Category Archives: Operations


By Air Mshl S Raghavendran

The day was 6th September, 1965, the day The Indian Air Force was used across the Indo-Pak border in the ’65 conflict.

No 23 Squadron, under my command, had assembled in dribs and drabs at Pathankot (That is another story, which I will recount one day). We were ‘THE REDOUBTABLE GNAT SQUADRON’. Our duty at that time was primarily to do ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) duties due to the mounting tension in the Indo-Pak relations. Already the Pakistani Air force had shot down four of our Vampires and my squadron had shot down two Sabres, all over Indian Territory. I had joined the detachment only a couple of days before. For the uninitiated, ORP duties meant that the aircraft and pilots were at the ready at the end of the runway, ready to take off when an order is given by the Air Defence System, when they detected any enemy formation approaching, and intercept it. We could start up within 75 seconds of receiving the order to ‘scramble’, while the pilots were at rest in the bunker and be airborne to meet any threat within two minutes. This was a timing that couldn’t be matched by any interceptor fleet in the world. Most would do it in two minutes with their pilots in ‘cockpit readiness’.

The first set of ORP Aircrew (four of us including me) arrived in the underground bunker long before dawn and was ready to leap into the air. Soon afterwards we heard the Mystere aircraft on the base taking off. We rushed out and saw them taking off with full ‘war load’ on!! We were jumping with joy because, at last, we were attacking ‘The Enemy’!! We had not known about the attack missions as a part of the ‘Need to know’ basis on which such missions are ordered.

As soon as I was relieved from the standby duty, I rushed across to the offices of the Mystere Squadron Commanders to find out which airfields they had struck. Surprise and Shock!! No airfield had been attacked. I just couldn’t believe it!! I have always wondered what the logic was. I don’t have any authentic answers since I was low on the totem pole, as just a squadron commander, to be privy to the ‘Big Picture’ of the Operational Strike Plans. But one theory advanced was that it was the policy of the Government that we would not strike their bases unless our bases were attacked. Another theory was that the ‘Powers that be’ felt that the hierarchy in the Air Forces on the two sides had been comrades together before partition and if you were chivalrous and comradely enough not to attack their bases, they wouldn’t attack ours!!

But we were thinking at squadron commander level and I was sure as fate that we would be attacked at dusk. Even though everybody knows that dusk or dawn is when attacks come, those are still the preferred times that attacks are carried out, mostly because the chances of successful pursuit is less. I also knew of Nur Khan, the Pak air chief , by reputation. He was a ‘killer’ boxer and devout Muslim in school, RIMC in Dehra Dun. He had a plethora of ‘professional’ role models of ex alumni of RIMC including Prem Bhagat, the first Indian Victoria Cross awardee in World War II. His predecessor as the air chief in Pakistan was Asghar Khan, also from RIMC, who was another ‘professional’. Between them they had built up a tradition of professionalism and one couldn’t possibly expect them to let the Indian Air Force get away with it.

So I went to the Station commander, Group Captain Roshan Suri, and asked him for permission to take up a four air craft Combat Air Patrol over the airfield at 5.30 PM. He said he would think about it. I kept going to him, phoning him or intercepting him when he visited the squadrons during the day. At first he said he would let me know. Then he said that the ORP aircraft were not to be touched and so I must get eight aircraft on the line before he could authorize it. I had only about ten aircraft available in Pathankot altogether at that time but managed to get eight serviceable and went back to him in the afternoon. He said he would let me know.

I had in mind that the other three would be Johnny Greene, Trevor Keelor and Ajax (Kala) Sandhu, all of whom had a very high rating as determined and capable combat pilots. I was pretty sure of myself as a combat pilot. We were supremely confident of the maneuverability of the Gnat aircraft and its two 30mm cannons.

When I went to the Station Commander around 4 PM, he floored me with a different plan. At this time, the first Mig 21 squadron was operational and two of their aircraft with their Commanding officer, Mally Wollen, and his flight commander Laddu Sen had been allocated to Pathankot for operational duties. These were the days when the Mig 21 was very new and we had not learned to exploit it like we did later. It was strictly a high level interceptor and the pilots flew with the kind of gear meant for altitude, including a helmet that resembled an astronaut’s. It carried only two K-13 missiles and no guns. The plan was that they would get airborne around 6 PM, climb to 40000 feet altitude and do supersonic runs in the vicinity. Obviously these tracks would be picked up by Pakistani radar. This was expected to put the fear of God into the Pak commanders, who would then not attack our airfield.

The Mystere and Gnat squadron commanders, their flight commanders and senior pilots were ordered to attend the briefing of the Mig formation, which we all did. After an impressive briefing the pilots picked up their space helmets, tucked them under their arms and walked out towards their aircraft, which had been pushed out of their blast pens for starting up and going. I am not sure of the exact time but I have a vague memory that it was just about 5.30 PM.


There was pandemonium. Bullets were flying all around. We all rushed to the nearest trench and dived in, not sitting and crouching as it should have been but flat on top of each other!! We could hear and see the Pakistani pilots going round and round like in range practice and picking off all the possible aircraft, including the two Mig 21s, in spite of the anti-aircraft guns blazing away. The rest is history. Later on we were told that four Sabres had attacked but since they were going round and round we couldn’t count them accurately whenever we put our head up in the trench.


And, perhaps, three Vir Chakras for the squadron. Fortunately, Keelor had already been awarded his Vr.C and Ajax Sandhu got his with a ‘kill’ later on. I recommended Johnny Greene (who was on attachment to my squadron) for a Vr.C at the end of the war, for sustained leadership as a flight commander in my squadron during the War. Though I was told that Vr.C is given only for individual acts of bravery, I had my way and it was awarded.

I have no doubts that none of the Pakistani aircraft would have gone back had the four Gnats been airborne. I am not saying it out of bravado. At Halwara four Hunter aircraft had been put on combat air patrol and three Sabre aircraft that visited there were shot down, even one by a pilot officer!! We would have done just as well, I am sure, with our high caliber team, Unfortunately, the anti-aircraft guns didn’t get any of them either and so they got away with it!!

