When jets replaced propeller-driven aircraft, many of the pundits of military aviation predicted that the days of the old-fashioned dogfight were over. The Korean War and subsequent conflicts proved them wrong. Jet fighter pilots still engaged in dogfights, and they could often be as individualistic and eccentric as their prop-era predecessors.
The great ideological conflicts of the Cold War produced its share of outstanding pilots, but so did some other, lesser-known conflicts. In fact, one of the fastest aces of all time was a participant in a short-lived border war between India and Pakistan in 1965. Few fighter pilots of any nation could claim nine victories in three combats. Fewer still could claim seven in two days. And it is doubtful that anyone besides Mohammad Alam of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) can lay claim to shooting down four enemy planes in less then one minute. That fighting record should have assured an airman of Alam's proficiency a brilliant military career, but Alam would give it all up as the consequence of a spiritual rebirth that set him on a collision course with many of his senior officers.
Mohammad Mahmood Alam was born in Behar, western Bengal, on July 6, 1935. He was in his early teens when he saw India achieve independence in 1946 only to be split as a result of violent religious and political differences between Muslims and Hindus. The result was the creation in August 1947 of the Islamic State of Pakistan, whose divided territories existed both to the northeast and northwest of India. Alam's own hometown fell within Indian territory, and his family was compelled to move.
Neither India nor Pakistan was satisfied with their borders, and intermittent conflict continued between the two countries, resulting in the development of indigenous armies, navies, and air arms by both. Given the long-term colonial presence of Great Britain, both the PAF and the Indian Air Force (IAF) were profoundly influenced by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in regard to training, uniforms and military behavior. Pilots of both countries were often sent to Britain to polish their flying skills and keep up with the latest aviation developments.
In case of the Pakistanis, there was an additional social legacy left behind by the British. As their proficiency and confidence grew, PAF personnel came to affect the cocky demeanor of their British mentors, to the extent that they regarded themselves as members of a social elite, not bound by the same rules as the average citizen. The most visible manifestation of that attitude was drinking in PAF units. Ignoring the Quran's commandment against the consumption of alcohol beverages, PAF personnel enthusiastically emulated the RAF practice of having a bar in the officers' at each air base.
Upon qualifying as a PAF pilot, Alam became caught up in the social practices of his brother officers and later admitted to getting drunk on numerous occasions. Another RAF custom adapted by the PAF was the use of nicknames for various pilots, and Alam's short stature earned him the sobriquet "Peanut".
Alam embraced the RAF tradition of professionalism with equal enthusiasm. His own gunnery scores - an average of 70 percent - were the highest in PAF, and by September 1965 he had accumulated 1,400 hours in the North American F-86F Sabre alone. To this he added experience in other aircraft, both at home and abroad, among them the Hawker Hunter, a type that became the mainstay of the IAF.
The first unit to which Alam was assigned, No. 11 Squadron, had the distinction of being the first PAF unit to use jet fighters, being equipped with the Supermarine Attackers in 1951. It was also the PAF only jet fighter squadron until 1955, when United States began selling F-86F to Pakistan. In 1956 No. 11 was re-equipped with the new Sabres, and by 1965 it was part of No. 33 Wing, based at Sargodha, in West Pakistan. In February 1964, Alam took command of No. 11 Squadron, while his predecessor, Wing Commander Muhammad Anwar Shamim, was promoted to command of No. 33 Wing.
Meanwhile, war clouds were gathering over Kashmir. Far to the south, in the Rann of Kutch on the coast of the Arabian Sea, intermittent armed clashes broke out between Indian and Pakistani forces in January 1965. In the months that followed Pakistan began recrutting and arming a "Free Kashmir" guerilla army, called the Mujahiddin. Indian troops responded by occupying the strategically important region of Kargil, on the Pakistani side of the cease-fire line, on August 15. Tensions escalated until finally, on September 6, open warfare broke out between India and Pakistan.
The armies of the two countries were about equal in numbers, but India enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in the air, having 476 fighters and 60 bombers at the start of the war, against 104 fighters and 26 bombers of the PAF. From the outset, the Pakistani pilots knew that only their intensive training would enable them to successfully defend their airspace. At the time hostilities commenced, No. 33 Wing at Sargodha could field a total of 30 Sabres, of which 22 supplemented their six .50-caliber machine guns with wing-mounted AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. For Squadron Leader Alam, the war began in earnest at 5:30 a.m. on September 2, when he led seven Sabres against Indian troop concentrations reported to be at Jaurian. The Pakistanis saw nothing at first, then Ala, noticed Indian troops hidden in an orchard. He and his pilots strafed the enemy with gunfire and rockets, hitting five tanks and damaging a personnel carrier. Two days later, Alam was flying a low-level reconnaissance mission near the Indian airfield at Jammu when he came under groundfire and his cockpit canopy was shattered. Temporarily blinded by debris, Alam nevertheless maintained control of his F-86 and completed his mission. Spotting Indian artillery positions, he carried out two firing passes before his overheated guns jammed.
Alam led a section of three Sabres in a low-level raid on the Indian airbase at Adampur at dusk on September 6. As they neared their target, a quartet of Hawker Hunters suddnely crossed their Sabres' path at the slightly higher altitude of 500feet. Alam later described the encounter: "I remember thinking what very pretty aircraft werebrand-new Hunters were as I ordered my section to punch tanks. The Hunters also jettisoned their drop tanks, and we turned into each other for combat. The fight didn't last long. I got my sights on the No. 4 Hunter, and after a brief burst, he flicked and went into the ground in a great ball of flame, although I am not certain whether I hit him or not. We were now evenly matched, numerically, although I never fought at such low altitudes again, nor often at such low speeds."
