Plane Tails From The IAF : The Pathankot Raid Of Dec 10

The PAF raids Pathankot again! The attack is immortalised in a dramatic painting - but the real truth is otherwise!

An earlier article, "In and Out of the Cockpit", recounted the experience of a daylight attack by Mirage IIIs of PAF, on Pathankot airfield at 1515hrs on 9th December 1971. The accompanying sound and light show was terrifying particularly to the two MiG 21 pilots, Sqn Ldrs Keith Lewis and Janak Kapur, lining up in their aircraft on the southern dumbbell for take-off. That both pilots survived unscathed with both aircraft undamaged was fortuitous, despite claims to the contrary by the Mirage formation. However, this is an account of the next and, for the record, the last daylight raid by PAF on Pathankot at 1118 hrs on the very next day, viz the 10th December 1971.

The Painting

The author, then Sqn Ldr Keith Lewis, is prompted to record the sequence of events, from the notes in his war diary, because after the "In & Out of the Cockpit" article was published by Mr. Pulak Sen in his magazine Indian Aviation dated April 14th, 2006, and then put on the  Air Force website by Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava, the latter sent Keith a photograph of an oil painting, which is attached, occupying, presumably, pride of place in Army Staff College, Quetta, Pakistan.

Hussaini-Painting.jpg (42342 bytes)
The Painting by the PAF Official Artist, Air Cmde Hussaini, depicts Sqn Ldr Akhtar Rao's attack on Pathankot - with two Hunters on the runway exploding in flames.

This depicts Sqn Ldr Akhtar Rao, leader of the 6 aircraft formation of Mirage IIIs of 5 Sqn, Sargodha, pulling up over two burning Hunters destroyed on the runway by him in the course of the attack. Two kills were obviously credited to him, but whether or not this has ever been refuted by Wg Cdr Y P Mehta, OC 27 Sqn, occupant of the lead Hunter, or his wingman, whose name cannot be readily recalled, is not known. The compulsion, therefore, for the author to record the events of those few minutes of that fateful day is overwhelming, because, he was actually an eye witness to the entire event from alarmingly close range and knows that, except for a nick in the port drop tank of No.1's aircraft, both aircraft were undamaged.

It all started at about 1115 hrs when Keith Lewis, the Detachment  Commander   of the "MiG Club", as the 45 Sqn Det was called, climbed out from the Operations Readiness Room (ORR) into the warm sunlight of a cold, windy, north Indian winter day- whether for a breath of fresh air or to stretch his legs, he doesn't now remember.  The flying programme for the day was on the board, the serviceability of the MiG 21s was good, and the morning sorties had been flown successfully. This included a 4 aircraft combat air patrol at a place called Samba where the Army apprehended a dawn attack after an intercepted message suggested undue PAK interest in the Indian Army Formation HQs located there.  Or, perhaps, he felt it was time to chat with the ground crew most of who were actually living in the blast pens.

The photograph below shows a motley crowd not exactly as presentable as would be desirable for a Monday morning parade, but a more determined lot would be difficult to find. The airmen had moved out of the billets allotted to them on the 6th of December 1971 because a stray bomb, from a B-57 night raid, had rendered  their living quarters somewhat uncomfortable to live in. This, to their credit, only served to strengthen their will to do their job. The 'Chiefy' is  unmistakable in the snap and Keith continues to remember him with respect for a job well done under the most trying conditions.  The next photograph shows the pilots and engineering officer of the "MiG Club", as equally a motley crowd as the ground crew.

Click to Enlarge The Ground Crew of 45 Squadron at Pathankot  during the 71 War
The Pilots of 45 Squadron Dett - at Pathankot. The Author, KDK Lewis is standing third from the right. Click to Enlarge

Anyway, regarding the sortie over Samba, though not part of this "plane tail", it was rather interesting. Four MiG 21s streamed onto the runway and took off individually at, perhaps, anything from 10 to 20 seconds intervals and, in the poor light conditions of pre-dawn, Nos 2, 3, & 4s promptly lost contact with the aircraft ahead as the afterburner of the aircraft in front was switched off. Sqn Ldr "Stones" Sonpar who was the No 3 broke RT silence to inform Keith Lewis, the leader, of the general predicament. A gathering turn to port with nav lights on was thrown and after some jostling the formation joined up in low level tactical, the then well known Finger Four Formation, and set course for Samba. On arrival, a most inhospitable welcome was accorded to the 4 MiGs.

