asked "What if on the outbreak of a war, the navy wants him back?". Parker replied, "He would be of more use to the Air Force than to the Navy. Moreover the amount of expenditure incurred in his training with Hunters would be wasted if he goes back to his naval unit, where in all probability he will not be as useful." Lal agreed with the assessment, and Arun Prakash flew with the Lightnings in the conflict that came later.

We will not go into much details on the background of the scenario leading to war, suffice it to say that the preemptive strike by the PAF on the evening of December 3rd, set the ball rolling. War descended on the subcontinent again and all the fighting units plunged into the battle.

Pathankot was attacked in the twilight hours of December 3rd. At around 1743 hrs, A Mirage III of the PAF came over to drop bombs and strafe the airfield. Pathankot is a mere 60 seconds flying time from the border and offered the least amount of early warning to the Indians.

In 1965, the PAF managed to do considerable damage to the airfield in a surprise attack. But this time around, the IAF had carefully planned out its strategy. None of the No.20 Sqn's aircraft was based at Pathankot. All the aircraft were dispersed to rear airfields like Ambala, Palam, Hindon, etc. After the attack was over and the full scale hostilities began, the IAF has started retaliating.

Wg. Cdr. Parker was in a meeting with Air Commodore T.S. Brar, at the time of the PAF preemptive attack. On confirmation of the hostilities, all the detachments were notified to return to Pathankot. This was duly carried out in the early hours of December 4th. As the Commanding Officer, Parker exercised his privilege of mounting the first mission which was to attack Peshawar airfield.

The attack on Peshawar on December 4th was a classic in air war of 1971. Erstwhile, only Canberras had dared to fly all the way to Peshawar and bomb it. During the 1965 War, Canberras of No.5 Sqn managed a solitary raid on the night of September 13/14th to Peshawar. Canberras were chosen, as no other aircraft had the range to fly the distance.

How the Hunters of No.20 Sqn attempted such a seemingly impossible task deserves to be examined in closer detail. The Hunter Mk.56, which was acquired by the IAF was equipped to fly with four 100 imp gallon tanks to extend its range. Even with all the tanks and no external weapons load, the aircraft never had the range to fly to Peshawar and back.

Between the wars, the Hunter Mk.56A was acquired which could carry two 100 gallon outboard and two 230 gallon tanks on its inner pylons, thus extending its range. Trials were made before the war, testing the aircraft's range. On one occasion, two Hunters were flown lo-hi-lo all the way from Pathankot to Jamnagar, over flying Agra and Ahmedabad, to fire on the Jamnagar firing range and land at Jamnagar.

The pilots had sufficient confidence in the Hunter's ability to reach Peshawar and back. Even then, the aircraft would have to carry only cannons, dispensing with any external stores like bombs or rockets. The allowance for air combat and evasive maneuvers were marginal if not non-existent.

There being no Hunters with No.20 Sqn. at Pathankot on December 3rd, Parker was authorised to borrow two aircraft from the neighboring unit, the No.27 Flaming Arrows Squadron. Two aircraft were procured, with the mission launch time fixed at around 0430 hours on December 4th to enable both the pilots to reach Peshawar at first light.

Parker took Flt. Lt. C.S. Dhillon as his No.2 and when they went over to No.27 Sqn's dispersal area to pick up the Hunters, he was dismayed to find the Hunters had rocket railings fixed under its wings. Flying at extreme range, the rocket rails would have been a tremendous drag on the aircraft's performance. But time did not permit the ground crew to turn around the aircraft for their removal, and Parker was eager to start of at 0430 hours, so as not to delay the mission which might end up with them spending too much time in hostile territory in day light.

Both Hunters took off on time and after almost 75 minutes of flying, pulled up over Peshawar airfield, as dawn was breaking. Parker and Dhillon noticed three Sabres were already in the air at a distance. But due to the probability of the sun shining in the Pakistani pilots' eyes, the Hunters were not spotted. After identifying the airfield, both Parker and Dhillon went in for the first strafing run.

