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‘For just a bloody cannon’: How a MiG-21 nearly took down a PAF Sabre on debut for IAF in 1965

The iconic MiG-21 and its various variants have served the Indian Air Force (IAF) well over the years. India is the largest operator of MiG-21s outside the erstwhile Soviet Union with over 1,200 MiG-21s having served in India when the IAF opted to purchase the MiG-21 over several other Western competitors in 1962. The MiG-21 was the first successful Soviet aircraft combining fighter and interceptor characteristics in a single aircraft. It was a lightweight fighter, achieving Mach 2 with a relatively low-powered after-burning turbojet, and was comparable to the American Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter and the French Dassault Mirage III.

Since then it has evolved in capacity and capability and has been extensively used in conflict zones across the world, with approximately 100 MiG-21 ‘Bisons’ still in service with the IAF.

While the Vietnam People’s Air Force was the first Air Force outside the Soviet Union to score an operational kill on a MiG-21 against the USAF in 1966, the Indian Air Force MiG-21s had a very memorable encounter with the Pakistan Air Force during the 1965 Indo-Pak war.



Background — Operation Grand Slam, 1 September 1965 ::

Pakistan attacked India at 0400 hours on 1 September 1965, launching Operation Grand Slam, a Divisional-level attack supported by two M48/47 Patton tank regiments on the Chamb-Akhnoor axis in Jammu and Kashmir to capture Akhnur and the road link from Jammu to Rajouri and Poonch.

The Indian 191 brigade was taken by surprise and hit hard. The Pakistan Army (PA) offensive pushed the Indian Army (IA) units by its sheer weight to the banks of the Munnawar Tawi river, where a rearguard action by a squadron of AMX 13 tanks of 20 Lancers and elements of 3rd Mahar Regiment, supported by Indian Air Force Vampire and Mystere air strikes, slowed the advance of the famed Pattons tanks. The Commander of the PA 7 Division requested urgent support from the air force, wherein Pakistan Air Force Sabres crossed over the Cease Fire Line (CFL) and shot down three archaic IAF Vampires during this attack.

However, with the Indian counterattack having imposed considerable caution, the PA took a good 48 hours to reorganise and move forward across the Munnawar Tawi on the Palanwala-Jaurian axis. This allowed the IA to cross back over the river in good order and reorganise its defences around Palanwala/Jaurian.

In a sharp air action over this area on 3 September 1965, the IAF scored its first kill by Flight Lieutenant Trevor Keelor of No23 Squadron ‘Panthers’ as part of a Gnat formation led by Wing Commander Johnny Greene, ambushing the PAF and shooting down a F-86F Sabre jet. This air combat account can be read here.

The IA meanwhile evacuating from Palanwala, hastily deployed defensive positions in and around Jaurian town, awaiting to make contact with PA’s 7 Infantry Division and its armour elements early on 4 September 1965. By then urgent reinforcements in infantry and armour had been rushed in from Akhnur in support of their defence. Both sides realised the importance of Jaurian, beyond which the road to Akhnur and possibly Jammu, lay open for exploitation; which would sever off the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Indian heartland as per the laid down objectives of Operation Grand Slam.

The Indian and Pakistan Air Forces threw in their best air combat and close air support (CAS) assets to achieve local air superiority over this crucial battlefield — stakes for which were supremely high. On the Indian side, along with the Gnats and the Mysteres, a component of the newly inducted MiG-21s of the IAF’s No28 Squadron ‘The First Supersonics’ deployed impromptu to Adampur Air Force Base (AFB) to take on the threat posed by PAF jets, in particular the supersonic F-104 Starfighter and the much regarded F-86 Sabre.


Jaurian–Akhnur axis. 1525 hours, 4 September 1965 ::

Jaurian, the flashpoint of a fierce battle between the dug in Indian Army and the Pakistan Army’s 7 Division, was under a sustained attack by the Pakistan Air Force.

The PAF had detailed 31 combat air support missions against the IA all through the day. Of these, the highest density mission operating out of Sargodha was made up of a strike by 12 Sabres of No15 Sqn ‘Cobras’, led by their Commanding officer, Squadron Leader Irshad.

