An April To Remember.
April is a pleasant month in Pakistan. In the plains especially, it is a month when the spring is in its prime with fragrant flowers of all hues in full blossom. The country-side wears a lush green look. In 1959, April had added charm: it brought along Eid-ul-Fitr, the Islamic occasion of festivities marking the culmination of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Men and women, young and old, look forward to it alike. Youngsters receive their 'Eidi' and gifts are lavishly exchanged among relatives and friends. Workers away from homes have holiday plans drawn up way in advance to rejoin their families in festival. Eid-ul-Fitr on 10th April 1959, however, remains historic for another reason. The break of dawn promised a clear, pleasant day. At 08.00 in the morning, the vast majority were preparing for the Eid congregation while at places the prayer was already in progress.
Across the eastern border some mischievous minds were looking forward to the opportunity with sinister designs. The Indian Air Force (IAF) had inducted state-of-the-art photo-reconnaissance aircraft in its inventory and had trained extensively for some time now. It was about time it was tasked an operational mission. And what better occasion! There was complete peace in the Sub-continent; even the normally turbulent Kashmir was relatively quiet. Pandit Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, had invited President Ayub Khan for a refuelling stop meeting at Delhi airport enroute to East Pakistan later during the year which the President of Pakistan had thankfully accepted. Quiet diplomacy had prepared ground to chart out a way forward for resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Thus a perfect smoke screen existed to cover a sneaky espionage mission. The unsuspecting Pakistanis would be celebrating Eid with their guard lowered, the cunning Indian planners thought.
Before the PAF detected the spy aircraft and scrambled a response the Indian intruders would be safely back. Besides, the PAF had no interceptors on its inventory with a high ceiling operational capability. The odds were heavily favourable.
The top secret operation was discussed and approved at the highest level in Delhi. A sense of anxious euphoria pervaded the bomber-photo reconnaissance fleet for the closely guarded mission. Days of planning off the map and rehearsals in near-identical air environment to respond to multiple operational possibilities were supervised by senior commanders. Eventually, at 07.30 in the morning of 10th April, 1959 a Canberra B(I)58 took off from Ambala and headed towards the western border. The English Electric Canberra is a first generation jet-powered light bomber manufactured in large numbers through the 1950s. It proved to be highly adaptable, serving in varied roles of tactical bombing and reconnaissance photographic, electronic and meteorological. In Indian Air Force (IAF) the Canberra had been inducted two years earlier commencing in 1957. Three basic variants were customised and purpose-built for the IAF as B(I).Mk.58, TT.Mk.418 and PR.Mks.57 and 67.
Additional aircraft were acquired from the Royal Air Force and a smaller number from the Royal New Zealand Air Force making a total of 91 in the inventory. India eventually emerged as the world's largest importer of the Canberra, equipping seven IAF squadrons. The intruding aircraft was operated by No.106 Lynxes Strategic Photo Reconnaissance (SPR) Squadron. It was flown by Sqn Ldr J.C. Sen Gupta (pilot) and Flt Lt S.N. Rampal (navigator).
This bird prided itself with a large payload mixing and matching a compatible configuration. A 20 mm gun pack with 500 rounds was fitted in the belly alongside rails under the wings. An extremely high endurance and range with a two to three crew capacity afforded it enormous flexibility. This was the first combat aircraft in the IAF equipped with an autopilot and modern avionics. A tail-facing radar warning receiver called "Orange Putter" provided early warning from chasing interceptors and helped the pilot in taking evasive manoeuvres. To crown it all, it could fly at an altitude higher than any other bomber of the time having already set a world record of 70,310 feet in 1957. For it the Canberra was a very agile aircraft. Its features lent it a distinct edge over its peers in diverse roles such as long-range reconnaissance, counter-interdiction, electronic warfare, and suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD).
Small wonder that the Canberra continued to remain on active duty in the IAF outlasting its competitor, MiG-25. The tri-sonic MiG-25 which was inducted in the IAF twenty years later was retired much earlier while the Canberra served on till 2007.
