Monday, April 11, 2011

Classic Stealthy Interception

It was a cold night of 4th December 1971. The city of Mianwali was observing a complete blackout. Complete silence was observed due to which the voice of the strong icy winds from Siberia made the atmosphere look gloomy. As the days are short in winters, people usually cease their social activities after 8 pm in normal days. But situation changed after 3rd December 1971, when PAF fighters struck all major forward IAF bases, indicating the start of the 1971 war. Retaliation from IAF was expected and all PAF bases were ready to give the IAF raiders a ‘Hot’ reception. As Mianwali was anticipating an enemy raid, the people ceased their social activities after Maghrib.

Mianwali at 20:00 Hours
Mianwali city is located on the eastern bank of the Indus River. The area is lush green and is surrounded by small hills and gorges which forms the part of the western salt range. The Thal canal traverses the city and makes the surroundings a picturesque place. Due to these factors, fog is observed along with strong and cold winds during winter nights. Similarly on the night of 4th December 1971, Mianwali was presenting a look of a ghost town.

Total blackout being observed at Mianwali
Even PAF Base Mianwali was also quiet. Occasional screaming sound of jet fighters leaving and arriving at the base made the atmosphere more frightening. PAF Base Mianwali was located deep inside Pakistan; ~ 350 km from the Indo Pak border, and housed a large number of frontline PAF fighter bombers. These aircraft were properly dispersed and camouflaged and formed part of the strike force which would attack in the planned final offensive against the Indian Armed Forces. PAF war planners knew that Mianwali will be a high priority target for the IAF and thus assigned the duty of dealing with the IAF to the Mirage-IIEP fighters.

Flt Lt Naeem Atta had just took over the ‘Hot Scramble’ duties and walked towards his Mirage-IIIEP jet fighter. In the darkness of the night, the Mirage was presenting the look of a demon, ready to tear away its prey. After completed inspection of his aircraft, he climbed into the cockpit, got strapped and was ready to take off at a moments notice.

Mirage-IIIEP on cockpit alert
Meanwhile at Agra Flt Lt Lloyd Sasoon and navigator Flt Lt Ram Advani, took off in their Canberra bomber. They had accepted the challenge to bomb Mianwali, as they had been provided the perfect path by a defecting PAF pilot of Bengali origin. They were well aware of the blind zones of PAF ground based radar network.

IAF Canberra being prepared for a bombing mission
Even then bombing Mianwali was not an easy task due long range and other PAF bases in close vicinity. In TACDE, the IAF pilots studied that the Mirage-IIIE’s and F-104’s AI radars have problems in discriminating targets in ground clutter. Thus flying low can reduce their chances of getting caught. And even if they are caught, their reliable tail mounted ‘Orange Putter’ radar will save them from rear attacks. Thus they chalked a route in which a hi-lo-hi profile was selected to bomb Mianwali. Sasoon was a seasoned pilot and was qualified in flying night missions under hazardous conditions. He also had the distinction of evading MiG-21s in daylight exercises using the ‘Orange Putter ‘radar. Thus the IAF pilots headed for Mianwali using the cover of the dark night and relying on their skills as well as their tail mounted radar.

IAF Canberra entering Pak Airspace
Anticipating an enemy raid, Naeem was anxious in to greet the enemy. As time passed by, he calculated the probability of an enemy strike while he was on cockpit alert. At day time, IAF would never risk sending its aircraft to Mianwali as other PAF bases laid close to the flight path to Mianwali, and probability of survivability was as low as 0.01%. The terrain also prevented low level navigation and the large distance meant that aerial encounter was out of question. Since a successful strike on Mianwali meant a crippling blow to the PAF, enemy would select the dark cover of night to risk its aircraft for the attack. ‘If an attack is to come, it should come now’ thought Naeem when suddenly the order for Hot Scramble was announced on the RT.

Mirage-IIIEP rolling down the runway
Within moments the deadly bird of prey came to life, and started to roll down the runway. With full thrust afterburner blazing, the Mirage lifted gracefully in the air. Rattling the windowpanes of the houses below, the Mirage assumed its BARCAP station. As Naeem wondered the anticipated point from where the IAF raid should emerge, the GCI cracked in. ‘Turn right 090, single bogey at 3 o clock, 500 feet heading west, towards Mianwali’.