The strike package consisted of three Sabre formations of four aircraft each, each one of them operating over the target area for a period of not more than five minutes. The first two formations had been strafing the only road link between Akhnur and Jaurian with an upbeat resolve for the past fifteen minutes and had set on fire a number of IA trucks and other soft skinned vehicles with their 2.75 inch rockets fired from the Sabre’s ‘Mighty Mouse’ pods. As they left, the Pakistan Forward Air Controller (FAC) patiently awaited the arrival of the last formation over Jaurian.

High above them, four F-104s were providing top cover at 20,000 feet. The Starfighters, operating under Sakesar ground radar cover, were on prowl for Indian Air Force’s Gnats, who had craftily ambushed the PAF Sabres over Jaurian just the day before. The PAF was looking to avenge that loss.

Squadron Leader Muniruddin Ahmed, the Wing Operations Officer at Sargodha, led the last section of Sabres armed with two napalm bombs each. Munir, a happy-go-lucky and popular aviator in the PAF, was known for his legendary stutter that became more pronounced as he got excited. Guided by the FAC’s grid reference, his formation arrived over the target area at 500 feet. He scanned for worthwhile targets for their napalm canisters. Unlike the rockets, napalm was suited for widely spread targets.

“Target 2 ‘o’ clock, attack formation GO,” he chimed after making contact with a spread-out building complex which he assumed to be a military installation. His formation members tucked in tight around him in the ‘finger four’ position for napalm delivery. Munir gradually turned towards the target and rolled out while descending down to 200 feet above ground level for the attack run. “Stand by for release. Approaching target. Bomb release, bomb release now!”

The Sabres whizzed past their target, as the napalm canisters dropped lazily towards the ground, exploding in contact with the ground in massive fireballs, engulfing all inflammables in their maleficent conflagration. The attack went well, though Munir wasn’t sure if he had hit anything of value.

After the attack, Munir turned hard left, avoiding the base of the incoming hills and climbed to 1000 feet. Turning towards Pakistan, he took stock of his formation with a radio check. “Viper formation check in,” Munir queried, as the other aircraft replied in sequence, “Viper 2, Viper 3…” There was no response from Viper 4.

“Viper 4 check in,” Munir piped on the radio again. There was no response. “Where the hell is Nasir?” he scanned anxiously for Flight Lieutenant Nasir Butt, the fourth member of his formation. He weaved his aircraft around in a desperate attempt to look out for a tell-tale sign of an attack on his formation. He nearly did not notice the streak of fire leaving a smoke trail crossing his Sabre on the right. A shocked Munir instinctively tightened his turn away from the fireball on the ground, as the smoke trail hit the ground.

“They were under attack. But by whom? And what was that streak, a rocket or a missile? It couldn’t be! Gnats don’t carry missiles. Damn, where were the Starfighters?” Munir peered hard on either side of the aircraft and then shifted his gaze above.

His heart skipped a beat upon seeing atop the Sabre, not more than 15 meters and getting larger, the sleek underbelly of a silver coloured delta wing aircraft. As panic hit him, he recognised the IAF MiG-21 in earnest and desperately bunted his aircraft down and away from his tormentor, nearly crashing into the ground.

Then, the famous Muniruddin stutter overpowered and jammed all radio traffic on the Sakesar radar ops frequency, as he excitedly transmitted on the RT about the discovery of the MiG. He stammered convulsively, “Contact with a M-M-MiG-21. B-B-B-B-By G-G-G-G-God, he nearly had me.”

On that fateful day, Munir’s much vaunted radio call pronounced the arrival of the legendary MiG-21 in combat for the first time in the skies of the Indian subcontinent.


MiG-21 induction in IAF ::

The story of the MiG-21 in Indian Air Force service began in August 1962, when it was chosen over the French Mirage III and the US F-104 Starfighter to fulfill the Indian Air Force requirement for a supersonic fighter to counter the Pakistan Air Force’s Starfighter fleet.

The key aspect of this deal was the Indian insistence on licence production of the chosen type in India. Only the Soviet Union agreed to this part of the contract without strings attached, which made it possible for the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to start producing the next generation of combat aircraft in India.

