In January 1971 I entered my final year of school. Already there were rumblings in the media of serious events in East Pakistan, which was to become Bangladesh by the end of the year. In March 1971 after the Dhaka University massacre by the Pakistan Army, refugees started pouring into India and war clouds began looming.
I used to live in Pune (Poona) back then and Lohegaon was an endless source of joy for me. My love affair with military aviation had started way back in 1962 when my cousin, my elder brother, my hero, Suresh (late Wing Cdr. Kukke Suresh, VrC) came to our house with his friend Raj (now Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar). He gave me a copy of the 1962 edition of the Observer’s Book of Aircraft and I was hooked. I still have that book.
By 1971 I could identify any fighter aircraft in the world. And Pune was a great place. Over the years I had watched Vampires, Canberras, and even a Liberator (just once) flying about. Waiting for a delayed Indian Airlines flight at Lohegaon I had wandered right up to the runway where a Super Constellation was doing “touch-and-go” rounds. I was soon picked up by Military Police in a jeep and threatened with hand over to the civilian police, but was escorted back to the waiting area. By March 1971 there was a lot of air activity, and I was delighted to watch MiG-21s and Canberras flying in my free time.
It was easy to predict war in Poona back then. On my ride in the school bus we used to pass a railway crossing at Dapodi that never had any rail activity except at wartime, when traffic would stop to allow goods trains carrying tanks and olive green trucks to pass. This started by mid-1971. As war came closer we started having blackouts. Most Indians today are less than 50 years old and will not have known or experienced a blackout. There was no GPS or inertial navigation for aircraft in 1971, and it was expected that Pakistani aircraft would use prominent city landmarks to identify targets at night. It is said that a lit match can be seen from tens of kilometers away from the air. So entire towns were “blacked out”. We pasted two layers of thick black paper on every window pane and used a very dim light at home. With everybody doing that and all street lights off, it was pitch black outside. Nothing to be seen.
My final exams were in late November 1971. The Boyra dogfight in which IAF Gnats shot down three PAF Sabres occurred at the tail end of my school final exams. There was great jubilation and national morale was high. With my exams over I was ready to go to my hometown, Bengaluru when the war started. I recall the AIR broadcast by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at midnight on the 3rd-4th December declaring war. Even as we were listening to the speech I heard the roar of MiG 21s flying over our area towards Mumbai. There had been an alert in Mumbai and I lived in the Pimpri-Chinchwad area that was on the flight path towards Mumbai from Lohegaon. The next day my mother and I travelled to Bengaluru in a fully blacked out train.
The war was in full swing by then. My cousin Suresh was in the thick of the Longewala battle when his mother came to meet us at the station. We had no idea. I spent the war listening to the news on the radio and scouring the papers. On the 13th of December I was the first in my family to read a small news item in a box that a “Flt. Lt. Suresh” had shot down a Sabre. But for his mother those were anxious days. When Suresh came home after the war I cajoled him and pestered him to tell me about the war and what he did. He was never a person to speak of such things openly but I think I was a favourite of his as he was of mine and I gradually a prized open his memory box and made him spill out some information. I mentally recorded every word that he said and they will not leave me till I die. Here is what I recall.
A detachment of Hunters had been in Jaisalmer on the 5th of December when they had received a frantic call from the Army for air support against a massive Pakistani armoured thrust in the region of the now famous Longewala. The IAF pilots over Longewala had found cannon very effective – as they would set alight the spare drum of fuel each Pakistani Patton tank was carrying, thus forcing the crew to make the easy choice of either getting roasted inside or jumping out into the cool morning air. Suresh’s Hunter had been re-fuelled and re-armed in record time and he was back over the attacking tanks for a second time that day. He had scored direct hits on 3 tanks using his 12 T-10 armour piercing rockets, fired in bursts of 4 rockets at a time. He still had 600 rounds of 30 mm cannon shells reserved for the Pakistani tanks. He came in low, getting a bead on his fourth tank and barely noticed that the tank gun barrel was swinging towards his aircraft. Suresh and the tank fired simultaneously.
He saw a flash and felt, rather than heard, a bang. Then his aircraft just fell away beneath him. He felt it hitting the earth and braced for the inevitable. He told me several times over the years that at this point he saw his life flash before his eyes. But he found himself flying – and that his controls were working. He limped back to Jaisalmer, escorted with encouragement by Sqn. Ldr Sherwin Tully (Later Air Marshal). A four foot section of his aircraft’s tailpipe was missing, and it was doing less than half the speed it was meant to do. Suresh observed that he was thankful that the designers of the Hunter aircraft had placed control cables dorsally. If they had been in the belly he would never had made it back.
