Monday, December 29, 2014

F-104 Starfighter as a Night Interceptor

By: John Fricker

For its main night-fighting role, however, the PAF was forced to rely on its small force of F-104A Starfighters at Sargodha in No.9 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader M L Middlecoat. The F-104A was the only PAF fighter with night capability, resulting from its AN/ASG-14TI fire control system, which incorporates a radar scanner in the nose cone. As a single seater, however, the F-104A is far from ideal for night-fighting, despite
 its very high performance and heavy armament of a six barrelled 20mm Vulcan cannon and two wing-tip Sidewinders. It is somehat critical to fly by day, let alone at night, and its approach speed for landing of no less than 195 mph leaves little room for errors of judgement.

Even then, this very high landing speed is achieved only with the use of boundary layer control or flap blowing, to augment the lift of the Starfighter's razor-thin wings.

Fortunately the pilots of No.9 Squadron were extremely proficient with their aircraft, having nursed their 12 F-104As and 2 F-104Bs from the time they recieved them. By 1965, most of the pilots had 800-1000 hours on the Starfighter, which is a lot of experience on a high performance fighter.

Soon after midnight on 13th September, and again at 0330 hours, IAF Canberras struck at Sargodha and Lahore area, with no evident results. This occasion, however, appears to have been the first on which positive contact was made by the PAF night-fighters with the elusive enemy. Flt. Lt. Amjad was positioned in an F-104 by Sakesar behind an IAF Canberra and heard the growl of his missile tone as the Sidewinder infrared unit locked on. He squeezed the trigger, but instead of the usual meteoric streak of a missile launch a fraction of second later, there was no reaction whatsoever. He hurriedly pressed the red button on the control column to unleash the mighty punch of the 725 rounds of 20mm shells from his Vulcan cannon, but again there was no reaction. Complete electrical failure in his armament system saved the IAF Canberra from virtually certain destruction. It was poor consolation for Flt. Lt. Amjad to hear after landing back at Sargodha, that according to All-India Radio, his base had been blasted off the map by the IAF, which had relegated it to 'past history'.

F-104's Successfull Night Interception
By: Wg Cdr Aftab Alam Khan, Pakistan Air Force (Retd)

The F-104 was the only night fighter with the PAF. Its radar was good for high altitude, line astern missile attack, but was unusable below 5000 ft, because of ground clutter. Also, if the target started to turn, it was not possible to deliver a missile attack. These were the limitations of the system. The IAF Canberra bombers would operate at night, usually below 500 feet. One aircraft would drop flares while others bombed the targets. After delivering their ordinance they would exit at low altitude, but as they approached the border, the Canberra's would start climbing. At this time the F-104's would be vectored for the intercept. The IAF had also installed tail warning radars on their Canberras. As the F-104 started to get into a firing position, the bombers would start a defensive turn and radar contact would be lost. Twice, I had made radar contact but as I closed into missile range, the aircraft executed a defensive maneuver. Only Sqn Ldr Jamal A Khan was lucky enough to shoot down a Canberra. He executed a perfect 'text book ' attack, with a missile launch. The Canberra Pilot was captured. He stated that the tail warning radar made very annoying beeping sounds at low level, therefore, he had switched it off, and he had forgotten to switch it on again as he had climbed out. Although the F-104 made only one night kill, it did achieve an ancillary objective, i.e. it did prevent the enemy from doing damage. The threat or fear of the F-104, forced the Canberras to operate at low altitude levels, once over Pakistani airspace. This prevented the attacking pilots from making determined attacks. They did not, or could not properly identify their targets, and thus dropped their bombs at random, doing little or no damage.

As the war progressed, a radar controller assigned to the army gun radar unit told me that the army radar could spot the IAF Canberras very clearly at night, but the track length was limited to approximately 20 NM. I realized that this was good enough for the F-104 to make an interception. With its high speed it could position itself behind the target very quickly, and once this was done, the F-104 could be aligned with the help of its InfraRed (IR) gunsight for a missile or a gun attack. The Canberra tail warning radar was ineffective at low altitude. To get the system functioning, only a radio had to be installed in the army radar unit. The war ended before the system was made effective and put into practice.

Flying the high speed F-104 at night in war time conditions was hazardous. The environment was as hostile and dangerous as the enemy. When there was no moon visible, the nights were pitch dark, as the blackout was complete. Haze and poor visibility was common. The runway lights were switched on once the aircraft was about to pitch out for a landing, we were lucky if we could see the airfield lights on downwind, and turning base. The landing conditions were severe. The TACANs were not aligned with the runways, there were no approach lights, ILS or VASI. It was under these conditions that Flt Lt Abbasi, while making an approach, crashed short of the runway. The F-104 was completely destroyed but he miraculously escaped and survived to fly again.

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