Wish I had a gun!

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Air Commodore Manbir Singh VrC flew with No.28 Squadron during the 1971 War as a Flt Lt. During the course of the Bangladesh Operations, he flew 27 sorties in Air Defence, Counter Air and Close Support roles including night time bombing missions. In this article he recollects his very first combat sortie involving combat with a Pakistani F-86 Sabre Jet.

Air Commodore Manbir Singh VrC flew with No.28 Squadron during the 1971 War as a Flt Lt. During the course of the Bangladesh Operations, he flew 27 sorties in Air Defence, Counter Air and Close Support roles including night time bombing missions. In this article he recollects his very first combat sortie involving combat with a Pakistani F-86 Sabre Jet.


Flt Lt Manbir Singh, seen here at the Dacca airport after the ceasefire.

On the 3rd of December 1971 we at 28 Squadron Air Force at Tezpur got orders to move to Gauhati. All serviceable Mig-21 aircraft on squadron strength were flown by night to Gauhati, from where the squadron was to take part in the 1971 Indo-Pak war in the eastern sector.

On 4th December 1971 I was detailed to escort a strike mission of four aircraft equipped with 57mm rockets led by the Squadron Commander Wg Cdr B K  Bishnoi (Bhoop).  My number two for the mission was Flt Lt David Subaiya (Dadoo). Our aircraft were equipped with two K-13 infra-red homing missiles, one under each wing and a single long range fuel drop tank under the belly of the aircraft. The strike mission’s task was to attack enemy aircraft and installations on the Tezgoan airfield at Dacca.

The strike formation took-off at 0645hrs. Dadoo and I took-off behind the strike formation. We flew south from Gauhati towards Dacca over the Garo and Khasi hills at about 300ft of the ground to avoid being picked up by enemy radar. We skimmed over the green forested hilltops and very soon entered East Pakistan at the foothills near Cheerapunji and descended down to the plains. We were now flying very low at 900kmph, over green paddy fields, covered with the morning winter mist to avoid enemy radars. I could only hear the hum of my jet engine. My head was moving from left to right, looking out for enemy aircraft that might have been scrambled to intercept our formation, by the air defence control at Dacca.

This was my first mission into enemy territory. I felt nothing. It seemed to me as though I was on a regular training mission, but my senses were alert as never before. No thoughts went through my head but those concerning the immediate mission at hand.

A few kilometres short of the Tezgoan airfield Dadoo and I pulled up to a height of 1000mts and continued to clear the tail of the strike formation. When the Tezgoan airfield was in sight, I heard the strike leader call out to me ‘Buzzy a badmash (code name for enemy aircraft) is taking off.’

At this time the strike aircraft were in a dive to fire their rockets on the targets at the Tezgoan airfield. I saw the enemy aircraft, an F-86 Sabre jet, taking off in a southerly direction on runway 18.

C746, C731 and C1111 after the 1971 war

MiG-21 FLs (Type 77s) of No.28 and No.4 Squadrons photographed in the east after the 71 War. Note that all the three aircraft are armed for air defence – with two missile launch rails under the wing and a central drop tank under the fuselage. C 731 and C746 flew with No.28 Squadron, while C 1111 was with No.4 Squadron.

At the time of 1971 war, the Mig-21FL in the air defence role could carry only two Russian K-13 infrared homing missiles, one under each wing, and a fuel drop tank under the main fuselage or a 30mm gun gondola in place of the fuel drop tank. For this mission we had to carry a fuel drop tank as the distance to the target from Gauhati was beyond the reach of the Mig-21FL without it.

When I spotted the Sabre I was flying at over 1000kmph. I immediately started to descend, as the enemy aircraft was lower than I. I did not drop my empty fuel tank to improve the manoeuvrability of the aircraft as I was already at much higher speed than the F-86 Sabre.

At this very moment I heard Dadoo call out that he had another F-86 Sabre in sight and he was jettisoning his fuel drop tank to engage the F-86.

I got behind the first F-86 and when within range I fired my first K-13 missile at him. I saw that the missile, instead of hitting the Sabre, turned left and headed for the sun, which was slightly to the left of the target aircraft. The K-13 being an infrared homing missile will lock onto a heat source which is greater. In this case the heat source happened to be the sun. In winter the sun in the Northern Hemisphere is in the southeast direction in the morning when looking southwards.

