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The Road to Peshawar

Rod Dean remembers an air combat training session in Pakistan with RAF Hunters 'mixing it up' with PAF Sabres and MiGs.

A letter in the April issue of Fly Past (Background to Pakistan's Treasures) and the mention of the late Wg. Cdr. Mervyn L. Middlecoat of the Pakistan Air Force, reminded me of an interesting interlude that took place in early 1971.

At that time I was serving with 208 Squadron ('Naval 8' to the knowledgeable) flying Hawker Hunters FGA.9s from RAF Muharraq in Bahrain. That February it was announced that we were to take part in a short detachment to Pakistan with four aircraft, eight pilots and ground crew. The plan was for us to spend a week at Peshawar, then PAF's main F-86 base. We would be taking part in various types of combat training activity with F-86s and other PAF combat aircraft.

On Monday, March1, 1971, four Hunters departed Muharraq with Sqn. Ldr. George Ord (OC 208 Squadron) leading, Fg. Off. Roger Wholey as No.2, myself as No. 3, and Wg. Cdr. Buck Ryan (OC Operations Wing) as No. 4. The first leg of two hours took us to Karachi Masroor for refuelling. The AW Argosy carrying the additional aircrew, the ground crew, the spares and, most importantly, about 30 cases of whisky, arrived about an hour after us. The whisky caused us some concern. Pakistan at that time was not 'dry', but the price of booze was astronomical, so we bought our own.

When the Argosy arrived, George Ord got hold of the local customs man and explained that the transport was carrying these supplies because " we would be expected to throw a party at Peshawar". For some obscure reason, the customs man accepted this and we were allowed to bring the lot in.

PESHAWAR TIME TRAP

The next leg took us to Peshawar in 100 minutes, where we were met the senior station personnel, including the Wg. Cdr. Flying, Mervyn L. Middlecoat. The PAF had made first class arrangements for our visit: officers were billeted in the Officers Mess, SNCOs in the Sergeants Mess, and the airmen in a downtown. Transport, with drivers on permanent call, was also allocated: a car going to the 'Boss' and the OC Ops, a minibus for the pilots, and a coach for the lads - "go anywhere, any time, just ring up MT and book it". Try telling that to an RAF MT Officer!

After two long flights our, our first requirement was a shower followed, in short order, by a beer. So off we went to the Mess.

The Officers Mess - a beautiful one-storey building set among well-tended plants and trees, with large, well ventilated rooms - looked as though it had changed little since the 1930's. right - drop the kit, into the shower, swift change and into the bar for the welcoming party.

I stepped out of the shower ten minutes later to find I had been robbed. Everything - clothes, bags, flying suit, the lot - had gone. While I was musing on this and wondering how I was going to raise the alarm with only a towel wrapped around me, there was a gentle knock at the door and an aged retainer stepped in with a cup of tea. He announced that he had unpacked my things and taken my flying suit to be 'dhobied' (washed by hand), all in the few minutes it had taken me to shower.

He asked me if I knew a Flt. Lt. Dermont Boyle, as this had been his room in the 1930's when he was on (I think) 6 Squadron and when he, as a young lad, had been Boyle's bearer. Ye gods, I was right - nothing had changed. The old man seemed pleased to know that Flt. Lt. Boyle had done quite well in his RAF career (Marshal of the RAF and a knight of the realm), even though I was not acquainted with him personally.

It later became evident that it was quite possible to live in that mess with only one set of clothes - the instant the garments came off, they disappeared, to be returned some 30 later washed, immaculately pressed, ready to wear again. This was the first of many indications that the 'British Raj' was then still alive and well in Pakistan.

HIMALAYAN BACKDROP

The next day saw the start of flying, the Himalayas providing a splendid backdrop. The first event was a '4 v 2': 4 PAF Sabres v 2 RAF Hunters. Now I know we were playing away, but the odds seemed slightly in favour of the home team - particularly when we heard that we would be running a CAP at 20,000ft over a given line and that we would be bounced from a radar directed intercept with the four-ship, almost certainly with a height and speed advantage - interesting.

