Shahadat by the Naval Aircrew

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Contributing Editor Vice Adm (Retd) IQBAL F QUADIR writes passionately about the Indian Air Force's dastardly attack on the unarmed PN maritime reconnaissance aircraft

Tenth of August, 1999 would be remembered as a Black Day in Pakistan. On that day two Indian Air Force Mig jet fighters sneaked into Pakistan's air space and tried to skyjack an Atlantic patrol aircraft of the Pakistan Navy from over Sindh to India. Failing in their dastardly objective, the Migs shot down the unarmed slow moving aircraft without any warning. It was a dirty cowardly act only the Indian Air Force could be proud of. I am sure, if the Indian people were aware of the truth they would bow down their heads in shame. Sixteen naval personnel onboard led by the Captain of the aircraft Lieutenant Commander Mehboob Alam preferred Shahadat to preserve national honour rather than to be skyjacked to India. This was in keeping with the true spirit of Islam and traditions of the Navy

A Pakistan Navy Seaking helicopter later found the wreckage of the Atlantic about three kilometres north of the boundary line with India. Some parts of the aircraft were still burning at that time. Indian uniformed personnel collecting broken pieces from the crash site ran away in their helicopter at the first sight of the PN Seaking. BBC TV coverage of this contemptible incident that day also showed Indian uniformed personnel scurrying about collecting parts of the downed aircraft. The shooting down of the unarmed Atlantic and stealing of aircraft parts was nothing short of military aggression on Pakistani soil which has yet to be regretted by the Government of India. Luckily, providence in its benevolence to Pakistan has let the culprit himself provide the video evidence of his perfidy.

A study of the contradictory Indian media reports establishes beyond doubt that two Indian Mig-21 fighters corralled the Atlantic well inside Pakistan's air space and tried to force it to go to India. According to reports, two other Indian fighters circled high in the adjacent Indian airspace as protection for the two Migs, which had sneaked into Pakistan for the Atlantic. It is also clear from Indian reports that unable to shake off the Indian fighters, Lt Cdr Alam rather than surrender to this disgraceful act of air piracy made a final bid to break away before reaching the Indian border. His plane was then mercilessly shot down.

Atlantic-91 of the Pakistan Navy took off from Sharae-Faisal Base (Faisal for short) at 09:14 on Tuesday 10th August for its training mission in the Badin sector. Onboard, in addition to the Captain, were a crew of two officers and four sailors. In addition, there were two young pilots recently out of the Pakistan Air Force Academy, Risalpur and seven sailors of different specialization for training. For the two young pilots this was to be their initiation into flying with these over thirty-five million-dollar aircraft so much cherished by entire Navy's fixed wing pilots. They were to exercise under a highly experienced crew who had operated dozens of times before in the area.

Karachi, containing the country's major international airport and PAF and Naval Air Bases has a modern and well-equipped (Karachi Airport) Control Tower. The Civil Aviation Authority operates its own long range and short range radars, which enable the Control Tower to monitor all air traffic up to and beyond the border with India and to keep all planes flying in and around Karachi operate under its control. It gives flight path clearance to all aircraft in the region and allocates exercise areas together with any height restrictions to ensure their safety. For the training mission of Atlantic-91 that day, Badin area was considered most suitable because of the air navigation facilities around there, little density of air traffic and the area's regular use for training by PN for nearly twenty years. Normal procedure was followed on 10th August and Atlantic-91 proceeded on its assigned task as directed by Karachi Airport. Keeping a height of around 7,000 feet ensured the aircraft remained painting on Karachi Radar all the time. Its safety was thus ensured. PAF too has its own radars in this area. In addition, all Naval Air Squadrons have Standing Instructions to keep well outside the 10-kilometer restricted zone along the border with India, doubly ensuring compliance with the 1991 Agreement and never before has there been any complaint from the Indian Government on this score.

