This recollection is of a brave Indian Air Force pilot who took on Pakistani pilots in a dogfight during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Not one or two, Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon single-handedly entered into a dogfight with six Pakistani fighter jets – that too of superior capability to this own jet – and eventually attained martyrdom. He was awarded India’s highest national award for courage, the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. He also remains to be the only Indian Air Force pilot to have received the PVC.
The Pakistani Air Force was keeping up attacks on Indian airfields such as that of Amritsar and Pathankot. But the one airfield they were particularly targeting was that of Srinagar. The IAF was providing close support to the Indian Army which was launching limited offensives against Pakistan. To disable the IAF from providing support, the Pakistani forces were keen on impairing these airfields.
The easiest of targets was the Srinagar airfield. Pakistani F-86 Sabres raided it very frequently. They were comfortably able to do so because India did not station fighter aircrafts in Srinagar during peacetime which was in compliance with the conditions of the 1948 ceasefire. Seeing how often the Pakistanis targeted the Srinagar airfield, a small IAF detachment drawn from No.18 Squadron IAF was moved in.
The Sabres would bomb the runway in an attempt to handicap the airfield but they were able to do only limited damage. Indian repair crews quickly fixed the damage to bring it back into use.
There was no radar coverage in the Kashmir Valley. This meant that warnings of incoming Pakistani jets were dependent on Observation Posts on peaks along the Pir Panjal range — basically a few soldiers, sometimes with binoculars. But at times even the OPs couldn’t sight the Sabres as they came in shrouded in winter fog.
Early on the morning of December 14, the Pakistan Air Force launched another raid on Srinagar. Six Sabres burst upon the Srinagar airfield. Four of them, each carrying two 500-pounder bombs, came with the motive to bomb the runway. The other two were to provide top cover.
The two Indian pilots on readiness that morning were Flight Lieutenant B.S. Ghuman and Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon. A Pakistani raid wasn’t expected seeing that the conditions were foggy and the visibility was poor. When the raids by the Sabres began, Ghuman and Sekhon got in their cockpits in no time but had to wait as the Sabres were bombing the runway. Take-offs are not undertaken during raids as this allows anti-aircraft gunners to fire freely, and also because running in a straight line down the runway makes the aircrafthighly vulnerable to raiders.
When the first two bombs exploded on the runway, Ghuman, eager to take the Pakistanis on, took-off on his own initiative. Sekhon did the same as he took his leader’s take-off as clearance for himself, but he had to hold back for a few momentsas the clouds of dust raised by Ghuman’s Gnat had cut his visibility to zero. By the time it had cleared enough for him to see, two more bombs had exploded. Despite this, Sekhon roared down the runway.
The four bomb-carrying Sabres were attacking along the line of the runway, from directly behind the end from which Ghuman and Sekhon had commenced their take-off rolls. So, as Sekhon lifted off, the two Sabres which had already dropped their bombs were directly ahead of him and the other two were directly behind.
Sekhon roared after the first Sabre pair. One of those Sabres had a squadron commander who was also an experienced veteran of combat in 1965. When he saw Sekhon, he yelled: “Gnat behind, all punch tanks”.Sekhon continued his aggressive chase after the two Sabres. He was no more than a 1,000 ft away fromt them. One of them, Dotani, whose Sabre was on a precarious energy state, made a getaway. With Sekhon firmly on his tale, the other one too headed home. Sekhon had forced two Sabres to disengage and flee home on his own. The sheer determination with which Sekhon was flying straight for Sabres had unnerved the four Pakistani pilots.
Now Sekhon engaged the other two Sabres. The fight had turned into a circling tail chase – the Sabre leader was being pursued by Sekhon’s Gnat, which in turn was being pursued by the No.3 Sabre.“I’m in a circle of joy, but with two Sabres. I am getting behind one, but the other is getting an edge on me,” Sekhonsaid over the radio.
Andrabi, who was in the No.3 Sabre, was firing continuously at Sekhon. The Sabre was fitted with six guns which carried no less than 1,800 rounds of ammunition. This firpower was enough to take down a whole formation, yet, Andrabi used up all his ammunition without being able to bring down Sekhon’s Gnat.
The Sabre leader called for the No.3 to form on him, and as they were doing so, Sekhon took advantage of the moment, and jettisoned his drop tanks. The Pakistanis realised that the Gnat could now turn even more tightly, and started to catch up with the Sabre pair. The other Sabre pair, still providing top cover above, was said to have ‘watched in astonishment as the Gnat snatched degrees at a dizzying rate. The situation was getting stickier by the minute and in a couple of turns the Gnat was in a menacing position.’Finally, the Sabre leader had to call for the escort pair to join the combat.
By now, Sekhon had scared away two Sabres, and had given such a hard time to the other two that even they’d almost ran out of ammunition and were calling for help! One can understand by now what an incredible pilot Sekhon was!
The sub-section leader of the pair that was providing top cover dived down and taking advantage of height opened fire on Sekhon. Sekhon’s Gnat started to spew thick black smoke.Sekhon tried to call to his leader Ghuman: “I think I have been hit. Ghuman, come and get them.”
But before Ghuman could effectively engage the Pakistani Sabres, Sekhon’s Gnat pitched down uncontrollably from a very low height. Sekhon’s attempted a last-minute ejection, but it wasn’t a success. The search party found the wreckage of Sekhon’s Gnat riddled with 37 bullet holes.
When the citation for Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon’s Param Vir Chakra was written, he was credited with having ‘scored hits’ on one enemy Sabre and having set fire to another.
The heroism at display by Sekhon can’t be appropriately applauded in words. One must take a minute to remember to this legend and salute him for protecting us despite almost insurmountable odds. As long as we have such men in our forces, no enemy can do us any harm!