Fortunately, the Pakistani attackers committed the same mistake that the Japanese did at Pearl Harbour. They attacked and certainly caused loss of aircraft but the infrastructure such as refueling capabilities, armament stores etc were left intact. So was the runway and the taxi tracks. So, we were operationally ready immediately and were on Combat Air Patrol from the next morning, throughout the day!! How I wished every time that I was airborne for the endless Combat Air Patrols for the rest of the war that the Station Commander had listened to my pleas. Memory is fading but I think the only aircraft that my squadron lost in the attack was due to flames jumping from the only refueling bowser that got hit, in the next pen, while refueling a Mystere. This was replaced from our Base Repair Depot in a matter of days.

The Pakistani Air Force never attacked our airfields again, most likely because of the loss of all aircraft that attacked Halwara. A somewhat small Air Force like the Pakistani one just cannot afford that rate of attrition.

Some asides:

The only aircraft airborne from our side at Pathankot was flown by Pilot Officer Mike McMahon, who had recently been posted to No.31 Squadron and had been sent up for a training sortie. He was near the airfield waiting to join circuit to land. He was instructed on the R/T to stay away from the airfield till the attack was over and then come back. I presume that ATC officer was lying on the floor when he passed this message as he was under attack!! McMahon survived, as the Pakistanis didn’t notice the ‘Lone Ranger’, and carried on to be an Air Marshal and Vice Chief of Air Staff, one day.

We were piled six or seven deep in the trench. The man at the bottom of the pile screamed ‘I am getting suffocated, I am getting suffocated’. The man on top of the pile, whose butt was sticking out above the lip of the trench replied ‘would you like to change places!!’.


By Air Mshl S Raghavendran

I had commanded No 23 Squadron from April 1959 till end of 1961. During that time we had converted onto the transonic Gnat aircraft from the subsonic Vampire aircraft and the squadron had earned a reputation as a highly professional one which had learned to fully exploit the amazing performance of the Gnat in climb, maneuverability and very small profile. We had won the front gun trophy in the annual Armament Meet, much to everybody’s surprise, including our own!! The Gnat is a very jumpy aircraft, far from steady platforms like the Hunter, Vampire and Toofani. But we managed to shock everybody. At that time it was the only Gnat fighter squadron in the world – no other country flew it in the fighter role except Finland, which had a flight of it for a short time, I believe.

I was posted as one of the staff officers in the then only operational Command in the Indian Air Force, appropriately called Operational Command. I was in charge of operational training of the fighters in the Command. My life in the Operational Command deserves another story.

In 1963, I got an opportunity to go to Iraq as a flying instructor for two years. When that tenure ended, in their usual Services way, the Air Force didn’t tell me where I was posted till I had left foreign shores. I landed in Bombay, as it was then, and managed to get a call through to Wing Commander JB Lal, the P1 in Air Headquarters (officer in charge of postings of officers upto the rank of wing commander) and asked him where I was posted. Wg Cdr Lal nonchalantly told me that I was posted to Ambala to command No 23 Squadron again, after a break of four years!

I had left the squadron in Ambala in 1961, having commanded it as a Squadron Leader. The rank of the CO of operational squadrons in the IAF had been upgraded to Wing Commander. I believe I am the only person to have commanded the same squadron twice. This was in late July ’65.

Having taken over command, from Wing Commander Bhupinder (“Bhindi”) Singh, I left on 45 days leave to collect my wife and second daughter from Bombay, where they were arriving from abroad, and to collect our first daughter from Madras, where she had been sent a few months earlier to get into the school system. I had flown a couple of sorties on the Gnat before I left but not any operational training sorties, as I wanted to get back from leave and do some serious flying.

The political situation with Pakistan, when I left Ambala, seemed OK but started to deteriorate by the day almost immediately. I was reading about it in the newspapers. I read that Pakistan had made incursions in the Akhnur sector. Then I read that four Vampire aircraft that had been on a mission to support the Army in that area had been shot down. I knew my leave was about to be over and sure enough the recall telegram reached me two weeks after my leave started!! I rushed back with my wife and second daughter. We had no house as yet and so I got some accommodation in the Sirhind Club.

During the short time I was away, a flight from my squadron under Squadron Leader (later Air Marshal) BS Sikand had been sent to Halwara first and then on to Pathankot in a matter of days. This was in response to four of our Vampires having been shot down by the Pakistani Air Force. Some pilots, including Squadron Leader (later Air Marshal) Johnny Greene and others, from the other Gnat squadron, which was not yet fully operational had been sent along also. Open war had not been declared but by the time I returned, two Sabres had been shot down in the Akhnur sector by Squadron Leader (later Wing Commander) Trevor Keelor, and Flight Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) VS (“Pat”) Pathania from my squadron. About the day arrived, I think, Sikand and his formation had gone on a sweep, got separated. Sikand got lost and taking Pasrur airfield in Pakistan (just across the border) to be one of our disused airfields, made a landing there and got captured by the Pakistanis!! Enough to make ones head whirl!!

I had to join my squadron in Pathankot immediately and take the lead but I hadn’t done any combat training flying in the Gnat nor used the gun sight for four years. And we were going to fight for real and not make-believe!! I quickly did a couple of sorties in the Gnat, practicing pulling high ‘g’ but there was nobody to interact with. Except for Rozario, who had just joined the squadron and had not yet started flying the Gnat, there was nobody in my squadron left behind, with whom I could practice combat. Also, all training missions were prohibited, to conserve the hours for operations!! Most important of all, if I told the Station Commander that I needed to do some training flying with some pilots available in the other Gnat squadron on the base, he would promptly decide that this was not the time or that there was insufficient time to undertake so many training sorties to get back my skills. He would in all likelihood tell Command and Air Headquarters that I should be taken off Command!! I was not about to take that chance. Fighter pilots train all their lives to be able to fly in a war, or better still, lead a squadron in war.


So!! Off I went to Pathankot to fight a war, pretty unprepared!!

But the Gnat was an amazing aircraft. As people will tell you, pilots who were average would come to the Gnat squadrons and go out as above the average because the aircraft made you more alert, it brought out the best in you to exploit its capabilities fully. Senior pilots who used to be skeptical about our tales of performance and combat maneuvering changed their mind when they flew the Gnat. One was my good friend Omi Taneja who flew it later on and told me “Rags, what you said about the Gant was true. It took me some time to catch my breath after take off”!

