One IAF Gnat takes on four PAF Sabre Jets over Srinagar- 1971 Air War

Flying Officer NirmalJeet Singh Senkhon, Param Vir Chakra, 1971 War.


A Gnat parked besides a Mystere. no wonder Pakistanis called it ‘Machchar’

‘A Hard Nut to Crack’ were the words used for FO Senkhon by the Pakistan Air Force Pilot Saleem Baig Mirza, who shot him down over Srinagar Air force Station in the morning of 14 Dec 1971.
Mirza was providing top cover to a PAF strike force of four F-86 Sabre jets on Srinagar airbase. The aircraft providing top cover fly a few thousand feet above the attacking formation so that they can use the gravity assisted increase in speed when they dive in for helping out against any enemy attack.

Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon was attached to the No. 18 Squadron, ‘The Flying Bullets’ and they flew the aptly named  Folland ‘Gnat’. This was a midget aircraft and the Pakistanis jokingly called it ‘Machchar’. Although half the size of its main adversary, the F-86 Sabre-jet,  ‘Gnat’ had earned the reputation of being a giant killer and was responsible for multiple sabre kills in both the 65 and 71 wars.  It had two ADEN 30 MM cannons which could shoot a 220 gm projectile at 1600 RPM. In those times very few aircraft on both sides of the border could carry a missile as its primary weapon. In the IAF it was the MiG-21 and on the PAF side it was the F-104 Starfighter. Rest all aircraft like the IAF  Hawker Hunter, Su-7 or PAF Sabre or Mirages would use their guns in low-altitude, turning dog-fights to score their kills. This was pure guts and skills…knowing your aircraft’s capabilities better than the back of your hand. It was not as easy as shown in movies like ‘Top Gun’ where a green circle turns red and you press a button and voila.

Coming back to the story, this formation of six sabres flew all the way from Peshawar to attack Srinagar. As they were coming in for the bombing run, IAF Srinagar station alerted about the ground attack, had asked the two pilots on ORP – Operation Readiness Platform (Planes fueled and armed for a quick scramble) were directed to take off. Lead Gnat – Flying officer Ghumman and Gnat # 2 FO Sekhon lined up on the run way to take off. Sekhon had to wait for a few seconds after Ghumman accelerated for take-off. All this while he could see the four Sabres lining up one behind the other to drop their 500 KG bombs on the runway which he was waiting to get on to. As the dust from Ghumman’s gnat settled and Senkhon powered his engine up, first of the bombs started falling around him. His gnat took to air and he immediately lined up behind the two lead Sabres who had just attacked the runway and had flown over him as he was taking off. Now, he was sandwiched between the lead pair and the trailing pair of Sabre jets. But most importantly, his wing-man in lead gnat, Ghumman was nowhere to be seen.  Sekhon now realized that he was alone in this fight…against four enemy aircraft…and the other two sabres a few thousand feet above which were providing top-cover, which till now he was not aware of. one against six.

Despite being outnumbered, senkhon pressed on his attack and damaged  sabre #2 which exited the fight trailing smoke. Now he was behind the lead sabre, the senior most PAF pilot in that mission who was desperately calling for help. As explained earlier, Senkhon was positioned between two Sabres ahead of him while two sabres behind. Now the # 3 sabre started closing in after jettisoning his fuel tanks. PAF pilot Andrabi was now flying right behind senkhon and firing at him from the six  0.5″ nose  guns. For some reason, even at a textbook range from target and perfect aim, Andrabi spent all of his 1800 rounds but couldn’t score a single hit. He would realize later that one of his two fuel tanks had failed to drop, resulting in the imbalance which caused the aiming error. Fighter planes carry disposable fuel tanks to increase their range and time over target and have the capability to dislodge them in case they need to get into a fight, so as to be lighter and quicker.

Andrabi shouted ‘Three is Winchester’ on his RT (radio transmission) which basically meant sabre # 3 was out of bullets. At this moment, Senkhon dropped his own fuel tanks and without any immediate threat from the rear, started closing in on the Sabre in a tight turning fight. Now, the lead sabre was shouting high level expletives and asking the two sabres up above to dive in and help him out. Saleem Mirza Baig had been watching the fight from his vantage point in the sky and in a way admiring the skills of the IAF pilot, now dived in the fight to help out his leader. Gaining speed as he converted gravitational potential energy into Kinetic energy, he quickly positioned himself behind Senkhon who was menacingly close to Sabre lead. Baig fired multiple shots from his powerful cannons and was able to deal a fatal blow to Sekhon’s diminutive Gnat which started trailing smoke. Baig saw the Gnat level off and head back to the base, but suddenly became inverted and crashed soon after. Senkhon tried to eject, but as the aircraft was too close to the ground, he couldn’t survive. The aircraft crashed in a gorge and in a very sad turn of events, Senkhon’s body couldn’t be located. All this while, Senkhon’s wingman Ghumman hadn’t joined the fight.

For this exemplary show of courage and making the supreme sacrifice, Flying Officer Sekhon was awarded the Param Vir Chakra.

Here is a pic of  an IAF Gnat and a Dassault Mystere (similar size as a Sabre Jet)…you can guess which one is which.

P.s.- there are conflicting claims by IAF and PAF on this event. IAF records show that Senkhon damaged two PAF sabres while PAF says that none of its aircrafts were damaged. But both IAF and PAF agree on one issue- the gallantry and skill shown by Senkhon in the battle over Srinagar.

– Jai Hind…Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

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