Dhillon noticed a Bulk Petroleum Installation (BPI) and made it a target for his second run. Parker identified two Sabres on the ground refueling from a bowser, and in his second run totaled it, with big plumes of black smoke confirming his hits. Two strafing runs were all that were allowed for this mission, and both the Hunters rendezvoused to fly back to Pathankot, when the three Sabres which were noticed earlier vectored towards the returning Hunters. The Sabres slowly caught up with the Hunters and some hits were scored on the Hunters.

With still a long way to go, and the Sabres slowly making some headway in hitting the Hunters, Parker called for a break. Till then his objective had been to get himself and his wingman out safely, but with his Hunter already having bullet holes in its tanks and fuselage, the prospect of Parker rushing to help Dhillon were dim. On the order to split, Dhillon banked his aircraft hard port and headed towards Jammu. The F-86s split too, with one peeling off to chase Dhillon, while the other two stuck to Parker’s tail.

"This" Parker recalls, "...was a godsend. If they had sent two Sabres to chase the less experienced Dhillon, They might have got him!"

With two Sabres on his tail, Parker arrived over the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, both separated by a negligible distance. The chase was at a low level. And just south of the two cities, Parker noticed some high ground approaching rapidly. He was faced with a dilemma, to increase power and pull up and in the process exhausting his reserves even more or to turn around, he chose a maneuver which would probably have meant death in a dogfight, he turned his aircraft around, dropping half flaps, and losing speed.

The Hunter cleared the obstacle in a tight turn. The Sabre that was chasing him was flying too fast to follow a tight turn and the Pakistani pilot pulled back into a high-speed turn. Parker on coming out of the turn noticed that the Pakistani pilot had in fact overshot him, and having lost sight of his adversary, was searching frantically in the skies by jinking his aircraft around. Parker could not let go of this opportunity and he closed in & fired his little remaining ammunition into the Sabre which plunged into the ground and blew up.

The second Sabre was nowhere to be seen and Parker never knew what happened to the second Pakistani pilot, who probably was lost in the chase. Now devoid of any adversaries on his tail, he set course for Pathankot. Parker received some sporadic ground fire just near the border, which could have come from either side. He had radioed to Pathankot about his precarious fuel situation and Pathankot ATC cleared him to land "at any runway, any place."

Meanwhile Dhillon was coming in from the direction of Jammu, to Pathankot. He had received several hits from the Sabre but all the same shook him off and lost him. Dhillon too made a similar call to Pathankot, and was approaching it with his fuel reserves at the minimum.

Parker being nearer to the airfield landed first, his engine flamed out due to lack of fuel. Dhillon too landed with empty tanks. Both the aircraft had numerous bullet holes. Parker's aircraft received 22 hits from the tail controls right up to the cockpit area. Two Sabres on the ground were confirmed destroyed, as was one Sabre in air combat. Not bad for a first strike of the war!

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY:  Hunter A-485, of the No.27 Sqn, after the raid on Peshawar. Wg. Cdr. C.V. Parker, CO - No.20 Sqn, was flying this particular aircraft.   The ground crew counted 22 bullet hits from the Sabre's guns. Also seen in the picture is damage to the tail drag chute compartment.

Parker landed without the chute. Also see picture three and four.

Both the damaged aircraft were returned to their original owners, No.27 Sqn., with gratitude as well as apologies. Meanwhile the aircraft of No.20 Sqn, had returned to Pathankot. One aircraft was fired at eagerly by the Indian air defence gunners. Luckily no damage was done.

The second strike of the Lightnings was already underway by the time, the first strike had landed. Sqn. Ldr. Jal Mistry, the senior most pilot of the squadron after the CO, along with Sqn. Ldr. Bajpai, flew to attack Kohat, which was also at the extreme range of the aircraft. Bajpai's Hunter started too late, so Jal Mistry flew alone to attack Kohat airfield. The target was identified and attacked, the aircraft being recovered successfully.

Lt. Arun Prakash, IN, led the third mission with Karumbaya as his wingman to attack Chaklala Airfield. The aircraft arrived over Chaklala to find a number of unidentified aircraft, from light executive aircraft to C-130s. Arun Prakash identified and destroyed a C-130, with his colleague attacking and hitting several hangers and installations.