I had more hours on the Gnat and other fighters than most people. The couple of sorties in the Gnat that I managed to get in before going to Pathankot, with G suit on and pulling 8 ‘g’ brought back most of my confidence. The pressure of the ‘g’ suit on the abdomen and the legs made me feel that I was back in full control. Also I had not been off flying altogether. I had been instructing the previous two years on Vampire and Jet Provost aircraft to trainee pilots and keeping up my flying skills

I quickly recapped the sighting system and the gun firing system, including putting the ‘gun dip’ switch ‘on’ during an operational mission. This was a switch you must put on above a certain height if you were to fire the guns. The guns were located in the lip of the air intakes of the engine and if the engine was operating at high power, it would surge and pack up when the turbulence from the shells leaving the barrels affected the airflow. To prevent this, the engine was automatically throttled back as the guns fired.

So, when I arrived in Pathankot, I was reasonably confident but apprehensive. I could not afford to fail in performance or professionalism. I could not indicate any lack of resoluteness in tone or body language that I felt that I was not equal to the task. If I failed in performance, I would die, and if I failed in professionalism as a combat leader, my squadron would fail.

I realized how true it was when some wise person said that an individual who does not know fear is not courageous, but one who has known fear and gone ahead to perform upto his full capabilities in battle is the really courageous one. I certainly needed it. Nobody was aware of the odds that I was working against. My parent base commander, Group Captain David Bouche, was out of the loop and it didn’t strike him that I hadn’t had a chance to train; and the Base Commander at Pathankot took it for granted that I was ‘fully in the groove’. My only fear was that I may not perform as well as I was capable of, due to being out of practice. There was a Mystére squadron commander who was not upto the task and was removed after a few days of war.

One of the supreme imperatives of combat flying is that you must have utmost faith in the capabilities of your ‘wing man’ and trust that you would ‘look out’ for each other. This is where the term ‘guarding your tail’ was coined. I had not flown with anybody in the squadron and the only person who had been in the squadron during my previous tenure was Flt Lt “Pat” Pathania. He had been a young but dependable Flying Officer when I had left the squadron, and was now a senior Flight Lieutenant and designated leader of elements in his own rights. But I told him that whenever I flew on a mission, he was to be my Number 2. This was to be only on missions across the border, not on the endless Combat Air Patrols that we flew over the airfield after 5th September ’65, when Pakistani Air Force Sabres attacked Pathankot.

Our job was two fold. One was the CAP missions, and the other was to escort the Ground Attack fighters and the Canberra Bombers, when they carried out day time raids on Pakistan. All the escorting that we did was to targets other than airfields, army formations or targets like railway yards etc. One reason that we didn’t escort the fighters to airfields was that we didn’t have the range to accompany them that far at low level. And the Canberras attacked the airfields by night, anyway. The two Mystere squadrons (Nos 3 and 31) had the benefit of my squadron to escort their missions but the squadrons operating from Adampur didn’t have this luxury until later in the war!!

The Hunter squadrons went out from Ambala un-escorted because the Hunter was considered capable of looking after itself. It was not too widely known that the Hunter could manoeuvre as well as the Gnat, if it was ‘clean’ – that is without drop tanks and bombs. If the pilot was to use ‘two notches’ of flaps -15 degrees, it was unbeatable. But the squadrons never trained for this kind of combat and all training was done with tanks on. The standard call from the leader of any formation, Hunters or otherwise, when enemy fighters are sighted should have been ‘drop stores’ and take on the opposition. The corollary to it is that if you have started high ‘g’ manoeuvre, the tanks and bombs may not jettison as the load on the holding clamps would prevent them from opening to release the stores. I believe that many of the Hunters that we lost during the war were maneuvering with their tanks on. Without doubt the Pakistani fighters would have been their ORP aircraft in ‘clean’ configuration. We lost some very good, senior Hunter pilots in the war.

The CAP missions were no great problem. We would be on a roster and go round and round the airfield, on either side, covering each other and looking around, getting cricks in the neck, reversing the orbits to give relief to the muscles on the other side. We also expected to get warning from our ground observers, radars and look outs in the Air Traffic Tower. It is unfortunate that we didn’t start this till after the PAF strike!!

The missions across the border escorting the fighters and Canberras were a different matter. We expected to meet opposition. The success of the mission and the survival of the escorted aircraft was our responsibility. We had to think of the performance of the Sabres and Starfighters that Pakistan had. The Starfighters were supersonic and we were only transonic, in a dive. The Sabres and Starfighters could carry Sidewinder air to air missiles. We discussed all this amongst ourselves and even talked to the MiG-21 squadron commander, Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) Malcolm (“Mally”) Wollen, since they also carried comparable missiles.

Two things were clear to us. We were supremely confident of our ability to outmaneuver both the types of aircraft. The sidewinder missile could not be launched if the ‘g’ force at the time of launch was 2 ‘g’ or more. Also, it was very erratic close to the ground, say less than 2000’ and when the target was in line with the sun. So, we worked out our tactics. As we reached the target area, the escort Gnats would get into a tight spiral at about 4000-5000 feet and look out for enemy aircraft. We would fly at the throttle setting that we had arrived on target with, to keep up with the Mystéres at 420 Knots or increase to that setting when we arrived with the Canberras. We were not worried about what the strike aircraft were doing and concentrated on NOT getting hypnotized by their weapon delivery etc. Sometimes we did take a quick glance to see tanks being attacked etc. Since our strike fighters from Pathankot were never assigned to an airfield attack, we did not get any ‘guaranteed’ opposition. But we scanned all round the target for any enemy aircraft approaching as well as above. The intention was that, if any enemy aircraft was spotted, the strike formation would be alerted to leave the target area and we would take them on.

Most missions were escorted by two Gnats and we would plan to be on opposite sides of the orbit so that we could cover each other’s tails. Our tactics would be to take on the enemy aircraft in close combat. If one of us was in a tight spot, the manoeuvre to escape any missile armed enemy was to point the nose towards the sun and open full throttle. No aircraft could keep up with the Gnat climb, with a power/weight ratio of 1. Even if they stuck behind for a short time, the missile would not be able to track the small exhaust of the Gnat with the sun ahead. The alternative was to dive down to low level where the missile, again, would not be effective. Unfortunately for our tally of Sabres, we didn’t meet enemy aircraft on any missions, except for ‘Kala’ Sandhu towards the end of the war. This was especially so in my case – there went my hopes of decorations!!

