Golden Arrows over Kargil

No.17 Squadron took part in the Kargil Operations distinguishing itself in the Fighter Recce role. Under the command of then Wg Cdr B S Dhanoa, the unit was engaged in operations throughout the conflict and one of its members paid the ultimate sacrifice to the nation.

 The badge of the Golden Arrows was formally sanctioned on 3 Nov 1961. The Motto “Udayam Ajashram” means “Ever Rising Skywards”

No.17 Squadron took part in the Kargil Operations distinguishing itself in the Fighter Recce role. Under the command of then Wg Cdr B S Dhanoa, the unit was engaged in operations throughout the conflict and one of its members paid the ultimate sacrifice to the nation.

The Golden Arrows, based at Bhatinda, had the good fortune not just to participate actively in Operation Safed Sagar in 1999, but also to be one of the squadrons to fly the maximum number of reconnaissance and strike missions. The squadron was awarded the coveted ‘Battle Honours’ for its meritorious performance in the operations. This prestigious unit also won the maximum number of honours and awards amongst the Air Force units which participated in Op Safed Sagar, including a Vir Chakra which was awarded to Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja posthumously for his gallantry during the conflict.

Wg Cdr B S “Tony” Dhanoa assumed command of the squadron on 1st April 1997. Under his able guidance, the Squadron expanded its horizons and took on the process of becoming the repository of information on the entire subject of FR. During his command, the Squadron took active part in Kargil operations in 1999.

The Golden Arrows ferried out their big birds on 18 May 99 to a base in the northern sectorand air operations began with a reconnaissance mission flown on 21 May 99. The accurate photo reconnaissance missions confirmed the presence of Pakistan backed intruders on the icy heights over-looking the Srinagar-Leh Highway and air strikes began on 26 May 99. It was for the first time since 1971 that air strikes were being carried out on the enemy, and Golden Arrows were actively involved in Bomb Damage Assessment missions. The Squadron even carried out ground attack missions by day and night in the most formidable weather and geographical conditions.  

The Squadron’s diary of the year 1999 covers the Kargil operations in great detail and is preserved in the Squadron Museum. Here are some interesting excerpts from this historic diary:

21 May 99:

Operations commenced on 21 May 99, with (as expected) 17 Sqn doing the first missions- Fighter Recce. Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja (Ahuja) and Sqn Ldr P Narain (Nara) flew the first Air Force sorties of the war, carrying of a recce of the Mushkoh Valley. Flt Lt RS Dhaliwal (Dhali) and Flt Lt D Roychoudhury (Doc), did an FR sortie over Batalik and Nara and Fg Offr AK Gupta (Gupta) recced Kaksar.

26 May 99:

Arrow Formation Wg Cdr BS Dhanoa (Tony) and R S Dhaliwal, took off in the morning for a recce of Tiger Hill and Tololing. The film revealed snow tents with artillery hits around them. Strikes also began on this day – 9, 221 and 108 Squadrons being the envy of all fighter pilots in the IAF, having got a chance to fire live armament on the enemy. The first time fighter aircraft have fired their guns in anger after the 1971 War.

27 May 99:

News came that Flt Lt K Nachiketa of 9 Sqn had ejected over the target area following a flame out. Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja and Fg Offr P G Reddy (Garu) had to go for a FR of the same area. At the line up, they were informed of the circumstances and they immediately got airborne to assist the formation leader of Flt Lt K Nachiketa in locating his ill-fated aircraft. After orbiting for some time over the target area, Reddy rejoined due to low fuel while Ahuja continued alone. Some time later, Ahuja’s MiG-21 was hit by a Stinger Missile. Radio calls from him confirmed that he had survived the hit and had ejected safely. Afternoon news on BBC reported the Pakis claiming one pilot and another killed.

No one was sure as to who was who until Tony got a call from Air HQ confirming that Nachiketa had been taken POW while Ahuja was no more.

kargil14 The tail fin of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja’s MiG-21 that went down in Pakistani territory.
Pakistani troops recover the ejection seat, parachute and survival pack items from Squadron Leader Ahuja’s  aircraft. A Pakistani site by a retired PAF Air Commodore would later admit that Sqn Ldr Ahuja was involved in shootout with ground troops and was killed thereafter. kargil13


29 May 99:

Sqn Ldr Ahuja’s body was brought to an Army Hospital for post mortem, which confirmed that he had died of gunshot wounds in the neck and through the heart. As per reports from Army Observation Posts, after landing with his parachute, he had been surrounded by a group of terrorists and had been shot in cold blood by them.


For those who fight for it, life has a flavour the sheltered never know”
“And so he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side….”

Late Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja  (17864-A) Vr C (Posthumous)

03 Jun 99:

17 Sqn’s first live bombing mission since the 1971 war. Arrow formation, Tony and Dhali dropped two bombs each on Pt 5140 and returned safely. Now all ‘Arrows’ are thirsting for revenge.

27 Jun 99:

Yes, its official. Night strikes are on. The target for today- an administrative base in Mushkoh Valley. Tony, Sqn Ldr A Choudhry (Chou), Sqn Ldr Anil Kumar (Anil) and Dhali each dropped 2 bombs on Pakstanis. Flashes of light, which could be SAM launches were seen and reported by Chou.

