Air Battles - December 1971 - My experiences

A Pakistani pilot narrates two of his air combat experiences in which his Indian opponents gave him a tough fight against all odds. Wg. Cdr.Baig's account includes details on the last flight Indian Air Force's only PVC recipient, Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon.

Before December '71, I was posted as Instructor Pilot at Pakistan Air Force Academy, Risalpur. In October '71 I was attached to fly the Sabre with No.26 Squadron based at Peshawar. It was the unit where I had flown this type of aircraft for more than two years prior to beginning my stint at the Academy. I had flown more than 1000 hours on the Sabre, a truly fighter pilot's aeroplane and had loved every moment of it. On 01 December 1971 I had ferried an F-86F from Peshawar to a PAF Base near Karachi in the South.

On December 3rd, I was returning from Karachi to Peshawar via Lahore by an afternoon flight of PIA Boeing 707 landing at Lahore about four in the evening. It was in the transit lounge that I met Sqn. Ldr. S.M. Anwar who was also traveling by the same flight as official courier with some secret documents. It was at Lahore that we came to know about the outbreak of the air war between Pakistan and India and PAF's first air strike that evening against Indian Air Force bases.

The author of the article, Flt. Lt. Salim Baig, PAF during the 1971 War.

Our flight to Peshawar was cancelled and we were left stranded at Lahore Airport. On our insistence the PIA authorities made arrangements for us to travel to Peshawar by road and we left Lahore in a van at eight in the night. It was a torturous and tiring journey because the van's lights had to be kept off throughout as complete black out was being observed en-route. We were even mobbed at one or two places whenever the driver tried to switch on the lights to see the road. We reached PAF Officer's Mess Peshawar at about six in the morning of December 4th and after changing into my flying gear I headed straight for my squadron. I was keen to get into the action because I had already missed the opportunity of taking part in the first strike to Srinagar airfield.

Soon after reaching the squadron, I witnessed a raid at 0715 a.m. by IAF Hunter aircraft who caused no damage except destroying two dummy aircraft on the tarmac with strafing attack. It was after this raid that we were instructed by the Base Commander to man two additional Air Defence Alert (ADA) F-86 Sabres parked in the pens at the beginning of Runway 17. Flight Lieutenant Khalid Razzak went to his aircraft in nearby pen and myself as No.2 took up the position in the cockpit of aircraft No.412, a silver coloured non-camouflaged bird loaded with 1800 rounds in six .50 machine guns which had been harmonized with A-4 gun sight. The aircraft were pre-flighted and after entering the cockpit, switches were set up, parachute harnesses tightened and ejection seat and rudder pedals adjusted according to my height and leg length. Electrical cable of ground power unit was connected with the airplane for quick fire and start.

Excitement was running high in anticipation of action with the enemy aircraft who had dared us and thrown up a challenge with first strike. But it was seemingly an unending wait of more than two and half hours in the cockpit. During this waiting period all sorts of questions came to my mind. Will the IAF aircraft again attack our base? Will we get a scramble in time to intercept? Will it be a futile wait? Will some other pilots replace us before we launched into action etc. etc? Finally we were ordered to scramble at about 1030 hours. Engines were started, canopies were closed and we were airborne in less than three minutes. Radar controller asked us to climb to 5000 ft and head for Cherat Hills about 30 miles in south easterly direction.

We had barely flown for two to three minutes in that direction when we were asked by the Controller to go back to base since the raiders were nearing the airfield for attack. We immediately turned around and flew in westerly direction for base and while doing so we heard “Killer Control” (ground observer) that the airfield was under attack by Hunter aircraft who were seen heading in easterly direction towards Peshawar town. At that time I was on the left of leader in battle formation about 3-4000 ft abreast position and was looking down for the enemy aircraft, one of which was spotted well below us at low height heading in opposite direction. I called out his position to the leader who acknowledged it and we did a hard turn about to go in the direction of the enemy aircraft.

But as we rolled out, we again heard the 'Killer Control' informing us that Hunters were pulling up for another attack. On hearing this we turned in westerly direction for the airfield and as a preparatory measure for engagement I called out to the leader to jettison our external fuel tanks. I followed my call with action and soon felt my aircraft buck up as two 200 gallons fuel tanks leapt away from the wings and disappeared in the winter haze below us.