Many Mystére and Canberra squadron commanders got an MVC or Vr C essentially for courageous leadership on missions during the war, but we Gnat pilots had to shoot down a Sabre to get an award. The only exception was Sqn Ldr Johnny Greene, whom I personally recommended for a Vr C for continuous good leadership while attached to my squadron and I fought with the powers that be to accept this exception. I believe his is the only case of a Vr C being awarded other than for a specific act of bravery. But whenever Gnats met Sabres, the latter always got shot down or ran away – throughout the war not one Gnat from my squadron was shot down but many Sabres were. In later years when our officers met Pakistani officers abroad, on courses or at air show events, they all admitted that they were terrified of the Gnat.

We had some exciting times during the escort work. The only fighters that we escorted were the Mystére from Pathankot. They flew really, really low, especially while coming from the targets. We were concentrating on pivoting our heads all round to look for enemy aircraft. We had no chance of navigating by map. Going to the target was not so bad as never was any formation bounced on the way in. Since we were swiveling our heads on top, the Mystére had to tell us when they left the target and we would latch on to them and escort them back. But we had far less fuel capacity than them and could not fly all the way back at tree top level. Once we were safe inside our territory, we had to pull up to a height where our fuel consumption would reduce and we could get back home. The agreement was that the formation leader would tell us how far and what direction base was. It didn’t always work out, Either the formation leader was not sure of his position, having exited in a hurry form the target on a heading other than planned or when we left the Mystére formation, the visibility from higher up, due to the haze, would prevent us from identifying known landmarks!! A number of times we landed back with no fuel even for an overshoot!! Thank God we had no losses due to fuel starvation, other than Sikand’s aircraft.

But it wasn’t always a routine matter of taking off with the Mystéres from Pathankot. More often than not, they would go to Ambala after their mission. Then, we would have to rendezvous with them on their way to the target for their mission next day. This took quite a bit of doing. The timing had to be perfect as nobody had the fuel to orbit around and join up. When the Command tried it the first time, the orders came to us to be at a specific landmark at a precise time, to the second!! We were there precisely sighted them well in time and were turning to join them when one of the pilots noticed us and excitedly started shouting “Bogeys, bogeys to starboard”. Command had forgotten to tell them that they were getting escorts!! We quickly told them, fortunately we were on the right channel, that we were the escorts. There was great relief in the voice of the Mystere leader when he said “Roger, Roger”. Next time onwards, we arranged the rendezvous between the squadrons and it worked out well.

With the Canberras the problem was different, especially with the Bombers and not so much the Intruders. Their idea of low flying was about 1000 feet!! We had to be like shepherd dogs, breaking R/T silence and literally screaming at them to ‘get down’. This was especially so while returning from a mission, We could never be sure that enemy aircraft were not following us and they would easily spot the large Bombers when they are not really low.

We had a natty way of joining up with them for escorting. They would give a coded call two minutes before reaching overhead Pathankot. We would scramble from ORP and lift off just in time to come up on either side of the formation as they flew past the runway.

Our endless CAP sorties from half an hour before dawn to half an hour after dusk was really painful physically and mentally. Our endurance time was about one hour and so you can work out how much of effort went into it. Not once were we attacked but we were at high tension throughout. After half the sortie was over we would reverse the orbit to give relief to our neck and arm muscles and to an extent our butts!! We found a new problem while doing the CAPs. The Hobson Unit that controlled the movements of the slab tail would freeze if we kept on orbiting with more or less the same position of the elevator. We had been everlastingly having a problem with this unit over the years and had recently lost some aircraft due to its malfunction. So, when we found this problem, all we could do was to periodically porpoise the aircraft to circulate the hydraulics.

There was a mission when Sqn Ldr Johnny Greene and Flt Lt Pat Pathania had Sabres in their sights but both their guns jammed and would not fire. So we worked out a system whereby the first tow CAP missions would fire a few rounds into the Chakki River, along the perimeter of the airfield, to ‘clear’ the guns. Then all the aircraft likely to get into combat would be cleared for the day. It was “War” and who bothered about getting permissions and checking out things!! We learned only after the operations that we had seriously interfered with the life of people in the vicinity. The river bed was the open air lavatory for hundreds of people in the area!! Can you imagine 30 mm explosive cannon shells going off near you when you are contemplating the skies above and relieving yourself!! I am not sure whether it helped in their ‘evacuation’ or not, but they certainly evacuated the area in a hurry!! Thank God we didn’t cause any casualties!! Of course, we had always fired the guns in open and sandy part of the river bed and would have seen if any body had been there. Had we opened fire indiscriminately in the brush along the banks, the results would have been catastrophic!!

Though we wanted to carry out ‘Sweeps’ and bring up Pakistani fighters and take them on, we could not as we were told to keep all the aircraft for ORP duties, CAPs and escort missions. As the war progressed, even the escort missions became less and less. So, endless Combat Air Patrols over the base became the main task.

The war was over soon and the Tashkent Declaration followed where the Indian Government gave back Haji Pir Pass, an incredibly stupid thing to do.

It was decided that Pathankot would be the permanent base for No 23 Sqn. It seems to have been my fate, ever since my marriage that I only had to go to a unit and it was moved elsewhere. No 23 Sqn had peacefully existed in Ambala, where I left it four years, after moving it to Palam and Ambala. But the moment I joined it again, not only does it move but gets into a war!!

The squadron had one more historical event to undertake before I handed it over. In 1966, the Government decided that it would no longer follow the unwritten principle it had followed of not operating any fighter aircraft from the Srinagar Valley. So we were the first fighter squadron, after 1948, to be sent to Srinagar to show the flag for a few weeks. That was in 1966 and we had a very enjoyable time, just flying around, no ORP, and picnicking. The outing lasted three weeks.

By the middle of 1967, I was getting flying fatigue. I had done 17 years of non-stop flying, had more hours than most people of my age and seniority, had 21 postings/moves, and had been given only 13 months of leave in all this time. On the two occasions that I had asked for and been granted 45 days leave, I was recalled within two/three weeks. The first time was when I went to get married, and I was recalled after three weeks because the Squadron (No 4) had been ordered to move to the boondocks of Adampur. The second time was when I had just returned from Iraq and had gone to collect my family (who were arriving later) from Mumbai, and to meet my mother and other family members whom we had not seen for two years. I was recalled in two weeks to go to war!!

