The missile with a man in it

This is an extract from an article published in Aviation History January 2000 isuue. Robert Guttman, the author, is currently serving as a first officer in the U.S. merchant marine.

Starfighters saw their principle combat use with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which used them in two wars against India, in 1965 and in 1971. The PAF's experience over Kashmir was more significant than U.S. Air Force's over Vietnam because its F-104s were the first ones to engage in the type of air combat for which they had been designed.

Pakistan acquired its Starfighters as a direct result of the Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane that had been based in Peshawar in 1960. Understandably annoyed at the Pakistanis for allowing the Americans to use their country as a base for espionage missions, the Soviets threatened to target Pakistan for nuclear attack if such activities continued. Taking the threat seriously, the United States agreed to provide Pakistan with enough surplus F-104A interceptors to equip one squadron.

Although the Starfighters were intended to defend Pakistan from high-flying Soviet bombers coming over the Hindu Kush Mountains, their actual combat use would be under quite different circumstances. In the summer of 1965, a dispute involving the sovereignty over the Vale of Kashmir - smoldering between India and Pakistan for quite a few years erupted into full-scale war. At that time the PAF had about 140 combat aircraft, mostly American built, including the F-104A with the No.9 Squadron. Facing them was the Indian Air Force (IAF), with about 500 aircraft of mostly British and French manufacture. The IAF had also begun to acquire Mig-21Fs, new Soviet interceptors capable of Mach 2, but only 9 of them were operational with the No.28 Squadron in September 1965, and they saw little use.

The war, which lasted from August 15 to September 22, 1965, did little for either side except waste lives and material. Pakistan used the F-104As primarily for combat air patrols (CAP), usually consisting of two Sidewinder-equipped F-86F Sabres, with a Starfighter to provide top cover. The F-104As occasionally provided escort to PAF's Martin B-57B Canberra bombers or reconnaissance aircraft and sometimes flew high-speed photoreconnaissance missions themselves.

Indian pilots were initially intimidated by the formidable reputation of the Pakistan's Mach 2 interceptors. In their first aerial encounter on September 3, two PAF F-86s battled six IAF Hawker Siddeley Gnats while an F-104A, flown by Flying Officer Abbass Mirza, darted around above, vainly trying to get a shot at one of the elusive Gnats. When a second F-104A arrived, however, one of the Gnats, flown by Squadron Leader Brij Pal Singh Sikand, suddenly descended and landed on the airfield at Pasrur.

The first air-to-air victory by an F-104A - or by any Mach 2 airplane - came on September 6, when Flight Lt. Aftab Alam Khan, disobeying orders by descending below 10,000 feet, downed one Dassault Mystere IVA fighter-bomber with a Sidewinder at an altitude of 5,000 feet and damaged a second. During attacks on Rawalpindi and Peshawar by IAF English Electric Canberras that night, three F-104s tried to intercept them but failed to get a target acquisition because the bombers were too low. During an Indian attack on Sargodha air base, however, Flight Lt. Amjad Hussain Khan used his cannon to destroy a Mystere IVA, killing Squadron Leader A. B. Devayya of No.1 Squadron of IAF. Debris from the exploding Mystere struck the Starfighter, however, and Amjad was forced to eject at low altitude. He had reason to be grateful that his F-104A did not have the original downward-firing ejection seat - otherwise, his subsequent award of the Sitara-i-Jurat would probably have been posthumous.

On the night of September 13-14, Squadron Leader Mervyn Leslie Middlecoat achieved the first blind night interception in an F-104, firing a sidewinder at a Canberra from a distance of 4,000 feet and reporting an explosion, but failed to obtain a confirmation. Another Starfighter was lost on September 17, when Flying Officer G.O. Abassi tried to land in a sudden dust storm, undershot the runway and crashed in a ball of fire. Miraculously, he was thrown clear, still strapped in his ejection seat, and survived with only minor injuries.

On September 21, in the last days of the war, Flying Officer Jamal A. Khan finally got to use the Starfighter in the manner for which it had originally been designed, scoring a solid Sidewinder hit on a Canberra at 33,000 feet over Fazilka. The Indian navigator was killed, but the pilot, Flight Lt. M.M. Lowe, bailed out and was taken prisoner.

