Monday, December 29, 2014

Starfighter vs. Fishbeds

By: John Fricker

On 11th September 1965, a single Starfighter flown by Flt. Lt. Hakimullah,scrambled from Sargodha to patrol Lahore at 15,000 ft. Main object of the flight was to induce the IAF to come up and fight, and the F-104A was flying 'clean', - without its usual 200-gallon drop tanks - except for its usual winf-tip Sidewinders. From Lahore, Flt. Lt. Hakimullah headed south towards Ferozepur, where he orbited for seven to eight minutes before cimbing to 25,000 ft.

Sakesar than reported that two sections of IAF fighters were airborne from Halwara and requested another orbit from the F-104, although by this time Flt. Lt. Hakimullah was beginning to become concerned over his fuel margin. Soon his fuel state necessitated an immediate return to base, but at that point Sakesar informed him that IAF fighters were reporting visual contact with the Starfighter. Flt. Lt. Hakimullah then spotted a single Gnat several thousand feet below him as he placed himself for a possible missile attack. As he dived he saw another Gnat almost immediately below.

He placed his sight on the first Gnat in preparation for a Sidewinder attack, and heard the missile tone indicating target acquisition. As he was about to press the trigger, he realised that he was pulling more than 2g a turn, which is outside the limits of the GAR-8. He therefore eased the turn and was continuing a gentle descent when Sakesar warned him of aircraft diving towards him from 26,000 ft. Flt. Lt. Hakimullah looked up and made visual contact with two IAF fighters above him and to the right and quickly realised that they were MiG-21s.

He therefore forgot about the Gnats and broke into these Mach 2 interceptors, only to realise that he was heading further into India. In view of his perilous fuel state, he broke immediately in the opposite direction, went into full afterburner power and saw the MiG leader pull up and rock his wings to look for the F-104. While diving away however, the Starfighter was suddenly confronted with two more MiG-21s approaching him head-on, and he was forced to break into them in turn. By diving with full afterburner power to tree-top height, Flt. Lt. Hakimullah was able to accelerate to supersonic speed - about Mach 1.1 - and although Sakesar reported that the MiGs were continuing their pursuit, the PAF pilot knew that their performance remained subsonic at low altitude. 

His predicament was unenviable, however, even though he throttled back to maximum dry thrust after about a minute. Sixty seconds of full afterburner consumes fuel at a prodigious rate - somewhere around 5,000 gallons per hour - and he was deep in enemy territory about 100 miles from base with the gauges indicating only 500 lbs of JP-4 remaining. Normal F-104 operations require a minimum fuel margin for landing of about 1,200 lb although additional reserved are usually specified in case a diversion becomes necessary.

It was obvious that the F-104 would never make it to Sargodha, but even to reach Pakistani territory Flt. Lt. Hakimullah decided that it was necessary to regain height for optimum fuel consumption. After zooming to 25,000ft and throttling back to economical cruise rpm, the PAF pilot asked Sakesar radar for a course to steer and the distance to reach Risalewala. Within sight of the town of that name, he began his descent, and when passing through 14,000ft some 10 miles out, the fuel booster pump warning light came on, indicating that not enough JP-4 was left in the tanks to maintain the required pressure.

From then on, a power-off was approach was necessary with the throttle pulled back to idle, but even with the speed reduced to a minimum of 240-250 knots, the F-104 has the gliding angle of a streamlined brick. There was no question of a second chance at the landing, but at the key position, Flt. Lt. Hakimullah lowered half-flap and the undercarriage and made a beautifully judged touchdown at Risalewala. He coasted to a stop with the aid of tail parachute and wheel brakes, and his engine flamed out through lack of fuel, as he turned off the strip. His brilliant airmanship had saved the PAF one of its most valuable and literally irreplaceable aircraft.

Under more favourable circumstances the F-104 would have attempted to engage the MiGs, although the PAF had decided that it would have been unwise to have attempted to dogfight these high-speed Russian aircraft. With their delta wings, they could probably out-turn the highly loaded Starfighter, but the F-104 had advantage in speed. No further contact with the MiG-21 was made by the F-104s, which found it virtually impossible to achieve any further engagement with the IAF.

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