My No. 1 was one of the JPs by the name of Dave Stanley and I briefed him that we would not, under any conceivable circumstances, play the Sabre's game, but rather use the Hunters relative advantages, namely high Mach number performance. The Sabre could undoubtedly out-turn a Hunter, but above Mach 0.9 it would be at a considerable disadvantage in terms of climb ability and turn performance. So although we were briefed to CAP at Mach 0.8 (another advantage to the home side!) as soon as we had them in visual, the game was on and we would accelerate to M 0.9 and maintain at least that speed and not below. Off to the CAP.

We had been on CAP over a very good line feature - a range of low hills about 20 nautical miles to the south of Peshawar - for 45 minutes with absolutely nothing happening. Where were they? They had been right behind us on take off. Eventually we found out that the PAF ground radar was not very sharp and the Sabres had spent 45 minutes rushing around on various radar headings without getting within 10 miles of us.

Eventually the PAF leader Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat, gave up and just headed for the line of hills. Like myself and Dave, he was not only getting very frustrated but he was also getting a bit tight on fuel for anything like a meaningful combat. Dave eventually saw the Sabres about the same time they saw us: in out 'six o'clock high' range, and about three to four miles and closing. Great!

I knew our planned tactics would work, but also that they would have resulted in a long, delicate dancing act before we ended up in any advantageous position, and neither we nor, I suspected, the Sabres had any fuel for that kind of game after spending 45 minutes swanning about. What the heck - we intended to have a scrap before we had to call it off because we had to retire because of fuel problems, even if we ended up losing. "Hard inwards turnabout - go!"

Within seconds we were mixing it with four Sabres. A turning fight was on - something which had definitely not been planned.

The Hunter turns quite well, particularly with a notch or two of flap out, but these late model Canadair-built Sabres could, as predicted, more than match it. Fairly soon I ended up with one particular Sabre latched on to my tail and there was no way I could shake him off or out turn him. What next - sit here and watch myself die, even if it was only on film? Not likely.

Sydney Camm endowed the Hunter with superb handling, particularly after extended leading edges were fitted, and magic flaps like barn doors, which could be chucked out at any speed. This, plus the carefree handling of the 200 series Avon, meant there was a further trick to be tried - stopping. Though in the same league as the Harrier, the Hunter could generate fairly high rates of deceleration by slam closing the throttle, applying full airbrake and full flap, and pulling the hard turn right into deep and very heavy airframe buffet. The aircraft remained fully controllable, but lost speed at an incredible rate.

My opponent could not see any of this because I was top-side of him. The Sabre suddenly found himself closing at a high rate, with insufficient time to get a tracking solution and too much speed to hold the turn, and he flew through my flight path, astern, at fairly close range. At this stage we hoped RR had put this Avon together well, and slammed the throttle full open, airbrake in, half flap, a boot full of top rudder and aileron and nose high reverse the turn hopefully into a barrel roll to drop behind the opponent - well, not quite!

As I reversed, there was the Sabre about 46m away, on a parallel heading, canopy-to-canopy and pulling hard towards me - damn, these things don't half turn! Now I was not about to chicken out and lose this hard won equality, but neither was the Sabre prepared to ease off because I would certainly have got him. Fortunately he was going a bit faster than I was, and he flew across my nose at very, very close range top-side up and with his fin appearing to slice through my nose. He missed but not by much.

As he dived out of it, I followed him down, and managed to get a few fleeting shots but nothing to write home about. As we got down to treetop level - so much for the 7,000ft minimum height! - we had reached our fuel limit and had to knock it off.

The Sabres were on the ground first and their pilots were standing around waiting for us to taxi in as I stopped I noticed Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat walking over towards me. What now - not a rocket on the first sortie? It just so happened that PAF had very similar flying rules to RAF and the minimum range for combat, for safety reasons, was set 600ft in a bubble around the aircraft which must not be infringed.

