F-104 STARFIGHTER IN COMBAT
|By: Wg Cdr Aftab Alam Khan, Pakistan Air Force (Retd) Introduction
This is a personal account of the crucial role played by the dozen F-104 Starfighters of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the Indo-Pakistan War of September 1965. The Indian Air Force (IAF) had then approximately 900 aircraft against PAF’s total of only 150. To win the battle for air superiority against these odds was a daunting task. Losing air superiority would have meant that Pakistan would have had to face the full might of the IAF, the consequences of which would have been disastrous. It was therefore imperative, that the PAF won and kept control of the air.
Induction of the Starfighter in the PAF
Sqn Ldr Sadruddin and Flt Lt Middlecoat landed the first Starfighters at PAF Base Sargodha in 1962. In the following months, Pakistan inducted a total of 10 F-104A and two dual seat F-104B training aircraft in No 9 Squadron. These were USAF F-104C aircraft refurbished and updated with the latest J-79-11A engine, and upward ejection seats. Equipped with the M-61 Vulcan six barrel gun, the AIM-9B Sidewinder missile and the AN/ASG-14T1 fire control system, the aircraft was designed for high altitude (above 5000 feet), day /night interception/combat. Pakistan was the first country in Asia to induct a Mach 2 aircraft into its airforce. While most countries in Europe were still flying subsonic aircraft and none in Asia had an aircraft of this class and technology, many in Pakistan and abroad were skeptical of the PAF’s ability to fly and maintain this advanced system. The PAF’s flying skills, technological prowess, and competence, were soon proven. The pilots and ground crew of No.9 Squadron, who had been handpicked from F-86 squadrons, became the envy of the PAF by gaining mastery of the aircraft. To be part of No.9 Squadron, the cream of the PAF, was a great honour and privilege. In 1964 I was lucky to be given this honor. Sqn Ldr Jamal A Khan, the Squadron Commander was a very dedicated officer who set and maintained high standards. Training and flying in this Squadron was hard work. Safety always came first.
The J-79-11A engine was sophisticated and complicated. It had inlet guide vanes in front of the engine, and a variable nozzle system in the rear. These were liable to fail, but the PAF maintenance crew had mastered the equipment. We only had one engine flame out, and the pilot Flt Lt Khalid managed to make a ‘dead stick’ landing. This was a difficult maneuver requiring precise judgement. The pattern was flown at 240kts and the landing flare started 300 ft above ground level, to make a touch down at 190 kt, on a 9000 feet long runway. Only one F-104 was lost during training – a training air combat sortie – in which Flt Lt Asghar ‘pitched up’, and went into a spin. He ejected safely at high speed, and received major bruises. The aircraft was replaced under the MAP program. Operational training was fun. Flying at Mach 2 was an incomparable experience. The thrill of coming under radar control, attacking F-86 formations, that were denied radar help, was a fighter pilot’s dream come true. The F-104 zoomed out of nowhere, and before the F-86 pilots could start their defensive maneuvers, the F-104 had completed its simulated missile launch and was breaking off.
Conditions Prevailing Before the War
Sqn Ldr Jamal handed over the squadron to Sqn Ldr Middlecoat who commanded it during the 1965 War. Sqn Ldr Middlecoat was a thorough professional, who remained cool in the most trying circumstances. It was a pleasure serving under this wonderful and humane person. It wasn’t long before war clouds started to appear on the horizon. The fun days were coming to an end. The real stuff was starting. Everybody started looking into the operational aspects of the aircraft. How could the F-104 be used in Combat against India? The F-104 was capable of very high-speed, and a terrific rate of climb, but its turning capability was severely limited. It had to achieve complete surprise to accomplish a successful attack. The enemy had radar cover above 5000 ft. Even if the target maneuvered slightly, the F-104 had to break off. Several exercises were conducted under these conditions, and the subsonic aircraft operating under radar cover were found able to easily defend themselves. The combat potential of the Starfighter, under these conditions was therefore questionable.