Sqn. Ldr. A.A.D. Rozario, another senior flight commander, led the attack to Murid airfield with Fg. Off. Balasubramanian as his No.2 and  Kailey and Flt. Lt. Deoskar as his No.3 and No.4. Arriving over Murid airfield, the aircraft received the now familiar response of ack-ack fire.

The first pair of pilots, Rozario and Balasubramanian immediately identified several targets and attacked them. One 'needle-nosed aircraft', in all probability a F-104 or a Mirage III, which was camouflaged was identified and destroyed. Later a sortie by a PR Sukhoi-7 confirmed the destruction of this aircraft. The second pair of Kailey and Deoskar missed the target. So they carried out some interdiction before returning safely back to base.

Back at Pathankot, the SASO, HQ WAC telephonically ordered a second strike on Peshawar airfield. Parker advised against it, as the gains may not be commensurate with the effort. The SASO overruled the CO, and a second raid on Peshawar was launched. Two Hunters flown by Sqn. Ldr. K.N. Bajpai and Fg. Off. K.P. Muralidharan took off for 

Their standing orders were clear, at such an extreme range, all air combat was to be ignored, and as feared both the pilots ran into air opposition, intercepted by Sabres as soon as they had completed their attack. Bajpai called for a break and a rendezvous to fly back to Pathankot, but Murali instead of evading the attacking Sabres got involved in a dogfight.

Muralidharan was last seen flying north of Peshawar in combat with a Sabre. Bajpai had enough problems of his own with the Sabres taking shots at him. However Bajpai managed to shake off his pursuers, but found himself in a damaged aircraft, with diminishing fuel reserves. He knew he would never reach Pathankot.

Base suggested that Bajpai land at Jammu, where a new airfield was being constructed. Jammu, received the attention of the GREF just before the beginning of the war, and a engineer force along with civilian labour was engaged in re-building the runway. Jammu was notified by Pathankot about Bajpai's imminent arrival and all the construction equipment was cleared off the runway to enable the Hunter pilot to land safely.

All the labourers cleared the debris and equipment as the smoking Hunter came into land. Bajpai put the Hunter down neatly, but the runway proved to be too short for him, the Hunter overshot at the Tawi end, and placed itself snugly on a civilian truck which was unloading masonry, at the end of the runway. He climbed down safely, none the worse for his landing experience. The GREF personnel marveled at the unique sight of the Hunter sitting on the truck. Later a driver came, and drove the truck with the Hunter on it, to the repair shop!

Thus ended the first day strikes of Lightning squadron. Five missions were flown to four different airfields and at least four aircraft on the ground and a F-86 in the air were assessed to have been destroyed. The other Hunter squadron at Pathankot, No.27, too flew some missions to Pakistani airfields. However they lost two of their Hunters to PAF's F-6s on two different occasions. Both the pilots missing in action.

Stay Clear Lightning Stored Here: Personnel of No.20 Sqn. before the 1971 war.

From Left to Right Standing:  Shirke, Balasubramanian (VrC), "Bond" Heble, Chowfin, Sahu, Suraj Kumar, Arun Prakash (VrC), K.P. Muralidharan (killed), R DeMonte, Gahlaut, Mooko (GD), A.K. "Bomber" Sharma.

From Left to Right Sitting:  Kailey, Sahai, Bajpai, F.J. Mehta (VrC with OTU), C.V. Parker (MVC), Jal Mistry (Killed - VrC), A.A.D. Rozario, "Doc" Kochar, C.S. Dhillon (VM).

Not in the Picture: Bharadwaj (MVC), Deoskar (VrC), Karumbaya (VrC)

As dawn broke out on December 5th, the first raid of the day was already on the way. Sqn. Ldr. Ravi Bharadwaj and Flt. Lt. Gahlaut, flew to attack Chaklala airfield. The pilots continued the good work done by Lt. Arun Prakash and his wingmen the day earlier, and successfully knocked out some aircraft on the ground. Bharadwaj, adding a C-130 transport to the tally, and Gahlaut, destroying a Twin Otter.

The Twin Otter was admitted to have been destroyed by Radio Pakistan, but the admission could have been forced by the fact the Otter belonged to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) detachment with the UNMOGIP. Though the aircraft were observed as having been painted as white, it was difficult for the pilots to actually confirm that the aircraft belonged to the UN.