He waited as I climbed down the ladder and started to walk back with me. All he said was: "600ft?" "Yes," I replied, "give or take a foot or two". "Good, I'm glad we agree." So I had been fighting the Wg. Cdr. He was certainly good, but I liked to think that he learned something good but the Hunter.

Then the next pair were off, and it became apparent that they had also been taken to the cleaners by the Sabres by playing their game and not the Hunter game. Things were not going well.

RAIN STOPPED PLAY

We lost the next day-and-a-half to heavy rain, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a test match. This gave us the opportunity to visit the Khyber Pass, and have tea and cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off, I'm not joking) in the Khyber Rifles Officers Mess. An armed escort was provided to prevent the locals from taking us hostage. It was a memorable day out, if only for the cucumber sandwiches and the opportunity to sign the guest book signed by the Queen, President Kennedy and other world famous names.

Although the weather ruled out flying, we made a couple of important decisions. Firstly, we had flown the aircraft to Peshawar with the Extra Long Range fit, two 230 gallon tanks inboard and two 100 gallon outboard. On arrival, the 100's had been removed and we flew with the 230's. We obviously needed to consider performance ability, and as most sorties were of a fairly short duration the 230's were a bit of an overkill and imposed a performance penalty. Off they came, to be replaced by the 100's inboard. We thought this would help.

The second decision revolved around the whisky. A visit to the local Chinese restaurant (yes, they have them in Peshawar, too) had brought the not entirely unexpected enquiry from the head man: "Psst - got any whisky for sale?" "Yes. What are you prepared to pay?" Negotiations continued for some while and we eventually agreed on £10 bottle. Bear in mind that this was 1971 and the stuff only cost 10 shillings (50p) a bottle in the NAAFI.

At this stage, we had revealed how much we had to sell and the restaurant owner was taken aback, to say the least, when we suggested we could let him have 12 crates! "It'll take me 24 hours to raise the money," he said. "Only hard currency, sterling or dollars, not rupees," we reminded him. I do not know how you raise £1,440 in Peshawar in 24 hours notice, but he did it. The cash injection to the squadron fund ensured we had an excellent disbandment party in when 208 folded in August 1971.

The rain stopped and we were raring to go, but the runway was flooded. Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat asked Air Traffic Control how long it would take to clear the runway, and on being told that the sweeper vehicles were having no effect, he detailed 60 PAF airmen to grab brooms, and double to the runway and sweep it dry! (I told you the British Raj was alive and well!). Mind you, the look on the faces of our ground-crew was worth a fortune when we jokingly told them they were on next!

BRING ON THE MIGS

Things still remained very much in the favour of the PAF as we came to the last day. We still did not have anything resembling a kill and only two opportunities left too redeem ourselves. The high power section, the 'Boss' and 'Buck' Ryan, set forth to do battle with a pair of Chinese-built MiG-19 Farmers - the Shenyang F-6 - which operated out of Sargodha, some 130 nautical miles south south east of Peshawar. They came back with their tails between their legs.

I was down to lead the last pair, again with young Stanley as my No. 2. This had to go well and, regretfully, I told Dave I was taking a much more experienced pilot with me - Roger Wholey, one of the best combat pilots I have ever known. Dave was disappointed, but fully understood my reasoning. Roger and I blasted off absolutely determined either to get these two MiGs or not bother coming back.

We were at 40,00ft on the north-bound leg of a north-south race track about 40 miles north of Sarghoda when we saw them, in contrails coming in from 3 o'clock. We split vertically, Rog going low for speed and turning into them fairly hard, and me going high and turning gently.

It worked - they both followed Rog, but could not turn with him. After less than one turn, I was in a position to drop on the back man and Rog was working into a good position on the leader. It obviously seemed to the No.2 MiG that this was going to be a good 'sandwich', with him getting Rog before Rog got the MiG leader.

He was wrong. I came down right into his '6' and closed to about 360m before the MiG pilot saw me and broke hard right. Too late, I was in and staying - that'll teach him to clear his '6 o'clock' before committing! Rog latched on to the leader and stayed behind him for the rest of the fight. We were now two independent one-to-one combats, being split beyond visual range and doing very much our own thing, while still keeping track of events in the other fight by radio. All seemed to be going very well.