Added to my frustrations and anger was the fact that in all these years I had not been nominated for Staff College. Officers in the field who did not have the time, or facilities like libraries, to study for the entrance exam were nominated, on their merit. I believe there were six vacancies for nominated officers. Year after year I used to see officers from cushy ground jobs being nominated. 1967 was the last year that I would have been eligible for admission, and when my name again didn’t feature in the ‘Nominations’, I reluctantly decided to make an effort with the meager resources of the library in Air Force Station Pathankot, which wasn’t much, and take the exam myself.

The Last Dog Fight Over Srinagar 16 December 1971 No 18 Sqn

By Wg Cdr GM David (Retd)

It had been a quiet day. The daily raid had not taken place and the sun was low on the horizon. A dusk scramble was ordered and Sqn Ldr VS Pathania VrC and Flt Lt BN Bopaiyya got airborne to set up a CAP over head. Since it continued to be quiet and the sun was setting they were ordered to burn fuel and land. At this point four Sabres were spotted high over the field rolling in for a steep glide attack along RW31. Pathania who was over RW13 Dumbell tightened his turn into the attackers and established contact with the Nos I and 2 who were established in the dive. The L60 Guns who were ‘Tied’, opened fire on their own at all dry and sundry. Bopaiyya who was over RW 31 Dumbell was ordered into a hard turn by Pathania to keep his tail clear and was told that he would be picking up Nos 3 and 4 sliding into the bombing run below him. Pathania and Bopaiyya establishing contact, dived thru the exploding anti aircraft shells and went for their respective targets. Pathania dived through the Flak and got on the tail of the No 2 midway down the RW who promptly threw a hard turn to the left and ducked into the valley SW of the RW to keep his energy levels high. In the turn after about 270 Deg and facing us at the 31 ORP Pathania got into position less than 200 yds behind and he gave a Quarter sec burst of 30mm cannon. We saw puffs of smoke from the Sabre who further tightened his turn, jettisoned his Drop Tanks and went into an impossibly tight turn. Pathania did a Yo Yo got into position a second time and gave a second short burst. His guns jammed. Throughout all this, the L60s were firing away merrily at Pathania, Bopaiyya and the Sabres. Bopaiyya in the meantime who latched onto the No 4 attacker had dived throught the L60 fire and was last seen pursuing him towards the SW. Pathania coolly began to give a running commentry on RT. He said that his guns had jammed and that he would not allow the target to have the fuel to make it back to his base. The Sabre who was by now trailing smoke rolled out towards Pir Panjal to get away. Pathania slipped out from his 6 O’clock postion and slid out to his right. The Sabre promptly on spotting him through a hard turn into Pathania to dislodge him from his tail and rolled out towards the West. Pathania kept him doing hard turns for sometime till be himself began to run low on fuel. when he broke off Pathania reported that Sabre smoking heavily and he unable to maintain speed. Bopaiyya who was unable catch up with the receding Sabres also returned overhead low on fuel. The Army subsequently reported an aircraft crossing Pir Panjal smoking heavily. We are certain he must have ejcted after crossing into Pakistan.

One funny bit through all this was the No 4 Sabre who probably had his armament switch selection wrong dropped his Tanks instead of his Bombs. Realising his error on pull out he dropped his bombs in level flight. It was an amazing site as the bombs struck the RW too shallow and skipped. Having the same velocity as the mother aircraft we saw it lazily rise and begin to catch up with it. It curved up to about a 100 feet below the mother aircraft before starting a lazy descent. It lobbed outside the Aifield boundary and exploded. We dont think that guy ever realised how close his own bombs had come to him.

Now came the Mother of all recoveries. The two Gnats had to be recovered and the RW had been hit. Wg Cdr Raina our CO, cool as ever, inspected the RW, plotted the craters. He instructed the aircraft to land on the left lane, shift to the right lane 1200 yds up the RW and then Shift back to the left lane after 2000yds. It was dusk by now. There were no time to lay the goose necks. He just parked his jeep abeam the first crater and to indicate the begining the of the clear patch for touch down. He talked them down coolly on the mobile RT set to a safe touch down. Pathania and Bopaiyya both switched lanes as briefed and landed safely on a cratered RW in semi darkness without landing lights or RW lighting.

Hows That to bring the curtains down on the Srinagar Gnat Operations?

Pesonal Account of the Final Battle by Fg Offr NS Sekhon PVC

By Wg Cdr GM David (Retd)

A lot has been said about the Gnat Mk 1. But little has been said about the only Param Vir Chakra which was awarded to Fg Offr NS Sekhon flying a Gnat in Srinagar on 14 Dec 1971.

I was in Srinagar posted to No 18 Sqn and we were on detachment to Srinagar during the 1971 War with Pakistan (OP Cactus Lily). On that cold winter morning I was on Duty with Fg Offr Y Singh on CAP Duty at the underground Base Ops. The following are the sequents of events that took place on 14 Dec 1971 at dawn.

The pilots on Two Minutes readiness or Stdby 2 as it is known in Air Def parlance were Flt Lt GS Ghumman (G Man) and Fg Offr NS Sekhon (Brother). The air raid took place at dawn. There was no warning of the impending attack. The first warning of the attack came from the OPs posted in the near vicinity of the airfield. It was the OPs in Awantipura Airfield who warned of the attack. The attackers came in from the South East doing a run in towards Wular Lake along RW31, with the escape route towards Baramula with a 30 Deg left course correction.