Parker was to lead the second raid of the day to Mianwali at around 1431 hours, with Dhillon as his No.2 and Balasubramanian and Arun Prakash as the No.3 and 4. Parker's aircraft failed to start and Dhillon's aircraft went unserviceable after getting airborne. Nevertheless the strike was underway with Bala as the leader. One C-130 was identified and Arun Prakash knocked the aircraft out, destroying it completely. Some other light aircraft too were destroyed.

The attack on Mianwali was timed to coincide with another mission to Sakesar radar station. Sakesar was the air defence center of the PAF which was instrumental in directing the air defence fighters of the PAF. Sqn. Ldrs. Jal Mistry and Karumbaya were designated to take off for the mission, which was at the same time as the other raid on Mianwali. Karumbaya's Hunter failed to start. Jal Mistry again decided to fly alone to Sakesar. The Indian Air Force strongly discourages pilots to fly on solitary missions alone. But Mistry decided to go alone, Parker himself was not available, being in the air himself.

Mistry flew alone to Sakesar and successfully rocketed it. Bala and Arun Prakash, who were returning from Mianwali, got a radio call from Mistry announcing the damage to Sakesar. It was the last they ever heard from him. Mistry was intercepted by a Mirage III flown by Flt. Lt. Safdar. The PAF pilot scored a hit with an air-to-air missile and reported the Hunter going down. Mistry was killed in the crash. Sakesar was to become a death trap for Hunters that day.

Much earlier in the day, another mission of two Hunters from No.27 squadron struck at Sakesar. These two Hunters were intercepted in the return leg by two MiG-19s from Mianwali and shot down. Both the pilots being killed. Mistry was the third pilot to be shot down attacking the same target.

Back at Pathankot, Mistry was declared missing. Later, a Pakistani broadcast was picked up specifying that Mistry was shot down over Pakistan. It appeared that either Mistry was a POW or that the Pakistanis have recovered something to identify him, most probably his Identity Card, which incidentally pilots were not supposed to carry with them. However much later on, the pilots at the Lightning Squadron came to know that Mistry was killed in the combat.

Four Hunters flown by Fg. Offs. DeMonte, Suraj Kumar, "Bond" Heble and Kailey flew a sortie to Lahore and Walton in search of opportunity targets. They found and attacked some railway installations and a train somewhere near Walton. They came back without damage. The last mission of the day was a two ship strike against Chak Jumra by Deoskar and A.K. "Bomber" Sharma. By end of the second day of operations, No.20 Sqn. had flown nine missions and destroyed more than six Pakistani aircraft on the ground with a loss of two Hunters and pilots lost.

From December 6th onwards, No.20 turned its attention from counter air to economic targets. Those were targets whose destruction would prove to be damaging to the Pakistani industry. Top of the list was the Attock Oil Refinery, which was situated South East of Rawalpindi.

This target was defended by a good network of anti-aircraft guns controlled by the nearby airfield of Chaklala which was about 20 miles away. Destruction of the refinery or at the very least, hampering its operations would impose a severe crunch in the POL reserves of the Pakistanis.

It was planned to send a four ship strike to Attock. Wg. Cdr. Parker, along with Sqn. Ldr. Bajpai, Fg. Offs. DeMonte and Karumbaya were the pilots on this mission. Technical snags prevented Karumbaya's Hunter from starting. Finally Parker, DeMonte and Bajpai took off to attack the refinery.

The actual routing of the Hunters took them over for a diversionary attack on to Chaklala, then executing a turnabout and hitting the Attock Oil Refinery from the west. The AA Guns were caught napping at first. The refinery was shrouded in camouflage, and the AA Guns were defending it to the inch. Parker was the first to dive in. The Hunters carried cannon ammunition, and the first burst set fire to the fuel tanks.

The fire spread quickly through the refinery fuelled by the vapours. The blaze spread so fast that their height was reaching the Hunters which were making their second run. The ack-ack fire could not make its presence felt, and all the aircraft were recovered safely. Gun camera pictures of the raid, prove the accuracy of the damage to the facilities. PR recce confirmed the damage to the refinery. The fire in the refinery resulted in a beautiful blaze lasting several days and nights. Indian bombers flying in the stealth of the night reported the flames which served as a navigational aid for some days to come.

