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The Flying Hero of the 1971 War

December 13, 2011 12:31 IST

Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon is the only Indian Air Force warrior to be decorated with the Param Vir Chakra.

'My admiration for his gallant action remains undiminished,' says M P Anil Kumar. 'It was not his day, yet he made it his own.'

The North American F-86 Sabre, designed by Edgar Schmued, is a legendary jet fighter. The Sabre was the mainstay of the Pakistan Air Force in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971.

After daybreak on December 14, 1971, a strike force comprising four F-86F Sabres of PAF 26 Squadron (Black Spiders), each heaving two 500-lbs bombs and nose-bay crammed to capacity with 12.7-mm belted ammunition, led by squadron commander Wing Commander Sharbat Ali Changazi, with Flight Lieutenants H K Dotani, Amjad Andrabi and Maroof Mir as wingmen, took off from Peshawar.

They cruised on an easterly course towards the Srinagar airfield -- 320 kilometres afar -- to pockmark its runway with craters. To ensure the mission went through undisturbed, Flight Lieutenants Salim Baig and Rahim Yusufzai flew in two F-86Fs as escorts, both with all six M3 Browning machineguns fully loaded. All Sabres carried external 760-litre fuel tanks to stretch their endurance.

During hostilities, to shoot down enemy warplanes, every airbase mounts a pair of interceptors inside concrete shelters called blast pens at either runway end, pilots strapped up and hair-trigger-ready if need be, on what is called the Operational Readiness Platform, ORP in air force lingo.

At the first sniff of a raid, the base would 'scramble' these fighters to set up a Combat Air Patrol, CAP, either overhead or offset.

Since the Kashmir valley had no radar then, the Indian Air Force had to depend on the observation posts pitched atop the Pir Panjal ridges, and elsewhere, to detect bandits and convey warning of incoming raids.

The Sabres descended to low level over the Pir Panjal Pass, and veered toward north of Kasba village.

Northwest to southeast, technically in 13/31 direction, that's the orientation of the Srinagar runway.

Changazi navigated to roughly 5 kms southeast of the 31 end of the runway, pulled up to 3,200 metres altitude, coaxed the Sabre into a dive, aligned with the runway and pointed the gunsight's pipper 300 metres up from the 31 threshold.

Dotani, Andrabi and Mir would follow suit, but would aim the pipper farther up the runway to space out the craters.

After the attack, Changazi had planned to regroup the formation, swerve left, hit the deck and accelerate towards Baramulla to egress at full pelt.

The tiny dynamo Folland Gnat, designed by William 'Teddy' Petter, though not as acclaimed worldwide as the Sabre, could outmanoeuvre any flying machine.

Blooded by the IAF in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, she earned the sobriquet 'Sabre Slayer' and lived up to its billing in the subsequent 1971 War.

A detachment of 18 Sqn (Flying Bullets), equipped with Gnats, was charged with the air defence of Srinagar. As the frigid air was thick with fog, Flight Lieutenant Baldhir Singh Ghuman (G Man) and Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, the pilots on ORP, were taken off stand-by duty, but told to hang about.

As the hand ticked past 8 o'clock, the tannoy blared; they were ordered to scramble by Group Captain R S Sanadi, the station commander.

A spell of ORP-pause can induce the folk to switch to their heels. The Gnats still emerged from the pens (31 end) in about two minutes, but were held up as the ATC had not cleared them to take off.

When an air raid is imminent, the CAP aircraft are fielded out of the range of the air defence batteries (ack-ack and surface-to-air missiles) to not endanger own assets, and to give the AD weapons the freedom to blast the raiders.

Here, the L-60 ack-ack guns boomed to life, with its barrage directed towards the bandits about to bomb, but the ORP aircraft were still aground.