Besides the F-104, the PAF had about 102 F-86F aircraft of 1952 vintage. Compared with the relatively modern Hawker Hunter Mk VI with an engine of 10,000lb, the F-86 with only 6000lb thrust was grossly under-powered. Some Pakistani pilots in the UK had flown the Hunter and the Gnat and they reckoned that the F-86F did not stand a chance against the either the Hunter or the Gnat in air combat. The IAF also had excellent ground attack aircraft, Mystere IV and Vampires; these would become effective after air superiority was achieved. Therefore, the PAF could not afford to lose the battle for air superiority. If they did, the Pakistani ground forces would have come under severe pressure. Pakistan had only one main fighter base at Sargodha, and two smaller bases at Karachi and Peshawar. There were only two high powered radars, one in the north, and one in the south. The lines of communication ran north-south, close to the border and were very vulnerable. The PAF had a huge responsibility.
Early in 1965, warlike activity started in the disputed territory of Indian held Kashmir. Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Nur Khan had taken command of the PAF, just before the war. These were the days when we would be briefed daily, ‘under no account should any IAF aircraft be pursued across the border, if an aircraft is shot down, the wreckage must fall within Pakistani territory’. This was done to ensure that India would not be provoked into escalating to an all out war. All the concentration was along the disputed territory of Kashmir. On 3rd September 1965 an IAF Gnat was flying over Pakistan, on its way to its home base. A lone F- 104 was vectored to intercept the aircraft. Closing in at supersonic speed, the F-104 crossed the Gnat. There was no chance of making a successful intercept. But the Gnat pilot, probably thinking that there were more aircraft in the area, promptly lowered his gears and landed at a disused Pakistani airfield below, and surrendered himself. At that time, few thought that there was any chance of a real war breaking out. Life went on as usual. The routine was that a daily morning Combat Air patrol (CAP) would be airborne well before dawn. The F-104 formation would climb to 30, 000 feet, patrol the area near Kashmir and land back one hour after sunrise.
The balloon went up on the morning of 6th September 1965. I got airborne with my wingman on a CAP mission. We climbed out under radar control, and were directed to the border near Kashmir. I was informed that the IAF had crossed the Pakistani border and were attacking ground positions approximately 80nm south of us. This meant that India had actually decided to start an all out war. We were immediately vectored to the area, and were soon over the site where the Indian aircraft were attacking. While dawn was breaking at 15,000 feet, it was still dark down below. I asked for permission to descend to ground level, but was denied. The reason given was that radio contact would be lost. I, however, decided to descend and leaving my wingman at 15,000 feet, to act as radio relay, I dove down and headed towards some flashes. As I reached the area, I was surprised to see that I was flying head-on into a formation of four IAF Mystere IV aircraft that were attacking ground targets. I was shocked more than I was surprised, as I felt a wave of anger leap through me. I had to shoot down these aircraft. I jettisoned my external fuel tanks and started to engage the Mysteres, as they turned into me. Maneuvering started at tree top level. I kept my eyes ‘glued’ on the target. I could feel the strain, under high ‘G’s’, looking over the tail of the aircraft, keeping the enemy in sight, and skimming the trees at high speed. One mistake, and I would have hit the ground. If I had lost sight of the Mysteres, the fight would have been over. The F-104, with the afterburner blazing, at low altitude, was responding very well. I used the high speed take -off Flaps to improve the turning capability as required. The ‘Stick Shaker’ was a big help, in flying the aircraft to its limit. The Mysteres would have no problem keeping the F-104 in sight because of its afterburner. After some hectic maneuvering, I was positioned behind two aircraft, but the other two were still not visible. I then spotted them, further ahead. Joy leapt through me; I armed my weapons, and decided to shoot the first two with missiles and the next two with guns. I fully realized that a confidential order prohibited me from using the missiles below 10, 000 ft. However, I was sure the missiles could be used effectively at any height, provided the targets could be discriminated from background heat sources. A distinct increase in missile tone ensured this. I set the wingspan of the Mystere IV, and started to recall the missile-firing checklist. ‘Check Range’, ‘Check Tone’, ‘Check G’s’, ‘Squeeze the trigger and hold’. I aimed the missile at the nearest aircraft, and heard the loud pitched missile tone. The sight indicated that I was in range. With all other requisite firing conditions met, I squeezed the trigger, and kept it pressed. I waited, only to note that the missile had not fired. As I looked towards the left missile, I saw a big flash, and the missile leaving the aircraft. The missile had taken, as stipulated in the manual, approx. 8/10ths of a second to fire after the trigger had been pressed but in combat, this seemed like an eternity. The flash of the missile blinded me for a few seconds. The radar controller who was also monitoring the radio of the Mystere’s, immediately informed me that one Mystere had been shot down and that another had been damaged. I was then at once instructed to turn right and pick up visual contact with the other Mysteres, which were exiting. I turned as directed but could not see them.
