Asianet NewsableAsianet Newsable

From the IAF Vault: Srinagar's tryst with fighter aircraft

Srinagar base (1 Wing) has repeatedly witnessed aerial combat in its 54 years of hosting fighter aircraft. IAF historian Anchit Gupta chronicles Srinagar's unique tryst with fighter aircraft.

From the IAF Vault: Srinagar's tryst with fighter aircraft
First Published Nov 15, 2022, 7:15 AM IST

In 1947, Srinagar had a fair-weather Kutcha grass strip of 1,500 yards used for light aircraft of Raja Hari Singh. At partition, Kashmir's geographical location and limited rail and road links isolated the Valley, enhancing the importance of the airstrip and placing it at the hub of efforts to save Kashmir.

Whilst IAF operations had started in October 1947, an IAF establishment was placed here in May 1948. Spitfires, Tempests and Harvards of the 7, 8, 10 and 101 Squadrons operated throughout the war, moving out when the United Nations imposed a ceasefire in 1949. 

Also Read: From the IAF vault: The clever algorithm behind service numbers

As of 1947, the IAF had three wings -- Number 2 (Poona), 3 (Palam) and 4 (Agra). 3 Wing's Advanced Headquarters was located at Jammu for the 1947 ops. In Mar 1948, 1 Wing was raised at Jammu and in May, it positioned its Advanced Headquarters at Srinagar. In July 1950, 1 Wing moved to Srinagar. Thus did the IAF stage its way to Srinagar!

1 Wing controlled all airstrips north of and included Pathankot, crucial to the air maint of Kashmir and Ladakh. Over the next 15 years, Dakotas and Packets (12, 19, 43 Squadron), Otters (41 Squadron), IL-14 (42 Squadron), Mi-4 (107, 109 Helicopter Unit) and Chetak (114 Helicopter Unit) kept the region serviced in summer and winter.

The 1962 war put in motion a series of reforms. The office of AOC, J&K was created (effectively taking up the role from 1 Wing thus far), and in the years ahead, 1 Wing (Srinagar), 21 Wing (Leh), 23 Wing (Jammu), 18 Wing (Pathankot) became independent establishments.

Also Read: From the IAF vault: Story of the 'Top Guns' from India

Operationally, the IAF started to run trials for fighter operations at Leh to thwart the Chinese threat after the 1962 war. A delicate balance where Srinagar continued to be the transport hub without any fighters per the UN resolution. 

Despite knowing India was adhering to the UN resolution, the Pakistan Air Force attacked the Srinagar base in the 1965 war that only had non-offensive assets. Sabres and B-57s were stuck on multiple occasions with dozens of 1,000lb bombs destroying a Dakota, damaging Mi-4s, and a UN Caribou apart from damage to infrastructure.

A segue to the topography is relevant. Srinagar is just 40-50 km from the Line of Control with Pakistan, separated by the 3,000 mt-high Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas. This allows intruding aircraft an element of surprise, leaving barely two-three minutes for the defender to respond.

Also Read: From the IAF Vault: Story of IAF's own 'Top Gun' academy and its 'Mavericks' 

IAF fighter aircraft had flown over Kashmir and Srinagar as a show of force. Be it the 3 Squadron Mysteres in 1965 flown by its Commanding Officer Paul Robey or in 1966, 27 Squadron Hunters flying 8 aircraft in two boxes. But they did not land or operate at Srinagar. The IAF was clearly searching for solutions.

In June 1967, the Mysteres did a ground attack exercise on Srinagar. They had a free run. The base radar could not catch them due to the radar clutter from the hills. Possibly because of this outcome, the IAF decided to experiment with detachments of air defence fighters at Srinagar.

In October 1968, Gnats of 18 Squadron (based at Ambala) became the first fighter squadron since the UN resolution to operate a six-aircraft detachment at Srinagar. The choice of Gnats was an interesting one; it was the mainstay air defence fighter of the IAF at that time, MiG-21 still being young in service.

Also Read: From the IAF vault: Story of the Siachen Pioneers

The 1965 war had confirmed Gnats' superiority over the Sabre in aerial combat in acceleration, climb rate, manoeuvrability and turning radius. The diminutive Gnat was difficult to spot, let alone hit during combat. By now, the IAF had 5 Squadrons of the type -- 2, 9, 18, 21 and 22 squadrons.

But the most important factor in favour of the Gnat for the defence of Srinagar was its extremely fast scramble time (airborne in under two minutes) during the operational readiness platform. This was the only somewhat neutralising factor to the surprise element the PAF held across the Pir Panjal.

