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The IAF fighter pilot today drives a Sukhoi30 which packs two Lyulka turbofans capable of over 30000lbs of thrust each. Dogfights are impossible and unnecessary, at twice the speed of sound. One Sukhoi30 packs enough fire power to annihilate a small town that it doesn’t even find necessary to see, from over the horizon. The pilot is totally disconnected from the folk he’s going to massacre, making it easier for him to be indiscriminate. He sees you on his heads-up display and the plane does the rest. The projectile he sees off, falls freely for a couple of thousand feet before it’s terrain matching warhead engages, whipping it around and lining it up on you. It is ruthless and uncompromising. You cannot reason with it. You cannot negotiate with it. Firing aluminum chaff won’t waylay it. It just won’t stop till it has found you.

Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon flew a different kind of bird, back in 1971. A primitive one, when compared to the Sukhoi. At a little under 5000lbs of thrust, the single Bristol Orpheus turbojet engine on the Folland Gnat fighter was puny. As for munitions, the Gnat had two 50mm cannons and the capacity to carry just two 500lb bombs. A sub-sonic jet that could engage in dogfights.

It’s bête noire, the PAF’s F86 Sabre had a powerplant that had nearly the same thrust. One 5,910lb GEL J-47 axial flow turbojet. The F86 however trumped the Gnat in maneuverability and firepower. 6 wing-mounted Browning 0.50in machine guns, 2 Matra rocket pods with 18 rockets each, plus 2.4tons of bombs. But the technical & firepower superiority didn’t in any way diminish the skills of Flight Lieutenant Salim Baig Mirza, PAF, who was already an instructer pilot, at 24.

The following account is of a few minutes of the early morning hours of December 14th, 1971, in the skies over Srinagar airbase, the home of the IAF’s No.18 ‘Flying Bullets’ squadron.

First the official Indian PVC citation, posthumously awarded. It goes as follows:-

“…Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, son of Warrant Officer (Hon. Flt. Lt.) Trilok Singh Sekhon, was born on 17 July 1943, in Ludhiana, Punjab. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force on 04 June 1967. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, Fg. Off. Sekhon was with No.18 Flying Bullets Squadron flying the Gnat fighter based at Srinagar. In accordance with the international agreement dating back to 1948, no air defence aircraft were based at Sirinagar, until the outbreak of hostilities with Pakistan.

Fg. Off. Sekhon was, therefore, unfamiliar with the terrain and was not acclimatised to the altitude of Srinagar, especially with the bitter cold and biting winds of the Kashmir winter. Nevertheless, from the onset of the war, he and his colleagues fought successive waves of intruding Pakistani aircraft with valour and determination, maintaining the high reputation of the Gnat aircraft. Early morning on 14 December 1971, Srinagar airfield was attacked by a wave of six enemy F-86 Sabre aircraft. Flying Officer Sekhon was on readiness duty at the time. However, he could not take off at once because of the clouds of dust raised by another aircraft which had just taken off. By the time the runway was fit for take off, no fewer than six enemy aircraft were overhead, and strafing of the airfield was in progress.

Nevertheless, in-spite of the mortal danger of attempting to take off during an attack, and in-spite of the odds against him, he took off and immediately engaged a pair of the attacking Sabres. He succeeded in damaging two of the enemy aircraft. In the fight that followed, at tree top height, he all but held his own, but was eventually overcome by sheer weight of numbers. His aircraft crashed and he was killed.

Sacrificing himself for the defence of Srinagar, Flying Officer Sekhon achieved his objective – the PAF Sabres fled from the scene of the battle without pressing home their attack against the town and the airfield. The sublime heroism, supreme gallantry, flying skill and determination, above & beyond the call of duty, displayed by Fg. Off. Sekhon in the face of certain death, set new heights to Air Force traditions. Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was awarded the highest wartime gallantry medal, Param Vir Chakra, posthumously. Jai Hind!! Jai Jawan!!…”

And the Pakistani fighter pilot, Mirza’s account, in his memoirs 30 yrs hence, is reproduced below-

Air Battles (1971) – My Experiences

-by Wing Cdr Salim Baig Mirza (Retd)

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“……my second kill of the War was a Gnat fighter interceptor aircraft flying out of Srinagar airfield in Kashmir Valley on 14 Dec ’71. I was flying as No 5 leading a pair of F86F Sabres to escort a formation of four other Sabres carrying two 500 lbs. Mk84 bombs under each wing to crater the main runway 13/31. The overall leader of our formation of six aircraft was Wing Commander S A Changezi. We took off from Peshawar airbase in early morning hours, setting course for the picturesque Kashmir Valley. A few minutes later we crossed the mountain peaks short of the valley and accelerated down hill towards our pull up point which was about three miles short and to the South East of our target. Our gun master switches had already been put in Armed position to prepare for firing with just one press of the red trigger on the control stick.