After the first miss, I immediately launched the second missile. This one overshot the Sabre and exploded in front of it. The Sabre was safe. After attaining a height of about 200mtrs he started to turn hard right. Although I had no more weapons on my aircraft, I continued to trail the Sabre lest he pursue the strike formation.

As stated by Dadoo, he saw a Sabre behind No.4 strike aircraft and flew in front of him at high speed after jettisoning his drop tank to distract him from his attack on the strike aircraft No.4. He got into slow speed combat with the Sabre and after a few vertical manoeuvres with full afterburner, he disengaged from combat and headed north towards Gauhati as he was running low on fuel. He gave me a call and said that he was heading back to base.

I had turned right through 270 degrees behind the first Sabre when ‘Bhoop,’ the strike leader, called that his formation had finished their attacks on the airfield and was setting course for base. At this stage I left the Sabre and turned left to head northwards to Gauhati. I was heading towards Gauhati at over 1000kmph at a height of about 1000mtrs.

I called to Dadoo ‘What is your position.’ He said he was heading back for base at 100mtrs off the ground. I saw a rail line going east-west. I asked Dadoo to let me know when he crossed the rail line. It is easy to spot an aircraft along a rail line or a river. When I got a call from Dadoo that he was crossing the rail line I looked along it from left to right and spotted Dadoo’s aircraft on my right about 2000mtrs away, low and slightly ahead of me.  I started to descend in order to get level with Dadoo’s aircraft. As I came in level with Dadoo’s aircraft, on his left, at about 1000mtrs, I saw a Sabre aircraft at about 800mtrs behind him. He was coming within firing range. I gave a shout to Dadoo to turn hard left, to get the Sabre off his tail and for me to threaten the Sabre.

When I was coming down to get level with Dadoo’s aircraft, he had reduced power in order to let me catch up to him. When I shouted at him to turn hard left, to throw the Sabre off his tail, he went into full afterburner regime and commenced the hard turn. The aircraft engine takes a few seconds to develop full power. Dadoo’s aircraft started to lose speed rapidly before he could get full power. The Sabre which was trying to shoot him down, could not stay behind Dadoo’s aircraft and thus overshot him on his right.

I called Dadoo to reverse turn to the right and pick up the Sabre, which was at one o’clock to him and only about 400mtrs in front of him. Dadoo sighted the Sabre and got on his tail. He started to try to shoot him down. I had no missiles or any other weapon. I had to leave Dadoo to shoot down the Sabre or defend himself. I was of no further help to him. I left the area of combat and headed north towards base. Dadoo got into slow speed combat with the Sabre and after a few scissors disengaged from combat as he was low on fuel and headed towards Gauhati.

After a few minutes I called Dadoo to let me know how he was.  I did not get a reply to my first few calls. I got worried for his safety. Suddenly Dadoo called and said he was all right. He had left the Sabre and was heading north towards base. I asked him for his height. He said that he was at 100mtrs and that he had only 500lts fuel left. He then climbed to 6000mtrs to save fuel. I asked the strike leader to inform the air traffic control to have the rescue helicopter to be airborne in case Dadoo had to eject due to lack of fuel.

I climbed to 9000mtrs and started to fly for endurance. I came over the Gauhati airfield and started to orbit it. As the leader of the escort mission I did not want to land before my No.2. Dadoo kept flying at 6000mtrs till he saw the runway and then glided to reach it. On the final approach for landing he said that he had only 80lts of fuel left. I watched him land from the top. After landing at the end of the runway, he called that his engine had flamed out. I told him not to stop on the runway as I had to land. He kept rolling and turned off the runway at the end onto a taxi track. On the taxi track there was an aircraft pen to Dadoo’s left. Dadoo turned into the pen and came to stop just outside it. I landed after this and taxied to my allotted pen.

On this mission I had an opportunity to shoot down two F-86 Sabre jets, but alas I could not do so as I had no gun installed on my aircraft.  I wish I had a gun!

The author, Air Commodore Manbir Singh is the elder brother of Gp Capt Apram Jeet Singh who was awarded the Vir Chakra on the Western Front, thus making them one of the rare brothers in the Indian Air Force who have a Vir Chakra to their credit.

Article Copyright 2011 Air Cmde Manbir Singh. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Air Cmde Manbir Singh is prohibited. 


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