Wednesday, November 19, 2008
“Run … it’s a 104”
The loss of four Vampires on the opening day of the ’65 War was a major blow to the morale of the IAF and, it was felt in all quarters that something had to be done urgently. A grudge fight was, therefore, planned and the nimble Gnat was chosen as the most suitable fighter. Its small size, good turning ability and fast acceleration were seen to be lethal attributes vis-à-vis PAF’s main fighter, the Sabre. A detachment of eight Gnats from Ambala-based No 23 Squadron was flown to Pathankot and Sqn Ldr William Greene was deputed to lead it. Greene had done his Fighter Leader’s Course from UK and was busy imparting his air combat skills to the Squadron pilots when the war broke out. The more senior Flight Commander, Sqn Ldr Brij Pal Singh Sikand held no grudge in ceding command of the detachment to Greene, in view of the latter’s experience.
Soon after landing at Pathankot on the evening of 2nd September, Greene was told plainly in an Operations brief that the patrolling Sabres had to be tackled at any cost. The plan consisted of four Mystères luring the Sabres, while eight low flying Gnats popped up and pounced from two different directions. While the plan was bold, the large number of aircraft demanded a high order of formation integrity and radio discipline. Also, the operation had to be conducted swiftly since the Gnat’s limited fuel did not permit a prolonged turning fight.
As the IAF had expected, the morning of 3rd September saw PAF Combat Air Patrols over Akhnur area. Pak Army’s 7 Division had put in a request for air cover while its reinforcing elements forded River Tawi during the offensive against Akhnur. At first light, two Sabres and a Starfighter started a vigil which was continued an hour later by another similar trio. The Sabre pair included Flt Lt Yusuf Ali Khan and Flg Off Abdul Khaliq of No 11 Squadron. The singleton was flown by No 9 Squadron’s Flg Off Abbas Mirza, whose schoolboy looks belied his proficiency at handling the aerodynamic wonder that was the F-104 Starfighter.
After patrolling for a while, the Sabres were warned about four bogeys approaching Akhnur at high altitude. Outnumbered two to one, Yusuf decided to go for them anyway and asked for intercept instructions. Before he could pick contact with the reported bogeys up in the sky, his eyes caught a glimpse of four Gnats zooming from below. Yusuf immediately ordered jettisoning of drop tanks but one of his wingmen’s tanks did not go. While groping with the switches to sort the problem, Abdul Khaliq lost sight of his Leader and, in effect ended up being a liability. Yusuf, therefore, instructed him to head for home and impulsively decided to handle the complex situation all by himself.
The four Mystères, having apparently lured the patrolling Sabres, turned north and exited the battle area, leaving the Gnats to strike from behind. Led by Greene, the front Gnat section consisted of Flg Off M R Murdeshwar as No 2, Sqn Ldr Sikand as No 3 and Flg Off V S Pathania as No 4. Following instructions of Sqn Ldr Dandapani, the seasoned controller at Amritsar Radar, the Gnat formation continued to look out for the Sabres but to no avail. Yusuf, in the meantime, dove down unnoticed from almost 30,000 ft and without much ado, was able to place his missile sighting reticle on one of the Gnats. A loud growl indicating Sidewinder lock-on was just what Yusuf could have asked for, in this one-versus-many scenario. Ready to press the missile firing button, he was rattled by a series of thuds on his aircraft. Confounded at what could have gone wrong at the vital moment, he looked back only to see a pair of Gnats behind him! The Gnats that were in front, meanwhile, broke to the left, obviously having been warned by the rear pair just in time.
Flt Lt Trevor Keelor and Flt Lt S Krishnaswamy, who were trailing the front Gnat section, had been able to sandwich Yusuf’s Sabre while he was busy with his quarry. Keelor opened up with the Gnat’s 30mm cannon causing extensive damage to the Sabre. A large portion of the elevator had been blown off, but Yusuf continued dogfighting somewhat shakily. Hearing his plight on the radio, Abdul Khaliq made an attempt to rejoin the fight, as he had not gone much far. Luckily, the Sabres were able to pair up again and they continued to help each other fight their way out of the cloud of six Gnats.
Flt Lt Farooq Haider, who had been controlling the fight from Sakesar Radar, apprehended the gravity of the situation and directed Mirza’s nearby Starfighter into the midst of ongoing combat. The fearsome reputation of the Starfighter was not unfounded, it appeared, as the Gnats went helter skelter on sighting it. Abdul Khaliq, who at this time was being chased by Pathania, thus managed to get a lucky reprieve.