The army, which was expecting aerial visitors, obviously mistook the MiGs for enemy aircraft and opened up with all they had, including, as we came to know later, small arms fire. The air was thick with streaks of colour, flashes of explosions, puffs of smoke and expressive expletives on RT. The MiGs promptly stepped up to 3 kms for safety bringing them within the gaze of Pak radar. The element of surprise was lost.

The leader thought to himself, in a fit, perhaps, of pique to address the PAF on RT, "Where's Wingco Alam? Send him up. Lets have 30 seconds over Samba with him".

Those of us who remember John Fricker's article on the PAF and the story of  "Thirty Seconds over Sargodha" in the 1965 war which describes the shooting down of 4 Hunters in quick succession by WingCo Alam over Sargodha will get the connection, as it was hoped, the PAF also would!  Thereafter,it became almost an SOP to "whistle up" WingCo Alam on RT whenever possible. For the record, of the 4 Hunters of 7 Sqn claimed to have been shot down by Wingco Alam all but two returned safely to base and the entries in the 7 Sqn Authorisation Book are there to prove it. Perhaps a member of the formation, or 7 Sqn itself can, for the record, collaborate this.

The Mirage Attack - Take Two

Anyway, to get back to the Mirage attack of the 10th December 1971, Keith Lewis was about to climb into the Ambassador car allotted for his use when 2 Hunters taxied past him onto the dumbbell and proceeded to line up on the runway opposite the ORR. Both Hunters had 2 drop tanks and Keith wondered to himself where on earth in Pakistan they were off to; 2 tankers can really travel and he also wondered why only 2 aircraft? Anyhow, he paused and turned around to watch them line up in that manner compulsive to all pilots, so nicely described by Nevil Shute in one of his books - the entire process has to be watched until the aircraft are literally out of sight.

Both Hunters were on the runway when out of the blue, without any warning, two Mirage IIIs of the PAF thundered overhead followed in quick succession by another two. In those few seconds of time all hell seemed to have broken loose. One actually has to be in the midst of an air attack, literally sitting on the target, to realise the deadly effect of the din of exploding bombs, the deafening sound of 30 mm cannon and the upheaval of earth and flying debris. The sight of enemy aircraft heading straight for one with clear intent to kill can be the most dreadful experience. Death stares one in the face.

The first reaction was to "hit the deck" and from that ignominious and prone position Keith was made a ringside spectator and eye witness to a PAF Mirage III raid on Pathankot airfield. The previous afternoon he himself was in exactly the same position, i.e., he was in the lead MiG 21 of a 2 aircraft formation lined up for take off but that story has already been recorded elsewhere. Both Hunters stayed put on the runway and there was a sense of a third pair of Mirages screaming overhead at tree top height, but whether they had also attacked the airfield or not it was difficult to assess.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack Keith, still flat on the ground, saw fuel streaming from the port drop tank of the leader's Hunter and could hear the sound of a running Rolls Royce engine. In that instant, fearing the worst, he jumped up and ran onto the runway towards both Hunters, propelled by a dreadful fear, unmentionable and unthinkable, regarding the fate of both pilots. It was merely a matter of seconds for him to reach the spot and take in the situation - No. 2 was alive and appeared to be unhurt. His canopy was open and it seemed that he had switched off the engine. No 1 was sitting motionless in the cockpit with the canopy closed and the familiar sound of a jet engine came from his aircraft. Keith's wild gesticulating at him brought a response but the canopy remained closed. The next reaction was with regard to the fuel streaming from the port drop tank of No. 1's aircraft and the imminent danger of the aircraft catching fire.

