And then he saw the fighter jet as it flew towards him from his left, so close that he could see the glint of sun reflecting on the pilot’s helmet. And then another jet behind the first, a little higher and further away. And only then did the sound from the jet engines hit him. He covered his ears with his small hands and yet the sound reverberated in his chest, so loudly, he thought, it almost drowned the sound of his wildly thumping heart.
It was December, 1971. The aircrafts flew past him and appeared to quickly become smaller until they were small dark specks silhouetted against the Himalayan mountains. He looked down again to the trench he had helped dig,in the vegetable patch a few feet away from the verandah. He had been told to get into the trench as quickly as possible in the eventuality of exactly the same situation. The military soldier Jawan from the neighboring Army camp had visited his home and shown them how to dig the trenches and what to do in the eventuality of an air raid. The Jawan spoke with a smile, casually, as if talking about a tactic to be used in one of the volleyball games he had seen them play, And yet, when it had happened, he had run upstairs, his curiosity overcoming his fear — run to probably what was the most vulnerable location in the house to be hit. He thought up an excuse to explain his disobedience — had not his great- grandmother too not taken cover in the trench — and she had been only a couple of feet away from it when the Air raid sirens had gone off.
He looked up, his eyes squinting in the sunny clear blue morning sky, so typical of the early winter in Punjab.
Eighteen thousand feet above, the Wing Commander pushed the throttle away from him as he sighted the two intruding aircraft far below him. He, along with another colleague, had been on their turn of Combat Air Patrol duty (Or CAP as referred to in the briefing room), for the last half hour, circling the airport from above in slow wide circles, trying to stay alert, constantly looking out for any signs of intrusion. CAP was to be endured sportingly despite the awesome boredom of what it entailed. The Wing Commander suppressed a yawn.
Six years ago, this airport had been the scene of what arguably was the most successful surprise air raid ever carried out. Sheer complacency and the inept leadership at the command headquarters had resulted in fighter aircraft being lined up in neat rows, unprotected, out in the open, despite the threat of imminent war. There was no early warning system in place and no aircraft in the air to protect the airfield. The intruding enemy aircraft, when they had come from across the border that was only ten miles away, had made run after run of the airport, diving, shooting, gaining altitude, turning and diving again, helping themselves to the aircraft on the ground, one by one, until all were destroyed.
Since then, the Indian Air Force had learned its lessons well. In six years they studied all facets of what had been one off the most disastrous air raids ever. Now, while on the ground, each aircraft on the ground was hidden and protected in a mound- shaped camouflaged hanger made of brick and concrete and fortified with sand on all sides. There was continuous air patrolling over the airfield by two fighters. Two new fighters would take off every hour to relieve the ones on duty and to take their turn. They would fly in circles in one direction for a while and when the pilot’s backs and necks became numb with pain having to bend in one direction to continuously peer over the cockpit, they would circle in the other direction. Mobile truck towed radars had been placed in forward bases to monitor all aircraft activity up to 100 miles into enemy territory, noting each time a blip appeared on the screen signaling an aircraft had entered this and then following its direction and speed to decipher its intention. Spotters with powerful binoculars were placed on the border to report any aircraft intruding to the Air Traffic Control and to the Anti Aircraft Gun units. Never again would they be caught unaware again.
When the Air Traffic Base had informed him of the intruding aircraft, the Wing Commander on CAP duty knew that given the proximity to the border, there were only seconds before the enemy aircraft would arrive. He had trained for this eventuality time and time again in exercises simulating just such an event. His gloved hand pushed the joy stick away from him and to the left and felt the fighter dive as it began to lose altitude and turn to the left towards the intruders he had spotted. He eased back a bit on the joystick and throttle as he lined up above and behind and to the right of the intruding planes. The other plane, his Wingman, prevented them from turning right and forcing them, corralling them to go in a northerly direction. “Not too low,” he cautioned himself, knowing what would happen next.
As the enemy Jet fighters approached the mountains, they had no way to go except over the mountains ahead. They increased altitude and rose to crest the twelve thousand foot wall that the Himalayan Dhauladhar mountain range had now become for them. Behind them, the Pilot in the lead plane lined up his sights on the first intruding plane as its rising silhouette presented a slow and easy target for him. His colleague did the same on the other plane. He pressed the button and felt the violent vibration from his canon.
“In war, know your terrain well,” he thought to himself, as he saw the smoke from the engines of the enemy plane. He pushed the button again and saw the black smoke give way to bright flames as more hits tore up the plane. He marveled at the accuracy of the old war saying and that it was still so relevant — relevant even in this day of jet fighter air warfare.
Over the horizon, the boy could see a plume of thick black smoke as the plane rapidly fell. He saw a dark speck appear behind the plane and then circle, beginning to descend slowly. “What was it?” he wondered. Was it a vulture going round in circles, riding a column of heated air as it rose upwards and therefore not needing to flap its wings to stay airborne? Would that explain how this speck was in such a gentle gliding descent. He waited until he was sure. No. He was sure now. It was not a vulture or any other bird. He ran down the stairs.
“Better the army than the mobs for that man… Udai, come here and speak to this soldier and tell him what you saw in your own words” his mother said as she passed him the phone.
Udai Singh Pathania is an air-force brat and grew up on air force bases all around India. He now lives in California. He vividly remembers the incident that is described in the story above.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph,D., who preferred Enid Blyton stories to Commando comics.
Cover photo credit: Anand Bahuguna