“Pajh oye … 104 eeee,” Sikand shouted out to Pathania in inimitable Punjabi (the English translation, “Run … it’s a 104” just cannot grasp the hint of mad rush in the expression). The ‘104’ did not stay in the fight for long as the idea was to charge in at supersonic speed and try a pot shot or, simply overwhelm the adversaries with sheer awe. Mirza did his act a couple of times before leaving the scene; it had a salutary effect, as the dogfight broke off and the Gnats started egressing. Sikand, who had initiated the panic call, broke off too, but in an opposite direction, thus losing contact with his wingman as well as the rest of the formation.
At Sakesar Radar, Farooq was keeping abreast of the situation. Anticipating the need for reinforcement, he had scrambled another Starfighter to the scene. Flown by Flt Lt Hakimullah, it arrived a bit late for the Gnats which had turned away. One Gnat, however, was seen to be behaving strangely; having gone back, it turned about and re-entered Pakistani airspace. Hakimullah, who was supersonic at this time, was directed towards the errant intruder. Though Hakimullah could not sight the tiny Gnat at the speed he was flying, he learnt from Sakesar that his adversary had slowed down to what appeared like landing speed. Hakimullah set up orbit over the area, wondering if a forced landing was in progress. Shortly thereafter, to his utter surprise, he picked contact with a Gnat taxiing down the disused Pasrur airstrip near Sialkot.
(IAF Gnat in PAF museum Karachi)
When Greene and his formation members landed, they were in celebratory mood for what was believed to be Keelor’s kill. They were expecting Sikand, the gregarious fellow that he was, to join in any time for a hearty beer session. Little did they know that their Flight Commander was in Pakistani custody following a bizarre episode.
During interrogation Sikand claimed that almost all his systems failed soon after he was separated from his formation. Once he had lost visual contact with everyone, he tried to communicate on the radio, but found it dead. His guns too had jammed, fuel flow had become erratic and the fuel quantity was low; incredibly, his compass also went berserk and he lost his bearings. If there was any hope of making it back, the Starfighters snuffed it. Under the circumstances, the airstrip that he saw was a godsend, no matter that he stepped off his Gnat as a vanquished airman.
Yusuf somehow managed to keep his badly damaged aircraft in control and, extricated out of the battle area alongwith his wingman. With marginal fuel as well as a dead radio, he made it to Sargodha; however, after landing he discovered that there was no hydraulic pressure for braking, and the Sabre ended up in the over-run arrester barrier without further damage. For having fought single-handedly against six Gnats and, also for recovering a badly damaged aircraft, Yusuf was awarded a Sitara-i-Jur’at. Keelor, who claimed having seen Yusuf’s aircraft go down, was promptly awarded a Vir Chakra for what was believed to be IAF’s first kill. The picture of the damaged Sabre released by the PAF told a different story, though.
Sikand was promptly apprehended by Pak Army troops and had to spend the next five months as a POW. After his repatriation, the IAF somehow took a light view of the incident and, Sikand resumed his career; he eventually rose to the rank of an Air Marshal. His aircraft was flown to Sargodha by Sqn Ldr Sa’ad Hatmi, who carried out several evaluation flights after the war. Hatmi, who had flown the Gnat extensively while on an exchange assignment with the RAF, did not find the IAF version any different. He also maintained that the Gnat was no ‘Sabre Slayer’ when it came to dogfighting. After its brief service with the new air arm, Gnat IE1083 was consigned to the PAF Museum, where it continues to bemuse visitors with one of the bizarre episodes of the 1965 War.
 Murdeshwar was flying this Gnat.
 Two of the eight Gnats planned for the mission had aborted due to technical reasons.
 Farooq heard Sikand’s call on the radio-monitoring equipment while the interception was in progress.
 Krishnaswamy, for instance, recalled being so awe-struck at the sight of the Starfighter that he passed up a shot of opportunity as the aircraft went by.
 Yusuf lived upto the citation for gallantry when he shot down a Gnat flown by Flt Lt A N Kale near Ferozepur on 13th Sep.
 In a strange turn of fortunes, Sikand was able to put the scandalous incident behind him, although it is said that his influential father-in-law, a Central Government minister, was instrumental in his reinstatement. Sikand was given command of No 22 Squadron, which he led during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. His honour was redeemed to an extent when two Gnats of his Squadron downed two PAF Sabres on the Eastern Front.
 It must be conceded that the Gnat was a formidable fighter, as the IAF nickname suggests. In the few decisive Gnat vs Sabre engagements of the ’65 War, Gnats downed three Sabres and damaged one, while Sabres downed two Gnats and damaged one.
This article is an excerpted chapter from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005. It was also published in the daily newspaper, The News International on 6 Sep 2003.