When the 1965 war broke out, I had not yet finished my Fully Operational Syllabus, and was therefore only qualified to do air defence missions. Due to severe lack of experience, my Flight Commander (Flt Cdr), Sqn Ldr D.S. Jog did not detail me for any live missions against the enemy. I was disappointed and eager to actively participate in the war, and expressed my feelings and desire to him. I had learnt how our soldiers had been humiliated in the 1962 war against China and I was keen to change such perceptions. With great reluctance, he conceded to my request and I was put on air defence missions.
On the morning of 5 September 1965, a single F 104 Starfighter made a high speed single pass down the runway. It was interpreted by us as a photo reconnaissance sortie to identify our dispersal plans and positions of aircraft and our readiness status. It was evident that soon, we would have an airstrike against our ground instillations and aircraft. Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Ahuja and Flying Officer (Flg Offr) M.V. Singh were detailed to carry out a strike against Pakistan Army‘s ground position in Kasur, across Khem Karan. Here, M.V. Singh was shot up by the enemy ack-ack fire, a shell went through his cockpit, and his right leg got severely injured. Since he was in terrible pain and unable to fly his aircraft back to base, he ejected and was taken prisoner by the enemy. Incidentally, it was in the Khem Karan sector that an army vehicle driven by Kisan Babu Rao Hazare (Anna Hazare) survived enemy shelling, when his transport was hit and every occupant of the vehicle perished. He was the lone survivor.
On the morning of 6 September, I was on Operational Ready Platform (ORP) duty from thirty minutes before sunrise to 1300h. I was required to be on standby to take on the enemy within two minutes. As my shift was drawing to a close at 1300h, Sqn Ldr Patel and Flt Lt D.N. Rathore were detailed to take over the afternoon shift. Since Patel had some work, he requested me to continue and stand in for him. Rathore,being my leader, carried out a briefing. At around 1700h, my station commander, Group Captain John, was in conversation with the Air Defence Commander on the tennoy. He was told to get all serviceable a/c airborne as a massive air strike was expected by the enemy. Hearing this, it was clear to me that since the time was inadequate to comply with the advice, I was sure that we at ORP would be asked to protect the base. I casually picked up my flying helmet, proceeded to my aircraft, strapped myself up, and waited for the command. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Flt Lt Rathore, who was my leader for the mission, came running out to scramble. I took the cue and started my aircraft. Rathore came live on RT and told me to scramble for Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the base, for which I had already been briefed. As we took position for the CAP, I spotted three aircraft coming towards our base from the northeast.
‘Three bogies, one o’clock below’, I informed my leader.
I had never seen the F 86 Sabre – it sort of resembled our own Mystere aircraft, and this had me momentarily confused. However, Rathore was very clear about them. He established visual contact and started manoeuvring his aircraft to position himself behind them for a gunshot. Like a good No. 2, I remained stuck with him in position. After manoeuvring, I found two Sabres did not go over the airfield but had turned 270 degrees, heading for the border, leaving the airfield on the south.
Rathore positioned his aircraft behind them and I was to his left. My job was to look out for more bogies and cover his tail. I saw Rathore firing at the aircraft on the right. Seeing him fire, I was now certain that they were enemy Sabres. I then decided to take on the Sabre to the left. In my excitement, I just put the aircraft nose onto the enemy aircraft and started firing, but found to my chagrin that the bullets, instead of hitting the enemy, were running on the ground. Quick as a flash, I remembered the ‘Ranging and Tracking’exercise taught to us on the use of Gyro Gunsight (aiming device meant to feed range and gravity drop to the aiming point ‘piper’). I then put the piper on to the aircraft cockpit and fired a burst. This hit the tail of the enemy aircraft and some black smoke emanated. I moved the piper slightly forward and fired another burst. The Sabre now threw a hard left turn, which gave me a sudden plan view for a moment, and made it better for me to position the piper. I was taught during training that two pounds of high explosive charge fired into an aircraft causes it to explode, but this aircraft did not explode! I continued to fire at him and kept closing on to him with utter disregard for my own safety.
When I was about 100 yards away, the aircraft suddenly exploded. I saw a big moon-shaped chunk of debris flying towards me, so I broke right and pulled up to find Rathore to my right and ahead of me. I caught up with him and we proceeded to the Ferozepur border to see if we could find more Sabres. Alas, there were none, so we came back to base. As we were approaching Halwara, the air traffic controller told us to proceed to Ambala. While approaching Ambala,instructions were revised and we were asked to return to base. By this time, it was dark, and despite not being night qualified, I managed to land safely. When I switched off the aircraft at the ORP, the ground crew opened the Sabrina (which collects the empty shells), collected the empty shells and threw them up in the air so that they came raining downon him, as if he had found a treasure. I was filled with a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, and till date, this memorable and adorable scene remains deeply etched in my mind.
My commanding officer, Wing Commander Clarke, picked me up in his car and drove me toward the Base Operations Room. He had barely driven 500 yards, when the station commander, Group Captain G,K, John, stopped us and made me come with him. When we reached the Base Operations Room, I gave him the full details of the sortie. He congratulated me for the mission accomplished and declared that I was the junior-most and the youngest pilot to have shot down a Sabre aircraft in any war. The words of my flight commander, D.S. Jog, once more reverberated in my ear: ‘Do a job better than the best.’
Subsequently, I carried out many air defence missions, but did not get a chance to engage any enemy aircraft in combat. Every evening, we would disperse the aircraft to far away bases to return early morning. This was primarily to save our aircraft from night bombing by the enemy.