The first batch of seven IAF pilots and engineers, led by Wing Commander Dilbagh Singh, trained hard at Lugovaya AFB near Tashkent in Kazakhstan. On return to India in 1963, these personnel formed the nucleus of No28 Squadron ‘The First Supersonic’ based at Chandigarh. However, like any initial induction of a high-performance aircraft, the squadron faced teething problems, especially as pilots struggled to carry our meaningful training on the six MiG-21F13s (T-74) available in the build-up year before the 1965 war.

The MiG-21 T-74 was a Mach 2 capable aircraft armed with two Vympel K-13 AAMs (NATO code name AA-2 ‘Atol’) and a single 30mm cannon in the fuselage. The K-13 was the Russian copy of the famed Sidewinder missile, albeit not as sophisticated as the AIM-9B version of the Sidewinder being used by the PAF.

In March 1965, 28 Squadron was bolstered with the delivery of six MiG-21PFs (T-76) variants. The T-76 was equipped with the R1L airborne interception radar, which could locate and intercept targets out to a distance of 20 km. The Russians designed the T-76 in line with the worldwide tactical philosophy of deploying missile armed aircraft only — the T-76 crucially lacking any gun armament like the T-74 it was supposed to replace. Modern missiles were considered sufficient to engage and destroy enemy fighter at combat ranges, with the guns being bespoken as weapons of a bygone era. This led to the production of the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom, the English Electric Lightning and the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21PF (T-76), armed with only air-to-air missiles. Only the French with the Dassault Mirage III insisted on guns as an integral design as part of this generation.

How wrong it proved for the operators of these aircraft, especially the USAF in the Vietnam war, whose F-4 Phantom crews found themselves helpless without guns against the Vietnamese MiG-17 and 19s, more so because of unreliability of the first generation of AAMs in close combat situations. It would be some time before necessary modifications were undertaken to carry a gun pack on these aircraft.

The IAF was destined to learn its own hard fought lessons over the adoption of this philosophy soon.

Initially not scheduled to take part in the 1965 war due to insufficient crew training, especially on the T-76, a decision was nevertheless taken to ship a major component of this fleet to Pathankot after the loss of IAF Vampires over Chamb on 1 September.

Under the command of Wing Commander M.S.D. ‘Mally’ Wollen, the 28 Squadron MiGs deployed to Pathankot on 2 September 1965. The pilots quickly oriented themselves and got down to the task of coordinating combat air patrol (CAP) sorties in conjunction with the IAF’s Amritsar radar unit, whose pick up on the enemy and close controlling would be the key for optimum utilisation of the IAF MiGs.

After flying some familiarisation missions on 3 September 1965, the day Trevor Keelor shot the first Sabre for the IAF, the MiGs were prepared for an offensive CAP mission under Amritsar GCI control for the next day. Mally Wollen would lead the mission along with his Flight Commander, Squadron Leader A.K. Mukherjee as his No2.

The MiG-21 would be making its combat debut with the IAF, a first outside the Soviet Union by any air force.


Jaurian–Akhnur axis. 1515 hours, 4 September 1965 ::

The Indian Air Force had changed its plan to keep the Pakistan Air Force guessing! Unlike the day before, the Mysteres and the escorting Gnats would approach Akhnur from Pathankot on two different directions and rendezvous over Akhnur. The MiGs would sanitise the area under friendly radar control operating at medium levels, aiming to draw the expected PAF CAP component towards them, away from the Gnats.

Four No31 Squadron Mysteres headed towards the Chamb–Jaurian sector at 2000 feet to carry out rocket strikes against Pakistan Army Pattons of 13 Lancers threatening the Indian Army defenders at Jaurian. Rendezvous (RV), with the four Gnats of No23 Squadron, was planned over the Akhnur bridge. Wing Commanders Johnny Greene led the 23 Squadron Gnats, along with Squadron Leader A.S. Sandhu and Flight Lieutenants Pathania and Murdeshwar. Maintaining 1000 feet, the Gnats dashed towards the RV point, with each pilot itching for a Sabre scalp in the coming minutes. Reaching the RV point, the Gnats found that the Mysteres were running late and Greene set the formation into a loose defensive orbit over the Akhnur bridge.