On landing back, I was informed that the dog fight had taken place overhead the Rahwali Airfield where a low powered radar was located. The Mystere’s wreckage had fallen close by; the other three had gotten away. It gave me great satisfaction and amusement to think the effect that would be created on the IAF when the tale of the encounter with, ‘the F-104′ was narrated by the pilots who got away. To quote Hussaini, the PAF’s official aviation painter, ‘Apart from being the first encounter to start the war in earnest, the engagement was also significant in other respects. It marked a new era in dogfighting at very low altitude. It was also the first combat kill by any Mach 2 aircraft and the first missile kill for the Pakistan Air Force’. Moreover, it was also proven that the F-104 and the Sidewinder missile were an effective weapon system at low altitude.
India had launched a full-scale attack, and we were now at war. India had the advantage of the aggressor, but had failed to take advantage of the ‘first strike’. The PAF now had to counter attack. The Air Chief arrived on the base. As I saw him he looked confident, and very aggressive. He was a genius; his planning was only surpassed by his boldness in execution. He had to fight 900 Indian aircraft with his 150. What could he do? The odds were impossible. He immediately gave instructions to reconnoiter (recce) the forward IAF air bases of Halwara and Adampur with the F-104. The pilots returned to report that the airfields had a full compliment of aircraft. He then enquired how many aircraft were available for a ‘dusk attack’. He was told that only seven F-86’s were serviceable. He ordered four to attack the IAF Base of Adampur, and three to attack Halwara Air Base. The plan appeared absurd. Attacking an airfield with only four aircraft and three aircraft respectively, after a recce .The enemy would be waiting. The attack was sure to fail. Subordinate commanders tried to convince the Chief to withdraw the order. None of us could appreciate the reason behind his logic. Command is lonely, and it takes courage to stand by one’s convictions. The Chief stood firm. The ‘dusk attack’ was launched.
Of the seven PAF F-86 aircraft that took part in the ‘Dusk Strike’ two were shot down. The PAF kept attacking the IAF bases all night with B-57 bombers. The Air Chief hoped that the IAF would retaliate next morning, and attack the main PAF fighter base Sargodha that was 90 nm from the border. Radar was not effective at low altitude; therefore, the PAF had a string of Mobile Observer Units (MOU’s), that could plot and report low flying aircraft in Pakistani territory. Since the IAF attack was expected at low level, it would not be a surprise for the PAF. The only question now was, whether the IAF would take the bait, and attack Sargodha. Early next morning, on 7th September 1965, a large number of PAF F-104 and F-86 aircraft set up a Combat Air Patrol (CAP), over /near Sargodha, waiting for the enemy to attack. The F-104s were assigned the outer perimeter, while the F-86s were kept closer to the airfield. The Mobile Observer Units started to report the incoming intruders as they crossed the border and headed for Sargodha. The anti-aircraft guns opened fire as the first group of attacking aircraft came in. Surprisingly, these planes got through, without being intercepted. The next attack was picked up by Flt Lt Arif Iqbal in a F-104, and as he was about to fire, he suddenly saw an F- 86 flight appear between him and the enemy, and shoot down the Mystere. The attacks then came wave after wave, each one being intercepted, mostly by F-86’s, because they were positioned closer to the airfield. Flt Lt Amjad, in a F-104, shot down a Mystere, only to fly into the debris of the exploding aircraft. He ejected safely. By noon all attacks had ceased. The ‘Battle for Sargodha’ had been won. Never again in this war did the IAF venture to attack Sargodha in daytime. AVM Nur Khan had scored; the genius and courage of his plan had worked, his main air defence assets were safe.