We were in the Station Base Ops dug out when the warning came. The Station Commander Gp Capt Sanadi, the OC Flying Wg Cdr Oberoi and we were present along with the rest of the complement when the attack took place. The scramble was ordered and we rushed out from the underground to the CAP Control which was right above the dug out. The Ops ATC was a few paces ahead. As Yogi (Fg Offr Y Singh) and I got into position in the CAP control all hell had broken loose. The L60 Ack Ack batteries had opened fire in an Easterly direction. The L60 Regiment No 2 i/c was with us. We could hear the sound of the Gnats on ORP starting up. We yelled to have the scramble cancelled since we had spotted the attckers in Line Astern formation aligning themselves with RW31 to do a Medium glide bombing attack from about 10000 feet above. We tried to have the scramble cancelled but due to communication failure, it was not possible. The scrambling Gnats were on ATC frequency and, the CAP Control was on Air Force Guard Frequency. The Duty ATC Offr had not reached his position and there was no way to cancel the scramble even though it had been ordered by the Staion Commander. Fg Offr Y Singh tried to get to the ATC (which was in front) to cancel the Scramble. The G Man and Sekhon had started up, carried out their RT checks, moved out of the blast pens and were ready to roll. They could not be contacted since they were on the Air Force Guard and Y Singh had not yet managed to get into the Ops ATC. and grab the microphone. Precious seconds were ticking by. The Attckers were now identified as four F86 Sabres and the Nos 1 and 2 were beginning to roll into the dive with Nos 3 and 4 in trail all spaced about 2000 yards behind each other. We could only watch this as spectators. G Man after calling the ATC a few times decided to roll. The scamble was on. The Sabres were in the dive. Brother began his roll 20 seconds behind as per the procedure. The No1 Sabre was close to his bomb release point. Sekhon was 1000 yards down the RW when the leaders bombs struck the RW just ahead of the ORP. Sekhon was still on ground on his take off run in line with us 2000 yards up when the second set of bombs from the No2 Sabre impacted 1000 yards behind him on the RW. At this time the No1 had flown over Sekhon as he was unsticking and hitting his gear up. G Man in the mean time as per the procedure had unstuck, done a hard turn left and ducked into the valley immediately south of the airfield to gain speed and pull up to get into opposite circles to Sekhon to set up CAP as quickly as possible. The visibility was very poor and less than 1000 metres in shallow fog and haze and turning into the sun did not help G Man any. By This time Sekhon was airborne and with the gear going up when the No2 Sabre whizzed over his head. Sekhon was 3000yards up the RW and accelerating when the No3’s bombs hit 100yards behind him. His RT call at this time was,”I have Two B******s ahead of me I will not let them go” He gave Chase to these two Sabres. G Man in the mean time had changed over to the CAP frequency and was on the East end of the field. The Nos 3 and 4 attackers were in the get away mode past the other end of the RW and fast receding at max get away speed. There was no way G Man could have established visual contact. In fact by this time the Nos 1 and 2 Sabres on realising that they had a Gnat on their tails had gone into a hard right turn about 10 nms NE of the field with Sekhon Holding the Turn. The Crew on the late shift of 8am were on their way to the Airfield when they saw the three aircraft milling around. The bus stopped on the roadside and Flt Lt Manchi Captain who was on that bus saw two Sabres in a hard right turn with one Gnat holding the turn, all 200yards behind each other. There was a burst of 30mm cannon fire and he saw the trailing Sabre jettison its tanks and go into a last ditch kind of manoeuvre. They disappeared behind the treeline. Back at CAP control G Man was sent in the last seen direction of the combat. From the CAP control all we could see was the occassional glint of aircraft manoeuvreing in the distance. The poor visibiltiy prevented G Man from acquiring visual contact with the aircraft in combat. In the mean time No3 and 4 Sabres had done a get away toward the Southwest ranges of Pir Panjal. From the CAP control we heard a high speed whine. It were the Escorts who had not been spotted by us. Sekhon made his next transmission, ” I have one guy in front of me, there is someone getting behind me.” We heard one more burst of 30mm Cannon fire followed by a long three to four seconds of 0.5mm machine gun fire. This was followed by Sekhons last transmission, “I think I am hit. G Man come.” Sekhon’s Gnat had been hit and he ejected at low altitude. The Parachute opened but had not fully deployed due to the low altitude. His rear fuselage and stabiliser had 37, 0.5mm bullet
holes in it.

Two things stand out about he man. He was not one given to drinking. But every night he would have one large Brandy at the bar and panic that the war was getting over and the enemy never seemed to be around when he was airborne. The second was that the war would be over before he could shoot one of the raiders. His faith in the Gnat was Supreme and he firmly believed that it had the manoeuvre capability to get him out of any situation.

Sekhon's Gnat - Model by Polly Singh
Sekhon's Gnat - Model by Polly Singh


By Gp Capt Manna Murdeshwar (Retd)

On 4th Sept, 65 we were gung-ho! Our months of training had been tested and now we had faced our first air battle. Not only had we come out of it unscathed but we had a War Hero amongst us, to boot!

Pathankot was agog with excitement and we knew we had all hopes and eyes riveted on us as we taxi-ed out for yet another foray. The Gnat had proven its mettle and within just a day we’d began to acquire ‘an iconic status’. Enough indeed, to put the swagger into us!!

Our 23 Sqn. detachment of seven aircraft and seven pilots (the eighth was still ‘missing’!) were ordered to patrol the area and counter any enemy aircraft threatening our objectives.

Our leader was Johnny Greene. I was his No. 2, AJS No. 3 and Pat No. 4. We set course for the Chhaamb Jaurian Sector in a loose, low level tactical formation, which Johnny led, barely skimming the tree tops.

Mid-way to the battle area, while we were still trailing ‘clouds of glory’. I spotted Sabres on our left diabolically attacking our troops with devilish precision. They attacked singly, forming a left hand circuit pattern similar to the ones we adopted during practice at the firing ranges. They rained down fire and smoke on our tenuously entrenched troops and spotting their gleeful sport I conveyed their presence to Johnny on the R/t.

Since AJS and Pat were on our right and in a better position to get behind the Sabres, upon instructions they just rolled over us and trailed the malignant Sabre jets. Johnny and I followed suit. From my position, I could see that each of us was behind a Sabre! I had a position of vantage since I had done a high wing-over and rolled behind the Sabre that had just pulled up from a dastardly attack. My descending speed helped me to get within 400 yds of its tail. With my gun sight ‘ON’ and the ‘diamonds pipped’ I pulled the trigger!! “This was for real, Man!” This was no practice sortie!

Imagine my incredulous frustration when, after firing just one bullet, my gun ‘stopped’. “C’mon! C’mon baby, don’t give up on me now!” I coaxed. But it had done just that – it had ‘given up’.

