December Special

An Epic Air Combat Mission Over Dacca

In a matter of a few gut-wrenching minutes, the F-86 Sabre pilots, junior flying officers Shams-ul-Haq and Shamshad Ahmad of No. 14 Squadron had managed to ward off attacks by three successive formations. Not only did they survive an incessant onslaught by eight aircraft, they were able to keep their wits about and shot at several of them.



Twelve days after the Indian intrusion into East Pakistan, the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Yahya, responded on the evening of December 3 by opening a front in West Pakistan. In the East, the writing on the wall was clear, but No. 14 Squadron, the sole fighter unit, was determined to put up a fight to the last. The next morning, everyone was in high spirits, eagerly awaiting the drama that was to unfold as the curtain of fog gradually started to lift from the runway.
Combat air patrols had started right after the first light, and by the time a pair of F-86 Sabres, flown by junior Flying Officers Shams-ul-haq and Shamshad Ahmad were scrambled, five missions had already flown. Immediately after taking-off, they were vectored by the radar onto an intruding pair which turned out to be Su-7s, as Shams spotted them promptly. Jettisoning their drop tanks, the F-86s prepared for engagement, but were surprised to see the still-laden Su-7s’ formation split and throw in a sharp turn. As Shams was manoeuvring to shake off the Su-7, which was fast turning towards his rear, he saw the other one shoot off what appeared to be two missiles in quick succession, at Shamshad’s F-86. While Shams watched the missiles swish past his No. 2, he was dumbfounded to see another one being fired at his own aircraft. Shams broke into a defensive turn and was relieved to see the missile miss its target as well. Stupefied at the strange turn the dogfight was taking, Shams immediately pulled up behind the Su-7 that was now zooming past him. Instantly selecting his guns, Shams started firing at the Su-7 which was about 1,800 feet away. Continuing the shooting till he was close enough to pick up ricochet, Shams saw the bullets land around the canopy. At this time, the heavily smoking Su-7 selected its afterburner and tried to accelerate away. Shams claimed that soon afterwards, he saw the aircraft spiral and eventually go down. He then immediately switched to the other Su-7 which was still on his No. 2’s rear quarter, but it too lit the afterburner and sped away. While confirmation of the Su-7’s downing was still uncertain, the F-86s had been successful in intercepting them before the weapons’ release. Shams and Shamshad needn’t have been bothered about the flurry of missiles launched at them as these were 57mm unguided ground attack rockets cleverly fired off by the Su-7s when their mission stood aborted after being intercepted.


Shams and Shamshad needn’t have been bothered about the flurry of missiles launched at them as these were 57mm unguided ground attack rockets cleverly fired off by the Su-7s when their mission stood aborted after being intercepted.


Barely finished with shaking off the menacing Su-7s, Shams heard the radar controller call out that there were four Hunters turning for them. Outnumbered this time, Shams decided to split so that each F-86 was to engage a pair of Hunters, while foregoing mutual crosscover. To Shams’ good luck, the pair he was engaged with also split up and one of the Hunters inexplicably pulled away out of sight. Shams then manoeuvred behind the other Hunter and managed to close in to 600 feet before opening up with his six guns. Accurate fire got the Hunter smoking, and a few seconds later, he saw the pilot eject out of the struck aircraft.


Outnumbered this time, Shams decided to split so that each F-86 was to engage a pair of Hunters, while foregoing mutual crosscover.


