A Fight for Freedom – An Introduction to A Fighter Pilot Speaks

An introduction to the War of 1971 and the associated air combat missions.

Yesterday, the Mentza community was treated to an introductory circle of the stories to come in ‘A Fighter Pilot Speaks’. The pilot is retired IAF Air Marshal Harish Masand, who along with his brothers in arms saw active combat during the War of 1971.

On the evening of December 3rd, 1971, Pakistani Air Force launched a pre-emptive attack on 11 Indian air fields in the West (towards West Pakistan) thus, firing the opening shots of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. This war has been called: “The finest moment for the Indian Military, and a coming of age for the Indian Air Force”.

The War of 1971 has been likened to a ‘Blitzkrieg’ (German: Lightning War) because the hostilities lasted only 13 days and lead to the creation of a new nation state, Bangladesh.

The erstwhile state of East Pakistan was crisscrossed by rivers prone to flooding, in addition to paddy fields making rapid troop movements on the ground difficult and slow.

The Air Force therefore, had the largest share of contributions to the war effort. Air Dominance was established by the IAF by undertaking daring assault missions, photo reconnaissance and close air support missions. This slowed and disrupted the enemy sufficiently to the point that the war was over in just under a fortnight.

At that point in time, Air Marshall Masand, was a fresh faced graduate from the academy. At the age of 24, he was a Flying Officer and part of the 37th Hunter Squadron of the IAF, also known as the Black Panthers. This squadron has operated various fighter aircraft over the years, such as the de Havilland Vampire, Hawker Hunter (F56/T66) and the MiG-21 U/M variants.

In 1971, the Black Panthers were flying the Hawker Hunter F/MK56 variant.

Crest/Insignia of the 37 Squadron, “Black Panthers”

The Black Panthers were stationed at Hashimara in North Bengal. At the start of the war, Air Marshal Masand notes that he only had 240 flying hours on the Hawker Hunter. However, he was a confident pilot. He credits his confidence to the tough training and zero compromise instructors who exercised their powers with impunity. He states, “If you didn’t perform, you perished. I had a lot of friends who were thrown out to ground jobs, very quickly (sic)”.

This was also a period of expansion for the IAF, with an ambitious goal to operate 46-60 squadrons. As a result, there were a large number of pilots. The Air Marshal recalls that during this time, his squadron had 52 pilots, but not enough aircraft due to various financial and political reasons. Compare this to peace time operations where a squadron will normally operate with 16 fighters, 2 trainers and 20 pilots.

Hawker Hunter
Kaboldy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He credits his success and confidence in battle to the tough but through training that he received. The training enabled him to evolve professionally, and enabled him to add more tools to his bag of flying skills.

Training was just the first hurdle. This young pilot then had to prove his worth. He reminisces that he would have come across as in-disciplined with long hair, a rebellious streak and an argumentative flair. Despite this, he was taken on as a permanent wing man by his commanding officer, who grew to trust his judgement.

Fighter operations in the war formally began at dawn on the 4th of December. Recall that Pakistan attacked on the evening of the 3rd. The technology of the time limited fighter operations to day light conditions, with the exception of some aircraft.

Flying Officer Harish Masand was assigned to one of the very first combat missions of the war, mission 501. He would be part of a 4 aircraft strike formation. He was assigned the 4th position [Lead: (center), 2 (right), 3 & 4 (left), positions relative to flight leader. The image below is representative only. The Thunder Bolts are the Aerobatic Squadron.]

Hawker Hunter Mk 56. IAF’s formation aerobatics team ‘Thunder Bolts’. Picture Source: Pinterest, Credit: aerobaticteams.net

Their mission was to strike the Tejgaon airfield at Dhaka, the Time over Target was 0705, which meant that they were in briefing by 0430 and took to the skies at 0630.

Mission 501
Map Attribution:Maglorbd (talk) 09:29, 5 January 2018 (UTC), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

They were well prepared for the mission. They had their orders, they had their plans and their maps. They knew what they had to do. Despite the training, nothing really prepares one for war. Everything goes out the window when the first shots are fired. He does recall that the “Ignorance of youth is bliss” which allowed these rookie pilots to fly into a dangerous war zone without a second thought. In fact, right at the start, Air Marshal Masand acknowledges the ‘short lifespans’ for fighter pilots. This is an inherently dangerous profession and fighter pilots ride on the bleeding edge.

Early into the flight, one of the aircraft involved in the mission had engine trouble soon after start and had to drop out of the mission, so now, 3 aircraft with Flying Officer Masand taking the no. 3 position in the formation.

Since they had to fly a longer than usual distance for the mission and the type of aircraft, they had orders to not engage any PAF F-86 Sabres in the area that may attempt to “Bounce” IAF forces.

They were instructed that 2 IAF MIG-21’s will rendezvous with their flight over Tejgaon and that the MiGs will engage any threats, however as luck would have it, they were intercepted by a flight of PAF Sabres’ 13-15 miles short of the target, with the IAF interceptors no where in sight.

Since every position in a strike formation has a specific role to carry out, Flying Officer Masand had to assume the role of a sub-section leader and take tactical decisions to protect his flight leader and wing man.

Despite being low on fuel and the challenge imposed by operating the Hunters at the limits of their operating range, the no. 3 fighter of the Black Panthers flight engaged the PAF Sabres in a dog fight over the skies of East Pakistan.

He shot down one and damaged/evaded the other, forcing him to leave the engagement zone. He then returned to base, quite literally flying on fumes, the last of the fuel reserves burned dog fighting the Sabres’.

PAF F-86 Sabre

The account above is just to whet your appetite. In future circles, Air Marshal Masand will be going over the missions in more detail.

I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Note/Disclaimer: All information in this blog has been researched and care has been taken to provide the most accurate information available, with hyperlinks and attributions so that Mentza listeners can find more information and build an accurate sight picture of the theater of combat.

If you have concerns about any content or there has been an inadvertent breach of Air Force protocols w.r.t rank, abbreviations or factual inaccuracies please do not hesitate to reach out.

I will be happy to address your concerns and where valid, make the required corrections. For everything else, please comment below! Happy flying and safe landings!

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