Gun Camera pictures of the attack on the Attock Oil Refinery, on 6th December 1971. The picture was taken by the No.2 Hunter - Sqn. Ldr. Bajpai - in the formation.

An Artist's impression of a Hunter of No.20 Squadron after attacking the Attock Oil refinery. 
Painting Copyright : Polly

Click to see Larger size

The first effort to attack a economic target was a success for the squadron. Focus soon shifted towards Interdiction. A strike was launched against railway targets on the Wazirawali-Lahore railway axis and the raid was uneventful in terms of opposition encountered.

The next economic target on the list of No.20 Squadron was the Mangla Hydel Dam which was attacked in the morning of December 7th. The strike was scheduled to be a four aircraft mission. Sqn. Ldr. R.N. Bharadwaj led the raid, with C.S. Dhillon, Chowfin and Heble as his wingmen. All the Hunters were equipped with 2 x 68mm rocket pods.

Mangla Dam has been assigned as a target for the squadron as far back as October 1971. Parker was briefed about the position and location of the dam, and the objective was given as the destruction of the Hydro Electric Station at the foot of the dam. With no pictures to go by, and instructions to knock out the Hydel Station, a trip for Parker was arranged to the Joginder Nagar Dam in Punjab.

This dam was supposed to simulate the actual layout of Mangla dam, and Parker was allowed to study the area in detail. Later, Parker and Bharadwaj, flew a dummy sortie to the Joginder Nagar Dam, to try and test their tactics. All the training paid off, when Bharadwaj led the actual raid on the Mangla Dam, he found the target exactly as they imagined it, with the Hydel station at the foot of the dam, with two AA guns on top of it.

Again the enemy AA defences were caught napping. They could not respond effectively to stop the Hunters which by the time had set fire and damaged the Hydel Station. The Hunters suffered several cannon stoppages and failure of the rocket pods to fire, but all in all, the power station was badly knocked about.

A second strike was planned later in the day. Bharadwaj deputed to lead the aircraft again, accompanied by Dhillon, Sharma and Chowfin. But Bharadwaj's aircraft suffered problems, the engine refusing to start and the remaining three carried out the raid, without damage or loss. Sqn. Ldr. Rozario led a 4-aircraft mission to Kohat, with DeMonte and Karumbaya as his wingmen. The fourth aircraft flown by Deoskar, returned to base as soon as it suffered some technical snags after take off. The raid was successful.

Meanwhile Parker led a mission to Murid airfield. Murid was a forward station for a MiG-19 squadron and some Sabres. Arun Prakash and Bajpai flew with Parker on this mission. Gremlins made their presence felt yet once again, when the fourth aircraft, being flown by Balasubramanian was rendered unserviceable due to snags before take off.

Parker arrived over Murid, and identifying two Sabres on the ground made a strafing run on them. One of the Sabres burst into flames emitting smoke, while the other did not. This left a doubt in the pilots minds that the aircraft could have been some dummy/decoy aircraft.

As the aircraft were pulling out of the raid, one of the pilots noticed an aerial mast dead ahead in their path, with wires dangling from it. This mast was not marked out in the map, and its presence slightly unnerved the pilots, who thought it as some anti-aircraft measure.

The aircraft had to take drastic evasive measures to avoid crashing into the mast or its wires. In all probability, it was an unmarked aerial on the Indian maps, but it did unnerve the formation for a brief moment. A second strafing run was made over Murid, including the hangers and installations, which looked like housing some aircraft was carried out. But the damage if any was difficult to assess.

Murid received further attention the very next morning. This time Sqn. Ldr. Bharadwaj was leading the mission, with Heble, Karumbaya and Deoskar. This time they struck gold. A transport was destroyed by Bharadwaj, while Karumbaya and Deuskar attacked and destroyed two fighters which were later identified as MiG-19s.

The squadron flew its next major number of sorties on the 10th of December. In response to the Indian Army’s call for close support in the Chamb sector, the Lightnings contributed to the support requests of the ground forces. First among the aircraft was a two-aircraft strike by Sqn. Ldr. R.N. Bharadwaj and Karumbaya. They engaged some Pakistani tank and gun positions across the Manawar Tawi.

