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.