Suresh recalled feeling sorry for the jawans on the ground. He said that pilots would go out on a mission and be back for breakfast with fresh omelettes and tea, unlike the soldier on the frontline. He recalled that over Longewala he had fired his cannon at a Pakistani truck and saw the driver with his full body aflame jumping out. The memory used to give him nightmares.
In another incident he told me about Flt. Lt. Deepak Yadav (Later Sqn Ldr). I knew Deepak Yadav. He was married to the elder sister of a childhood friend of mine after an “Aradhana” style romance. On this occasion they were attacking a railway yard across the border in Pakistan. During the action one of the drop tanks of Yadav’s Hunter was hit by ground fire and set alight. Deepak Yadav calmly positioned his Hunter to aim for a goods train and dropped the burning tank on the target train. Deepak later became a test pilot but sadly lost his life in Kiran accident in Bengaluru.
Suresh had been based in Jamnagar on the 12th of December, a historic date for the IAF. That day the airfield was attacked by the feared supersonic F-104 Starfighters of the PAF. On that day aircraft from the base had flown a mission to take out a Pakistani radar at Badin. As they returned – they were expecting a return “courtesy” attack from the PAF. A welcoming committee of Indian MiG-21s were circling overhead for just such an eventuality. No sooner had the returning Hunters been tucked away in their pens than two Pakistani F-104 Starfighters appeared. What happened next is again history. The PAF Starfighters were pounced on by the MiGs and one was shot down while the other fled to safety without firing a shot in anger. The story of this shoot down has been told by late Air Marshal Mally Wollen elsewhere.
On the 13th, four Hunters were to attack a new Pakistani airfield at Talhar, a base for Sabres, but from which the previous day’s F-104s might possibly have come. Due to a technical problem – only 3 Hunters went on that mission. Sqn Ldr Farook Mehta and his wingman Flt. Lt. Pawan Kumar were accompanied by Flt. Lt Suresh in a lone Hunter 1000 metres away. They approached the airfield very low – at 100 feet and were about to peel off and commence their attack when Suresh suddenly saw something in the sky, 200 feet above them and to the left. “Bogeys at 11 O clock!” he shouted into the R/T, “Two Sabres.. going for them!” Suresh got on to the tail of the lead Sabre – but the Sabre has a better turning radius and wriggled free. As Suresh gained height for a second try he saw an orange ball of flame. “Who was that?” he asked. “It’s OK,” came the reassuring reply from Flt.Lt. Pawan – “Farook got one”. Suresh closed in on his target again and felt that his plane was a bit sluggish. He realized that in the heat of the battle he was still carrying his auxiliary fuel tanks. Quick as a flash he stretched out his hand and flipped the switch to jettison his tanks. His Hunter, lighter now, seemed to surge ahead and he closed in for the kill. The desperately weaving Sabre, wriggled like a fly caught in a web. From less than 100 metres behind he squeezed the trigger. His plane shook with the vibration of four 30 mm cannon spewing 60 rounds per second. The Sabre, almost in slow motion, gently turned upside down and buried itself in the ground with a massive explosion. Suresh pulled up – he was almost at ground level now – perhaps 50 feet, and climbed to rejoin the other two. When the gun camera footage was later viewed, it showed that the 30 mm shells had pierced the cockpit of the Sabre, probably killing the pilot, causing the uncontrolled Sabre to fly into the ground.
In India, the family of a hero is given almost as much honour as the hero himself. Suresh was invited to endless receptions, talks and felicitations which I cheerfully attended and was even garlanded after doing nothing. But it was revealing to me how little the public understood about aircraft. After one talk a man asked Suresh, “How do you shoot down another plane? Do you position yourself over the other aircraft, open the window and drop bombs?” In the UK and in the US the air force has multiple shows and open house events for the public to get to know the air force better. I recall only one such event, in Lohegaon in 1972 after the war. There was a static display of a Vampire, Canberra, an An-12 and an SA-2 missile. There was even a flying display by a HF-24 Marut which did a vertical Charlie, disappearing up into the wild blue yonder. One would not believe that the Marut was under powered, seeing that display. But the highlight of the show was a low flyby and landing of a Navy Alize – a unique sight and sound that not many people in the world could claim to have witnessed. For a long time after this I missed my daily fix of aircraft as I joined medical college in Pondicherry, where I saw exactly one plane and one helicopter in the next 12 years.
Author: Dr Shiv Sastry. The Author is a retired surgeon with a long term interest in military aviation. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Header Image Source: Hunter at Longewala Painting By Deb Gohain
3 thoughts on “The Air War of 1971: Memories of a Teenager”
farouk mehta passed way,he wrote the book biff the tout of cant,kukke suresh died of cancer,soni shot down wing cdr mervyn middle coat of paf,middle ejected into shark infested sea of kutch,body not found,iaf lost 22 hunters in 1971,i have b 24 diecast ,happy new year,greetings from kerala
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Thanks and Greetings to you too
your welcome sir