Looking around for his wingman, Shams was more than relieved to spot Shamshad firing at a Hunter. At this time, the radar called out the position of another bogey that Shams was able to spot in a few seconds. Apparently warned about his presence by the other Hunters, Shams saw his quarry diving down in a westerly direction towards West Bengal. With his bullets spent, Shams decided to use the Sidewinder missile, which he had earlier decided not to use due to its uncertain performance in a tight-turning dogfight. Crossing well about ten miles into Indian territory, Shams was able to close in to a mile behind the Hunter. Getting down below his target, Shams heard the unexpected growl of the seeker head at very low height and let off the missile. According to Shams, “The aircraft immediately turned into a ball of fire like a napalm explosion. I saw the pilot being thrown out at an angle of 45 degrees to the right.” Shams then orbited over the area and directed the radar controller to mark his position so as to be able to apprehend the downed Hunter pilot, if possible.
At the limits of their endurance, Shams decided to recover back and asked his No. 2 to land first. Subsequently, as Shams was setting up for his landing, he saw a Hunter to his left side. Trouble seemed to not end as Shams was out of ammunition; in a show of bravado, he broke off and chased the Hunter for several minutes while Dacca scrambled another pair. When yet another raid was reported by the radar, Shams thought it wise to grab the first opportunity to land back.
Just two hundred feet from the landing threshold, Shams couldn’t believe his ears when the radar controller’s radio crackled a warning about two intruders 8,000 feet behind him. If he continued with the landing, Shams thought to himself, he was sure of presenting his aircraft as an easy target to be shot at in merry good time. Instead, he peeled off from the landing approach, cleaned up his aircraft’s ‘dirty’ configuration, and broke into a MiG-21 that he saw less than a mile behind. Turning hard into the MiG with whatever little speed he had been able to build up, Shams managed to force an overshoot, but his quarry accelerated away. Going by Killer Control’s1  instructions to the leader of the new F-86 pair that had just taken off, Shams was able to pick up the engagement nearby. However, with his fuel tanks almost dry, Shams finally came in for a long overdue landing.


Getting down below his target, Shams heard the unexpected growl of the seeker head at very low height and let off the missile. According to Shams, “The aircraft immediately turned into a ball of fire like a napalm explosion. I saw the pilot being thrown out at an angle of 45 degrees to the right.”


In a matter of a few gut-wrenching minutes, the rookie F-86 pilots had managed to ward off attacks by three successive formations. It was a wonder, not only did they survive an incessant onslaught by eight aircraft but that they were able to keep their wits about, and managed to shoot at several of them. Squadron Leader K. D. Mehra of Dum Dum based No. 14 Squadron was one of Shams’ victims, who ejected near Dacca and was able to evade capture with the help of the omnipresent Mukti Bahini. Details of Shams’ second Hunter victim are hard to come by, but going by his story of having seen his victim eject inside Indian territory followed by an orbit over the location for a radar fix, his claim may not be totally unfounded. Shamshad’s victim was last seen by ground observers to be trailing smoke, is considered as a ‘damage’.


Squadron Leader K. D. Mehra of Dum Dum based No. 14 Squadron was one of Shams’ victims, who ejected near Dacca and was able to evade capture with the help of the omnipresent Mukti Bahini.


Pakistan Air Force in East Pakistan did not have the wherewithal to be of any consequence in a full-scale war, and it came as no surprise that it was grounded within three days despite the heroic performance in aerial battles while it lasted. It had already outlasted its utility when the war morphed from counterinsurgency against the Mukti Bahini to a full-scale Indian invasion with regular troops, mightily supported from the air.


The effort put in by No. 14 Squadron, with sterling support from No. 4071 Radar Flight, can however be looked at from an academic viewpoint as a classic performance in a fight against odds.


The effort put in by No. 14 Squadron, with sterling support from No. 4071 Radar Flight, can however be looked at from an academic viewpoint as a classic performance in a fight against odds. Despite the looming futility of the exercise, there was no lack of grit and determination, with everyone contributing to the best of his professional ability. Four aircraft were downed by No. 14 Squadron’s brave pilots. Complementing the kills by fighters, batteries of Pakistan Army’s 6 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, deployed in various sectors, shot down ten enemy aircraft between December 4-16. Against a loss of five aircraft, PAF and the AAA element together destroyed almost three times as many Indian aircraft; this was an impressive exchange from an air defender’s standpoint.


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1 A cleverly perched lookout tasked to visually guide the interceptors about the raiders’ position with the help of geographic landmarks.

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