Of Sabres and Sukhois

Delays in the availability of the HAL HF-24 Marut and based on lessons learnt in the Sep 65 war with Pakistan, the Indian Air Force selected the Sukhoi-7 to fill a much felt gap in the close support and interdiction roles, hitherto carried out by the Hunters and Mystere IV As. Entering squadron service in 1968, the Sukhoi-7 finally equipped some six squadrons. In the Dec 1971 war with Pakistan, the Sukhoi-7 stood out as a close support and interdiction aircraft. Taking the brunt in the crucial armour holding battles of Chamb and Fazilka, the Sukhoi-7 also suffered the maximum casualties and damage. Zealous pilots carrying out multiple passes in a dense ack–ack and small arms environment, coupled with a modest fuel capacity led to many losses.

Two Sukhoi-7s from 101 squadron formate over Punjab

By the end of the war, it was the aircraft with the maximum number of holes per square foot. That, many aircraft were recovered; with significant damage was a testimony to its robustness. One aircraft was recovered with most of the tail and empennage shot away and its two tail chutes deployed and on fire. Another being recovered with most of a Pak Sabre launched AIM-9A embedded in its tail pipe. Ultimately IAF Sukhoi-7s flew an approximate total of 2577 sorties in 14 days. Their solitary night forays deep into Pakistan confounded (then) Col Chuck Yeager, on deputation as air advisor to Pakistan who interrogated some of our POWs. One Sukhoi-7 even shot down a ‘capping’ Pak F-6 (Mig-19) whilst pulling up for a photo run over Risalwalla airfield.

A total of 18 Sukhoi-7s were lost during the war with an additional 101 squadron aircraft exploding on takeoff, apparently due to sabotage. Of the total IAF combat losses of 56 aircraft, Sukhoi-7 losses thus amounted to 32%. Of these 13 were lost to AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery) and 5 to air action. The IAF’s Hunter fleet also lost 18 aircraft to combat causes indicating clearly the disproportionate risks associated with taking the war to the enemy by ground attack aircraft. The last Sukhoi-7 was finally retired in 1984. It was an outstanding machine that served the IAF beyond expectation and definitely played a pivotal role in the 1971 war.

Losses to air action totaled two to F-6s, two to F-86s and one to a Mirage III. Losses to the Sabre could easily have been another two if not for the intrepid actions of a little known pilot of 32 squadron. This particular incident is better known for the award of MVC to the leader of the formation and CO of the squadron-Wg Cdr HS Mangat (later Air Cmde retd) for recovering his aircraft after suffering severe battle damage by ground fire (the tail of his aircraft lies to this day in the IAF museum). A look at it will convince any observer that it was indeed an achievement to fly the aircraft home. Here is the story of that mission.

The First Sargodha Raid

Flt lt (later Air Cmde retd) Pritam ‘Pat’ Singh was a new entrant (from 2 Squadron on Gnats) to 32 Squadron at Ambala with about 30 hours on the Sukhoi-7 when the PAF struck IAF airfields on the evening of 3rd Dec 71. The Squadron deployed to Amritsar at first light on 04 Dec 71 (where an F-6 attack narrowly missed destroying the entire squadron taxing on the ground) and began planning a four aircraft strike to Sargodha in the afternoon.

The mission was to be led by the CO with Pat as No 2 and ‘Chotu’ Mehta and Gourishankar as the Nos 3 and 4. As Thunderbird formation (with Mangat and Pat on the right and Chottu and Gauri on the left) entered Pakistan in the late afternoon they were continuously harassed by ground fire (the PAF knew the Sukhoi-7 could only follow a straight line route to Sargodha). As the formation approached its IP (initial point) Pat felt his aircraft being hit and saw tracers flying past his canopy. He asked the No 4 – Gauri to check his tail. Instinctively Pat ducked and pitched his aircraft down just in time to see a missile streak over him and hit his leader- Mangat. He remembers seeing his leader’s aircraft disappear in a ball of fire and then miraculously reappear trailing smoke from a burning tail parachute. Simultaneously he heard someone ordering a “hard left” but he had already broken right and into the threat that had appeared from the right.

