Air Battle Over Lahore 20 September, 1965

Wing Comd Shafiq Chughtai gives a fascinating account of an encounter over the historic city of Lahore

Lahore had earned itself a place of distinction the moment the war started in 1965. On the one hand it became target of enemy attacks, boasts, and propaganda claims, and on the other its citizens became both participants in, and spectators to, Pakistan’s counter-offensive in that theatre. One of the unique spectacles they witnessed, was a rare dogfight between 10 fighter aircraft right over the city. Of these, 4 were PAF Sabres, while the others were 4 Hunters and 2 Gnats of the enemy airforce. Interestingly, it was the last dogfight of the war.

It all started on the evening of 20 September, when four fighter-bombers were ordered up into the air by the air defence controller. Squadron Leader Changezi followed by Flight Lieutenant Anwar-ul-Haq Malik, Jilani and Amanullah lifted off in two’s and as they were still climbing, the controller came on the radio: Victor 125, Angels 20, Patrol between Kasur and Lahore. It appears that the enemy mistook this Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for an offensive mission, poised to cross the border, and it started scrambling fighters to intercept our planes over our territory. The ensuing air battle saw the loss of two enemy aircraft, and the number could have been higher, if the enemy had not broken off the engagement, and the Sabres had not been deferred by the fast approaching darkness into giving up their chase of the fleeing enemy.

Maintaining a steady climb, the Sabres set course for Kasur. They levelled off at the planned height and a few minutes later they had reached Kasur-Khemkaran sector. At 20,000 feet with the afternoon haze and glare nothing was visible down below. It was the 14th day of the war and it was long time since our ground forces had captured the important Indian town of Khemkaran, about six miles from Kasur. The fighting was now going on a few miles south of Khemkaran. The Sabres now turned about and headed for Lahore. All was quiet and peaceful, only the steady roar of engines broke the silence. Suddenly Sakesar Radar beamed a warning: “Four bogies climbing well inside enemy territory heading north” Soon the Sabres were over Lahore. They had been circling over the historic city at a lower height with eyes scanning the air above, behind and ahead, seeking to detect the approach of enemy fighters when out of the corner of his eye Amanullah caught some dark specks below. “Two bandits about 5000 feet below, 11 O’clock:” he yelled on the intercom. With a flick of hands the four fighters jettisoned their spare tanks to get ready for the fight. Except Amanullah, No 4 in the formation, nobody had yet sighted the enemy. On guidance by his wingman, Jilani now spotted the approaching enemy and recognized them as Hunters. The two Sabres peeled over like graceful birds of prey and slashed down, angling towards the enemy. Changezi, the leader, was on the climb when suddenly he spotted two Hunters at 12 O’clock diving towards Jilani at about 3000 feet. Followed by Malik, who was keeping his ‘tail’ clear, Changezi streaked down towards the two Hunters.

It was an interesting situation: Two Hunters pursued by two Sabres which in turn were followed by two Hunters, and the end of the line was made up by two Sabres again. The calm air over Lahore was filled with thud-thud of machine-guns and hissing tracers from the fighting aircraft and thousands of Lahorites, despite the air raid warning, came out of the houses to witness the show of death. The formations clashed with a high screaming reaching its crescendo as the fight developed into a melee. The sky over Lahore was a jumble of crisis-crossing, diving climbing fighters. Changezi braced his controls. With eyes fixed on the gun-sight and his spine slightly arched, he veered sharply to the left as his quarry went through a high-G turn. The silhoutte of the ‘bandit’ had started filling his gun-sight and as it came within range he pressed the button letting out a short burst. The bullets went home and hit the fuselage of the Hunter.

The enemy wavered slightly but continued pursuit of the Sabres ahead. Changezi waited for a brief moment and fired again with the old tenacity of a pilot who feels a kill in his bones. He did a steep turn left, flicking over and then climbing all the time chasing the Hunter as if glued to his tail. The enemy tried all types of evasive tactics but could not throw away the determined Changezi. The diamonds of the gun-sight again closed on the silhoutte and he squeezed the firing button, for about two seconds. This was the end of the Indian. Giving out big plumes of smoke and flames the enemy reeled away and went straight down to his doom. The pilot could not bail out.

In the meantime Changezi’s Wing-man, Malik, stopped giving radio calls of ‘tail clear’. Changezi called him but could not hear anything. There was lot of radio talk going on between Jilani and Amanullah. He called out but again ‘no contact’. At that time Malik was engaged in another death struggle with two supersonic Gnat fighters which had suddenly come out of the blue and pounced upon him as he was keeping Changezi’s ‘tail’ clear. One of the Gnats sneaked near him and gave a long squirt with his guns, and as the bullets landed straight into his right wing, the Sabre lurched. Surprised at this sudden turn of events Malik, who had shot down a Mystere during the historic Battle of Sargodha on September 7, now looked into his mirror and saw another of Gnat fast closing on him with leaders’ guns blazing. The Sabre was badly hit but Malik kicked the controls and banked hard. The Gnat cut across and got his fire converging at an angle and then veering to meet his line of flight from below, giving Malik another burst, a long burst, sending the Sabre into a threat to spin. Malik brought it straight but dense fumes had started filling his cockpit. He put the aircraft in a shallow dive. Fumes had started getting worse and the controls were not answering properly. The R/T was dead and he set course for the base.

However, on the way the conditions worsened and he had to bail out. By evening he reached his base safely.

The grim dog-fight went on between three Sabres and five enemy fighters (three Hunters and two Gnats). Jilani and Amanullah maintained their chase of the two Hunters despite continuous pecking by Gnats. Amanullah was keeping Jilani’s ‘tail’ clear when suddenly he spotted two Gnats closing on him. He broke and after manoeuvring hard he kept himself clear of the attack. While containing the Gnats, one of the Hunters which was being chased by Jilani banked hard and manoeuvred to get behind Amanullah. He closed in and opened fire but the tracers went wide as Amanullah veered sharply to the left. The Hunter shot ahead.

In the meantime Jilani had grimly maintained his chase of the other Hunter. The enemy seemed to be a good pilot and took various evasive tactics through high Gs but Jilani kept his pursuit gradually getting nearer and nearer. His persistence paid off when the shouter of the hunter filled his gun-sight.

As it came within range he moved his finger on top of the firing button and held it down. The Sabre shuddered at the recoil of six machine-guns and a stream of armourpiercing and incendiary bullets slammed into the fuselage of the enemy. The Hunter started spitting smoke and flames as it careered down towards the ground.

Flight Lieutenant Jilani, who had mortally damaged a Gnat in an earlier combat near Ferozepur on September 13, was later awarded Tamgha-e-Basalat.

With two Hunters gone the Indians thought it better part of valour to disengage and leave for home. The three gallant fighters returned to their base safely.