We were now almost overhead the base and I spotted one Hunter turning to the left across the runway well below me. I informed the leader who had also sighted him and saw Flight Lieutenant Khalid Razzak's Sabre diving to position himself behind the enemy aircraft. While looking to the right, I cautioned him about the presence of other enemy aircraft and sure enough there was another Hunter who had seen the lead Sabre diving and was turning left to sneak behind the Sabre. I immediately called leader about this new development and told him that I was going for the second Hunter who was still more than a mile behind.

Diving and throttling back, I got behind the second Hunter who had apparently not seen me. Pretty soon an interesting situation had developed in which four fighter jets were twisting and manoeuvring in high 'g' turns at barely 100 feet above rugged terrain west of Peshawar airfield and were jockeying to shoot each other out of the sky1.

People watching the fight from the ground could see the fighters in a tight high 'g' turn at low level with one Hunter in front of lead Sabre firing at him and a second Hunter following and firing at the lead Sabre and I being the last one had this Hunter in my gun sight and was firing with all guns blazing. I was hoping to shoot him before he got dangerously close to the leader. During this melee I was giving a running commentary to the leader about the distance of enemy aircraft behind him. I could clearly see the puffs of dust being raised by impact of bullets of both Sabre and Hunter in front of me. Their bullets were landing well short of the target because of firing out of gun range.

While firing at the enemy aircraft I was getting closer in range but in spite of my bullets hitting the target, there was no sign of smoke or fire. The Hunter was proving to be a tough nut to crack. I was aware that the Hunter's distance from leader's aircraft was becoming less and could be fatal if not warned in time. I, therefore, told leader to 'Break' - a manoeuvre performed by fighter aircraft to avoid extreme danger. At the same time my bullets showed their effect and the Hunter aircraft started to emanate thick smoke from the right side of its fuselage and wing root and the next instant I saw him hitting the ground. A mushroom of thick black smoke and fire leapt up at the point of impact. The pilot had no chance of ejecting out of the aircraft and was instantly killed.

Since the leader (Flt. Lt. Khalid Razzak) had broken off from his attack and I was looking down at the fallen aircraft, the first Hunter rolled out in south easterly direction and with full throttle managed to make good his escape. We flew in the general direction of his escape route but could not sight him and he was lucky to have survived. After patrolling the airspace for sometime we landed back and were told that the air-battle had been anxiously watched by PAF personnel at the base till the time it got so low that they could not see us anymore except hear the guns rattling followed by an explosion and cloud of black smoke.

Later it came to our knowledge through IAF war history that Flt. Lt. Khalid Razzak had damaged the other Hunter who managed to land at under construction runway of Jammu airfield in Kashmir2.

My second kill of the War was a Gnat fighter interceptor aircraft flying out of Srinagar airfield in Kashmir Valley on 14 December 1971. I was flying as No.5 leading a pair of F-86F Sabres to escort a formation of four other Sabres carrying two 500 lbs. Mk.84 bombs under each wing to crater the main runway 13/31. The overall leader of our formation of six aircraft was Wing Commander S.A. Changezi. We took off from Peshawar airbase in early morning hours and set course in easterly direction with escort pair on the right side of the formation. Myself and No.6 (Flight Lieutenant A. Rahim Yousefzai) carried no external loads except two 200 gallons fuel tanks. On the way to the picturesque Kashmir Valley we flew close to Murree hill station and a few minutes later we crossed the mountain peaks short of the valley and accelerated down hill towards our pull up point which was about three miles short and to the South East of our target. Our gun master switches had already been put in Armed position to prepare for firing with just one press of the red trigger on the control stick.

The target (runway) was easily sighted to the left during pull up to the bombing height of 5000 feet above ground. Everyone in the formation acknowledged having visual contact with the runway and soon I saw the leader's Sabre roll into a nose down steep turn to align up his aircraft with runway 31. He was followed by No.2, 3 and 4 and as No.4 dived for his bombing run, I along with my wing-man fell behind him to position ourselves for providing him cover. Leader and No.2 had already dropped their bombs on the target and had pulled out of the ensuing dive at about 1000 feet above ground. Before we could complete our positioning turns, I heard leader telling No.2 to immediately 'Break' to the left because there was an enemy Gnat aircraft firing at him. Leader and No.2 commenced a tight left turn to avoid the danger and No.3 (Flight Lieutenant Amjad Endrabi) after pulling out of the bombing run spotted them and manoeuvred to get behind the Gnat. No.4 had in the meantime completed his bombing dive and having no visual contact with the other formation members decided to leave the battle area.