With the rest of the formation turning in a tactically suicidal turn to the left, Pat engaged reheat, continued right and then reversed for the offending attacker- a Sabre that now easily sat on Mangat’s tail shooting chunks off it with his eight brownings. Pat warned Mangat about the Sabre and ordered him to continue hard left and to jettison his burning tail chutes. Desperate to shake the Sabre off Mangat’s tail, Pat fired out of range from his twin 30 mm cannon. Surprisingly the Sabre broke off the attack and turned hard into Pat. Pat continued to maneuver behind the Sabre using the vertical in successive “Yo-Yos” to close on the Sabre. Sensing danger, the Sabre rolled inverted and escaped in the evening mists using the classic “Split S” or “Half Roll”. Having flown the Sabre during gunnery training with the USAF, Pat elected to not follow as there was no way he could have matched the nimble Sabre and would have ended up deep in the ground. During this engagement, Pat remembers Mangat asking him about his condition and he replying that he was OK and that he was "behind this B***** and was going to F*** him”.

With the Sabre disappeared into the setting sun, Pat felt all alone and extremely vulnerable. With none of the other formation members in sight, Pat turned back for Amritsar, descended to 70 m (250 ft), accelerated to 900 Kmph and made for home. At this point he remembers Chottu Mehta transmitting several times that he was all alone and that his afterburner was not lighting up. Simultaneously he saw two aircraft abreast of him at approx 4 Km and high. Pat transmitted that he was visual with two aircraft at 4 ‘o’ Clock and would join up with him. Realising that Chottu had a reheat failure, he also asked Chottu to switch off his reheat and select dry power so as to overcome the reheat failure and to build up speed (Chottu’s speed had dropped to 450 Kmph). As he drew close to the two aircraft he found thin threads of tracer chasing the lead aircraft. Realising that Chottu was in the lead and was being fired upon by a PAF Sabre, pat turned into the Sabre and fired between the two aircraft to gain his attention. Immediately the Sabre turned into Pat’s Sukhoi-7. Pat with only marginal fuel of 1500 Kgs remaining engaged reheat and once again Yo-Yoed behind the Sabre and fired his guns. The guns jammed!!

Even as he maneuvered with the Sabre he attempted to re charge his guns twice (the Su’s guns had to be cocked by pyro-technique cartridges) but to no avail. Finding that the air-to-ground 57 mm rockets were the only armament he had left, Pat elected to keep the two high drag-causing rocket pods and fired two rocket salvos at the Sabre. However with no aiming index available to fire rockets in the air-to-air mode, the rockets passed harmlessly below the Sabre.

One lucky PAF Pilot! -- Gun camera film of Pat’s Air to Ground rockets going under the Sabre

Furiously trying to re charge his cannons and aim his rockets better, Pat found that he had closed in to 300 m. Aiming carefully Pat pressed the trigger again - only to find that he had consumed all his rockets. Closing in rapidly Pat recalls being hopelessly frustrated and attempting to ram the Sabre. Fortunately better sense prevailed and he pulled out at the last moment. As he inverted his aircraft to look for the Sabre, Pat found once again that he was alone. He got down low and began groping his way back East. Rapidly running out of fuel and hope, Pat found that he had arrived slap over Amritsar. But his troubles had not ended. When he lowered his undercarriage, only two indications appeared. After a visual check and much haggling with the ATC who asked him to divert to Adampur, Pat finally landed at Amritsar in the darkness.

Polly-Mangat01.jpg (27674 bytes) Polly-Mangat01.jpg (27674 bytes)
Mangat’s damaged fin and rudder and starboard tail plane

Back in the crew room it was an anti climax for Pat as everyone gathered around Mangat’s damaged aircraft. All Pat had was 17 bullet holes in his tail, a length of high tension cable in his right undercarriage and 40 feet of gun camera film. Untill the next day when this film was processed, nobody believed that Pat had engaged two Sabres and that Mangat had been hit by air action, in fact none of the other formation members had even seen an enemy aircraft. Indeed, Mangat’s MVC citation reads that he had been hit by ground fire.

LEFT: Pat (left) sits next to Mangat on a 32 Squadron Sukhoi-7 after the war at Ambala.

BELOW : Escape money issued to all pilots

Polly-Money.jpg (39363 bytes)

The next evening as Pat sat outside the Mess bar, watching the nightly B-57 raid, he met a newly arrived L-70 air defence unit officer. During the course of the conversation the Army officer expressed his condolences over the loss of one Sqn Ldr Pat Singh over Sargodha the previous day!! Fortunately Sqn Ldr Doraiswami had intercepted the Squadron Doc- Sqn Ldr Thapa outside Pats house in Ambala moments before he entered to condole Pat’s demise with Heather, Pats wife. Another near miss!!!!