The pilots of No.9 Squadron competed fiercely, to undertake as many combat missions as they could. Never missing a chance to close with the enemy, hungry for combat. In the days that followed, the F-104 pilots noted that whenever they got airborne, the IAF grounded all its aircraft. This made it very difficult for the F-104 pilots to engage the enemy during daytime hours. Flt Lt Mushtaq, my brother, flying a F-104 in the same Squadron, made contact with the enemy, only to note that as he approached the target, the IAF Hunters disengaged well in time. Flt Lt ‘Micky’ Abbas in an F-104 had a similar episode. This experience would be repeated for the F-104 pilots for all daytime interceptions. I personally patrolled in a lone F-104, at 30,000ft, deep inside Indian territory, over the two Indian fighter airfields of Adampur and Halwara for one hour, and there was no response from the Indian side, no IAF fighter aircraft were scrambled to engage the intruder leisurely loitering over Indian airbases. This was total air superiority, and it displayed the complete and utter supremacy the Starfighter enjoyed over the IAF.
At medium and high altitudes the F-104 ruled the sky. The IAF refused to challenge the Starfighter, keeping at a safe arm’s length distance from challenging it. But below 5000ft, a fierce battle raged between the F-86 and the IAF fighters, mainly the Hunters and Gnats. The F-86 was the workhorse of the PAF, it was under-powered, outnumbered, and out-gunned. Nevertheless, the F-86 pilots showed great courage as they fearlessly engaged their opponents, and displayed an unusual skill for air combat, achieving an excellent kill ratio. The F-104 by controlling the sky at medium and high altitude, had reduced the workload for the F-86 ‘s to the extent that the disparity in numbers was manageable. The F-86’s could now hold their own against the enemy at low altitude. The F-104/F-86 team had won the battle for the air. The PAF had fully established air superiority. The job had been done; numbers did not matter now. The will of the enemy to fight the F-104 had been broken. It was a tremendous contribution by the F-104 in the war effort. The Starfighter reigned supreme. It had played a pivotal role in the defense of Pakistan, and the battle for air supremacy by the PAF.
Immediately after the start of the war there was an urgent need for a high speed reconnaissance aircraft. The PAF RT-33 was rendered obsolete, with a speed of less than 400kts; it was liable to be shot down as it crossed the border. At night we were on constant operational standby duty, one hour in the cockpit and one hour off. In the off time, I would go and receive the B-57 pilots returning from their bombing missions over Indian airfields. The battle damage from these missions needed to be assessed. I suggested to the Base Commander, that if he authorized a recce mission by the F-104, I would have a photograph on his table, by noon next day. He ordered the mission. Low flying was not a part of the F-104 war plan, no training had been conducted, but while demonstrating the aircraft’s capabilities, I noticed that the Starfighter flew very well at low level. I planned the mission at 600kts, (10 miles a minute). Low flying was normally done at 420kts in the F-86 Squadrons. For the photograph, I went to town early morning, and bought a roll of film for my personal Yashika 120 camera. I then requested the Squadron Commander to allow me to fly while he took the photographs. He consented. The mission was flown in a F-104B dual-seater. Ten miles a minute made the DR navigation very easy. Over flat terrain, the altitude of the aircraft was lowered until the Squadron Commander, acting as the rear pilot for this mission said that the downwash was hitting the ground. This height was then maintained – a thrilling experience. We pulled up, slightly off-set from the airfield. Pictures were taken and a visual recce made. The photographs were placed on the Base Commander’s table, as promised. The missions that followed were with bigger and better cameras, but I was always told to fly. The F-104 had a new role.
The reconnaissance flights revealed that the forward IAF bases had only approximately forty aircraft each at Adampur and Halwara, and even fewer than that at Pathankot. Where were the rest of the IAF aircraft? This got me thinking, and I went on to study the map. Moving further east from the Indian Airfields of Adampur and Halwara were Agra and Delhi. These airfields were 350nm from Sargodha. There was no attack aircraft in the PAF inventory that could reach these airfields flying at low level. If an aircraft approached at a high altitude level, it could easily be intercepted. I, therefore presumed that the Indians would have the bulk of their aircraft at these bases, and because they were sure they could not be attacked, the aircraft would be in the open. Pakistan had the F-104A with the J-79-11A engine, which was very fuel-efficient. This gave the PAF F-104’s an extended range capability. I marked the route and was surprised to note that if we took off with four tanks and jettisoned them as they went empty, we could reach these bases while maintaining a speed of 540 knots at low level. It would also allow us to make two gun attacks, exit at 600 knots to the border, climb to attain height and land back with 1000 lbs of fuel remaining.