Thinking on his feet, sensing the peril of scrambling when the runway was being blitzed, Flying Officer Yogindra Singh (Yogi), the CAP controller, bounded out of the dugout, scrambled to recall the scramble to let the gunners have a go at the bandits, but he could not contact the pilots as they were operating on different radio frequencies.

Raring to take off, G Man desperately strove to raise the ATC. In vain. Unwilling to dally any more, he released the brakes. Young Sekhon trailed him 20 seconds later.

By the time Sekhon retracted the landing-gear, two pairs of bombs, one by one, had exploded on the runway behind him.

Meanwhile, Changazi and Dotani, the bombers, had flown over and overshot him, fortuitously into his crosshairs.

The Pakistanis were haring to touch the getaway speed. Sekhon first accelerated to catch up, and then nimbly twirled the Gnat to get astern of Dotani.

In the meantime, G Man turned left tightly, built up kinetic energy maintaining low level and then eased up when south of the airfield to position behind the bandits, but he couldn't spot the glint of neither the Sabres nor the Gnat through the foggy haze. He continued the climb to segue into the overhead CAP lap.

"I am behind two Sabres. I won't let the bastards get away," Sekhon roared on the radio.

Sigh. "Good show, Brother, where are you?" G Man reached out, wanting to check whether Sekhon's tail was clear of bogies.

Hush. Sekhon and G Man were separate and operating in two different Srinagars.

Realising a Gnat was doggedly snapping at their tails, Changazi ordered his formation to jettison drop tanks, and bid Dotani to turn left hard to throw off Sekhon.

Andrabi, who was hoping to catch his breath after pulling out of the dive, was compelled to hold his breath by the scintilla of a burst of bullets from the Gnat's two cannons arcing towards Dotani.

Unlike modern fighters, both the Gnat and the Sabre were not armed with air-to-air missiles, and front guns were the only weapon available to down the enemy aircraft in combat.

Since fighter jets are fast dynamic objects, constantly varying positions apace in all three dimensions, shooting down another fighter with guns demands sublime skill.

Simply put, if the angle and distance are not right, you score a washout. And you have to close in till you see your quarry king-sized -- 250 metres to 300 metres, to stamp your marksmanship.

Sekhon had fired just out of range. Dotani escaped by the skin of his teeth.

"Break," Andrabi hollered with as much breath he could summon up. With his life on the line, Dotani broke berserk.

The last ditch left his Sabre gasping for energy; he wisely dropped out and limped off westward into the mountains

Post-bombing, Mir could not sight the site of the dogfight, and therefore he straggled behind Dotani.

At full tilt, Andrabi aggressively manoeuvred himself to tailgate the Gnat, leaving Sekhon sandwiched between Changazi and Andrabi.

The raging, ripsnorting action was ripening 5 km to 6 km northwest of the airfield. At ground zero, the plume of dust and debris kicked up by the explosions was diffusing.

With visibility dimming further from his vantage, distinguishing the flecks of Sabres and Gnat battling it out at 100 metres above the terrain was impossible; Yogi's yeomanly effort at vectoring G Man over yonder floundered.

Sekhon had to fight it out all alone to wiggle out of the nutcracker. The Pakistanis couldn't have asked for anything more.

The Gnat chased a Sabre, the second Sabre pursed that Gnat, in tight turns, every combatant exerting not to yield edge while endeavouring to wrest some.

"I'm in a circle of joy but with two Sabres. I am getting behind one, but the other is getting an edge on me," Sekhon's voice crackled.

He let off a burst of 30-mm ammo from the ADEN cannons on Changazi. The shots whizzed by the Sabre.

Meanwhile, Andrabi, firing on all cylinders, had steadfastly gnawed away the distance and gained advantage over Sekhon. His serial short bursts rent the air with the rat-a-tat of 12.7-mm rounds, but drew a blank despite being within striking distance.

"Three is Winchester," disclosed Andrabi bashfully. He had run out of ammo.