Flying above the Gnats at 16,000 feet under a strict Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) CAP profile was the intrepid MiG-21 pair of Wollen and Mukho, who were monitoring the radio frequency of the Gnats and the Mysteres with keen interest. They were on the hunt for PAF Starfighters, who the IAF intelligence assumed would jump in to support the Sabres from their observed hold area across the CFL.

While at 16,000 feet the air conditioning had cut in for the MiG-21 pair. Though the impending excitement of the mission was working overtime on Wollen and he was still sweating profusely in the pressure suit, a must wear for all early model MiG-21 pilots. It pretty much was the same outfit worn by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on his space mission, used for high altitude supersonic interception profiles on the MiGs. For these, one climbed to 16 km in a quick action trajectory, accelerating to Mach 2.1, and then zoomed to 21 km, flying an interception profile with the radar pointed as per the ground control bearing, while accelerating from Mach 1.8 to 2.1. The IAF practiced this profile right until the early 1980s before it was discontinued.

For this mission, Wollen and Mukho were piloting the latest T-76 version of the MiG-21 and were armed with two K-13 AAMs each.

Wollen was getting restless as the time passed without an update, “Confirm joy on any bogey,” Wollen quizzed 230 SU at Amritsar. “Negative contact with any hostiles,” replied the radar controller. “Boy, we will be sitting ducks if our radar doesn’t warn us of the Pak CAP,” Wollen contemplated and asked Mukho to increase the visual scan.

Close GCI control was the key towards successful utilisation of the MiG-21 aircraft during that era and it was not happening at the moment. Wollen throttled back to endurance settings while the MiGs setup a standard race course orbit, clearing each other’s tails. He switched his R1L radar to transmit as he peered into the small scope of the radar in an attempt to pick up any PAF intruders. The scope only showed widespread clutter, primarily due of the presence of hills abound. As Wollen was switching the radar off, a strident RT call from Greene, the Gnat formation leader, announced contact with enemy Sabres, “Contact with bogeys left 10 ‘o’ clock, four miles, same level. They are Sabres finishing their bombing run.”

Wollen carried out a slow roll inverting the aircraft, peering hard to pick up the Gnats below bouncing the Sabres. “Mukho, accelerate tactical speed and roll out course two niner zero,” Wollen instructed Mukherjee, as both MiGs accelerated to 750 kmph. Wollen intended to catch up with any of the enemy escaping towards Pakistan.

Meanwhile Greene had ordered the Mystere formation to abort their mission and exit from the combat area as the combat was evolving in the same corridor. As his MiG-21 rapidly accelerated to tactical speeds, Wollen got a tail clear message from Amritsar radar, who did not have contact with any aircraft above the height of the MiG-21s. Soon a charged up ‘Pat’ Pathania, the Gnat member from Greene’s formation announced, “Murder, Murder, Murder,” the ritual call of shooting down an aircraft. Flight Lieutenant ‘Pat’ Pathania had shot down Flt Lt N.H. Butt of the PAF, the fourth member of Munir’s formation carrying out napalm runs over Jaurian.

“Great, one down,” Wollen bellowed a hoorah inside the face piece of his pressure helmet. The MiGs made contact with the returning Mystere formation zipping below them. “Not far now,” Wollen thought to himself as he animatedly listened to Greene’s calls that the enemy Sabres had rolled homebound on course two seven zero and the Gnats were breaking off.

Incidentally, while Pathania shot down one, two other Sabres escaped due to gun stoppage issue on the Gnats, which prevented both Murdeshwar and Sandhu from getting a kill each in Greene’s formation. The Gnat was notorious for its 30mm gun stoppage in air problem.

The PAF formation had no clue that it had been intercepted and one of its members had been shot down. The Sabres accelerated homebound, oblivious to the IAF fighters lurking in the area.