During the course of the Kashmir War, No. 9 Squadron a total of 246 sorties, of which 42 were at night. The F-104As gave a good account for themselves on the whole but criticism was raised over their insufficient maneuverability, lack of ground-attack capability and the inefficiency of their radars at low altitudes. The Pakistanis had actually gotten much more value out of their older Sabres, which could be used for both air combat and ground attack.

Hostilities again broke out between India and Pakistan on December 3, 1971, this time over the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Once again, the IAF outnumbered the PAF by nearly 5 to 1. More significant, however, the qualitative advantage enjoyed by the PAF in 1965 had been considerably reduced. For all intents and purposes, the F-104A had been the only supersonic fighter in service over the subcontinent in 1965. Since then, India's Hindustan Aeronautics, Ltd., had been producing improved model Mig-21FLs under license. By 1971, the Mig-21 had become the most important fighter in the IAF, with 232 in service, enough to equip nine squadrons. In addition, the IAF had six squadrons of Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-7BM supersonic fighter-bombers.

Pakistan had managed to acquire enough F-104As from the Royal Jordanian Air Force to keep the No. 9 Squadron operational, but the Starfighter was no longer Pakistan's only supersonic fighter. By 1971, PAF had three squadrons of French-built Mirage IIIEJ, and three squadrons of unique Shenyang F-6s - illegal Chinese copies of Russia's Mig-19F, which the Pakistanis had improved with British Martin-Baker ejection seats and American Sidewinder missiles. In addition, the Pakistanis had replaced their older F-86Fs with five squadrons of a more potent version, the Canadair Sabre Mark 6, acquired via West Germany and Iran.

The air war began in earnest on December 3, when the PAF launched strikes against 10 Indian air bases but failed to eliminate the IAF with that one blow. When the IAF struck back the next day, No. 9 Squadron downed a Gnat and a Su-7 over Sargodha. During an attack on a radar installation at Amritsar on December 5, No. 9 Squadron suffered its first loss of the war to anti-aircraft fire. Flight Lt. Amjad Hussain Khan ejected from his F-104 and was taken prisoner. Wing Commander Arif Iqbal scored an unusual Starfighter victory during a raid on Okha Harbor on December 10, when he downed a land-based Breguet Alize turboprop anti-submarine patrol plane of the Indian Navy over the Gulf of Kutch.

A particularly significant air battle took place on the afternoon of December 12, when a pair of F-104A s tried to strafe the Indian airfield at Jamnagar and themselves were attacked by two Mig-21FLs of No. 47 Squadron, IAF. One F-104 fled northward and the other sped southwest over the Gulf of Kutch with Flight Lt. Bharat Bhushan Soni in pursuit. Applying full afterburner to his Mig, Soni fired a K-13 missile, but the F-104 evaded it and turned sharply to the right and closing to 300 meters, Soni fired three bursts from his GSh-23 cannon, then watched the stricken plane pull up. The pilot ejected and parachuted into the shark-infested Gulf of Kutch. Soni called for a rescue launch, but no traces of his opponent, Wing Comdr. Middlecoat, a decorated veteran of the 1965 war, was ever found. The Starfighter had clearly been unable to outaccelerate or outrun the Mig-21 at low altitude. It was equally clear that Indian pilots were no longer intimidated by the F-104.

That fact was demonstrated again on the last day of the war, December 17, when No. 9 Squadron's Starfighters clashed with Mig-21s of No. 29 Squadron, IAF. Squadron Leader I. S. Bindra claimed an F-104, though in fact it escaped with damage. In a later flight over Umarkot, Flight Lt. N. Kukresa made a similar premature claim on an F-104, but when he was attacked in turn by another Starfighter, Flight Lt. A. Datta blew it off his tail, killing Flight Lt. Samad Ali Changezi. Interestingly, while no Migs were downed by Starfighters during the war, one was reportedly shot down by an F-6 on December 14. Another Mig-21 lost a dogfight with a Sabre flown by Flight Lt. Maqsood Amir of No. 16 Squadron, PAF, on December 17 - the Indian pilot, Flight Lt. Harish Singjhi, bailed out and was taken prisoner.

Aviation experts throughout the world followed the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War with great interest. The Starfighter was still the mainstay of most of the NATO air forces at that time, and for years there had been a great deal of conjecture about how the Lockheed fighter would fare against modern Soviet equipment. Admittedly, the F-104Gs and F-104Ss used in Europe were far more potent then the elderly F-104As operated by the Pakistan. There could no longer be any doubt, however, that the Starfighter was no match for the Mig-21, particularly in maneuverability.