It was during one such attacking run that Karumbaya felt his Hunter shudder under the impact of bullets from a Sabre that had bounced him. Karumbaya broke left, with his tanks and aircraft holed, but Bharadwaj who was coming behind Karumbaya engaged the Sabre and shot it down. The aircraft, which crashed in Indian territory, confirmed the kill. Bharadwaj then shepherded Karumbaya who flew his damaged aircraft back to Pathankot.

PAF Sabres were very much active that day over Chamb. Hunters from No.27 Sqn. too, flew missions to Chamb. One Hunter flown by Sqn. Ldr. M.K. Jain was hit by groundfire and was lost along with the pilot. Ground fire also hit and damaged one of No.20 Squadron’s aircraft. Sqn. Ldr. Rozario and Heble were flying over the area when Rozario's Hunter was hit repeatedly by ack-ack fire. Rozario with great difficulty flew the aircraft back to Pathankot, with Heble acting as a shepherd.

When Rozario put the aircraft onto the runway, he discovered that the tyres were punctured by ack-ack, and the resultant force on the undercarriage sheared the landing gear off, as the aircraft hit the runway on its belly and slithered out of control over a distance. It finally came to a stop after some distance, and Rozario walked out of the Hunter unscathed. The belly landed Hunter was badly damaged, and was sent for repairs, flying only after the war. Heble had meanwhile safely landed back.

The squadron carried out about ten sorties on December 11th. After a week of hectic operational flying from December 4th to the 10th, the squadron was withdrawn from the forward base to Hindon, where it was to take a break from operations and give the pilots some rest.

All the pilots were pulled back to Hindon, leaving behind the ground crew and about five of them. No.20 Sqn was relieved by aircraft of the No.7 Battle Axes Sqn and MiG-21s from the No.30 Squadron. Battle Axes in fact shared the ground crew facilities of the Lightnings. For the remaining six days of the war, some of the five pilots left behind at Pathankot flew missions along with No.7 Squadron in their aircraft. The Hunters also flew some air defence sorties from Hindon during the remaining days of the war.

The general mood of the squadron was that after a brief rest period of a week or so, the squadron will again be sent to the frontline. All the pilots were very eager to fly back to Pathankot and start operations again. But as the days went by, the probability of the war coming to an end, increased with the imminent collapse of the Pakistan Army in the Eastern Sector, the pilots felt somewhat disappointed at an opportunity being lost.

They would not know it, but fate had decried that the Lightnings would soon face a bigger challenge, and instructions were already being issued in that direction. Soon after the move to Hindon, Wg. Cdr. Parker was brought to Air HQ for some top secret discussions. There at the meeting, he was asked, whether his Hunters would be able to operate out of an airfield in Visakhapatnam, off the coast of Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh. Parker had neither heard of Visakhapatnam's airfield, nor had ever been there, but by the demands of the situation, felt that the Hunters could land on the runway employing their drag chutes to cut their run short. The advent of the cease-fire made such a move unnecessary.

When a tally was compiled for the Lightning at the end of the war, the squadron turned out to be the highest scoring unit in the IAF during the '71 conflict. Since its primary objective had been counter air, the unit had a total of 13 enemy aircraft destroyed on ground. Two F-86Sabres were also downed in air combat. There was one occasion when a hapless Mirage-III found itself for a brief moment in the sight of one of the Hunters. The gun camera film is a treasured souvenir in the squadron, reminding them of the discomfort of the Pakistani Mirage pilot, who jinked and weaved to get out of the firing line of the Hunter flown by A.K. "Bomber" Sharma who had no gun ammo left!

Including the eight days of operational flying, the squadron had flown a total of 121 sorties throughout the war amounting to about 115:30 hours. In this period, they fired about 15,000 rounds of cannon ammo, dropped about 17,000 lbs. of HE bombs, 1720 litres of napalm and 548 rockets at enemy targets. The claim of 13 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground included four C-130 Hercules, one Twin Otter, one Viscount and a light-exec aircraft. It is noted that the renowned US Pilot, Brig. Gen. Charles E. Yeager, who was then on deputation to the PAF as an Advisor, lost his USAF Beech Queen Air aircraft in Chaklala, which might well have been lost to the Lightning’s onslaught.