Jaurian–Chamb axis. 1529 hours ::

As the Gnats broke contact with the escaping Sabres, Mally Wollen decided to enter the arena. Both the MiGs went into a shallow dive in an effort to spot the intruders. Passing 10,000 feet, Wollen picked up two Sabres flying abreast, crossing left to right, from below towards their frontal quarters.

“Contact two bogeys left 10 ‘o’ clock two kilometers, Mukho I am going for the right chap,” Wollen informed his No2 and carried out a hard turn to the right to create some much needed space and reversed back, scanning in the rear for any other enemy.

The Sabre was descending to low levels and Wollen engaged reheat to close in rapidly. In Wollen’s turn and reversal, Mukherjee fell back and lost contact with his leader due to the pressure helmet face piece obstructing his vision under ‘Gs’.

Wollen targeted the Sabre with his K-13 missiles. At 1.5 km, he got a steady ‘lock on’ tone on his left missile. Taking inputs from the fixed ring and bead gunsight about his range from the target with the radar useless at low levels, Wollen depressed the missile firing button on his joystick at 1.2 km. The K-13 missile separated from the left rail with a flash and ran towards the Sabre, suddenly changing its course and hitting the ground well short of the target. “Damn,” Wollen muttered as he saw the missile hitting the ground.

“It’s the bloody ground heat return,” he said, as he continued to close into the low flying Sabre, getting a bellowing ‘lock on’ tone on his second missile. He positioned himself precariously at the Sabre’s level and launched the missile at 1000 metres from the Sabre, flying a shade over 300 feet from the ground at over 850 kmph. The missile left the right rail and after flying a flattish trajectory for about a second, crossed the Sabre on the right and hit the ground. “What the hell?” Wollen was livid with wanton wrath as he saw the hopeless fate of both his missiles, while his prey was still flying safe and sound oblivious to the narrow escape on both counts.

Wollen’s anger took over his senses as he engaged reheat and rapidly closed into the Sabre. Furious at his predicament, realising that because he was flying the newer T-76 version, there were no guns to shoot down the Sabre.

“Well,” he told himself, “I’ll ram the bugger!” With that Wollen bore sighted his quarry and closed in rapidly with the intent to cause a physical impact. Wollen aimed for the Sabre’s rear fin. Less than 10 meters from the target, on course to ram the Sabre, Wollen let his reasoning take control of his emotions as he sharply pitched up and away from the Sabre, narrowly avoiding the looming collision by not more than five odd meters. He turned to the right and reversed, seeing the now panicky and much aware Sabre pilot making a dash for low levels to escape the “mad” MiG pilot.

For Wollen, who had been involved in an aircraft collision in the past and had survived, it was probably a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy!’ With the combat effectively over, Wollen turned back for base. He and Mukho joined together over Jammu and carried out an uneventful landing back at Pathankot.

For the second consecutive day, the IAF had ruled supreme and shot down a Sabre over Chamb-Jaurian sector without any loss. It was also a noteworthy day in the history of MiG-21 operations, with the IAF MiGs carrying out their first operational mission. They very nearly claimed their first victory on this debut, which, but for the disappointing performance of both the K-13 missiles, would have been indisputably possible — given the fact that the PAF Sabre pilot had no clue that he had a MiG on his tail.

Ironically, had Wollen been flying the older T-74 version of the MiG, he could easily have bagged Munir’s Sabre with the integral 23mm gun.

Muniruddin Ahmed was saved by sheer providence that day, having escaped from the MiG-21’s clutches by the skin of his teeth. He was not so lucky the next time. He was shot down over the Amritsar radar on 11 September 1965, with his fortunes taking a turn for the worse. He was much missed in the PAF.

Wollen on the other hand never reconciled to the fact that he missed shooting down Munir that day and remained acrimonious about it all his life. As a seething Wollen put across to his peers in the dispersal after landing back from that prodigious sortie, “For a cannon, just for a bloody cannon!”


Aftermath ::

Jaurian fell to the Pakistanis in the early hours of 5 September. However, the Pakistan Army 7 Division had used up all its reserves to achieve this feat. Operation Grand Slam had come to a standstill.

