Monday, December 29, 2014

Starfighter Strikes

By: Wg Cdr Aftab Alam Khan, Pakistan Air Force (Retd)

The balloon went up on the morning of 6th September 1965. I got airborne with my wingman on a CAP mission. We climbed out under radar control, and were directed to the border near Kashmir. I was informed that the IAF had crossed the Pakistani border and were attacking ground positions approximately 80nm south of us. This meant that India had actually decided to start an all out war. We were immediately vectored to the area, and were soon over the site where the Indian aircraft were attacking. While dawn was breaking at 15,000 feet, it was still dark down below. I asked for permission to descend to ground level, but was denied. The reason given was that radio contact would be lost. I, however, decided to descend and leaving my wingman at 15,000 feet, to act as radio relay, I dove down and headed towards some flashes. As I reached the area, I was surprised to see that I was flying head-on into a formation of four IAF Mystere IV aircraft that were attacking ground targets. I was shocked more than I was surprised, as I felt a wave of anger leap through me. I had to shoot down these aircraft. I jettisoned my external fuel tanks and started to engage the Mysteres, as they turned into me. Maneuvering started at tree top level. I kept my eyes 'glued' on the target. I could feel the strain, under high 'G's', looking over the tail of the aircraft, keeping the enemy in sight, and skimming the trees at high speed. One mistake, and I would have hit the ground. If I had lost sight of the Mysteres, the fight would have been over. The F-104, with the afterburner blazing, at low altitude, was responding very well. I used the high speed take -off Flaps to improve the turning capability as required. The 'Stick Shaker' was a big help, in flying the aircraft to its limit.

The Mysteres would have no problem keeping the F-104 in sight because of its afterburner. After some hectic maneuvering, I was positioned behind two aircraft, but the other two were still not visible. I then spotted them, further ahead. Joy leapt through me; I armed my weapons, and decided to shoot the first two with missiles and the next two with guns. I fully realized that a confidential order prohibited me from using the missiles below 10, 000 ft. However, I was sure the missiles could be used effectively at any height, provided the targets could be discriminated from background heat sources. A distinct increase in missile tone ensured this. I set the wingspan of the Mystere IV, and started to recall the missile-firing checklist. 'Check Range', 'Check Tone', 'Check G's', 'Squeeze the trigger and hold'. I aimed the missile at the nearest aircraft, and heard the loud pitched missile tone. The sight indicated that I was in range. With all other requisite firing conditions met, I squeezed the trigger, and kept it pressed. I waited, only to note that the missile had not fired. As I looked towards the left missile, I saw a big flash, and the missile leaving the aircraft. The missile had taken, as stipulated in the manual, approx. 8/10ths of a second to fire after the trigger had been pressed but in combat, this seemed like an eternity. The flash of the missile blinded me for a few seconds. The radar controller who was also monitoring the radio of the Mystere's, immediately informed me that one Mystere had been shot down and that another had been damaged. I was then at once instructed to turn right and pick up visual contact with the other Mysteres, which were exiting. I turned as directed but could not see them.

On landing back, I was informed that the dog fight had taken place overhead the Rahwali Airfield where a low powered radar was located. The Mystere's wreckage had fallen close by; the other three had gotten away. It gave me great satisfaction and amusement to think the effect that would be created on the IAF when the tale of the encounter with, 'the F-104' was narrated by the pilots who got away. To quote Hussaini, the PAF's official aviation painter, 'Apart from being the first encounter to start the war in earnest, the engagement was also significant in other respects. It marked a new era in dogfighting at very low altitude. It was also the first combat kill by any Mach 2 aircraft and the first missile kill for the Pakistan Air Force'. Moreover, it was also proven that the F-104 and the Sidewinder missile were an effective weapon system at low altitude.

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