Inquiries have been in progress in Pakistan to establish what happened, how and why after the Atlantic arrived in the exercise area? However, it has been possible to ascertain bits of information which together with what the Indians have put out themselves, confirm that the two Indian Migs operated well inside Pakistan's air space for a length of time before they shot down the Atlantic. According to the Indians, their Ground Radar picked up an aircraft track inside Sindh near Badin, at 10:51 (Indian Time) approaching the Indo-Pakistan border. At 10:54 it touched the border and for the next 17-18 minutes this aircraft carried out a series of manoeuvres over the area staying within or close to 10 km of the boundary. At 10:59 two Mig-21 fighters, who had been scrambled two minutes earlier, were directed to the north arriving in the general area of the Atlantic at 11:10. Two minutes later the Atlantic proceeded initially west and then turned south to touch the border and then turned west again. The Indian fighters were then directed southward to keep abreast of the bogey (unidentified aircraft), keeping on Indian side of the border. At 11:14 the Atlantic turned south and entered Indian airspace (for the third time) and penetrated 10 km into Indian territory before turning on an easterly heading. (This is Indian version which is blatantly false).

The Indian release continues that at this stage the Ground Radar manoeuvred both Migs so as to place the leader between the border and the intruder and the wingman brought behind the unknown intruder. The leader made radar contact at 10 - 15 km range, visually sighted and identified the aircraft as a PN Atlantic and the leader closed to 300 meters, on his left, intending to formate on him and signal him visually. As the leader of the interceptors was jockeying into position, the Atlantic turned into him in an aggressive evasive attempt. The Atlantic had earlier been declared hostile after it had been identified, and at 11:17 (approx.) on being cleared to fire by ground radar, the leader fired an R-60 missile at the Atlantic hitting the left engine 5km South of the border.

According to this Indian report on the Internet, the Atlantic after being hit continued to be seen on IAF ground radars. It entered a loose descending spiral turn to the left, burning fiercely with wreckage falling off. In the process, it described an arc 5 kms within Pakistani territory before facing an approximately southeasterly direction again close to the border before disappearing from the IAF ground radar screen. It would therefore seem that the Atlantic carried out an amazing feat of flying more than 10 km after being hit by a missile. Furthermore, Indians certainly have the most envious type of ground radars that can observe fires as well in the sky. Simultaneously, Indian authorities have also released a map of the area showing the tracks with timings of Atlantic-91 and the Indian Migs. Therein, the crash site is marked separately about two kilometres south of the border and the missile-firing position is shown about six to seven kms further to its southeast. It is noteworthy that this firing site has been physically shifted about seven kms westward from where the aircraft tracks end. On adjustment of aircraft tracks for the crash site shown on the Indian map and seven kms tracks misalignment, from the Indian version itself it becomes clear that the Migs were flying inside Pakistan's airspace most of the time particularly when closing in to skyjack the Atlantic. .

The lack of information from the Pakistan side has left uncertainties in the minds of many people. Some quarters have even started a whispering campaign against the crew of Atlantic-91. However, one thing is certain that the new precision navigation system fitted onboard all Atlantic aircraft of the Pakistan Navy enables them to fly with almost perfect accuracy. The plane just could not have been more than a few yards outside its allocated area, certainly not miles as claimed by the Indians. It has now been unofficially learnt that on 10th August the Karachi Radar picked up the two Indian fighters and tracked them till their echoes faded at 10:41(11:11 IST) in position 120 Karachi 94 nautical miles. This position is about 20 kms inside Pakistan from the southern edge of the border and over 10 kms from the eastern edge of the frontier at Border Point 1175. Interpolating this radar contact with the Indian given track means that the Migs were inside our airspace for nine minutes approximately in their chase for the Atlantic.

Investigating further, from the Indian narrative of events the Migs were airborne at 10:59 IST (10:29 PST) and were in general area of the Atlantic at 11:10 IST i.e. it took them eleven minutes to reach there. At 400 kts, assuming that these aged Migs now travel at less than their maximum 450 kts, they must have flown over 70 miles from Naliya Indian airbase which is located only 40 NM from the border. This means the Migs after entering Pakistan's airspace as shown in the map may have penetrated as deep as thirty miles from a point west of Border Pillar No.1175 to the place where the Atlantic-91 was exercising.