The plan looked like a very exciting possibility to me. I thought of ‘Pearl Harbor'; complete surprise could be achieved. I stayed up all night, made the Flight plan, and next morning made the proposal to my Squadron Commander. He told me that he was against submitting the proposal, as it was too risky. I then took the plan to the Wing Leader who had been my instructor on the Harvard T-6G. He said that it was a good plan but refused to take it any higher. I then went to the Base Commander. He said he liked it, but he would not make the proposal to the high command. There was nobody else to go to. Immediately after the war, The Air Chief ordered a high altitude recce mission of the airfields at Agra and Delhi. This was to be flown by the B-57F (Droopy), a four engine Fanjet modified B-57 that had replaced the U 2, and was flown by Pakistani pilots. The recce Flight revealed that Agra and Delhi were sprawling with aircraft. If the F-104 had attacked Delhi and Agra, it could have been a historic day for the PAF, as well as for the IAF to remember. This was the greatest chance missed by the PAF and the F-104. After the war I had a chance to discuss the plan with the Air Chief, he said that he would have definitely ordered the attack if it had been brought to his notice.
F-104 as a Night Interceptor
The F-104 was the only night fighter with the PAF. Its radar was good for high altitude, line astern missile attack, but was unusable below 5000 ft, because of ground clutter. Also, if the target started to turn, it was not possible to deliver a missile attack. These were the limitations of the system. The IAF Canberra bombers would operate at night, usually below 500 feet. One aircraft would drop flares while others bombed the targets. After delivering their ordinance they would exit at low altitude, but as they approached the border, the Canberra’s would start climbing. At this time the F-104’s would be vectored for the intercept. The IAF had also installed tail warning radars on their Canberras. As the F-104 started to get into a firing position, the bombers would start a defensive turn and radar contact would be lost. Twice, I had made radar contact but as I closed into missile range, the aircraft executed a defensive maneuver. Only Sqn Ldr Jamal A Khan was lucky enough to shoot down a Canberra. He executed a perfect ‘text book ‘ attack, with a missile launch. The Canberra Pilot was captured. He stated that the tail warning radar made very annoying beeping sounds at low level, therefore, he had switched it off, and he had forgotten to switch it on again as he had climbed out. Although the F-104 made only one night kill, it did achieve an ancillary objective, i.e. it did prevent the enemy from doing damage. The threat or fear of the F-104, forced the Canberras to operate at low altitude levels, once over Pakistani airspace. This prevented the attacking pilots from making determined attacks. They did not, or could not properly identify their targets, and thus dropped their bombs at random, doing little or no damage.
As the war progressed, a radar controller assigned to the army gun radar unit told me that the army radar could spot the IAF Canberras very clearly at night, but the track length was limited to approximately 20 NM. I realized that this was good enough for the F- 104 to make an interception. With its high speed it could position itself behind the target very quickly, and once this was done, the F-104 could be aligned with the help of its InfraRed (IR) gunsight for a missile or a gun attack. The Canberra tail warning radar was ineffective at low altitude. To get the system functioning, only a radio had to be installed in the army radar unit. The war ended before the system was made effective and put into practice.
Flying the high speed F-104 at night in war time conditions was hazardous. The environment was as hostile and dangerous as the enemy. When there was no moon visible, the nights were pitch dark, as the blackout was complete. Haze and poor visibility was common. The runway lights were switched on once the aircraft was about to pitch out for a landing, we were lucky if we could see the airfield lights on downwind, and turning base. The landing conditions were severe. The TACANs were not aligned with the runways, there were no approach lights, ILS or VASI. It was under these conditions that Flt Lt Abbasi, while making an approach, crashed short of the runway. The F-104 was completely destroyed but he miraculously escaped and survived to fly again.
