PAF Sabre Draws First Blood

Columnist Gp Capt SULTAN M HALI remembers how the F-86 shot down an Indian Canberra on Eid Day in 1959.

10 April 1959 was a red letter day in the history of the Pakistan Air Force. It was the day that the PAF achieved its first ever ‘kill’ in an air engagement. Strangely enough, this happened not in the middle of a war, or even a limited confrontation with an enemy. It happened as a finale to a stealthy incursion into Pakistani airspace by an Indian photo reconnaissance Canberra. Such violations had occurred earlier also but the PAF’s air defence system was still in a state of flux, dependent as it was on WW II vintage radar cover. Besides, the earlier incursions had been only a little way into Pakistan and the intruders invariably managed to slip quickly back into their own airspace before PAF interceptors could close in for an engagement.

But today there was a difference. It was Eid-ul-Fitr a religious holiday to mark the end of Ramadhan month long fasting in Pakistan and the whole nation would be in a mood of festive relaxation. It would be reasonable to assume that even the PAF would have lowered its guard somewhat to accommodate Eid celebration programmes of its personnel. Today the Indian snooper should be able to fly pretty deep into Pakistan and get away with it. Such thoughts must have been the prelude to that day’s IAF photo recce mission. The rest of the story at first hand comes from Flight Lieutenant Yunis of 15 Squadron at Peshawar:

“The air defence alert (ADA) arrangements at Peshawar were spartan - a couple of chairs in the balmy April sunshine in one corner of the alert platform where we sat and chatted and drank tea - it was still too early in the morning to expect our breakfast from the mess. I had been detailed for ADA that Eid day along with two other bachelor pilots - the married officers were ‘spared’ so that they could join the festivities with their families. They would be green with envy at the bachelors before that day was over! I myself nearly missed the excitement to come, when Naseer Butt, who was to be my formation leader, threatened to put me on mobile duty as punishment for being late. But perhaps our common Cranwellian connection persuaded him to relent! I had a total of 450 hours at that time, with about 100 on the Sabre. Boredom had not quite begun to set in when the alarm sounded for a scramble of two Sabres. In no time at all, Naseer and I were off the ground in a maximum rate climb, on a vector of 150 degrees.”

The vector had been given by Pilot Officer Rab Nawaz, the duty air defence controller crouched tensely in front of his radar screen in the operations cabin of 223 Squadron, commanded by Flight Lieutenant S A Rahman. The WW II Type 15 mobile radar unit was deployed at Wegowal, an abandoned airstrip near Sargodha, and was hooked up to a makeshift Sector Operations Centre located at the Tiwana House in Sargodha cantonment. It was from this SOC that the duty operations officers, Flight Lieutenant A M Shahzada, had given Peshawar the order to scramble.

Rab Nawaz was a very junior officer and his job was not made any easier by the absence of a height finding facility. Moreover, the aircraft blips spread across nearly 10 to 15 miles of the range scale on his vintage radar screen. Nevertheless Rab Nawaz persevered and, with intense concentration, eventually succeeded in manoeuvring the Sabres into visual contact with the target, whose contrails no doubt played an important part in this interception. Yunis continues:

“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.”

The Sabre leader now called for clearance to shoot and, for a moment, Rab Nawaz debated whether to go through the full standard procedure for obtaining permission. But that would very likely cause enough delay to allow the positively identified Canberra to slip away - such a close encounter may not occur again in a long time. He quickly told Shahzada at SOC that he was about to clear the Sabres to shoot - and proceeded to do just that. Yunus goes on:

“We were still not within optimum range but Naseer impatiently launched into a series of energy-climb/burst-of-gunfire/stall out sequence which became more desperate with each repetition. In the meantime, I kept a steady height and heading in order to give rear cover to my leader. It suddenly occurred to me that, if the Canberra spotted us, 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.

“I had not seen any ejection but, in fact, both crew were found, relatively unharmed, by a ground party and after the usual interrogation, returned to India. While I headed for base, stunned by the excitement of my experience, Butt watched the Canberra spiral down to its impact point. As I approached Peshawar I was sorely tempted to do a victory roll over the base, and barely resisted the temptation - this may have been providential because two sorties later this aircraft had an aileron-jam malfunction which the pilot overcame only in the nick of time to avoid a crash. Had this jam occurred during my contemplated victory roll, I could have easily wound up being an ‘over confidence’ statistic in a fatal accident inquiry. Eid Mubarak to me, indeed!”

A befitting Eid gift to the Pakistan Air Force, which had drawn first blood!

Flight Lieutenant Yunis was awarded the ‘Sitara-e-Jurat’ the coveted gallantry model of PAF, equivalent of the DSO. He rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshal and retired in June, 1990.