An important point not reported in the media is that the left engine of the ill-fated Atlantic fell almost half a kilometre northwest of the fuselage. Had the Indians discovered it before the Pakistan Navy Marines arrived at the site on the 10th, they would have certainly removed the engine for display on their side of the border. The position of the left engine relative to the fuselage clearly establishes that Atlantic-91 was heading south, and not northward as claimed by the Indians, when it was hit on the left engine which immediately detached and fell at a faster rate than the fuselage. The latter, for one was being pushed cyclically forward and leftward by the right engine and into a downward spiral, which took the fuselage almost half a kilometre further in the southeasterly direction than the left engine. The actual direction of the fuselage on the ground would depend on the position of the spin at the moment of impact and could have been in any direction.

A number of Ham radio operators in North America informed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and CBS News, after the effort at air piracy by India, that they overheard radio traffic between the ground controllers and Indian fighter aircraft during the attack on a Pakistani aircraft. They reported that order was given to destroy the aircraft, but it was out of weapon range. The order was then given to chase the aircraft, which was reported as being 'several miles' inside Pakistani territory and to shoot it down when inside range. The Indian aircraft reported firing and then reported, 'Turning back to Indian airspace.' This corroborates and confirms that the Indian fighters penetrated deep into Pakistan airspace to try and 'skyjack' Atlantic-91. Lieutenant Commander Mehboob Alam, as stated earlier, preferred Shahadat for himself and the rest of the personnel onboard rather than surrender to this dastardly Indian act of air piracy.

The state of mind in India at that time can be judged fairly accurately from some of the statements and comments given to the media then. According to the magazine 'India Today' 'Defence experts point out that the Indian Air Force (IAF) had built up a dubious reputation of lax vigilance in the area. The same magazine quotes Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis the Indian air chief saying, 'Air intrusions in this area have been taking place for years. It was time to take action.' The magazine 'Outlook' quotes an IAF official, 'The aircraft came in thinking this would be another routine sortie. This time around, however, the air force, still smarting after their choppers were shot down in Kargil, decided to go after the Pakistanis.' The Indian Express commented, 'The simmering tension between India and Pakistan in the wake of Kargil conflict boiled over when an Indian Air Force aircraft shot down an intruding Pakistani military plane.' 'The Outlook' quotes the Defence Minister George Fernandes to have said, 'This intrusion was one of the many that had occurred in this sector. So what was the Indian Air Force and allied intelligence agencies doing? Was it another Kargil in the making?' Thereafter, he is quoted by the Guardian of London and the Statesman of New Delhi to have warned Pakistan that, 'since the wreckage was lying two km on the Indian side of the border, it would not tolerate attempts to interfere with salvage operations,' and, 'that any attempt to enter Indian territory to recover the wreckage would be treated as hostile act. Since then he has conveniently forgotten the Indian Air Force a streaming across the border.'

The Kargil syndrome is clearly visible all throughout in the Indian mind, and the shooting down of Atlantic-91 inside Pakistan's air space, without any warning on the radio as required internationally, was nothing but a cold blooded act of murder. It was a revenge for the loss of face the Indian Air Force suffered at Kargil. Someone in India should be held responsible for it.'

One hopes that in Pakistan, the people and the government will appreciate this act of supreme sacrifice rendered by the Captain of the PN Atlantic-91 to safeguard the honour of the country and the nation. And, that this meritorious act of courage and bravery in the face of a superior enemy would be recognized immediately, by bestowing him with the highest gallantry award of the country. Fifteen other naval personnel onboard, for no fault of theirs, also became victim to this wanton Indian act of aggression on an unarmed aircraft. Their deaths need to be recognized too, as resulting from an act of military aggression by India and suitably rewarded. Fighting conditions at 'the front' are very different for personnel of the Navy when compared with those faced by the personnel of the Army or the Air Force. In the Navy the whole unit is always involved together in any action against the enemy. and there is no opportunity for display of individual courage or acts of bravery against the enemy. In the case of the Army and Pilots of the Air Force, individuals are literally fighting one to one and exposed to dangers individually with an opportunity to display their courage and valour. In the case of Atlantic-91 it is certain that faced with a similar situation individually as Shaheed Lt Cdr Alam did, all of them would have preferred Shahadat without hesitation. Yet, it would be difficult to award all of them the Nishan-e-Haider. However, considering the gravity of the circumstances in which they lost their lives, all individuals are deserving of a suitable gallantry award. The country must not be miserly in offering recognition of the services rendered by those who perished and award appropriate military honours to them. This is the least that the country can do. It is also the only way that we will establish traditions for the young and for generations to come.