On 6 September, the Indian Army launched Operation Riddle, a Corps level attack on the Lahore front, widening the scope of the war all across the International Border with Pakistan, thus effectively sealing the fate of the Pak Army offensive in Chamb-Jaurian, as well as PA’s effort to restrict and confine the war within Jammu and Kashmir.

The Pakistan Air Force became aware of the operational status of the MiG-21s with the Indian Air Force only after Muniruddin Ahmed’s visual confirmation that day. Sakesar radar did not have radar pick up on the fight which took place below 15,000 feet, thus could not vector the Starfighters on CAP near the CFL to join the fight.

After that day, the PAF tied down a number of their air combat assets in exclusive sorties to track and bait IAF MiGs. This was to no avail as the MiGs did not fall for their methods. Significantly, the first engagement in history between Mach 2 fighters took place on 11 September 1965. A single PAF F-104 had a brief encounter with two IAF MiG-21s west of Halwara. The PAF’s No9 Squadron F-104 on being warned of approaching MiGs, pitched his nose down and accelerated to Mach 1.1 at tree top levels, making good his escape. The pugnacious MiGs chased the Starfighter at Mach 1 plus, but could never catch up, turning back for base at the international border.

The small force of the MiGs at Pathankot was also the primary reason why the PAF targeted this base with the largest number of bombing runs in the days to come, which did incidentally knock out two IAF MiG-21s (T-76s) being readied for a sortie on 6 September in a daring strike by PAF’s No19 Squadron.

A crucial advantage the PAF had against the IAF in 1965 war was due to the FPS-20 and FPS-6 radar systems available to them through the US arms aid. This allowed extensive ground controlled interception vectors to the PAF pilots allowing them to achieve advantageous positions in a battle — the key to winning a dogfight.

India only had ground observers with radios supported by one major early warning radar system based at Amritsar. The PAF Starfighter and the Sabre were also equipped with the AIM-9B Sidewinder, an IR guided missile having a much better performance than the early model K-13s employed by IAF MiGs on 4 September. The PAF scored at least 3 AAM kills against the IAF in 1965 using these missiles. In the coming years, the IAF worked hard to acquire elaborate Soviet & French Air Defence radars and thus achieved a much better situational awareness to vector fighters like the MiG-21, which were designed to work best using GCI control for initial positioning.

Even though their contribution was limited to CAP duties in 1965, the MiG-21 pilots of No28 Squadron set the ball rolling for the widespread acceptance of the MiG in the post war years, having gained, and putting to effective use their 1965 wartime experiences. The effort bore effectual dividend for the IAF in the 1971 war.


Post 1965 war MiG-21 utilisation by IAF ::

After the war, the Indian Air Force started receiving the MiG-21FL version in 1966. The 1971 war witnessed the first supersonic air combat in the subcontinent when an IAF MiG-21FL shot down a Pakistan Air Force F-104 Starfighter with its GSh-23 twin-barrelled 23 mm cannon. By the time the hostilities came to an end, the IAF MiG-21FLs had claimed four PAF F-104, two Shenyang F-6, one F-86 Sabre and one C-130 Hercules.

According to Western military analysts, the MiG-21FLs had clearly “won” the much anticipated air combat match between the MiG-21FL and the F-104A Starfighter.

Updated MiG-21 variants continued their services as the backbone of the IAF’s fleet in the 1980s and the 1990s. The MiG-21BIS T-75 and the MiG-21 T-96 were utilised extensively during the 1999 Indo-Pak Kargil conflict for high altitude rocket and bomb attacks against Pakistan Army intruders. Escort to strike and CAP missions were also flown over the battlefield.

On 10 August, 1999, an IAF No45 Squadron MiG-21BIS shot down a Pakistan Navy Atlantique MR aircraft over the Rann of Kutch, after the PN aircraft had intruded inside Indian territory.

In the IAF-PAF engagement in Jammu and Kashmir on 27 February 2019, an IAF MiG-21 Bison flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman of No51 Squadron ‘Swordarms’, shot down a PAF jet in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which as per electronic signatures available with IAF was decreed to be a F-16 of the PAF.

The last of the MiG-21 Bison Squadrons may well end up serving the IAF for a number of more years — a legacy few aircraft will be able to match across their lifetime.

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