As the war clouds built up, 18 Squadron positioned a detachment at Srinagar in Aug 1971. Srinagar, by now, had a 3500-yard-long runway with a parallel taxi track but only a few Blast Pens, limiting it to four-aircraft operations. There was no radar, and winter visibility in the Valley was extremely poor due to mist and fog.

Also Read: From the IAF Vault: How C-87 Liberator took India over Everest and beyond

The only warning was scattered observation posts that provided vis inputs, often too late. The 18 Squadron detachment's role was to protect the base (operational readiness platform + combat air patrol) and provide air defence cover to a detachment of Vampire aircraft (122 Ad-Hoc squadron). The detachment had 4 aircraft and 13 pilots.

On December 6, with four Sabres attacking, dusk combat air patrol of VS Pathania and Bopaiah engaged in a dogfight in the middle of their own anti-aircraft fire. In a position for the kill, Pathania's gun jammed just after a few hits. After seeing the Sabre flee, he landed in failing light on a damaged right wing.

On Dec 14, 1971, at 0802 hours, a warning came. Just as Ghuman and Sekhon were getting airborne at 0804 hours, PAF Sabres bombed the runway. An epic dogfight ensued in which Sekhon was awarded Param Vir Chakra posthumously. 

Also Read: From the IAF vault: Story of Sikorsky S-55, the first IAF helicopter

Srinagar was subject to over 12 daylight raids by the PAF. Srinagar had proved that when the elements came together, it could offer the best of aerial combat from both sides. Despite handicaps, the Gnats had managed to thwart the PAF. But it was clear that a lot more was needed to safeguard Srinagar. 

After 1971, the Simla agreement was signed, and India chose to base fighters in Kashmir. Summer of 1972, Srinagar was a fighter town -- Gnats, Hunters and MiG-21s running concurrent detachments. By 1975, it was decided to permanently have two Gnat Squadrons and make Srinagar a fighters-only base.

Srinagar beefed up Air Defence in the 1970s. All elements of air defence -- Base Radar, Surface-to-Air missiles and observation flights were in place by 1976. Awantipur, 25 km from Srinagar, had an airstrip made in 1966 but was in disuse and activated in 1976 as a satellite airfield. Srinagar now had a mutual air defence cover. 

By the mid-1980s, the homegrown HAL Ajeet was in its twilight years. A replacement was needed. The only other aircraft in the IAF inventory that was capable of a fast scramble was the MiG-21. In May 1986, the recently raised Swordarms (51 Squadron) flew in with MiG-21 BIS from Chandigarh.

Operation Brasstacks in 1987 tested preparedness. The 51 Squadron carried out intensive valley flying and manned operational readiness platforms at Srinagar and Avantipur for three months. Subsequently, the MIG-29s of the 28 Squadron and MiG-27s of the 222 Squadrons also operated detachments. The next few years saw more air defence muscle.

Radars in the mountains are a tough challenge. While commendable, getting a P-18/P-12 radar to Razdan pass had little benefit because of continued hill clutter, but this was resolved successfully at a new location by 1993. In radar battles, equally daunting tasks were taken up by the PAF.

During the Kargil conflict, Srinagar became the centre of IAF operations with five fighter squadrons. For the third time, it was being used for strikes and army cooperation.

The 51 Squadron also had a go at Point 5140 and Tololing in the first two days of the operation with rockets, reverting to its primary air defence role and operational readiness platforms at Srinagar and Awantipur. They would fly over 100 sorties and earn four gallantry awards during the operation.

Also Read: From the IAF vault: The engineer from Ladakh who made an airstrip in 26 days

Srinagar again came close to witnessing aerial Combat when MiG-21s of the 51 Squadron and MiG-29s of the 223 Squadron were on hunter-killer missions to bait PAF fighters operating out of Skardu in early June 1999. The PAF did not pick up the gauntlet, keeping to itself during the conflict. 

The 51 Squadron upgraded to MiG-21 Bison in 2004, bringing Beyond Visual Range capability to the Valley. This capability proved crucial in 2019 when the 51 Squadron scrambled, and the skies over Pir Panjal witnessed aerial combat after 48 years. This time, the MiG-21 vs F-16 dogfight had replaced Gnat Vs Sabres. 

Flanked by our two probable adversaries, it is likely that any future conflict could see contrail circles mar the clear azure skies over the region as the baton of being Vale's defenders passes on. The 51 Squadron and its steed have earned a well-deserved rest... for now.

Follow Us:
Download App:
  • android
  • ios