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.
I WAS NOT GOING TO MISS THIS 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.