The Last Flight
A cease-fire had been agreed to, and the fighting was to stop at 3 am on 23rd September, 1965. I was told to confirm the same from the air. The visibility was excellent, but it was a dark night. From 30,000ft, I could see the firing along the bombline. It looked like a ping pong match. Exactly at 3 a.m. the firing started to slow down and then it stopped completely. I made the report and was ordered to land back at the home base. As I came on for final approach, I noticed the runway was tilted to the left, I turned left, and discovered that I was no longer aligned with the runway. I approached the runway in a zig- zag manner and decided to go around and try again. I guess the stress, fatigue and landing conditions were creating illusions. I asked for my Squadron Commander, who came immediately, I explained the problem, and he gave me the necessary instructions. The next approach was worse, after which I had fuel left for two further attempts. I tried again, and was told to overshoot. My Squadron Commander then told me to eject on the down wind; he was getting the Helicopter airborne. Now I only had 200lbs of fuel left, just enough for one last approach. At this time the air traffic controller requested permission to switch on the entire airfield’s lights, as the war was over. As soon as this was done, my senses returned to normal, and a safe landing was carried out. Thus ended the 1965 Indo-Pak war. The F-104 and myself had seen it start, and we saw it finish, a lucky and historic coincidence.
Tribute to the Starfighter
Pakistan got the better of the IAF, with odds of 1:6 or 150:900, and the PAF maintained Air Superiority, day and night. The genius and courage of Air Marshal Nur Khan and the F-104/F-86 team had made this possible. Undoubtedly, the F-86 was the workhorse, but the F-104 had a very special task. The PAFpilot/F-104 team had created a situation where the IAF pilots did not have the will to fight the F-104. When the F-104 was ‘UP’, the Indian Air Force was ‘Down on the Ground’. This removed a major portion of the threat. The Starfighter and its pilots had contributed immensely to achieve this victory. The pilots by flying and engaging enemy aircraft very aggressively, never losing any opportunity to engage the enemy, by day or by night. Working long hours, and flying under difficult flight conditions. The maintenance crew and the F-104 deserve a special accolade, ‘not one technical abort, or snag affected a mission’. The F-104 was flown by determined pilots, maintained by efficient crew and supported by dedicated radar controllers. This made a tremendous team, that helped win the battle for air superiority for the PAF. The F-104 Starfighter was in a class of its own-‘Superlative’, to say the least. Without the dozen Starfighters the outcome of the war might not have been so good. ‘It definitely was a pleasure, a great thrill, and the ultimate experience to fly the F-104 in Combat’.
THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
Dawn 6th September, 1965, Flight Lieutenant Aftab Alam Khan in F-104 A Starfighter destroys a Mystere IV and damages another, to mark the start of theIndo-Pak War over West Pakistan. Apart from being the first encounter to start the war in earnest, the engagement was significant in many respects. It marked a new era in dogfighting at very low altitude. It was also the first combat kill by any Mach 2 aircraft, and the first missile kill for the Pakistan Air Force. The Air Defence Controller for this interception was Flight Lieutenant Farooq Haider from Sakesar radar.
Air War College PAF Faisal. Painted by Group Captain Hussaini, 1987.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
I read with great interest an article in your current issue titled ‘F-104 Starfighter in Combat’. Very interesting indeed! Since I happen to have spent time at PAF Base Sargodha in the early sixties and also fought the 1965 war from that base, I have had the opportunity to have observed the performance of the F-104 and the pilots flying them very closely.
The aircraft was, in my opinion most ill-suited for kind of combat the PAF was expected to get involved in with a war with India. Though the 104 was very fast (Mach 2), had an excellent rate of climb and acceleration its performance in close combat was extremely poor with a wing span of just 22 feet. What is most creditable, however, is that despite all these limitations the overall performance of No 9 Squadron, the only one equipped with the 104s, was exceptional to say the least.
The credit for its outstanding performance must be given to the supreme dedication and the fighting spirit of the No. 9 Squadron pilots, the ‘Griffins’ as they were then called. They were most outstandingly led by their Commander, Squadron Leader M.I. Middlecoat, pilots of the likes of Aftab Alam, his brother Mushtaq, Saleem Sundal, etc would have excelled on any type of aircraft because of his leadership and their collective dedication.
Through the columns of your esteemed journal I would like to illustrate the dedication and the fighting spirit of the pilots of No.9 Squadron during the war. One day I found Middlecoat very disturbed, which was not in his nature, and being very close to him I asked him as what was troubling him. His reply to me was that an ‘outstanding pilot of his Squadron, Flt. Lt. Aftab Alam, had been awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat and he has refused to accept it saying that he was only doing his duty to the best of his ability.’
It was this spirit that made the pilots of No. 9 Squadron do the impossible, this was their ‘ULTIMATE WEAPON’.
