Saturday, 10 December 2016

First Blood: The First Battle India and Pakistan Fought In The Air

With the current Indian government lurching from one self-made crisis to another – each of which needs the creation of yet another crisis to divert attention from it – I’ve predicted more than once that the ultimate recourse it’ll be forced to is to start a war with Pakistan.

In all probability, the planning for this war is already going on in the offices of the army staff, because if they aren’t, they’re even more incompetent than I take them for. But it’ll almost certainly be restricted to the army. The Indian navy is, at the moment, incapable of taking on a fleet of armed speedboats. And as for the air force, well...

As some of you may know, I spent five years working for the air force. During these five years, I saw an enormous amount of backbiting, petty politicking, jealousy and incompetence. I did not see a thing that gave me any reassurance about its qualities.

One of the things I – despite all my efforts – never managed to discover was exactly how many aircraft India lost in the 1965 and 1971 wars against Pakistan. Just about all histories of the 1965 war talk about a staggeringly incompetent display on the part of the Indian Air Force, which not infrequently ended up bombing Indian troops in support of Pakistani forces instead of the other way around. At least one Pakistani pilot managed to become an ace by war’s end, though his own exploits have been mythologised as well. And Pakistani raids over Indian air bases were far more effective and daring than the other way round, with one particular pilot - "Eight Pass Charlie" - gaining Indian respect..

In 1971, Indian accounts of the time speak of 94 Pakistani aircraft destroyed against 45 Indian. The American Charles Yeager – the first man to fly faster than sound – on the other hand claims that some 120 Indian planes were destroyed against 34 Pakistani. Yeager makes no attempt to display any impartiality – he treats the 1971 war as a Cold War showdown between America and “Russia” – so one doesn’t need to believe him without evidence. And his “evidence” – his claim that he flew out to the battlefields and examined destroyed Indian aircraft wreckage – is so ridiculous that it doesn’t stand ten seconds’ scrutiny. But in that case the least one could expect was that the Indian Air Force should be capable of providing its own, accurate figures. Unfortunately, if it did, despite all my efforts I never found them...and this indicates that the actual losses were closer to Yeager’s total than to those given out in the Indian newspapers.

Now, obviously, 1971 isn’t 2016, and the situation today isn’t the same as that then. That shouldn’t need pointing out...but it does, because as far as the Indian Air Force is concerned, 2016 is significantly worse than 1971.


In 1971, the Pakistani Air Force was in dire straits. It had a small number of aircraft – about 17 obsolescent F 86 Sabres – in all of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), separated from West Pakistan by the immense breadth of India, and no way to reinforce them or replace combat losses. In West Pakistan, too, its planes, apart from a few F 104 Starfighters (which turned out to be no match for India’s MiG 21s) and Mirage 1s, were outclassed. And even then, it likely inflicted heavier losses than it suffered.

Today, the Indian Air Force is at a crossroads. The old MiG 21s are still around, though their successors, the MiG 23 and 27, have been retired. The only relatively modern aircraft are Sukhoi 31s and some upgraded Mirage 2000s, neither sufficient in numbers to make up for the roles they have to perform. And Pakistan has no vulnerable Eastern Wing to defend.

The last time when India and Pakistan were in a shooting war with each other, in 1999, Pakistan kept its planes away from combat, so it was a purely Indian Air Force show. Yet the IAF managed to lose three planes (a MiG 21, a MiG 27 – which was allegedly lost due to mechanical failure – and a Mi 17 helicopter gunship) destroyed and a Canberra reconnaissance aircraft damaged, while Pakistani losses, of course, were zero. In retaliation, India shot down a Pakistani Navy Atlantique reconnaissance aircraft a few months later, about which I have written elsewhere.

So, it’s likely that in case of a war, if Indian and Pakistani air forces tangle in the sky, the PAF will hand the Indian Air Force its wings on a platter.  The Indian Air Force's surface to air missiles are most unlikely to be a factor simply because the Pakistanis would be fighting a defensive war over their own territory, not conducting air raids over Indian cities. And even if they did, given actual Indian performance, there’s a good chance they would get away with it.

It’s likely that the Modi manual for war would be a “limited” conflict restricted to Kashmir, with Indian forces attempting helicopter assaults across Pakistani lines and carrying out First World War style frontal charges up mountain slopes, like they did in 1999. The Indian Air Force would be restricted, at the most, to hit and run raids just across the frontline, rushing back to base before they could be intercepted and shot down. Anything more would be a disaster.

