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The Glorious Seventeen Days September 1965 War

September 3, 1965

Eight F-104 and 32 F-86 sorties were flown from dawn to dusk. The F-86s were flown in pairs. At 0730 hours an enemy track was picked up and assessed as four aircraft at 36000 over the battle area. A pair of F-86s and one F-104 aircraft already airborne on CAP mission and controlled separately, were diverted to engage the enemy. The F-86s made contact with the enemy; after an initial engagement, the enemy split and a track was seen heading towards Pathankot. The F-104 was sent in pursuit at 1.3 mach, but it could not close on the enemy. It was withdrawn after it had crossed the border and was directed to re-engage the enemy already in contact with the F-86s. In the engagement, No. 2 called visual contact, and the leader, Flt. Lt. Yousaf, immediately spotted the enemy; he ordered to jettison drops and broke into the enemy. No. 2 was unable to jettison his drop tanks, and he called the leader that he was disengaging from the dog fight. Soon afterwards when the leader was in a position to open fire on the enemy, his aircraft was hit by the enemy aircraft attacking him from behind. He fired one missile accidently and broke off in a defensive manoeuvre. No. 2 regained visual contact with his leader and called his tail clear. The leader saw his No. 2 but he also saw a Gnat behind him in an attacking position. He ordered a break and frustrated the enemy attack. At this time the F-104, which had also established contact with the enemy and our own fighters, made a high speed pass through dog-fight, frightening the enemy aircraft away. The F-104 turned about and made one more high speed pass through the enemy and his own formation; the enemy were seen withdrawing. At 0740 hours another F-104 was scrambled to join the battle. By this time disengagement between our aircraft and the enemy fighters had already occured. However, the track of an enemy aircraft was seen a few miles east of Jammu going towards Amritsar, and the F-104 already in the battle area was directed to intercept it. The second F-104 was also directed against the same track. The enemy went up to about 10 miles north of Amritsar and then turned north-west. No visual contact was established. The first F-104 was recovered because it was running short of fuel, while the second F-104 was told to orbit over the Pasrur airfield. A few minutes later it reported that an IAF Gnat had landed at Pasrur; the F-104 continued to fly over Pasrur until the army captured the enemy aircraft, and the MOUs confirmed the pilots arrest. Sqn. Ldr. Brij Pal Singh Sikand was the IAF pilot who had surrendered his aircraft. Three other tracks on the three separate occasions of one enemy aircraft each were observed, one by MOUs and two by Sakesar. Two F-86s and one F-104 were diverted on each occasion from CAP mission, but no contact could be established.

The same day, the C-in-C, Air Marshal Nur Khan, held a conference at Operations Centre to reassess air combat tactics against the enemy. It was felt that if we were to fly CAPs of two F-86 aircraft at a time, the enemy could, whenever it wanted, outnumber us in the battle area. We would then have to withdraw from the fight, or engage the enemy at a severe disadvantage. It was also felt that in combat the Hunter and the Gnat would have performance advantage over the F-86 as the morning's engagement had shown. The C-in-C then visited Sargodha and discussed the matter in greater detail with the Station Commander and his senior pilots. It was decided that CAPs would in future be flown by four F-86 aircraft at an altitude of 20000-25000, and have already support of two F-104 which would approach the battle area at low level (to remain below enemy radar cover) and zoom up only when the enemy air force showed up to engage our F-86s. Once the enemy was committed to battle, the F-86s would be withdrawn and the F-104s would give battle. The tactics were based on the assumption that the IAF would appear in air in the formation of eight aircraft-Hunters and Gnat-with top cover of two or three Mig-21.

The air combat strategy as illustrated above was both sound and correct. The Hunter and Gnat were superior in performance to the F-86; Gnat was unique on account of its small size-which means little exposure in combat-and manoeuverability. In actual war, the F-86 outclassed the Indian fighters because of the PAF pilots skill in flying which compensated for the shortcomings of their machines. The bulk of the PAF fighter pilots on the average had ten years of flying to their credit; and had mastered the Sabre aircraft through intensive drill and practice. There was also another aspect which almost sounds comical to any serious student of air warfare; it was the display of excessive fear of F-104 by the IAF pilots. This fear was somewhat irrational; F-104 was, no doubt, a high performance aircraft but it had its limitations. The Indians, instead of devising a strategy of fighting the starfighter, decided to avoid it 'at all costs'; the aircraft thus literally proved to be a terror in the air. This had a positive, though indirect, effect in favour of the F-86. The Indian pilots, even when dealing with the Sabre, remained apprehensive of an F-104 appearing on the scene, and entered all close encounters half-heartedly.

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