"BOSS" PARKER: Group Captain Cecil Vivian Parker, MVC, VM after the '71 War. Parker retired as an Air Vice Marshal in 1986.

For this impressive performance, the squadron commander, Wg. Cdr. C.V. Parker and Sqn. Ldr. R.N. Bharadwaj received the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC). Five pilots earned the Vir Chakra (VrC) award. Lt. Arun Prakash, Fg. Off. S. Balasubramanian, Sqn. Ldr. Jal Maneksha Mistry (posthumous), Fg. Off. B.C. Karumbaya and Flt. Lt. A.L. Deoskar received the Vir Chakra (VrC) award.

Flt. Lt. C.S. Dhillon recieved the Vayu Sena Medal (VSM). There were two Mentioned-in-Dispatches and 10 commendations from the CAS/AOC. In fact the Lightnings take pride in the fact that Lt. Arun Prakash was awarded the Vir Chakra (VrC) under the 'Air Force List' rather than the 'Navy List'.

In the Investiture Ceremony, Wg. Cdr. C.V. Parker introduced Lt. Arun Prakash to the Air Chief. "You remember Arun Prakash, Sir, he was the one wearing the PT shoes on the day of your inspection." It goes without saying that Lal was amused. Today Vice Admiral Arun Prakash is the commandant of the National Defence Academy.

ODD MAN OUT: Vice Admiral Arun Prakash, VrC, now Commandant of the National Defence Academy, was a naval pilot attached to No.20 Squadron during the war

No.20 Sqn moved back to Pathankot immediately after the rest period of the war. Wg. Cdr. Parker handed over command to Wg. Cdr. Lele in December 1972 and left to DSSC, Wellington as a Directing Staff (Air). The squadron stayed at Pathankot till 1975 when it moved back to Hindon.

In 1981, a decision was taken to move the squadron to the East to Hashimara, where they formed the first formation aerobatics team of the Indian Air Force under Wg. Cdr. Ben Brar. Then started almost a decade of flying as the IAF's showpiece till March 1989, when the Thunderbolts flew their last public display. The Squadron received the President's Colors in 1992, when it was based in Kalaikonda.

In 1997, the Hunters sang their Swan Song, being replaced with the MiG-27ML Flogger. The remaining "Lightning" aircraft being dispersed as gate guardians around the country or kept in storage in Tezpur. The squadron today flies the MiG-27ML proudly. They have a war record to be proud of, and to live up to.


. It subsequently came to light that Fg. Off. K.P. Muralidharan got involved in combat with Flt. Lt. Salim Beg Mirza of the PAF who succeeded in shooting down the Hunter near Pimple Hill, killing Murali.
. As mentioned in the History of the Corps of Engineers.
. Subsequently found out that one of the pilots was taken POW, the other was killed.
. All the three pilots who were killed in the Sakesar Strikes - Sqn. Ldr. J.M. Mistry, Flt. Lt. K.L. Malkani and Fg. Off. G.S. Rai - were posthumously decorated with a Vir Chakra after the war.


BHARAT RAKSHAK expresses its thanks to Air Vice Marshal (retd.) C.V. Parker, MVC, VM, the then commander of No.20 Lightnings Squadron, for his cooperation and interest in filling in details regarding the role of the squadron during the war. Air Vice Marshal Parker also helped us in providing some of the pictures on display here. Wg. Cdr. F.J. Mehta, VrC graciously supplied us the crest of No.20 Squadron.


Apte, A.S. Brigadier (retd.), A.P.’s War Heroes Series in the Deccan Chronicle, 1992.
Bhargava, G.S., Their Finest Hour, Vikas 1972.
Chopra, Pushpindar Singh, Aircraft of the Indian Air Force.
Chopra, Pushpindar Singh, Home is the Hunter, VAYU 2000 Aerospace Review, V/1997.
Chopra, Pushpindar Singh, The Thunderbolts, VAYU 2000 Aerospace Review.
Hali, Group Captain Sultan M., The Air War of 1971 RevisitedPIADS.
Lal, P.C. Air Chief Marshal (retd.), My Years with the IAF, Lancer Publications, 1986.