Having said all that, here’s what happened the first time Indian and Pakistani planes met in combat.

It was the morning of 10th April 1959, Eid day. Most Pakistani air force personnel had been given the day off, except for a skeleton crew, mostly comprising unmarried officers and airmen. Two of these were Flight Lieutenants (equivalent to army captain) Mohammad Yunis and Naseer Butt of 15 Squadron, stationed at Peshawar. 15 Squadron was equipped with F 86s, which had then been recently given by America to its CENTO ally Pakistan.

[Mohd. Yunis in 1959]

As Yunis and Butt sat drinking tea, likely bemoaning their fate at having to miss out the Eid celebrations, the radar operator, one Pilot Officer (= Second Lieutenant) Rab Nawaz, sitting at a primitive Second World War era radar set, warned them that an intruder had flown in from Indian airspace. Yunis and Butt “scrambled” like Battle of Britain aviators, and with minutes were high above the ground. But not quite high enough.

Here’s what Yunis wrote afterwards about the episode:
 “At about 20,000 ft, we spotted a double trail way above and far ahead. Assuming two Hunters, I selected their wingspan on my gunsight. No target was available to our controlling radar but we were vectored on a curve of pursuit. When we were at 41,000 ft, the trails could be identified as a single Canberra flying on a steady northerly heading, clearly oblivious of any threat to it. Overhead Gujrat* now, it appeared to be at about 50,000 ft. We punched our tanks and, although we were still out of range, the mounting excitement threatened to get the better of sound judgement.” [Source]

[*This is the Pakistani town of Gujrat, not the Indian state of Gujarat.]

The plane they were tracking was an Indian PR 57 Canberra photo reconnaissance aircraft, code number IP988, from No 106 Squadron, flying from Agra. Its pilot was Squadron Leader (=Major) JC Sengupta, and the navigator Flight Lieutenant SN Rampal. India’s government was to claim later that the aircraft had “accidentally” strayed into Pakistani airspace, but how they managed this is impossible to explain away. Pakistan claimed that it was on a spying mission specifically scheduled for Eid day in order to take advantage of Pakistan’s lowered security levels on the holiday.

IAF PR57s [Source]

Whether the mission was scheduled for the day of Eid for that reason or not, it was most certainly a spy mission, and one, moreover, personally cleared by the then defence minister, Krishna Menon. The purpose was to photograph forward Pakistani air bases, and the plane was supposed to spend no more than about 15 to 20 minutes over Pakistani territory. Only the air crew personally involved and the squadron commander were aware of the true purpose of the mission.

At this stage, trying desperately to climb up to the Canberra’s altitude, the Pakistani pilots still didn’t have clearance to fire, and by the time the request filtered its way up the chain of command – which was largely making whoopee on Eid – the intruder would likely have long since got away. Therefore, the very junior Rab Nawaz took it on his own shoulders to take the responsibility to give the pilots clearance to shoot it down.

This, owing to the India plane’s altitude and the Pakistani aircrafts’ lack of missiles, was easier said than done.

With the Indian plane still far too high to reach, Butt, who was Yunis’ flight commander, impatiently attempted to reach the Canberra’s altitude by a series of desperate climbs, firing his 12.7mm machine guns until his engine stalled. Each time, he’d flatten out, climb, shoot, and repeat the sequence. It was soon evident that he was getting nowhere.

Yunis, whose mission was to cover Butt, had an idea. The Canberra had apparently somehow so far not managed to notice the Sabres attacking it, but unless the Indian pilot was blind and deaf, he eventually would. And then
 “...he would in all probability turn right i.e., towards the border, so I eased over in that direction. The leader had given me the okay to have a go if I could, but I could see I was still too far below the target. Presently, the Canberra did turn right and then, as if he had spotted me, quickly reversed. On that side he must have spotted Butt, for he seemed to panic and tightened his turn, which of course caused him to lose height rapidly. I saw my chance and put a bead on his right engine - just in time I remembered my Hunter wingspan setting and quickly ranged on half the Canberra’s span - immediately I could see my bullets impacting on his right engine. I traversed the bead to the centre, not letting go of the trigger till the guns stopped - due to over-heating, as it turned out. But I had fired 1,200 rounds by then and the doomed Canberra whipped into a spiral.”

The first air combat between India and Pakistan was over. Now the Indian crewmen had to save their lives.