Mirage taking off
Sasoon had a leisure time while flying low after crossing the border. His navigator Ram Advani was also a relieved man as they neared Mianwali. So far so good they weren’t spotted and their tail warning radar had not wailed. Owing to their experience and nearing their target unhindered made them feel confident that they will strike the base.

IAF Canberra nearing its target

Without wasting much time, Naeem punched his drop tanks and responded. After a series of twists and turns, the controller announced, ‘Target 11 o clock, 5 miles’. At this moment Naeem scanned the horizon, but was unable to pick anything out. It was a dark night, with the terrain covered in light mist. Naeem had reduced his speed and was flying at 1000 feet above ground level. Flying below 1000 feet was a great risk, as the terrain was difficult with small hills, which made navigation difficult. ‘Target 12 o clock, 4 miles’, Naeem started to get frustrated as his Mirage was rapidly loosing speed and still no sign of enemy aircraft. At that very moment GCI called out, ‘Target climbing, 12 o clock, 3 miles’. Naeem again checked his radar to get a blip, but still couldn’t ‘paint’ it. He knew very well that if the target slipped away from him, he would never get another chance. And what if the enemy bombed Mianwali right under his own nose?

Sasoon saw some hills in front of him due to which he had to rise. He ordered Advani to keep a lookout for enemy night interceptors as he gained some height and pressed full throttle to make it for Mianwali. He wanted to create history by destroying the backbone of the PAF strike force.

‘The enemy pilot seemed determined to bomb Mianwali, otherwise he would have taken evasive action’ thought Naeem, when suddenly a thought struck his mind. When he was on cockpit alert, he was thinking about the enemy, when suddenly he was ordered to scramble. Once he was in the air, he was in constant communication with the GCI. During all this he forgot a major check. His radar was in standby mode as he had not been careful in selecting his switches in the heat of action. ‘So this is the reason, why the enemy haven’t took any evasive action’ said Naeem as he selected the transmit mode. Immediately a blip appeared on his scope, and the enemy aircraft was right in front of him. What was supposed to be a careless error, turned out to be a classic stealthy interception. The Mirage-III’s radar had locked on the enemy bandit and all the required parameters were met for a sidewinder launch. As soon as the sidewinder was selected, a loud growl confirmed the heat source, in an icy cold night, there was no reason that it would miss the target.The orange-putter radar wailed loudly in the Canberra. Enemy aircraft 6 o clock, break yelled Ram. Sasoon was really annoyed as he did not want the opportunity of bombing Mianwali snatched away from him. Thus instead of breaking he decided to dive down and then pull hardly so that he can evade the enemy aircraft.

Mirage-IIIEP sidewinder launch
In split seconds timing, chanting Allah-u-Akbar, Naeem launched his first sidewinder. A bright flash and the missile streaked past the Mirage. The white smoke of the missile’s motor indicated that the missile has deviated from level flight and turned into its target.

Sidewinder homing in to its target
Naeem was about to launch his other sidewinder when he saw a flash. Sasoon was hit when he initiated the dive. The flash turned into a huge fireball, representing an inferno of fire and rage, with flaming metal raining down.
Splashed Target
With an all clear sign, the runway lights were switched on for Naeem to make a safe landing. As the Mirage landed, the lights went off. He was greeted by a crowd of airmen and fellow pilots. After mission debrief the search party postponed their search due to the conditions and planned to search for the wreckage in the first light of the morning.

Wreckage of IAF Canberra
Next morning, the wreckage of a Canberra (IF 916) was found at the village of Nara located at the western edge of the Salt Range, not too far from Khushab town. The aircrew, died upon impact along with their dreams of writing history. They however wrote history in the favour of the PAF. Flt. Lt. Naeem not only successfully defended Mianwali but also bagged a kill he always dreamed off.

Flt. Lt. Naeem Atta


  1. Thanks for this post! Im Nameem Atta's daughter and you do his story justice.

    1. Its indeed an honour to have you on my wall. Naeem Atta is indeed one of the best air warriors of the Pakistan Air Force and one of the few pilots who have successfully made a night interception.