A hair-raising incident with Gnats

By Wg Cdr Prakash S Sanadi

3rd DECEMBER 1971

The IAF had called off Operation Cactus Lily in the Western Sector with the defeat and surrender of East Pakistan. No. 45 Sqn (MiGs) were ordered to pack up from Amritsar and move back to Chandigarh as the war in the East was over. A detachment of No 2 Squadron (Gnats), on ORP and Operational duties, also operating from Amritsar, was asked to wind up and return to Ambala.

Area of Interest - Ambala

Sandy (Flt Lt PS Sanadi) was in Ambala waiting to ferry a Gnat aircraft under engine change to Amritsar. He was instructed to report immediately to Amritsar by Wg Cdr JW Greene Commanding Officer of No 2 Squadron to help in the winding up of 2 Sqn detachment. Sandy was planning to leave Ambala by train the same evening when he got a call from Mrs Greene to say she would be accompanying him as the war scenario in the western sector was over and her visit to Amritsar was agreed to by her husband. Geeta, Sandy’s wife also decided to join in the joy ride to Amritsar. So the train journey was cancelled and Sandy decided to drive down to Amritsar in his Fiat car.

The journey commenced at 6am on 3rd Dec. All through the drive the locals kept loading sweets, fruit, vegetables etc into the car when ever they stopped for a break or to refuel. At one petrol pump the owner refused payment for the petrol and filled the tank to the brim when he realised we were from the IAF and heading to Amritsar. Finally due to paucity of space in the rear as it was full of eatables, Mrs Greene also shifted to the front seat. The trio reached Amritsar airfield at 4pm the same day and went straight to the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) from where the Squadron was operating, to off load the eatables.

The whole of No 2 Squadron Officers, Airmen and NCE’s plus the two ladies were assembled on the ORP watching the evening scramble of 2 GNAT aircraft getting airborne for a CAP sortie (Combat Air Patrol) over the airfield. The 2 Gnat pilots were Sqn Ldr NS (Nini) Virdi and Fg Offr Patankar. As the Gnats got airborne, an AN-12 aircraft loaded with 45 Sqn ground equipment, pilots and technical personnel also lined up for take off. Just as the Captain of the AN-12 aircraft, Sqn Ldr Goyal asked ATC for permission for take off, one of the ack-ackgunners on the airfield perimeter spotted 4 aircraft in a finger 4 formation approaching the airfield along the runway head on and he sounded the alarm. The Aerodrome controller ordered the AN-12 Captain to clear off the runway and switch off the aircraft and evacuate.

Wg Cdr Johnny Greene who was the CAP Controller stationed on top of the ORP negated the Aerodrome Controllers order and told the AN-12 Captain to ram open the throttles, get airborne, hug the deck, turn on a easterly heading and disappear. The AN-12 Captain did just that, he slammed open all 4 throttles, released brakes and zoomed off, as though his tail was on fire. It was a sight to see the AN-12 getting airborne with the Pak Mirages crossing head-on above it at about 1Km. On getting airborne the AN-12 did a low hard right turn just above the tree tops and buildings with throttles at full power and disappeared on a easterly heading. I don’t think Sqn Ldr Goyal had ever flown an AN-12 at that height and at that speed ever.

Mrs Greene and Geeta were standing outside the ORP and were told to run into the underground bunker which they did in the ensuing confusion. Just then the air raid siren went off. One of the pilots yelled “MIRAGES!” Simultaneously the ack ack guns opened fire all over the airfield. The 4 Pak Mirages released their 1000 lb bombs over the runway and it was a sight to see them, black specks, all falling in one big heap. One bomb hit the runway close to where the AN-12 had earlier lined up ready for take off. The others fell scattered all over the airfield. It appeared the Mirages had spotted the Gnats capping overhead and not wanting to engage them released their bombs in a hurry and thereby missed their target.

The Pakis always feared the Gnat and were told never to engage them in a dog fight. More so after the Gnats in the Eastern Sector had, just a few days earlier, shot down four of their Sabre jets. Cheers to good old Johnny Greene, if he had not ordered the AN-12 pilots to get airborne Haba-Haba, it would positively have been written off in the blast of the bombs that followed and written off 45 Sqn!!!! in TOTO, aircrew, personnel and equipment.

Subsequently, spotting the Gnats, the Mirages beat a hasty retreat with their after burners on with Nini and Pat in hot pursuit. Unfortunately they could not catch up and shoot down the Mirages as with their rapid acceleration the Mirages disappeared towards Lahore. Nini and Pat were ordered to return to base and orbit for endurance at 12,000ft. The ack ack gunners had removed their ear phones and were blasting away not realising they were firing at the Gnats. Johnny Greene then ordered all his pilots and ground crew to run to each ack ack post and tell them to stop firing as the Gnats had to be retrieved. Finally with one odd ack ack continuing to fire, the two Gnat aircraft landed safely. Their fuel state was so low that on the landing run Pat’s engine flamed out as the aircraft had run out of fuel. He quietly let the aircraft roll with the engine off, to the blast pen at the end of the runway. It was a sight to see his young face smiling when he realised that he had successfully brought back the aircraft, all in one piece.

Ambala to Amritsar

With this blatant attack by Pakistan, the war in the Western Sector commenced full scale. Sandy was immediately ordered by Wg. Cdr. Johnny Green to get into his car and drive back to Ambala with the two ladies and fly back with the other aircraft doing the air test en route to Amritsar. The drive back was another story as it was done in total darkness with a blackout all over Punjab and Harayana. All in all the trio had driven nearly 600 odd km in 24 hrs!!!

Alls well that ends well.

Wg Cdr Prakash S Sanadi
Indian Air Force (Retd)

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