28 Jun 99:

The four Fully Ops pilots carried out night bombing missions on a gun position north of Matayin. Bombs on target visually spotted by the pilots! Tony and Dhali spotted flashes on the ridge which could have been SAM launches. The Army is moving up towards Tiger Hill after taking over Pt 5140 and Tololing.

29 Jun 99 – 12 Jul 99:

Bombing mission continued on 29th – Chou, Gupta, Anil and Garu dropped bombs as planned on Jubar Top in the afternoon and Chou and Dhali bombed enemy supply lines south of Gultari at night. All sorties uneventful (for us, not for the guys on the receiving end). The PM also came over to address us. “Arrow” – a  4 aircraft formation dropped their loads on a n administrative base in the Kaksar area on 30th. Tony and Anil attacked the same target at night to ensure a kill. On 1st July, “Pluto”, a 4 aircraft formation struck a supply base at Marpo La. The army reported that the strike had completely destroyed the target.

Also, Tiger Hill is now under the control of the Indian Army. A night mission was also flown by Chou and Dhali on a target north of Pt 5140. The next day, another four aircraft formation led by Tony Dhanoa dropped a total of 8 bombs over a target in Kaksar area. One four aircraft mission was flown on 4th July and the bombs were dropped accurately on given target north of Marpo La. On 8th, a mission was flown by Anil, Flt Lt AP Singh (Pal), Chou and Reddy for a target west of Marpo La. Bombs dropped bang on target as confirmed by recce and BDA films. The CAS also landed up on the 8th and expressed his desire to fly a sortie with Tony in the trainer, following the strike package at sunrise. They flew the next day and the sortie was uneventful. Chou and Pal also carried out a strike over Mushkoh area. Pluto formation (Anil, Reddy, Dhali and Doc), dropped their loads on a target at Muntho Dhalo, reported to be a “very effective strike” by the Army. Arrow four-aircraft formation struck Kaksar area on 09 July and all bombs were dropped as planned.

An important mission was received that day-the most important one of the Operations. Raveena Tandon came over to meet us along with a gaggle of people from the film industry- Shabana Azmi, Salman, etc.

On 11th and 12th July, missions were cancelled due to Army proximity to the targets. The whole eastern sector seems to have been brought under control. Also, the soldier who had shot down Late Sqn Ldr A Ahuja’s MiG-21 was killed by the Army as confirmed by a newspaper report. It was mentioned in this soldier’s diary that he had shot down an Indian aircraft on 27th May.

Air Operations stopped from12th  July onwards. Commodore Commandant, Air Marshal S K Malik , came over to the Squadron and flew a trainer sortie followed by a fighter trip.

28 Jul 99:

AT LAST ITS OVER – six aircraft ferried back to base arriving in the afternoon, culminating the operations with the traditional fly past. Finally the Squadron was back, having participated in the Indian Air Force’s first operations since 1971. There were good times, bad times, easy times, hard times, happy times and sad times; but all in all, they were interesting times.

16 Aug 99:

The CO broke the news that the Golden Arrows were the most decorated squadron in Kargil operations with following awards:-

Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja Vir Chakra (Posthumous)
Wg Cdr BS Dhanoa Yudh Seva Medal
Sqn Ldr A Choudhry Vayu Sena Medal
Flt Lt RS Dhaliwal Vayu Sena Medal
Flt Lt VN Rao Mentioned-in-Despatches
Sqn Ldr Anil Kumar Mentioned-in-Despatches


The Squadron was awarded Battle Honours for Op Safed Sagar in 2005 as recognition of the gallant efforts put in by the unit and the high standard of results achieved.

In almost six decades in service of the nation the Squadron has undertaken numerous missions in war and in peace. The dedication of its men, the maintenance of its equipment, and the spirit to undertake its role in the larger plan of the IAF are the calling cards of this bunch of warriors. This Squadron is on the threshold of change both historically and technically. 

10th Year Commemoration

The ultimate honour for a solider is to be immortalized a martyr. For those living, paying homage to a martyr is an honour beyond compare. In an unprecedented tribute ever paid to IAF martyrs in recent times, pilots of “Golden Arrows” flow an iconic four-aircraft ‘Missing Man’ formation led by Wg Cdr RS Nandedkar (Commanding Officer) to honour and brave heart pilot – Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja. The pilot flying in the ring-finger position of the finger-four formation pull-up vertically skywards over the spot where floral wreaths were to be placed at the War memorial. The manoeuvre signified the spiralling away of the fallen aviator heavenwards.  Among the NOK of the martys who laid the wreath of the war memorial and paid tribute to those who made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty during Op Safed Sagar included Mrs Alka Ahuja, Mrs Rubina Dhaliwal and Wg Crd RS Dhaliwal (Retd). Wreaths were also laid by Air Cmde BS Dhanoa YSM VM, the Commanding Officer of 17 Sqn during the operations in 1999, and Wg Cdr RS Nandedkar, the Commanding Office of “Golden Arrows”, besides the other Air Warriors of the base.

Article Courtesy: College of Air Warfare, Air Warrior HIstorical Cell

Photograph Sources: ISPR (Pakistan), Various

Thanks to Mihir Shah for transcribing the article


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