Over the next five minutes or so, both fights worked their way down from 40,000ft to deck level with little change. The MiG could roll very rapidly, well in excess of the Hunter roll rate, though this is no great advantage with someone camped right behind you. Despite having a theoretical speed advantage, this was not all that apparent.

It probably would have been if the fight had stayed at high level for any time where the MiG-19's supersonic capability would have told, but most of the time we were below 20,000ft and the aircraft seemed fairly evenly matched on speed between there and low level. Despite everything my man threw at me - hard breaks, attempted forced fly-throughs into the previously-described barrel roll, slowing down into a 'scissors' (very low speed cross-overs trying to make the opponent fly ahead) - he could not shake me.

Rog was having the same result with his fight. It was very clear that at medium and low level the Hunter had the match on the MiG-19 for turning ability, was much superior at high speed handling, and that the maximum speed difference was nil.

This could not be allowed to go on for much longer. At low level and full power, fuel was disappearing at 200lb a minute, and the MiG-19, with two engines and reheat, was probably worse off. After a couple of minutes at very low level, my man started running flat out at the deck on a southerly heading. They were obviously heading home, and we followed.

Fuel was getting a bit tight, but we were going to follow them back to Sargodha, even if it meant landing there because of fuel shortage. I saw the airfield when we had about three miles to run and at about the same time, the other MiG - with Roger glued firmly to his tail - appeared line abreast of us. There we were, a big box of two MiG-19s and two Hunters doing the best part of 600 knots, on the deck, heading right for Sargodha.

As the MiGs broke downwind over Sargodha, Rog and I both got the 'bingo' lights - 1,300lb of fuel remaining and something like 130 nautical miles to go in the opposite direction. The 600 knots was converted into a rapid climb via the first 60% or so of a loop and a half roll, and within a very short time we were back at 40,00ft and at range speed for the return to Peshawar, where we landed with about 400 pounds of fuel remaining in each aircraft - a good sortie that had lasted all of 45 minutes.

HONOUR RESTORED

Honour was restored. We had given the final pair of MiGs a right pasting because they allowed us to play our game and they let the fight get quickly down to a height where they had no advantage. It was the same lesson as our fights with the Sabres - play the fight to your advantage, not your opponent's.

It was only after landing that I noticed the 'g' meter in my aircraft was covered in black bodge tape - why? Roger's was the same. What was going on? The line Chief gave us an explanation: "We didn't want you to worry about over-stressing - you just had to get them and we would have straightened out the aircraft afterwards." As it happened, neither of us had over-stressed.

The aircraft were handed back to be made ready for departure the following day, and we went downtown for some shopping before the farewell party with the remainder of the whisky. Now what was it that She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed had said she wanted? A brass inlaid sandalwood coffee table, very good quality and very cheap.

How I ended up with an ancient mountain flintlock gun over 6ft long instead, how we shipped/smuggled it back to Bahrain in a Hunter pitot head box (the pitot was subsequently recovered by the air attaché), an the ear bashing I got for this back home are all incidents best glossed over. Suffice to say that 'Er Indoors is still here and that the gun is a right swine to balance you coffee on!

We left Peshawar on Friday, March 5, with a good beat-up and night-stopped Karachi Masroor with the Sabre squadron based there. The journey into Karachi for a Chinese meal (how come everybody likes Chinese food?) in three cars driven by PAF fighter pilots and the three minor shunts we had on the way there and back and back (including one which involved two of our cars), should be consigned to history. After a relaxed start on Saturday, we departed for home. The final leg had its moments, but only Roger and I talk about that.

Until I read Andrew Thomas's letter, I was unaware that Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat had died [Missing in Action] in the Pakistan/Indian conflict that followed a few months after our visit. A great shame - he was certainly a gentleman and an excellent fighter pilot, but how, as a Pakistani, did he end up with the name Mervyn L. Middlecoat?