One of the nastiest features of the Canberra was the fact that it only had one ejection seat, for the pilot. The other crewmen – two in the bomber versions, one in the PR 57 reconnaissance version – had to crawl back from the nose station to their seats in an enclosed compartment behind the pilot, fire explosive bolts to release a hatch in the roof, and then climb out into the slipstream, hoping that the plane hadn’t crashed by then and that the flow of air didn’t slam them into the tail or a wing. (See cockpit schematic here).

This was one reason why pilots often tried to land damaged aircraft instead of ejecting – because the latter was usually a death sentence for their crew.

In this instance, the IP988’s pilot, Sengupta, managed to keep the aircraft under control long enough for the navigator, Rampal, to blow the hatch and successfully parachute out. It must have been a tremendous feat of skill to manage this in a plane falling through the air in a spin, and it left Sengupta himself less than adequate time to leave. Though he did successfully manage to jettison his canopy and eject, he struck his legs on the cockpit rim, fracturing them, and landed, badly injured, in a ravine, where he was found and rescued shortly afterwards by the Pakistanis.

What of Rampal? He landed right in the middle of a Pakistani village, and then tried to pull off one of the most audacious scams ever. Knowing that he wasn’t far from the border, and aware that the average Pakistani villager would likely never have seen a flying suit or an air force uniform before, he passed himself off as a Pakistani pilot, and said that he needed immediate transport so he could return to his air base. He nearly got away with it, too, and probably would have – but for an alert Pakistani villager who raised the alarm, and quickly imprisoned him. Both he and the injured Sengupta were returned to India a few days afterwards.

[At this point it’s fair to point out that the Indians claim that the Pakistanis were well aware of the Canberra’s mission and were deliberately lying in ambush. Apparently, an Indian Group Captain (= Colonel) was in a honey trap with a Pakistani woman and had given away the mission. How this squares up with the Indian claim that the plane had “inadvertently” strayed across the border, and with the further claim that the only ones apart from the two crew members who was aware of their mission was their squadron commander, is a mystery. Like a lot of other official Indian lies, one lie contradicts another until it’s hard to hack one’s way through the thicket.]

Getting back to the shooting down, don’t you think it was a beautiful piece of work all round?

First, on the Pakistani side:

1. Rab Nawaz, knowing that permission to shoot down the Indian plane would take too long to come floating down from the senior brass, and taking it on himself to give the go ahead. No buck passing, no second thoughts.

2. Yunis, correctly anticipating which way the  Indian aircraft would turn, and positioning himself accordingly, so that he was in perfect position to shoot it down. According to Yunis (who retired as an Air Vice Marshal, that is, Major General), he nearly attempted a victory roll on his return to base but had second thoughts at the last minute; it was fortunate for him that he did so, because the plane he was flying nearly crashed a few days later when another pilot tried performing acrobatics in it.

3. The alert villager who kept his wits about him and correctly deduced that Rampal wasn’t what he claimed to be.

On the Indian side:

1. Sengupta, who managed to keep his plane under control long enough for Rampal to bail out, a feat in the Canberra, as I said.

2. Rampal himself, for his audacious attempt to bluff his way out, which deserved to succeed.

Yunis’ plane, which went on to fly more than a hundred more missions, including service in the 1965 war, is preserved as a monument in Pakistan. I don’t know if it shot down any more aircraft.

The Canberra PR 57 groaned on in Indian service till 2007, well after its replacement, the MiG 25R, had already been retired. Today, as far as I am aware, the Indian Air Force has no manned spy aircraft of any kind at all.

Overall, the first combat between India and Pakistan can only be thought of as a victory for Pakistan. Its pilots and controller showed skill, initiative, and daring, and they were to go on to show this in 1965. I doubt if they have forgotten this skill, initiative and daring today.

And I do not think the Indian Air Force has forgotten that fact either.


  1. I suppose, rather naively, that a diplomatic solution to these things would have been out of the question. Much more fun to shoot at each other.

  2. Jono,
    I hope your comment was meant to be sarcastic. Having been in combat in the imperial war in Vietnam, I can say with certainty that being shot at, with intent to kill you, is NOT fun in any way at all.
    Also, shooting at other human beings with the intent to kill them is not fun either.
    War is only good for increasing the already huge bank accounts of those who sell the tools of war and the other bits of equipment the troops need, including socks and underwear. For a better idea of this, get a copy of "War is a Racket" by General Smedley Butler.I am certain it is available on the net, just do a search for the title.


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