Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Starfighter Effect (Initial Engagement with the IAF)

By: Usman Shabbir & Yawar A Mazhar 

Starting September 1965 the cease fire line between Indian held and Pakistani Kashmir started heating up. During the first week of September 1965 PAF fighters including F-104s flew CAPs to provide air cover to the Pakistan Army units engaged in ground operations. On September 3rd, 1965 a CAP of two PAF Sabres was bounced by six IAF Gnats with PAF air defence controller scrambling a F-104 flown by Flg Off Abbas Mirza to the aid of the Sabres. The IAF Gnats scattered on sighting the charging Starfighter, “Pajh oye … 104 eeee” is how Sqn Ldr Brij Pal Singh announced the arrival of the Starfighter (translated in English its means ‘run…it’s a 104’, but as translations go it misses the point, only a Punjabi speaker can understand the sheer panic and loss of composure of this call). In the mean time another F-104 was vectored to aid the fight, flown by Flt Lt Hakimullah, it arrived after the Gnats had already split. Perhaps mixing this Starfighter with the first one or realising that there are now two F-104s, Sqn Ldr Brij Pal Singh concluded that safely egressing to India was not possible and landed at a nearby disused airfield at Pasrur in Pakistan. The surrendered Gnat continues to serve as a war trophy at the PAF Museum. The incident is recalled by Abbas Mirza,

“I was on air defense alert with the rank of Flying Officer in the cockpit (aircraft number 877) when I got the order to scramble. The weather was very hazy. The visibility on the ground was about 2 miles and in the air it got worse reducing to about a mile or so. There was no cloud. In other words an ordinary September day.

I was airborne within 2 minutes and made an accelerated climb to 15000 feet and 500 knots IAS. The GCI (Ground controlled radar) directed me to head immediately towards the Sialkot sector as two F-86s were engaged in air combat against 6 IAF Gnats. The F-86 pair was led by Sqn Ldr Yousuf Ali Khan and his wing man was Flt Lt Khalid. Yousuf asked his wing man to return to base as on Khalid’s aircraft one drop tank had failed to jettison. Yousuf was now alone against the 6 Gnats.

GCI urged me to accelerate to 600 knots as the situation against Yousuf was getting increasingly precarious. I must add that the brilliant maneuvering of Yousuf had kept the Gnats at bay for over 10 minute’s inspite of being damaged in the vertical fin and rudder area. I was asked to descend to 12000 feet and then 10 000 feet and was informed that I was about 5 miles away from the fight and advised that the fight was taking place 12′O’ clock to me. In the meanwhile another F-104 was scrambled with Flt Lt Hakimulah in the cockpit and was fast approaching the area. Suddenly, just ahead, about a mile or so I saw below me the F-86 in a tight turn to the right followed by the 6 Gnats. The lead Gnat was about 1000 feet behind Yousuf and the rest in a line astern formation. I initially thought the Indian aircraft were Hunters but when I saw them a bit closer they turned out to be Gnats.

Unfortunately since I was doing in excess of 500 knots when I had initial contact with the fight while the dogfight was around 200 or so I could not slow down fast enough to engage the enemy immediately, instead I decided consciously to pass in front of the F-86 to show Yousuf to hold on and to the Indians that reinforcements were on hand. I shut down my afterburner and simultaneously pulled up in a classic yo-yo maneuver to maintain the height advantage and also to slow down so as to keep the enemy in sight. The Gnats upon seeing me entering the melee immediately broke away from Yousuf and headed back towards the border. In the meanwhile Fl. Lt Hakimullah had been maneuvered into the area and he was close to Pasrur airfield (dis-used by PAF) which was about 5 or 6 miles away from the area of engagement. One of the Gnats (Birjpal) saw the second F 104 as well and decided against taking up a fight against two F-104′s and landed his aircraft at Pasrur airfield. Had he known that neither Hakimulah nor I had visual contact with him till he was about to land he may have got away safely but I guess personal safety got the better of him. In the meanwhile as I reached the top of my yo-yo (16000 feet) and began to descend, I lost contact with the Gnats because of very poor visibility and also because the Gnat is an extremely small aircraft and difficult to spot from a distance even in good visibility. I stayed in the area for another 30 minutes under the guidance of GCI but no other Indian aircraft entered to engage me. GCI informed that Yousuf had landed safely in Sargodha but he had to engage the runway barrier placed at the end of the runway as he had lost hydraulics brakes and lowered his undercarriage through the manual system. His aircraft had suffered tail damage and some other non critical battle damage. (As a postscript the aircraft was recovered and subsequently flew again in the war.)”

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