Cursing my luck and scanning the sky for stray Sabres and vainglorious Gnats, I peeled off to base – valiant, vitiated, vulnerable, but not vanquished!

Once on ground, and subsequent to our debrief, I learnt that although Johnny and AJS had got behind their respective Sabres, their film revealed a high angle of attack which had afforded the Sabres a chance to escape!! Pat was the only one who had been fortunate enough to ‘get it Pat’, shoot down his targeted Sabre and win himself a VrC! My film was labeled ‘exemplary’ and I was told to ‘claim the kill’ since the Army had certified they had found a wreckage. “A kill, with only one bullet fired?” It seemed too preposterous even in these permissive booty-bestowing times and I reluctantly let my conscience forgo this ‘skull’ which I could have added to my belt. The imponderable gun stoppage had seemed, as if ordained by the Sabre pilot’s Fate and I was thwarted from an indiscreet chase that could have nailed this trophy on my wall.

Although the Gnat continued to prove to be redoubtable, ‘my Sabre’ had, inevitably and irrevocably got away!!


My brave and enthusiastic Gnat friends

By Gp Capt AG Bewoor (Retd)

I am most certainly not a Gnat fellow, but I have staged Gnat units from here to there, with scooters, cycles, and other non military goods in the AN-12. Met some very fine persons in those ferries. Some good friends are hard core Gnat pilots, unfortunately a few went ahead of me, I miss them dearly.

A most amusing incident of me and Gnat pilots happened during the 1971 war. I was flying C-46s and AN-12s with ARC, and was a regular transient thru Guwhati. By about 10 Dec 71, USS Enterprise had come into the Bay of Bengal, and there was much debate on how the IAF would engage those fighters if a direct confrontation resulted. The Gnat unit at Guwhati was on top of the world, the PAF was crippled in Bangladesh, and we ruled the skies.

The watering hole was the canteen at the ATC, and one normally lived on egg bhujia for two if not all three meals. That is where I was, wolfing down food before getting out for another task. Suddenly there appeared a young Gnat pilot in g-suit, with a revolver strapped on his waist, and started berating me and the crew, and challenging the Americans to take on the Gnats. I suppose he believed that because ARC may have had some kind of link with USA, we desi transport pilots were an extension of Enterprise, and some of the goomph had to be blown off. Quite puzzled we did not retort, he was armed, and we “civilians” were unarmed. It was a strange encounter, I cannot recollect his name, maybe the person will read this and reveal it now. It was of course wonderful to see the josh and supreme confidence in so young a man.

Gnats were a class by themselves. I was coming into Kumbigram in a C-46, this is before the war, and so were four Gnats. As No 1 reported Downwind, he asked for ATF refuelling. Next transmission was, ” Me 2″, then “Me 3″ and finally ” Me 4″. That foxed the civilian controller, and he promptly asked, ” Confirm helicopter?” Recollect MI-4s took Octane fuel, not ATF.

On 22 Nov 71, Massey, Gana, Lazarus and Suares, intercepted and brought down three Sabres under Jafarpur S U control. I think Jain was the controller. I was coming into Cal by AN-12, and was made to orbit about 10 miles east, and then continued orbiting for a good 20 mins. I was to get briefed, and do a “sweep”, and do it as fast as possible followed by another one later at night. All queries to ATC got ” maintain orbit” reply till finally we landed, and who should tell us about the encounter, but the Indian Oil refuelling crew. We stole his jeep to meet up with the Gnat heroes. They had been beating up Cal before we could come in.

The Miniature Masterpiece: Golden Moments

By Group Captain D LAZARUS VrC (Retd)

The Gnat represents many firsts in my flying career. It took just three short years with this elite wonder, to initiate an aspiring 23 year old IAF pilot like myself into fighter flying.

Owing to my height I nearly did not make it. After several measuring sessions only was I cleared to fly this dinky toy! Though two of us six footers were posted in together, my shorter trunk and longer legs gave me the necessary clearance between the bone dome and canopy, while the other’s longer trunk disqualified him. It gave me the chance to get my hands on the Gnat, the IAF’s proven ‘Sabre slayer’.

The 1969 bunch of 22 Squadron pilots was professionally razor sharp and socially approachable. Flt Lts Bal, Munna Rai, Adi Ghandhi, Fg Offrs Baldy, Sathaye, Ganapathy and my course mates Su, PKT and MAW, gave me the first taste of a great flying brotherhood.

Back then, there were no Gnat trainer aircraft, so we trained on the fighter itself. As ab initio pilots we developed the ability to experiment by taking calculated risks. I remember Gana encouraging me to roll by using just rudders. This built confidence in handling the aircraft, without fear of getting into a spin.

Being fully ops on three other aircraft, can never match the thrill of experiencing it for the first time on the Gnat. Maiden milestones have great significance for us all!

You name an emergency (barring engine failure) and I experienced it on the Gnat. Out of seven brake failures, the one I remember best relates to the KKD runway’s distinguishing feature; the height difference of 35 feet between dumbbells. After a brake failure landing, as the aircraft slowed on the incline, I jumped out. The ATC officer was dumb-struck to see the aircraft, canopy open, move along the runway with no pilot in the cockpit. He did not spot me running alongside, towing it towards 17 ORP!

Aerial activities heated up by November 1971. Pakistan had not learnt the lesson of 1965 and continued to rattle their Sabres along the borders. On 22nd November a formation of four Gnats of 22 Squadron was scrambled by Bagchi, to intercept enemy aircraft. With a keen spotter like Su, we gained the advantage. This coupled with the vertical agility of the midge silenced the Sabres. After an exciting dogfight, we shot down all three intruders, securing a 100% kill. The Gnat had lived up to its name again, giving first kills to Mouse, Gana and self!

I took full advantage of the acclaim and publicity the aircraft enjoyed, when I ferried one to Sulur in January 1972. Indian Airlines wait-listed me on my return trip from Coimbatore to Madras. As I did a low level high-speed run and a zoom pull-up over Coimbatore airstrip, the ATC confirmed my seat to Madras. The Gnat had won many hearts back then!

With the passage of time, fickle hearts have newer toys to occupy them. For me, the petite Gnat will never become obsolete.

