New Delhi: When Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, flying a MiG-21, downed a cutting-edge F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) during the 27 February dogfight, it marked a major feat in India’s air-defence capabilities.
It also bore several similarities with an incident with Pakistan six decades ago, when that country first scored a hit against an IAF aircraft. The April 1959 operation ended with Pakistan shooting down an Indian Air Force (IAF) plane, detaining its two pilots and repatriating them to India, just as happened with Wing Commander Varthaman.
The operation in question took place on 10 April 1959, as India deployed an English Electric Canberra PR 57 aircraft to conduct a photo-reconnaissance over Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
The morning of 10 April 1959
It was Eid, and most PAF personnel had been given the day off, with a skeleton crew, mostly comprising unmarried officers and airmen, on duty.
They included Flight Lieutenants Mohammad Yunis and Naseer Butt of 15 Squadron (the unit also known as the “Cobras”), stationed at Peshawar.
As Yunis and Butt sat drinking tea, the radar operator, Pilot Officer Rab Nawaz, operating a Second World War-era radar set, announced that an “intruder” had flown in from Indian airspace, towards Gujrat in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
The pilots scrambled two F-86F Sabre 55-005, which had then recently been given to Pakistan by the US — the two countries were at the time part of the erstwhile Cold War-era security alliance CENTO.
“At about 20,000 ft, we spotted a double trail way above and far ahead… When we were at 41,000 ft, the trails could be identified as a single Canberra flying on a steady northerly heading, clearly oblivious of any threat to it,” Yunis wrote of the incident.
“Overhead Gujrat now, it appeared to be at about 50,000 ft. We punched our tanks and, although we were still out of range, the mounting excitement threatened to get the better of sound judgement,” he added.
Yunis called for clearance to shoot and, for a moment, Nawaz debated whether to go through the full standard procedure for obtaining permission, according to the account. But that would very likely have allowed the Canberra to slip away, Yunis wrote, and Nawaz then took a decision on his own and cleared the Sabres to shoot.
“We were still not within optimum range but Naseer impatiently launched into a series of energy-climb/burst-of-gunfire/stall out sequence which became more desperate with each repetition,” he wrote.
“In the meantime, I kept a steady height and heading in order to give rear cover to my leader. It suddenly occurred to me that, if the Canberra spotted us, he would in all probability turn right i.e., towards the border, so I eased over in that direction,” he added.
“The leader had given me the okay to have a go if I could, but I could see I was still too far below the target.”
“Presently, the Canberra did turn right and then, as if he had spotted me, quickly reversed. On that side he must have spotted [Naseer] Butt, for he seemed to panic and tightened his turn, which of course caused him to lose height rapidly,” Yunis wrote.
The account then retells how the Indian aircraft was battered and its pilots forced to reject.
“I saw my chance and put a bead on his right engine — just in time I remembered my Hunter wingspan setting and quickly ranged on half the Canberra’s span — immediately I could see my bullets impacting on his right engine,” he added.
“I traversed the bead to the centre, not letting go of the trigger till the guns stopped — due to over-heating, as it turned out. But I had fired 1,200 rounds by then and the doomed Canberra whipped into a spiral,” he wrote.
The pilot of the Canberra, Sqn Ldr J.C. Sengupta, and navigator Flt Lt S.N. Rampal were taken into custody after they ejected and landed on Pakistani soil. However, they were repatriated a day later.
Sqn Ldr Sengupta retired as a Group Captain in 1976 while Flt Lt Rampal retired as Wing Commander in 1971.
Talking to ThePrint, a retired senior IAF officer said it was an “oxygen problem” that had made the Canberra vulnerable that day.
“The Canberra, in this mission, was invincible at the planned altitude, as no PAF fighters could climb up to that altitude,” the officer added.
“The Canberra experienced an oxygen problem… The crew, instead of returning, decided to fly at a lower altitude, which made them vulnerable to Sabres,” the officer said.
What the Indian government said
Addressing the Lok Sabha a day after the incident, on 11 April 1959, India’s then defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon said the Indian aircraft was engaged in taking aerial photographs over Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir when it strayed across the border.
Explaining the presence of the aircraft in the Pakistani air space, he referred to the height that the Canberra was flying, saying that a navigational mistake could easily be committed at that altitude.
“The straying of our plane from our airspace was not and could not be part of any hostile design or policy,” he added.
Saying he doubted whether Pakistan had issued any warning before they shot down the Indian aircraft, he described the action as unwarranted and contrary to international law and custom.
The Canberra aircraft
Canberra, the only bomber of the IAF until the late seventies, came to India in 1957. An aircraft of British origin, the high-altitude bomber was a force to reckon with in the war scenario prevailing in the Indian subcontinent at the time.
Capable of cruising at four-fifth the speed of sound at 40,000 feet, Canberra was the right weapon to carry the war well beyond the frontiers, and deep into enemy territory.
Negotiations to acquire the Canberra began in 1954 and, in January 1957, an order was placed for 54 aircraft, including eight PR57 photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and six T4 training aircraft.
The deliveries began in the summer of that year.
Squadron No. 5 of the IAF was the first to get the Canberra bomber, in May 1957. The eight PR-57s were operated by the 106 SR Squadron, while the T4 aircraft were formed into a jet-bomber operational conversion unit (JBCU), which is basically a training formation.
The Canberras were mostly based at Agra. The target-towing version was added to the IAF fleet in 1975.
Over the years, Canberra became the backbone of the IAF for bombing raids and photo-reconnaissance operations. On 11 May 2007, the IAF retired its Canberra aircraft after 50 years of service.
The 1965 war
Canberra’s mettle was tested for the first time during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, as numerous high-level bombing missions were successfully flown during the course of the short war.
In recognition of their bravery and valour, several Canberra crew members were awarded Maha Vir Chakras and Vir Chakras — the second- and third-highest wartime gallantry awards — among other decorations.
However, the battle scenario changed dramatically in the following years with the entry of radars and high-performance fighters with night-combat, reducing the potential of the Canberra.
However, the air space closer to the ground was still a grey area for the radars and the fighters, and this was exploited well by the Canberra.
The 1971 war
When the 1971 war between India and Pakistan broke out, within hours of a Pakistani pre-emptive strike, the Canberra spearheaded a strong counter-attack on a number of Pakistani targets.
Throughout the war, the Canberra gave the enemy no respite, even at night, with its persistent raids on numerous targets.
The highlight of the 1971 operation were the bombing attacks carried out over the Oil Refinery Complex at Karachi, which proved so devastating that the target was ablaze for nearly a week.
Canberra squadrons were rewarded with four Maha Vir Chakras, a dozen Vir Chakras and many other gallantry awards and distinguished service awards in recognition of their contribution to the 1971 war.