CECIL CHAUDHRY, SJ, SBt
In addition to those built by NATO and Japan, surplus American F-104As found their way into the air forces of Jordan, Pakistan and Taiwan. F-104As and F-104Gs of Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force claimed several victories in occasional clashes with reconnaissance and fighter planes from the People’s Republic of China. Apart from Vietnam, however, Starfighters saw their principal combat use with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which used them in two wars against India, in 1965 and 1971. The PAF’s experience over Kashmir was more significant than the U.S. Air Force’s over Vietnam because its F-104s were the first ones to engage in the type of air combat for which they had been designed.
Pakistan acquired its Starfighters as a direct result of the Soviet downing of an American Lockheed U-2 spy plane that had been based in Peshawar in 1960. Understandably annoyed at the Pakistanis for allowing the Americans to use their country as a base for espionage missions, the Soviets threatened to target Pakistan for nuclear attack if such activities continued. Taking the threat seriously, the United States agreed to provide Pakistan with enough surplus F-104A interceptors to equip one squadron.
Although the F-104As were intended to defend Pakistan against high-flying Soviet bombers coming over the Hindu Kush Mountains, their actual combat use would be under quite different circumstances. In the summer of 1965, a dispute involving sovereignty over the Vale of Kashmir–smoldering between India and Pakistan for many years–erupted into war. At that time the PAF had about 140 combat aircraft, mostly American-built, including the F-104As of No. 9 Squadron. Facing them was the Indian Air Force (IAF), with about 500 aircraft of mostly British and French manufacture. The IAF had also begun to acquire MiG-21Fs, new Soviet interceptors capable of Mach 2, but only nine of them were operational with No. 28 Squadron in September 1965, and they saw little use.
The war, which lasted from August 15 to September 22, 1965, did little for either side except waste lives and materiel. Pakistan used the F-104As primarily for combat air patrols, usually consisting of two Sidewinder-equipped F-86F Sabres, with a Starfighter to provide top cover. The F-104s occasionally provided escort to PAF Martin B-57B Canberra bombers or reconnaissance aircraft and sometimes flew high-speed photoreconnaissance missions themselves.
Indian pilots were initially intimidated by the formidable reputation of Pakistan’s Mach-2 interceptors. In their first aerial encounter on September 3, two PAF F-86s battled six IAF Hawker Siddeley Gnats while an F-104A, flown by Flying Officer Abbas Mirza, darted around above, vainly trying to get a shot at one of the elusive Gnats. When a second F-104A arrived, however, one of the Gnats, flown by Squadron Leader Brij Pal Singh Sikand, suddenly descended and landed on the airfield at Pasrur.
The first air-to-air victory by an F-104–or by any Mach-2 airplane–came on September 6, when Flight Lt. Aftab Alam Khan, disobeying orders by descending below 10,000 feet, downed one Dassault Mystère IVA fighter-bomber with a Sidewinder at an altitude of 5,000 feet and damaged a second. During attacks on Rawalpindi and Peshawar by IAF English Electric Canberras that night, three F-104s tried to intercept them but failed to get a target acquisition because the bombers were too low. During an Indian attack on Sargodha air base, however, Flight Lt. Amjad Hussein Khan used his cannon to destroy a Mystère IVA, killing Squadron Leader A.B. Devayya of No. 1 Squadron, IAF. Debris from the exploding Mystère struck the Starfighter, however, and Amjad was forced to eject at low altitude. He had reason to be grateful that his F-104 did not have the original downward-firing ejection seat–otherwise, his subsequent award of the Sitara-i-Jurat would probably have been posthumous.
On the night of September 13-14, Squadron Leader Mervyn Leslie Middlecoat achieved the first blind night interception in an F-104, firing a Sidewinder at a Canberra from a distance of 4,000 feet and reporting an explosion, but failing to obtain a confirmation. Another Starfighter was lost on September 17, when Flying Officer G.O. Abassi tried to land in a sudden dust storm, undershot the runway and crashed in a ball of fire. Miraculously, he was thrown clear, still strapped in his ejection seat, and survived with only minor injuries.
On September 21, in the last days of the war, Flying Officer Jamal A. Khan finally got to use the Starfighter in the manner for which it had originally been designed, scoring a solid Sidewinder hit on a Canberra at 33,000 feet over Fazilka. The Indian navigator was killed, but the pilot, Flight Lt. M.M. Lowe, bailed out and was taken prisoner.