My First Air Battle — 03 September, 1965

By Gp Capt Manna Murdeshwar (Retd)

At the end of August 65, the Pakistani Army made a concerted effort with troops and tanks to snap the vital road link to Jammu from Pathankot, hoping thereby to cut off Kashmir from India itself. Disconcerted by this manoeuvre and unable to face the onslaught, the Indian Army asked the Indian Air Force to interclude.

Not quite able to estimate the Pakistani intentions, Headquarters Western Air Command, (HQ WAC), in their collective wisdom, deployed a Squadron of aged Vampires based at Pathankot and tasked them to neutralize the menacingly advancing enemy troops and armour. Baying for blood, the Pakistani Sabres counter attacked these malevolent Vampires. The morale of the Indian Air Force came crashing down when four Vampires were shot down on the very day that they were called upon to play their role.

HQ WAC now shuddered into an alert mode as if someone had cracked the whip. Gnats, stationed for ORP duties at Ambala and Halwara (23 Sqn dett had moved from Ambala, with, Siki,. Pathania, Kitcha and Gill) were now asked to bare their fangs. The Ambala ‘ four’ that were named later, were Johnny Greene, AJS Sandhu, Trevor Keelor and me. Thus there were a total of six of us from 23 Squadron, and two from 2 Squadron comprising the two detachments who were ordered to move into Pathankot for a “Hum kuch kar dikhayenge” move.

It was at last light when our detachment of 4 Gnats cruised in from Ambala to shore their bets. The base was agog with everyone running around like headless chickens, filled with their own importance, but not knowing what exactly they had to do! The Officers’ Mess was over- crowded and the only things that seemed to suffice were eggs!!

Filled with a sense of mission and primed by months of “Day Fighter Leader’s Combat” training under Johnny Greene, all of us went into a huddle with some of the Base Commanders, to plan the task of drawing out the Sabres and shooting down at least one of them..
Continue reading My First Air Battle — 03 September, 1965

True Confessions – Velu’s Near-Goof-Up In 1971 War

By Gp Capt PM Velankar VM (Retd )

During 71 war I was in 22 Squadron and we were operating from Dumdum. The squadron had been operating detachments and had a major portion of the unit operating from Dumdum since September – October 1971.

Squadron aircraft crossed the international border to attack various ground targets or as an escort to Hunters for the first time on the 4th of December 71. A good number of sorties were carried out by almost all the pilots of the squadron. I did not cross the border that day but was detailed to carry out CAP sortie over Dumdum. I did three or four sorties of CAP with different No 2s. It was the same story the next day. Even after requesting the Flight Commander to let me go on ground attack sortie I was informed that the CO did not want to send me across the border. My relations with the CO were not the most cordial. He thought I was a good for nothing useless pilot. On my part the feeling was mutual! So  once again I did four CAP sorties. The same thing happened on the third day as well. Doing CAP sorties every day, for three days, had its effects ! Things had become so bad that even after flying was over for the day my head kept snapping and swivelling  from left to right as if still  looking around for the bogies ! It was OK so far as it went but caused lot of trouble in the evening when I could not put the glass to my lips as the head kept swivelling! For the first couple of sips I had to literally hold it still with my left hand and take a sip from the glass in the right hand. Things used to improve after a couple of drinks and and were back to normal by the time my normal quota was consumed!!!!

On the fourth day the sun did not rise from the west but I had a feeling that things would be different that day. The start was not too good. For the first sortie I was again detailed for a CAP! Boondi took four ac formation for a ground attack / attack on river borne targets at a place called Satkhira.

The time was around 1030 or 1100 when I was told that CO wanted me. He told me that, as I was keen to do a strike sortie , to take a two ac formation to Satkhria and to get air borne as soon as possible, Vinod Batheja was detailed as no 2, apparently Flt Cdr’s urgings had their effect!!! This being my FIRST EVER sortie in enemy territory and that too as a Leader, I was extremely excited and rushed to prepare the map and do the normal planning for the sortie. I Wanted desperately for every thing to go smoothly with no f***-ups !!! As usual when you are in a hurry things are just not found. Frantic search for the map, the pencils, protector, ruler was yielding slow results. In between people were telling me to hurry up as CO was enquiring whether I had got airborne or was still on ground and was being told that I was preparing the map !! Finally every thing was found and I had just drawn the line joining Dundum to Satkhira and measured the distance which appeared neither too little nor too much. Calculation of distances , timings and fuel consumption were next in line and still to be done , when I was told that if I was not airborne within 15 minutes some other targets were expected and then I could forget about the strike and keep swivelling my neck over Dumdum airfield. All this while Batheja was hovering around and like a good no 2 was neither a hindrance nor help. But now he pipes up and says “Velu, it is OK I have been to that place in the morning with Boondi and every thing was ok, no sweat.” To my enquiry if he was “sure”, he said, “Ya, absolutely sure every thing ok” I wanted to say “OK Bats kick the tyres, light the fires, briefing will be on D Delta”. Instead I just said, “OK Bats let us go, briefing as per the SOP” and we proceeded to the aircraft. Time elapsed between my being told to go for the sortie and we setting off for the aircraft less than 18 minutes!!!!
Continue reading True Confessions – Velu’s Near-Goof-Up In 1971 War

Hitting the target – Unintentionally!

By Air Cmde AD Chhibbar, AVSM (Retd)

The Hawks (24 Sqn) were operating from Kumbhirgram during the 1971 war. The mission was Close Support to the Army in an area North of Kurmitola. The CO,Ravi Badhwar, was leading this two aircraft strike and the FAC was our sqn guy,Stan Khanna. Stan was quite excited to be able to talk with the sqn guys especially the CO. He ably guided the strike from the CP to the IP giving details of enemy hiding under a mango grove. As the strike pulled up, Stan asked the CO if he could see a white building. “Affirmative” was the crisp reply. “Sir, 6 o’clock to the white building, 500 m is the mango grove. Good luck”. The Co mentioned he could not locate the mango grove and would make a second pass. Frustrated, Stan asked the CO to knock off the white building since some movement was observed. The CO acknowledged and turned finals for a strike on the white building. In his hurry to cage the gun sight, the CO inadvertently pressed the R/P release button instead of the camera button. “Whooosh” and the rockets were gone. A very excited Stan piped up on the RT, “Excellent shooting, Sir !! You got a direct hit on the MANGO GROVE !!!”