As he entered Pakistan's airspace, Gupta looked up at the clear blue sky and smiled to Rampal who returned a thumbs up. The deeper he penetrated the more confident he grew in his mission: the technical superiority of his machine and the timing of the mission both promised a complete surprise. No bogeys were to be seen anywhere; the PAF were, expectedly, busy enjoying their Eid festivities. But not quite! The PAF Air Defence had picked up the aircraft as it neared the Pakistan air space and its radars had been closely monitoring it ever since. No. 15 Squadron on Air Defence Alert (ADA) had rolled out their SOPs, just in case. The aircraft designated on ADA for the day were double-checked with their payloads by the crew who were eagerly awaiting the command "go for the bogeys". Soon a pair of F-86 Sabres was scrambled from Peshawar Air Base to intercept the IAF aircraft. Flt Lt M. Nasir Butt was the mission leader with Flt Lt M. Yunis as his wingman. Pilot Officer Rab Nawaz was the on-duty Air Defence Controller for this mission.
Developed in the late 1940s, the ageing Sabre was outdated by the late 1950s and was no longer a world-class fighter. Fighters with Mach 2 performance were already in service. Out-classed by the Canberra in every department, F-86 Sabre was no match to its formidable foe especially in the differential of over 20,000 feet in their altitude ceiling. But this was the best that the PAF could field in 1959, the F-104 Starfighter still not being on its inventory.
Rab Nawaz successfully vectored both Sabres to the location of the high-flying Canberra. Mission leader Butt, a competent fighter-pilot, picked up the Canberra's trails in the morning blue sky and soon positioned him behind it. Wingman Yunis was to his right and rear so as to cover his leader and counter an exit manoeuvre by the Canberra. Butt kept on closing in and just as he neared his operational ceiling he fired his machine guns but missed the target. He attempted again but failed to hit, the Canberra was flying at an altitude of more than 50,000 feet - well beyond the operational ceiling of the F-86. Yunis, flying to the right rear, was now itching to take over. Earlier, during his training in the UK, he had critically studied the Canberra's characteristics. The aircraft, being in service with the IAF, had been of special interest to him; he flew it extensively in his training exercises.
He had observed, over and over again, that while executing a turn, the Canberra losts altitude substantially and took time in levelling up owing to its huge size and heavy payload capacity. As Butt asked his wingman to take over, Yunis drew himself further right hoping the Canberra to turn east. While it was over the outskirts of Rawalpindi, the Canberra duly obliged turning south-east to speed towards the Indo-Pak border. To Yunis' delight, the Canberra dropped height as it executed the turn. Instantly, Yunis who had closed in, saw the Achilles heel, grabbed the opportunity and fired a burst from his 12.7 mm guns. He scored a bull's eye at an altitude of 47,500 feet hitting the Canberra's broadside and bringing it down over Rawat, near Rawalpindi. Six years later in September 1965, exploiting similar vulnerability of the IAF's Hawker Hunter, Sqn Ldr M. M. Alam would shoot down five Indian fighters in less than a minute thus scoring an "ace-in-a-mission" and becoming the top scoring pilot of the sub-continent.
The PAF had drawn the first blood, blowing up the IAF's myth of technological superiority. Flt Lt Muhammad Yunis was the debutant hero.
Sqr Ldr J.C. Sen Gupta and Flt Lt S.N. Rampal from the IAF's No. 106 Sqn, had ejected and were captured. They were later released and repatriated to India. As the special news bulletin was broadcast by Radio Pakistan in the roaring voice of its popular Urdu newsreader Shakil Ahmed, the people thronged the streets all over. From Dhaka to Peshawar, there was wild jubilation adding colour to the Eid festivities. People exchanged twin greetings. In a novel expression of appreciation, some enthusiasts even mailed 'Eidi' money orders to "Hero Pilot Muhammad Yunis, Care of Post Master Rawat". F-86 Sabre, too, became a household name like Yunis'. In subsequent National Day fly pasts, the aircraft would receive standing ovation from the grandstands.
Flt Lt Nasir Butt rose to the rank of Air Cdre and retired from service in 1980. Flt Lt Yunis had a bright professional career serving in key command and staff appointments in the PAF. He rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshal in 1985 and commanded the Northern Air Command in Peshawar during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Later posted as Chief Instructor at the National Defence College, he was appointed as Director General Civil Aviation Authority in 1989. He was decorated with "Hilal-i-Imtiaz (Military)", the country's second highest military award in 1988, retiring in 1992. A doting grandfather of five proud grandchildren, he now leads a quiet life with his family in Cavalry Ground, Lahore Cantonment.
The author is former DG ISPR and former ambassador.