I then asked No.6 (my wingman) to jettison the external fuel tanks and headed in the direction of the fight which had developed within visual and hearing distance west of the airfield. Because of high 'G' turns No.2 had depleted his speed and was unable to sustain manoeuvring energy for the fight. He, therefore, decided to roll out and leave the scene of action by turning away to the right. No.3 had by this time taken position behind the Gnat and had commenced firing with his guns.

He also announced on the radio that he was going to shoot him down. I along with No 6 (my wingman) had picked them up below us and had settled into an orbit on top at about 3-4000 feet higher. We could see the three aircraft in a tight circle with Gnat being in front, a Sabre (No.3) behind him who was followed by another Sabre (leader) at a height of about 200 feet above the ground. I was expecting the matter to be over in a short while because No.3 was well placed within gun range behind the Gnat. After a few seconds I heard No.3 calling that he was 'Winchester' which meant that he had run out of ammo and his guns had stopped firing after missing the target in front.

At that time I saw the Gnat momentarily roll his wings level to jettison his under wing tanks and then he went into a high 'G' turn with renewed vigour to manoeuvre behind the lead Sabre. Within a couple of turns I could see the distance closing between the two and before he closed in dangerously I decided to get into the act. At the same time I heard an anxious call from the leader asking me to come down and relieve them of this imminent threat.

I asked my wingman to get into fighting position and then dove down manoeuvring my aircraft to get into the orbit of the fighters below. In a matter of few seconds, I was behind the Gnat and firing from a close range of about 1000 feet. In a three seconds burst from my Sabre's six machine-guns firing at the rate of 120 round per seconds, I hit him square and thick black smoke started coming out from under his fuselage belly. The Gnat levelled his wings and headed for the airfield as if to indicate that for him the fight was over. I stopped firing at him and saw the canopy of his cockpit fly away from the aircraft. But the very next moment the Gnat snapped over inverted on its back and crashed into the undulated ground of the valley, killing the pilot.

Keeping a good look out for other enemy aircraft we joined up in battle formation and proceeded back to our base at Peshawar. As we climbed out of the valley we could hear our radar controllers calling us frantically to find out about our safety and outcome of the fight. They were much relieved when told that we were all safe and flying back after shooting down an Indian Gnat.

Picture Courtesy : Sam's Indian Air Force Down Under

"He put up a brave fight...."

Camera gun footage from Wg Cdr Baig's Sabre shows Fg Off Sekhon's Gnats during the combat. Pic Courtesy : Wg Cdr Salim Baig Gnat-Frame2.jpg (13341 bytes)

The Indian pilot, Fg. Off. Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon3 put up a brave fight and was awarded Param Vir Chakra - the highest gallantry award of Indian Armed Forces (equivalent to our Nishan-e-Haider). Detailed interviews of the Srinagar Base Commander, Squadron Commander, Squadron Pilots and close relatives including his wife were broadcast by All India Radio who provided more information about their side of the story. He was No 2 in a formation of two Gnats who had been scrambled to intercept us but he had been delayed by two to three minutes at take off point after his leader got airborne. The air battle had been anxiously watched from the Control Tower by the Base Cdr & Sqn Cdr and in his radio communication, the Gnat pilot had informed them about being hit. He was advised to head for base but that was the last they heard from him. His aircraft wreckage was discovered in a gorge near the road coming from Srinagar town to the base. We never saw the Gnat leader's aircraft anywhere around the battle area.


. The Indian Pilots were Fg. Off. K.P. Muralidharan and Sqn Ldr Bajpai from No.20 Squadron. Both aircraft were flying at extreme range with no fuel allowance for air combat and attacking a target that was already alerted by an earlier raid by aircraft from the same squadron.

. Sqn. Ldr. Bajpai who was flying this aircraft was diverted to land at Jammu airfield as he did not have enough fuel to reach Pathankot. Jammu's runway was still under construction and Bajpai skillfully landed his damaged Hunter onto the runway which proved to be too short. His aircraft fell of the end of a runway onto a Truck carrying construction material. The Hunter was recovered.

 Fg. Off. Nirmal Jit Sekhon for his courageous feat of taking on Six of the Sabres even though outnumbered six to one, was awarded India's Highest Gallantry Award, the Param Vir Chakra by our government.

Acknowledgments: Reproduced with the kind permission of Defence Journal