Blog: Air Force Pilot's Heroics That Remained Unknown For Years

New Delhi:

Against the backdrop of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, India made a strategic move to open a new front in Punjab, to target the Lahore and Sialkot sectors in Pakistan. This decision came in response to Pakistan's "Operation Grand Slam", which aimed to cut off the Pathankot-Jammu highway in the Chhamb-Akhnoor region of Jammu.

India's 'Operation Riddle' sought to divert Pakistan's armoured units and infantry away from Chhamb to Lahore and Sialkot.

On September 6, the Pakistani Air Force crossed the International Border and bombed Indian airfields in Adampur, Halwara, Pathankot, and Jamnagar. The Indian Air Force decided to strike back before the first light of dawn on September 7. Six Dassault Mystere IV A from No.1 Squadron at Adampur, were airborne to hit Sargodha, a front-line air base in Pakistan.

However, there was a seventh IAF Mystere in the formation flying towards Sargodha too. Piloted by Squadron Leader AB Devayya, this second-generation aircraft shot down a superior Mach 2 supersonic US-built F-104 Starfighter jet. This intense dogfight remained a mystery for several years.

'It's not the Plane, It's the Pilot'

At 05:30 am, Pakistan's radar and observer network at Rahwali picked up six IAF Mystere IVA flying at low altitudes, nearly skimming tree tops. The Sargodha complex was a well-defended airbase. Pakistan was aware that an aerial attack would take place on Sargodha after it carried out bombings on Indian airfields. Following air raids on the Sargodha complex, Mysteres were heading towards India, but an F-104 interceptor aircraft established contact with the IAF formation.

The Sargodha complex was one of the most well-defended air bases in Pakistan

The Sargodha complex was one of the most well-defended air bases in Pakistan

The F-104 Starfighter was armed with GAR-8 heat-seeking sidewinder missiles and was piloted by Flt Lt Amjad Hussain. The Starfighter engaged in a dogfight with the Mystere flown by Devayya, and both aircraft were shot down in the aerial combat. Flt Lt Hussain safely ejected, but Devayya, who was flying low, failed to eject. The No. 1 Squadron was unaware of the dogfight that occurred over Sargodha.

The F-104 Starfighter was supersonic interceptor given by the US to Pakistan under the Mutual Aid Programme

The F-104 Starfighter was supersonic interceptor given by the US to Pakistan under the Mutual Aid Programme

AB Devayya's heroic act of valour gained attention many years later after a book was published in Pakistan. A few years after the war, Pakistan decided to document the Air War of 1965 in a book and appointed British aviation historian John Fricker.

The book is a detailed first-hand Pakistani account of the aerial battle that took place, but it also serves as a propaganda piece for Pakistan and is viewed with skepticism as it appears to glorify certain events and lacks an objective account of the Indian perspective.

PVS Jagan Mohan, a noted military historian and co-author of 'India-Pakistan Air War of 1965,' in a conversation with aviation expert and air force historian PR Ganapathy on the Blue Skies Podcast debunked claims made by Mr Fricker and talks about the Indian Air Force's account of the September 7 raids on Sargodha.

John Fricker, in his book, 'Battle For Pakistan: The Air War of 1965', which was published in 1979, writes - Three Mysteres were shot down over Sargodha, one by the light ack-ack guns as the formation made its exit from the complex, and the other two were downed in aerial combat.

Mr Fricker writes, "Flt Lt Amjad Hussain was scrambled in an F-104 Starfighter at 0515 hours and was directed by Sakesar towards Sargodha. By the time he made contact with them, the aircraft were 6-8 miles from Sargodha. The Mysteres jettisoned their drop tanks and Flt Lt Hussain positioned himself behind one of them and fired his GAR-8 missile, which hit the ground. When the F-104 was within gun range, a brief burst from the 20mm Vulcan cannon did the rest."

"A second Mystere then began to dogfight with the Starfighter. In staying with the Starfighter, the Mystere fighter showed commendable courage and gained an advantage when Flt Lt Ahmed made the mistake of reducing down in an attempt to out-turn his determined opponent. The F-104 pilot failed to clear its tail during the dogfight and the Mystere pressed home its attack and scored several cannon strikes on the Starfighter."

Mr Mohan shared the Indian account on the podcast and said the Commanding Officer of No.1 Squadron, Group Captain OP Taneja, read Mr Fricker's book and concluded that it was AB Devayya who shot down the F-104 as he was the only casualty from the early morning air raid over Sargodha opposed to Mr Fricker's claim that three Mystere's were shot down.

All the aircraft from the six-jet formation reached Adampur and it was AB Devayya's fighter jet that couldn't return to the airbase. After every sortie or combat, pilots undergo a debriefing. No pilot from that formation observed any dogfight with an F-104 Starfighter, says PVS Jagan Mohan, therefore Pakistan's claim of three Mysteres being shot down stands baseless.

Pakistan, however, acknowledges the loss of the F-104 Mach 2 Starfighter in the aerial war. Mr Fricker writes that the Pakistani Air Force obtained details of the "three" IAF pilots who were killed over Pakistan on September 7. "From their ranks - Two were Squadron Leaders (Jasbeer Singh and AB Devayya), and one was a Flight Lieutenant (B Guha)."

Based on the observations, Group Captain Taneja wrote to Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif over the aerial combat and mentioned that no other pilot from that formation reported any engagement with a Starfighter, and only one casualty was reported from that day.

Flight Lt B Guha was another casualty from the squadron. He was killed in action but later in the evening in another raid and not in the pre-dawn bombing over Sargodha.

Group Captain Taneja requested Air Chief Marshal Latif to recommend Squadron Leader AB Devayya's name for the Maha Vir Chakra (Posthumous).

Almost nine years after the world noticed one of the most daring dogfights in Indian aviation history, the government awarded AB Devayya the Maha Vir Chakra (Posthumous) in 1988. The Squadron Leader is the only posthumous awardee of the Maha Vir Chakra in the Indian Air Force.

Interestingly, Amjad Hussain's Starfighter was shot down again six years later over Amritsar during the 1971 war. Hussain bailed out and was taken as a prisoner of war (PoW). During an interrogation, he mentioned the September 7 dogfight over Sargodha.

In the climax of 'Top Gun: Maverick', after Tom Cruise's F-14 was intercepted by the fifth-generation fighters, he had two options: either eject or enter a dogfight with a superior aircraft.

"We can't outrun these guys," says Maverick to his co-pilot 'Rooster', who in his response says, "It's not the plane, it's the pilot."

That was fiction, but Squadron Leader AB Devayya's decision to engage with the Starfighter was real. Had Devayya not engaged with the Starfighter, the other Mysteres in the formation would have been targeted.

(Divyam Sharma is a Senior Sub Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.