Monday, December 29, 2014

Mystery of the Downed Mystère

By: Air Cdre. Kaiser Tufail, Pakistan Air Force (Retd)

The evening of 6th September 1965 saw mixed fortunes for the PAF after its pre-emptive strikes against IAF’s forward bases. Pathankot had been administered a crippling blow, with ten aircraft destroyed and several more damaged on the ground; however, the strikes against Adampur and Halwara proved largely futile. The latter strike was particularly costly, as PAF had lost two of its top pilots. The mood at Sargodha base was therefore as vengeful as it was sombre.

At the IAF Headquarters in Delhi, the Air Staff mulled over the response to PAF’s pre-emptive strikes of 6th September 1965 and came up with a belated plan to hit Sargodha. With Pathankot still nursing its wounds, it fell to the lot of Adampur and Halwara to spearhead IAF’s retaliation. Mystère IVAs from Adampur were to open the proceedings on the dawn of 7th September. As the orders got delegated, Wg Cdr O P Taneja, Officer Commanding of No 1 Sqn was assigned to lead the first twelve-ship raid on Sargodha, while Sqn Ldr ‘Mickey’ Jatar of No 8 Sqn was to lead an eight-ship attack against Bhagtanwala. Both strikes had a planned Time-On-Target (TOT) of 0530 hrs (PST), which was about fifteen minutes before sunrise, barely bright for accurate navigation and weapons delivery.

Despite marginal visibility, Jatar’s formation managed to reach Bhagtanwala; however, it turned out to be an exercise in futile rocketing and strafing of decoys at an emergency landing strip, which had been erroneously believed to be fully operational. A safe exit by the full complement was the only worthwhile achievement of No 8 Sqn.

Taneja’s raid was eventful though, with things starting to happen soon after take-off. Even before they had formed up in a stream of three sections of four Mystères each, two aircraft from the second section developed snags and aborted.

The ground reserve, Sqn Ldr A B Devayya, was called up to fill in. Shortly thereafter the third section had to abort the mission after its leader, Sqn Ldr Sudarshan Handa, lost visual contact with the formation ahead and drifted off course.

Although Sargodha already had a CAP of two Sabres and a lone Starfighter airborne, the first inkling of IAF’s arrival was the sight of six Mystères pulling up to deliver their attack at 0538 hrs (PST). Taneja’s raid had achieved complete surprise and Sargodha lay at the mercy of No 1 Sqn. “The first we knew about the raid was when we heard the thunder of rockets followed by the stutter of cannon,” recollected Gp Capt Zafar Masud, Station Commander Sargodha.

As at other operational bases, Sargodha too had its squadron of wooden decoys. Tanejas’s pilots were quick to train their guns and rockets on the enticing dummies, one of which obligingly caught fire. Implausible as it may seem, six of the real planes escaped unscathed, despite being dangerously exposed at the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP). Throwing away a rare opportunity of avenging Pathankot’s battering, the Mystères pulled out of their attack and exited.

Just as the six Mystères were re-forming on their way out, the lone reserve Mystère piloted by Devayya streamed in. Surviving the AAA fire, which by now had become quite intense and focused, he carried out a quick attack and scurried off at low level. Flt Lt Amjad Hussain Khan of No 9 Sqn, who had been flying the Starfighter, was ‘vectored’ by Sakesar radar to catch up with the raid exiting south-east; obviously, the first target he saw was the straggler, Sqn Ldr Devayya's Mystère.

Charging in at great speed, Amjad got behind Devayya's low-flying Mystère and let loose a Sidewinder missile, only to see it plonk into the ground. With a poor heat discrimination capability, the first generation heat-seekers could not tell the difference between jet exhaust and hot terrain.

Amjad had taken a chance at a mile-long shot but as he closed in, he switched to the deadly six-barrelled Vulcan revolver-cannon. Its 20mm bullets fired at such a tremendous rate that inside the cockpit, it sounded like a piece of canvas was being ripped up. Amjad recalls that as he opened fire, the bullets didn’t quite land on the aircraft. Realising that his pipper (gunsight aiming index) was a bit off-target he corrected and fired again. The Mystère broke to the right, appearing to pass through the stream discharging hundred bullets a second. Certain that the stricken aircraft was doomed, Amjad broke off to improve his tally.

On the lookout for other Mystères, Amjad soon spotted one that was turning for him. To give himself enough manoeuvring room, Amjad pulled up for a ‘yo-yo’ bouncing upto 7,000 ft and then down to low level again. As he tried to get behind the Mystère, Amjad realised that he was up against a very determined pilot who was unwilling to give any quarter. Amjad was forced to do another ‘yo-yo’ to prevent an overshoot. The fight dragged on for a while and, with a series of turns into each other, developed into a classic ‘scissors’ manoeuvre. Manoeuvrability is not what the Starfighter was designed for. With diminutive, razor-sharp wings and a powerful engine, it could substitute as a rocket for astronaut training but when it came to air combat, perhaps a boulder could do better. This lesson drove home late for Amjad as he pressed the trigger a moment too long for a shot of opportunity, while crossing the Mystère’s tail. With little residual lift available for manoeuvring and high rate of closure, the inevitable happened — the Starfighter rammed into the stricken Mystère! His controls frozen, Amjad ejected with barely enough time for the parachute to blossom fully.

At Kot Nakka, a village about five miles south of Pindi Bhattian, people were starting their daily chores when they heard the sound of jets. Recalls Bashir Ahmed, who was then 37 years old, “two aircraft approached from the direction of Sargodha and got into a turning fight for several minutes. Then the rear aircraft started firing its cannon; it was, however, so fast that it collided with the front one. We saw the pilot of the rear aircraft come down by parachute; it was later learnt that his name was Amjad. The other aircraft went down across Jhang canal close to Hinduana village. Its pilot did not eject and was killed.” Like Bashir, many other residents of Kot Nakka saw the collision. According to them, the PAF pilot had heroically rammed his aircraft when he ran out of ammunition, a lore that survives to this day! After a regal horse ride till the village, Amjad was taken in a procession to Pindi Bhattian where he was applauded as a hero and profusely garlanded. Back to Sargodha by helicopter, Amjad was up for action the same evening.

Devayya had, in fact, survived the first volley of bullets and his aircraft was in control. Undaunted, he had chosen to fight on though he would hardly have enough fuel left to land back safely; but Devayya was destined never to return. Apparently incapacitated by the impact of the collision, he was unable to eject. His body was found intact, thrown clear of the wreckage; it was later buried by the villagers in the nearby fields.

Back at Adampur, an anxious Taneja kept waiting for Devayya so that he could join the mission debrief. Everyone hoped that Devayya was taking his time in No 32 Sqn Flight Lines while returning their borrowed aircraft. On inquiry from the Flight Lines, suspicions were confirmed that all was not well. With no details from any quarter, Devayya was eventually listed as missing in action.

F-104A 56-877 was the first Starfighter lost in combat. With an enemy Gnat air arrested and a Mystere destroyed, the aircraft served the purpose for which it was inducted. The total strength of No. 9 Squadron, at this stage was reduced to 09 F-104As and 02 F-104Bs.

For more please visit:

No comments:

Post a Comment