M.M. Alam

The Makinig of an Ace

Mohammad Mahmood Alam was a scrap of a man who appeared almost lost in the none-too roomy cockpit of a Sabre. Yet during the 1965 conflict with India, this Pakistani sqwdron commander established a combat record which has few equals in the history of jet air warfare. Many pilots have scored several air victories in one sortie, and have equalled or exceeded Alam’s claim of shooting down up to 5 enemy aircraft of superior performance within a few minutes. But few are Iikely to be able to match his record of destroying at least three opponents- Hunters of the Indian Air Force-within the space of somewhere around 30-40- seconds.

Admittedly, confirmation of Alam’s claims had been difficult to obtain, despite close-range observations of this encounter by several PAF pilots, and some gun camera evidence. Nearest of these observers was his wingman, Flying OfficerMasood Akhtar, who, protecting his leader’s tail, clung like a leech throughout the action. Another section of PAF Sabres, led by Flight Lieutenant Bhatti, was attempting to engage the Hunters but Alam got there first. Flying top cover in an F-1 04 was Arif lqbal who, with intense fascina-tion and frustration watched the brief combat.

On this basis, Alam was originally credited with 5 IAF Hunters destroyed, although the wreckage of only 2 could be found in Pakistani territory, within 2 or 3 miles of Sangla Hill railway station. The bodies of the pilots-one Hindu and one Sikh-were reportedly burnt beyond recognition. The area of the main engagement however, some 30 miles east of Sargodha airfield, was only about 55 miles inside the Pakistan border-some seven or eight minutes at jet speed. Thus only the IAF is in a position to verify, some day, its actual losses on the second day of its war with Pakistan. The clear ascendancy established by the PAF pilots in this encounterand those that would follow on that fateful day was a powerful factor in heightening both morale and fighting spirit in Pakistan’s outnumbered but resolute air arm.

Alam takes up his account of that engagement:

“As we were vectored back towards Sargodha, Akhtar called,’Contact-4 Hunters’ and I saw the IAF aircraft diving to attack our airfield. So I jettisoned my drops (underwing tanks which can be quickly released, for greater combat agility, before going into action) to dive through our own ack ack after them. But in the meantime I saw 2 more Hunters about 1,000 ft to my rear, so I forgot the 4 in front and pulled up to go after the pair behind. The Hunters broke off their attempted attack on Sargodha, and the rear pair turned into me. I was flying much faster than they were at this stage-I must have been doing about 500 knots-so I pulled up to avoid overshooting them and then reversed to close in as they flew back towards India.

“I took the last man and dived behind him, getting very low in the process. The Hunter can outrun the Sabre-it’s only about 50 knots faster-but has a much better acceleration, so it can pull away very rapidly. Since I was diving, I was going still faster, and as he was out of gun range, I fired the first of my two Sidevvinder air to air missiles at him. In this case, we were too low and I saw the missile hit the ground short of its target. This area east of Sargodha, however, has lots of high tension wires, some of them as high as 100-150 ft, and when I saw the 2 Hunters pull up to avoid one of these cables, I fired my second Sidewinder. The missile streaked ahead of me, but I didn’t see it strike. The next thing I remember was that I was overshooting one of the Hunters and when I looked behind, the cockpit canopy was missing and there was no pilot in the aircraft. He had obviously pulled up and ejected and then I saw him coming down by parachute. This pilot (Squadron Leader Onkar Nath Kakar, commander of an IAF Hunter squadron) was later taken prisoner.

“I had lost sight of the other 5 Hunters, but I pressed on thinking maybe they would slow down. (There were, of course, still only 2 Sabres pitted against the remaining 5 IAF aircraft). I had lots of fuel so I was prepared to fly 50-60 miles to catch up with them. We had just crossed the Chenab river when my wingman called out, ‘ContactHunters 1 o’clock’, and I picked them up at the same time-.5 Hunters in absolutely immaculate battle formation. They were flying at about 100-200 ft, at around 480 knots and when I was in gunfire range they saw me. They all broke in one direction, climbing and turning steeply to the left, which put them in loose line astern. This, of course, was their big mistake. If you are bounced, which means a close range approach by an enemy fighter to within less than about 3,000 ft, the drill is to call a break. This is a panic manoeuvre to the limits of the aircraft’s performance, which splits the formation and both gets you out of the way of an attack and frees you to position yourself behind your opponent. But in the absence of one of the IAF sections initiating a break in the other direction to sandwich our attack, they all simply stayed in front of us.

“It all happened very fast. We were all turning very tightly-in excess of 5g or just about on the limits of the Sabre’s very accurate A-4 radar ranging gunsight. And I think before we had completed more than about 270 degrees of the turn, at around 12 degrees per second, all 4 Hunters had been shot down. In each case, I got the pipper of my sight around the canopy of the Hunter for virtually a full deflection shot. Almost all our shooting throughout the war was at very high angles off-seldorn less than about 30 degrees. Unlike some of the Korean combat films I had seen, nobody in our war was shot down flying straight and level. I developed a technique of firing very short bursts-around a half second or less. The first burst was almost a sighter, but with a fairly large bullet pattern from six machine guns, it almost invariably punctured the fuel tanks so that they streamed kerosene. During the battle on 7 September, as we went around in the turn, I could just see, in the light of the rising sun, the plumes of fuel gushing from the tanks after my hits. Another half second burst was then sufficient to set fire to the fuel, and, as the Hunter became a ball of flame, I would quickly shift my aim forward to the next aircraft. The Sabre carried about 1,800 rounds of ammunition for its six 0.5in guns, which can therefore fire for about 15 seconds. In air combat, this is a lifetime. Every fourth or fifth round is an armour piercing bullet, and the rest are HEI-high explosive incendiary. I’m certain after this combat that I brought back more than half of my ammunition, although we didn’t have time to waste counting rounds.

“My fifth victim of this sortie started spewing smoke and then rolled on to his back at about 1,000 ft. I thought he was going to do a barrel roll, which at low altitude is a very dangerous manoeuvre for the pursuer if the man in front knows what he’s doing. I went almost on my back and then realised I might not be able to stay with him so I took off bank and pushed the nose down. The next time I fired was at very close range-about 600 ft or so-and his aircraft virtually blew up in front of me.”