Columnist Air Cdre M Kaiser Tufail
has conducted a detailed research of MM Alam’s 1965 feats.
The evening of 6th September 1965 saw mixed fortunes for the PAF after its pre-emptive strikes against IAF’s forward air bases. Pathankot had been administered a crippling blow, with ten aircraft1 destroyed on the ground; however, the strikes against Adampur and Halwara proved largely futile. The latter strike was particularly costly, as PAF had lost two of its top pilots. The mood at Sargodha air base was, therefore, as vengeful as it was sombre.
Propping himself on a table in the oft-frequented bar, Sqn Ldr Muhammad Mahmood Alam, the plucky Squadron Commander of No 11 Sqn set the tone for the next day’s operations with a fiery oration. Addressing the fighter pilots of No 33 Wing who had huddled together in this popular hangout, Alam promised to avenge the blood of Rafiqui and Yunus, the two downed airmen of Sargodha. Only hours before Alam had brought down a Hunter while leading a dusk strike that was intercepted on the way to Adampur. Brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, Alam assured the gathering that the Sabre could out-manoeuvre the Hunter, a proposition that did not have many takers thus far. Now, with a kill to prove his point, he bayed for more blood.
Sargodha came to be at the business end of IAF’s retaliatory strikes that commenced at dawn on 7th September. Just after the exit of the first Mystere raid, two pairs of Sabres and a singleton Starfighter were scrambled to replenish the ongoing Combat Air Patrols. Within a few minutes of getting airborne, they were directed by ground control towards an incoming raid. After flying eastwards for 10-15 minutes, they were told to turn back as the raiders were already overhead Sargodha. The time was 0547 hrs (PST).
Sqn Ldr D S Jog of No 27 Sqn based at Halwara, was leading a formation of five Hunters that included Sqn Ldr O N Kacker, Flt Lt D N Rathore, Flt T K Choudhry and Flg Off Parihar. They had initially pulled up to attack Chota Sargodha2, a disused, non-jet-capable airstrip of World War II vintage, which somehow figured out as vital in IAF’s war plans. Unable to locate any aircraft, the formation turned for the main Sargodha base which lay about eight miles east; however, with attack mechanics not quite under control, the Hunters ended up targeting “a factory-like installation” which, as the Sargodhians would know, was Sultan Textile Mills! Beating a hasty exit through the barrage of AAA fire, the Hunters headed home but the mission was not quite over.
A pair of Sabres led by Flt Lt Imtiaz Bhatti swooped down on the two trailing Hunters but to his dismay, Bhatti found another pair of Sabres already in a dive, looking set to shoot. The redoubtable Alam and his wingman Flt Lt Masood Akhtar had beaten him to the “go for the bogeys” call by ‘Killer Control,’ an eagle-eyed lookout tasked to assist in visual sighting of raiders. Bhatti had to be content with being a grandstand spectator of what was to become a celebrated mission. The lone Starfighter flown by Flt Lt Arif Iqbal continued to perform its role of a ‘bouncer,’ keeping an eye for troublemakers in the area.
The rear pair of Hunters kept a good lookout and on spotting Alam’s Sabre, did a sharp defensive turn into him. Alam pulled up to avoid an overshoot and then repositioned again. Still out of gun range Alam pressed on, but with the Hunters doing a full power run, he settled for a missile shot against the last man. Firing a Sidewinder from a dive at very low altitude, Alam was not surprised to see it go into the ground. The best way of launching the early model Sidewinders at such altitudes was to get below the target and fire with a cooler sky for a background, thus easing the missile seeker’s heat discrimination problem. However, with the Hunters skimming the treetops, going any lower was out of question. The predicament was soon resolved when the Hunters pulled up to clear a stretch of high-tension cables. In good range, dead line astern and hearing a loud ‘growl’ that signalled a positive heat source, Alam couldn’t have asked for better firing conditions. He let go his second Sidewinder, but didn’t see it hit directly. With an apparent proximity detonation, the missile warhead had dangerously ruptured the Hunter’s fuel lines. Jog’s formation members heard desperate messages of illuminated warning lights and engine rough-running from the stricken pilot. Overshooting the crippled Hunter, Alam noticed with amazement that its canopy was missing and there was no pilot inside. With other Hunters as well as his own wingman to keep an eye on, Alam had obviously missed the ejection sequence. Looking around, he noticed the pilot coming down by parachute. Bhatti, who was watching from a distance, recalls, “While Alam was chasing, I continued to look-out for other Hunters as I hadn’t yet given up the prospects of achieving a kill. We were just short of the river when a flash in the sky caught my eye and I observed an aircraft go down in flames. I learnt later that the pilot had ejected shortly before the aircraft hit the ground.”