As the twisting dogfight continued, Alam downed another Hunter. At that point, however, the Sabres were low on fuel, and Alam ordered them to disengage. He later learned that, unknown to him at the time, the PAF command had aborted the Adampur strike. As their wingmen made their way back to base, Alam ran into two more Hunters.
"I turned into them and took a shot at the last man at long range," said Alam. "He turned into me, then took off his bank. I think I registered hits - I only saw smoke coming out, but no flames. As a wise man, I thought I should not turn back after him as I was low on fuel. So I crossed the border and climbed up to contact our CGI [ground control intercept] and check my position. I was not sure what had happened to the rest of my flight, and I was relieved to hear that they were all in the vicinity of Sargodha, where I came back and landed. This was the first time we had encountered the Hunters, and any misgivings we had in our minds were resolved that day. In maneuverability, the Sabre was undoubtedly better then the Hunter."
Squadron Leader Alauddin "Butch" Ahmed and Flt. Lt. Syed Saad Akhtar Hatmi, who had accompanied Alam, claimed a Hunter as damaged. Postwar examinations of IAF records mention that Squadron Leader Ajit Kumar Rawley of No. 7 Squadron was killed when his Hunter flew into ground, but the record is vague as to whether or not that was during combat. Other Indian aircraft might have been damaged, but there are no specific records. Discrepancies between claims made in good faith and actual enemy losses date to World War I and apply to all war air combatants. The high-speed encounters of the jet age certainly put more strain on human perception, increasing the likelihood of such discrepancies.
The following day, Alam and some his comrades were of No. 11 sat strapped in the cockpits of their Sabres, waiting to scramble, when seven French-built Dassault Mystere IV-A fighter-bombers of No.1 Squadron, IAF, suddenly came towards them out of the rising sun at tree-top level. As the Pakistani airmen looked up in disbelief, the Mysteres pulled up to about 1,000feet and sprayed the tarmac with rockets - but they only hit the empty areas. They then fired at the same areas with their twin 30mm cannons and disappeared to the southwest, after one of their Mysteres, flown by Squadron Leader A. B. Devayya, was hit by 20mm cannon fire from a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter of No. 9 Squadron, PAF. Devayya was killed, but the victorious Pakistani pilot, Flt. Lt. Amjad Hussein Khan was forced to eject when his F-104 was struck by the debris from his victim's exploding aircraft. The attack had left the vulnerable airfield unharmed.
After the Mysteres departed, Alam and his wingman, Flying Officer Mohammed Masood Akhtar, took off. Within five minutes, they were directed by ground control to intercept another incoming Indian raid. They had only flown eastwards for 10 to 15 miles when they were ordered to return, as still more Indian fighters had appeared over Sargodha.
"As we vectored back towards Sargodha," Alam recounted in a postwar interview, "Akhtar called, 'contact - four Hunters,' and I saw the IAF aircraft diving to attack our airfield. So I jettisoned my [drop tanks] to dive through our own ack-ack after them. In the meantime, I saw two more Hunters about 1,000feet to my rear, so I forgot the four in front and pulled up to go after the pair behind. The Hunters broke off their attempted attack on Sargodha, and the pair turned on me. I was flying much faster then they were at this stage - I must have been doing about 500 knots - so I pulled up to avoid overshooting them and then reversed to close in as they flew back towards India."
"I took the last man and dived behind him," Alam's report continued, "getting very low in the process. The Hunter can outrun the Sabre - it's only about 50 knots faster, but has much better acceleration, so it can pull away very rapidly. Since I was diving, I was going still faster, and as he was out of gun range, I fired the first of my two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles at him. In this case we were too low and I saw the missile hit the ground short of its target. This area east of Sargodha, however, has lots of high tension wires, some of them as high as 100-150 feet, and when I saw the two Hunters pull up to avoid one of these cables, I fired the second Sidewinder. The missile streaked in front of me, but I didn't see it strike. The next thing I remember was that I was overshooting one of the Hunters and when I looked behind, the cockpit canopy was missing and there was no pilot in the aircraft. He had obviously pulled up and ejected and then I saw him coming down by parachute."
Alam's alleged victim, Squadron Leader Onkar Nath Kacker, was the commander of No. 27 Squadron, IAF, based at Halwara. After being returned to India, he claimed that he had flown 150 kilometers east of Sargodha when his engine stopped due to a boaster pump failure. It is possible that anything from mechanical failure to fragment's from Alam's exploding Sidewinder might have been responsible for the loss of Kacker's plane, but certainly Alam's perception of his going down near Sargodha was erroneous.
At that point, Alam lost sight of the remaining five Hunters, but he had plenty of fuel left and was prepared to fly as far as 60 miles in an attempt to catch up with them. Alam and his wingman had just flown over the Chenab river when Akhtar called out, "Contact - Hunters 1 o'clock." Alam immediately spotted them - ans as he described it: "five Hunters in absolutely immaculate battle formation. They were flying at about 100-200 feet, at around 480 knots and when I was in gunfire range, they saw me. They all broke in one direction, climbing and turning steeply to the left, which put them in loose line astern. This of course was their big mistake…."
What happened next occurred very quickly. "We were all turning very tightly - in access of 5g or just about on the limits of the Sabre's very accurate A-4 radar ranging gunsight," Alam reported " And I think before we had completed more than about 270 degrees of the turn, at about 12 degrees per second, all four Hunters had been shot down. In each case, I got the piper of my sight around the canopy of the Hunter for virtually a full deflection shot. Almost all of our shooting throughout the war was at very high angles off - seldom less then 30 degrees. Unlike some of the Korean combat films I had seen, nobody in our war was shot down flying straight or level."