During the course of the Kashmir War, No. 9 Squadron flew a total of 246 sorties, of which 42 were at night. The F-104As gave a good account of themselves on the whole, but criticism was raised over their insufficient maneuverability, lack of ground-attack capability and the inefficiency of their radars at low altitudes. The Pakistanis had actually gotten a lot more value out of their older Sabres, which could be used for both air combat and ground attack.
Hostilities again broke out between India and Pakistan on December 3, 1971, this time over the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Once again, the IAF outnumbered the PAF by nearly 5 to 1. More significant, however, the qualitative advantage enjoyed by the PAF in 1965 had been considerably reduced. For all intents and purposes, the F-104A had been the only supersonic fighter in service over the subcontinent in 1965. Since then, India’s Hindustan Aeronautics, Ltd., had been producing improved model MiG-21FLs under license. By 1971, the MiG-21 had become numerically the most important fighter in the IAF, with 232 in service, enough to equip nine squadrons. In addition, the IAF had six squadrons of Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-7BM supersonic fighter-bombers.
Pakistan had managed to acquire enough F-104As from the Royal Jordanian Air Force to keep No. 9 Squadron operational, but the Starfighter was no longer Pakistan’s only supersonic fighter. By 1971, the PAF had three squadrons of French-built Mirage IIIEJs and three squadrons of unique Shenyang F-6s–illegal Chinese copies of Russia’s supersonic MiG-19F, which the Pakistanis had improved with British Martin-Baker ejection seats and American Sidewinder missiles. In addition, the Pakistanis had replaced their older model F-86Fs with five squadrons of a far more potent version, the Canadair Sabre Mark 6, acquired via West Germany and Iran.
The air war began in earnest on December 3, when the PAF launched strikes against 10 Indian air bases but failed to eliminate the IAF with that one blow. When the IAF struck back the next day, No. 9 Squadron’s F-104As downed a Gnat and an Su-7 over Sargodha. During an attack on the radar installation at Amritsar on December 5, No. 9 Squadron suffered its first loss of the war to anti-aircraft fire. Flight Lt. Amjad Hussein Khan ejected from his F-104 and was taken prisoner. Wing Commander Arif Iqbal scored an unusual Starfighter victory during a raid on Okha Harbor on December 10, when he downed a land-based Bréguet Alizé turboprop anti-submarine patrol plane of the Indian navy over the Gulf of Kutch.
A particularly significant air battle took place on the afternoon of December 12, when a pair of F-104As tried to strafe the Indian airfield at Jamnagar and were themselves attacked by two MiG-21FLs of No. 47 Squadron, IAF. One F-104 fled northward, and the other sped southwest over the Gulf of Kutch with Flight Lt. Bharat Bhushan Soni in pursuit. Applying full afterburner to his MiG, Soni fired a K-13 missile, but the F-104 evaded it and then turned sharply to the right. Cutting inside the Starfighter’s turn and closing to 300 meters, Soni fired three bursts from his GSh-23 cannon, then watched the stricken plane pull up. The pilot ejected and parachuted into the shark-infested Gulf of Kutch. Soni called for a rescue launch, but no trace of his opponent, Wing Cmdr. Middlecoat, a decorated veteran of the 1965 war, was ever found. The Starfighter had clearly been unable to outaccelerate or outturn the MiG-21 at low altitude. It was equally clear that Indian pilots were no longer intimidated by the F-104.
That fact was demonstrated again on the last day of the war, December 17, when No. 9 Squadron’s Starfighters clashed with MiG-21s of No. 29 Squadron, IAF. Squadron Leader I.S. Bindra claimed an F-104, though in fact it escaped with damage. In a later fight over Umarkot, Flight Lt. N. Kukresa made a similar premature claim on an F-104, but when he was attacked in turn by another Starfighter, Flight Lt. A. Datta blew it off his tail, killing Flight Lt. Samad Ali Changezi. Interestingly, while no MiGs were downed by Starfighters during the war, one was reportedly shot down by an F-6 on December 14, and another MiG-21 lost a dogfight with a Sabre flown by Flight Lt. Maqsood Amir of No. 16 Squadron, PAF, on December 17–the Indian pilot, Flight Lt. Harish Singjhi, bailed out and was taken
Author: Unknown Contributed By: H Khan