Sqn Ldr Onkar Nath Kacker had come down near Burjlal, a village (now abandoned) by the bank of Chenab River, about 25 miles south-east of Sargodha. Quick-witted, he got rid of his map and log card as well as the badges on his flying coveralls. As the villagers rushed towards him, he cleverly introduced himself as a PAF pilot. The gullible village folk who had never seen a fighter pilot for real, were easily taken in. An instant hero, Kacker became the centre of adulation as large crowds gathered. Seeming to be in a hurry to get back to duty, he demanded arrangements for a horse-ride till the main road so that he could flag a bus for his home base, Sargodha! Kacker almost made a getaway but for the arrival of a sharp-eyed villager, Imdad Hussain Shah, who had watched the whole sequence of shooting down and ejection. While Kacker was amusing the villagers with his captivating yarns, Shah surprised everyone by charging that the pilot was from IAF and had him trussed up in front of the tongue-tied villagers. A few hours later a search party from Lalian Police Station arrived and mercifully, saved Kacker from a crowd that was angry and sneering by then. He spent the next five months as a POW3.
Alam had lost sight of the other Hunters, but with ample fuel he was prepared to fly some distance to catch up with them. Soon after crossing the Chenab River, his wingman Akhtar called out, “Contact, Hunters one o’clock.” They were flying at 100-200 feet and around 480 knots. As Alam closed into gunfire range, the Hunters did a half-hearted defensive turn which did nothing to spoil his aim; rather, it set them up in line astern for easy shooting in a row. Alam fired at the last Hunter against the glow of the rising sun and saw fuel spew out of the drop tanks, which had taken hits from the Sabre’s six guns. In a hurry to score fast, Alam shifted his aim ahead onto the next aircraft and fired another short burst. The Hunters seemed to fly across Alam’s gunsight like a gaggle of geese, and he obliged repeatedly, four times in all.
Headed towards Sargodha, Wg Cdr Toric Zachariah, Officer Commanding of No 7 Sqn based at Halwara, was leading the third raid with five Hunters. The formation included, Sqn Ldr A S Lamba, Sqn Ldr M M Sinha, Sqn Ldr S B Bhagwat and Flg Off J S Brar, the latter two performing the role of armed escorts. Flying at low level, they were expecting a criss-cross with No 27 Sqn Hunters who were on their way out. However, just after crossing Sangla Hill, Lamba noticed two Sabres at 11 o’clock position, about 4,000 feet high. He immediately ordered a hard turn to the left and Zachariah followed up with instructions to abort the mission and exit. Bhagwat and Brar, however, made the fatal mistake of engaging without jettisoning their external stores4. Weighed down by ordnance, the Hunters had no chance and were picked off in quick succession by one of the prowling Sabres. The wrecks of the two aircraft along with the remains of the pilots were found in the fields near Chahoor Mughlian and Siranwali Bulher, two villages near the small town of Sangla Hill5.
Jog’s formation, meanwhile, collected itself and sped away, having miraculously survived Alam’s onslaught. Jog and his wingman Choudhry had, however, received hits and their aircraft were badly holed up, as they were to discover later after landing6. Rathore and Parihar had remained unscathed. The two Hunters that went down were in fact from Zachariah’s formation, which by an amazing coincidence and bad timing, had ended up in a horrific jumble!
No 27 Sqn’s egressing and No 7 Sqn’s ingressing formations were about a mile apart when they flew past each other’s port sides, near Sangla Hill. As Alam dived down upon Jog’s Hunters tail-on, Lamba spotted Bhatti’s pair appearing at a frontal aspect; thinking that they were being attacked, he called a hard turn to the left. Once Alam was through with firing at Jog and Choudhry in about half a turn, Bhagwat and Brar were neatly placed in line of fire for the second half.
If Lamba had somehow known that Bhatti was really out of the fight, having had a hung drop tank a short while ago, No 7 Sqn strike could have pressed on. However, with Arif’s Starfighter lurking on top, the inevitable would only have been delayed a few more minutes. A warning call by Jog might have helped, but that was possible only if he had had enough time to change over to Zachariah’s radio frequency. It all happened so fast that even Alam was confounded.
Zachariah’s pilots, as might have Jog’s, considered themselves fortunate that Alam wasn’t aware of the mass exodus that was under way. Unleashing his wingman could have doomed several more of the fleeing raiders. Nonetheless, three Hunters shot down and two damaged was not a bad tally, considering that for some anxious minutes, Alam and his wingman were up against nine of them!
Obviously pleased with himself, Alam
announced to the radar controller that he had shot down five Hunters.
An ace-in-a-mission must have sounded like a splendid achievement
and, the news spread like wildfire right upto the highest echelons.
Alam had barely stepped back in the squadron when Radio Pakistan
announced the unparalleled feat of jet combat.
The die had been cast; confirmation of the kills was now of little
consequence. Alam’s prolific shooting in the war had, however, left a
tidy balance in his account. He
finished the war with a credit of five aircraft7 in just three dogfights,
including the speed-shooting classic at Sangla Hill.
For his splendid performance in the latter mission, Alam was
awarded a ‘Bar’ to the Sitara-e-Jur’at that he had already earned a
day earlier for his first successful encounter with the Hunters.
He continues to remain the top-scoring pilot of the sub-continent,
a region that has witnessed numerous dogfights in two major conflicts.
Alam is rightly worthy of a place in the annals of air warfare as
“one of the great aces of the jet age.”