The target (runway) was easily sighted to the left during pull up to the bombing height of 5000 feet above ground. Everyone in the formation acknowledged having visual contact with the runway and soon I saw the leader’s Sabre roll into a nose down steep turn to align up his aircraft with runway 31. He was followed by No 2, 3 and 4 and as 4 dived for his bombing run, I along with my wing-man fell behind him to position overselves for providing him cover. Leader and No 2 had already dropped their bombs on the target and had pulled out of the ensuing dive at about 1000 feet above ground. Before we could complete our positioning turns, I heard leader telling No 2 to immediately ‘Break’ to the left because there was an enemy Gnat aircraft firing at him. Leader and No 2 commenced a tight left turn to avoid the danger and manoeuvred to get behind the Gnat.

No 3 had by this time taken position behind the Gnat and had commenced firing with his guns. He also announced on the radio that he was going to shoot him down. I along with No 6 (my wingman) had picked them up below us and had settled into an orbit on top at about 3-4000 feet higher. We could see the three aircraft in a tight circle with Gnat being in front, a Sabre (No 3) behind him who was followed by another Sabre (leader) at a height of about 200 feet above the ground. I was expecting the matter to be over in a short while because No 3 was well placed within gun range behind the Gnat. After a few seconds I heard No 3 calling that he was “Winchester” which meant that he had run out of ammo and his guns had stopped firing after missing the target in front.

At that time I saw the Gnat momentarily roll his wings level to jettison his underwing tanks and then he went into a high ‘G’ turn with renewed vigour to manoeuvre behind the lead Sabre. Within a couple of turns I could see the distance closing between the two and before he closed in dangerously I decided to get into the act. At the same time I heard an anxious call from the leader asking me to come down and relieve them of this imminent threat.

I asked my wingman to get into fighting position and then dove down manoeuvring my aircraft to get into the orbit of the fighters below. In a matter of few seconds, I was behind the Gnat and firing from a close range of about 1000 feet. In a three seconds burst from my Sabre’s six machine-guns firing at the rate of 120 round per seconds, I hit him square and thick black smoke started coming out from under his fuselage belly. The Gnat levelled his wings and headed for the airfield as if to indicate that for him the fight was over. I stopped firing at him and saw the canopy of his cockpit fly away from the aircraft. But the very next moment the Gnat snapped over inverted on its back and crashed into the undulated ground of the valley, killing the pilot.

The Indian pilot Flg Off Nirmal Jeet Singh Sekhon put up a brave fight and was awarded Pram Veer Chakra – the highest gallantry award of Indian Armed Forces (equivalent to our Nishan-e-Haider). Detailed interviews of Srinagar Base Cdr, Sqn Cdr, Sqn Pilots and close relatives including his wife were broadcast by All India Radio who provided more information about their side of the story. He was No 2 in a formation of two Gnats who had been scrambled to intercept us but he had been delayed by two to three minutes at take off point after his leader got airborne. the air battle had been anxiously watched from the Control Tower by the Base Cdr & Sqn Cdr and in his radio communication, the Gnat pilot had informed them about being hit. He was advised to head for base but that was the last they heard from him. His aircraft wreckage was discovered in a gorge near the road coming from Srinagar town to the base. We never saw the Gnat leader’s aircraft anywhere around the battle area…….”

A slight differing of accounts between the two. But to be acknowledged by your adversary is truly an honour.

It’s been my dream…to die, guns blazing, with a blood curdling scream that sounds like a blend of Sylvestor Stallone and Johnny Weismuller. Splotches of tomato ketchup blossoming across my hairy chest as the 50mm shells stitch a staccato on it.

Just passin’ away quietly in my sleep one night…no way. I’m terrified of dying an uneventful death. Imagine St Peter sizing me up and saying over his shoulder,”This one just slinked in, Lawd, I didn’t hear even a peep.”

“A quiet one, eh?” the Almighty grunts,”Put him next to Betty Grable, Pete.”

Copyright © 2011 by Achyut Dutt.