By this time the MiG ground crew had emerged from the underground ORR and onto the scene. A more welcome sight was hard to imagine. With their help both Hunters were pushed off the runway. Both pilots got out of their aircraft and were taken into the MiG ORR for a cup of hot tea and comradely reassurance that all was well. The Hunter leader turned out to be Wg Cdr Y P Mehta, OC 27 Sqn AF but, regrettably, Keith doesn't recollect the name of the wingman. The lead Hunter had taken debris damage on the port drop tank and continued to stream fuel. The thought that came to mind was that the good old Mystere drip tray would have come in handy.

Regarding the attack itself, the runway was badly cratered, slightly off centre, about a 1000 yards up, and so was the parallel taxi track. In the underground ORR there was a phone call for Keith from Air Cmde "Baba" Katre. He politely enquired that if Keith wasn't doing anything would he meet him on the dumbbell in about five minutes. Keith, of course, was there when the Air Cmde's jeep, which he was driving himself, drew up and he promptly accepted the invitation to jump in. A very detailed inspection of the runway and taxi-track followed and, to the credit of the PAF Mirage formation, it must be stated for the record that they had taken out both the runway and the parallel taxi-track. The damage seemed to have been caused by a single bomb each on the runway and taxi-track uprooting the concrete slabs and much earth at the point of contact. The size of the craters would correspond to perhaps what a 250 lb bomb was capable of creating. Of course, Keith was not an expert at that level of damage assessment, so this was merely a tentative guess.

There were other craters and upheavals of earth in the vicinity but these were of little or no consequence other than being of nuisance value to the Military Engineering Service, MES, whose employees would have to level the shoulders of the runway and taxi-track. The real job was to put the runway back into use, in the time stipulated in peace time, by the Runway Rehabilitation Task Force of the MES, who were shortly to rumble onto the scene with a long convoy of about 30 or 40 vehicles of various sizes, shapes and uses. It was quite a sight to behold! Also, a 2 aircraft MiG 21 Combat Air Patrol was whistled up from Adampur, which was to provide cover until the Pathankot runway was fit for operations again. The buzz of activity on the runway continued at a feverish pace for a few hours with professionally curious onlookers watching the progress, the most prominent of whom were the Officer I/C Flying and the SATCO; the latter would have to inspect the runway and declare it fit for use.

And now, of course, to return to the crux of this "Plane Tail" - both the Hunter Mk 56 aircraft of No 27 Sqn AF were started up and taxied back to their dispersal area. No one was then to know that Sqn Ldr Akhtar Rao, leader of the Mirage formation, would claim and be credited with having destroyed both Hunters on the ground, and that the official artist for the PAF, Air Commodore SMA Hussaini, would immortalise this claim in an oil painting now hanging in the hallowed corridors of the Quetta Army Staff College, Pakistan. That's how history is recorded!

Credit where its due!

While it is ungentlemanly between fighter pilots to denigrate another's performance, it is necessary for this claim to be unequivocally debunked for posterity. No offence is meant to Sqn Ldr Akhtar Rao whose formation otherwise did an excellent job! I would give my eye-teeth to have been the leader of an IAF formation to have taken out Sargodha runway and taxi track in like manner. But the fact remains and, that is the precise point of this "plane tail", that the painting does not depict the reality on the runway at Pathankot on 10th December 1971. Both Hunters survived, with a change of drop tank, to fly and fight another day.

What should happen to the painting? Staff College Quetta should decide. Of course, and undoubtedly, it would not be proper for the author to even suggest that the history of 5 Sqn PAF should be amended to record the factual situation of the 1118 hrs raid on Pathankot airfield on 10th December 1971 on the strength of this "plane tail". It is none of the author's business what PAF and 5 Sqn believe and record of the 1971 war, particularly so many years after the event, but the strange power of reality sooner or later enfolds us all in it' s inexorable grip!

This article was first published in INDIAN AVIATION. Reproduced here with the author's permission