Andrabi would have squirmed, laden with self-inflicted mortification, for first presumptuously proclaiming on radio that he was going to annihilate the Gnat's daffy jockey and then spraying 1,800 rounds prodigally.

Those who count their chickens before they hatch generally end up eating crow!

Changazi asked pratfallen Andrabi to play safe.

Close shave. Sensing the moment, Sekhon, the feisty fighter, made a damn good fist of the opening. In half a jiff, he straightened the wings, punched the fuel tanks, accelerated with the lighter Gnat, replenished kinetic energy, and waded in for another crack at the lead Sabre.

Manoeuvring with slick agility, the Gnat rapidly devoured angles and metres, and Sekhon, with the aplomb of a raptor, converged on to Changazi for the kill.

Unbeknown to the Indians, the Pakistanis had an ace up there -- the two escorts.

Several moments before Changazi inaugurated the Black Spiders' bombing run, the escort pair of Baig and Yusufzai had soared to set up CAP overhead -- to hunt for likely interceptors. They were circling, eagle-eyed, one kilometre above the battle area.

Baig, the escort leader, observing the fierce dogfight from his perch, had expected Andrabi to clobber the Gnat, and was therefore stunned by the relay of spent ammo.

The sight of the Gnat about to slay the Sabre made his hair stand on end. He gathered his wingman, and swooped down to the aerial arena. Concurrently, Changazi's SOS knelled in his earpiece.

With the escorts lunging into the ring, Sekhon was up against four Sabres. With G Man and the CAP controllers nowhere to mind his tail, he was unaware of the escorts joining the fray. To thwart the inevitable was beyond even Super Sekhon.

Unchallenged, the Sabres sped towards the Gnat.

Baig watched the Gnat growing king-sized through the sight graticules, and zeroed the pipper on the Gnat. Three hundred metres. Six machineguns volleyed, discharging the whole nine yards.

"I think I have been hit, G Man come and get them."

Flash. With black smoke belching out of her belly, the Gnat levelled her wings and headed towards the base. Baig knew it was all over bar the bragging.

The hail of bullets peppered the Gnat's tail. (Wing Commander G M David, now retired, who had assisted Yogi that morning, says they found 37 bullet holes about the Gnat's rear fuselage, tailplane and fin.) That knocked out her flight control system, meaning the laws of flight abandoned the Gnat.

She flipped inverted, nosedived and corkscrewed into a gorge near Badgam.

Before that, Sekhon had pulled the ejection seat handle to save himself. The canopy flew off, but the parachute deployed only partially as the Gnat was too close to the ground.

Half an hour later, G Man, who was constrained to orbit overhead, landed back on the badly damaged runway. His exclusion that morning would remain a lifelong regret for him.

For his extraordinary gallantry, the Republic decorated Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, posthumously, with the Param Vir Chakra, hitherto the only air warrior to be elevated to the highest wartime pedestal.

When I first heard of his heroism, Sekhon was credited with a kill and probably another. The 'reconstruction' of that red-hot air battle over Srinagar with the inputs of PAF pilots, deprives him of that attribution. However, my admiration for his gallant action (taking off while the airfield was under attack, taking on four Sabres for about five minutes without slackening his moxie) remains undiminished.

It was not his day, yet he made it his own.

His colleagues fondly called him Brother, for Sekhon was always affable, jovial and helpful.

On this fortieth anniversary of his martyrdom, I salute him proudly, not just for his valour but also for being the gem that he was.

Postscript: A coincidence can bemuse no end. On November 3, 1947, Major Som Nath Sharma, India's first PVC, fell fighting the marauding Pakistani raiders in the Battle of Badgam. The first Air Force PVC too breathed his last in Badgam. Heavenly coincidence!

Photograph: Mrs Sekhon receives the Param Vir Chakra from President V V Giri; Photograph courtesy: 18 Squadron IAF.

M P Anil Kumar is a former IAF fighter pilot: Please read his incredible story here

M P Anil Kumar