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Picking up the pieces

When we arrived in Pakistan in 1971, the political situation between the Pakistanis and the Indians was really tense over Bangladesh, or East Pakistan, as it was known in those days, and Russia was backing India with tremendous amounts of new airplanes and tanks. The US and China were backing the Pakistanis. My job was military advisor to the Pakistani air force, headed by Air Marshal Rahim Khan, who had been trained in Britain by the Royal Air Force, and was the first Pakistani pilot to exceed the speed of sound. He took me to their different fighter groups and I met their pilots, who knew me and were really pleased that I was there. They had about 500 airplanes, more then half of them Sabres and 104 Starfighters, a few B-57 bombers, and about a hundred Chinese Mig 19s. They were really good, aggressive dogfighters and proficient in gunnery and air combat tactics. I was damned impressed. Those guys just lived and breathed flying.

One of my first jobs there was to help them put US sidewinders on their Chinese Mig 19s, which were 1.6 Mach twin-engine airplanes that carried three thirty-millimeter cannons. Our government furnished them with the rails for the sidewinders. They bought the missiles and all the checkout equipment that went with them, and it was one helluva interesting experience watching their electricians wiring up American missiles on a Chinese Mig. I worked with their squadrons and helped them develop combat tactics. The Chinese Mig was one hundred percent Chinese-built and was made for only one hundred hours of flying before it had to be scrapped - a disposable fighter good for one hundred strikes. In fairness, it was an older plane in their inventory, and I guess they were just getting rid of them. They delivered spare parts, but it was a tough airplane to work on; the Pakistanis kept it flying for about 130 hours.

War broke out only a couple of months after we had arrived, in late November 1971, when India attacked East Pakistan. The battle lasted only three days before East Pakistan fell. India's intention to annex East Pakistan and claim it for themselves. But the Pakistanis counterattacked. Air Marshal Rahim Khan laid a strike on the four closest Indian air fields in the western part of India, and wiped out a lot of equipment. At that point, Indra Gandhi began moving her forces towards West Pakistan, and President Nixon sent her an ultimatum: An invasion of West Pakistan would bring the US into the conflict. Meanwhile, all the Muslim countries rallied around Pakistanis and began pouring in supplies and manpower. China moved in a lot of equipment while Russia backed the Indians all the way. So, it really became a kind of surrogate war - the Pakistanis, with US training and equipment, versus the Indians, mostly Russian trained, flying Soviet airplanes.

The Pakistanis whipped their asses in the sky, but it was the other way around in the ground war. The air war lasted about two weeks, and the Pakistanis scored a three-to-one ratio, knocking out 102 Russian-made Indian jets and losing thirty-four airplanes of their own. I'm certain about the figures because I went out several times a day in a chopper and counted the wrecks below. I counted wrecks on Pakistani soil, documented them by serial numbers, identified the components such as engines and rocket pods, and new equipment on newer planes like the Soviet SU-7 fighter-bomber and the Mig 21J, their latest supersonic fighter. The Pakistani army would cart off these items for me, and when the war ended, it took two big American Air Force cargo lifters to carry all those parts back to the States for analysis by our intelligence division.

I didn't get involved in the actual combat because that would've been too touchy, but I did fly around and pick up shot down Indian pilots and take them back to prisoner-of-war camps for questioning. I interviewed them about the equipment they had been flying and the tactics their Soviet advisors taught them to use. I wore a uniform or flying suit all the time, and it was amusing when those Indians saw my name tag and asked, "Are you the Yeager who broke the sound barrier?" They couldn't believe I was in Pakistan or understand what I was doing there. I told them, "I'm the American Defense Rep here. That's what I'm doing."

I didn't get involved in the actual combat because that would've been too touchy, but I did fly around and pick up shot down Indian pilots and take them back to prisoner-of-war camps for questioning. I interviewed them about the equipment they had been flying and the tactics their Soviet advisors taught them to use. I wore a uniform or flying suit all the time, and it was amusing when those Indians saw my name tag and asked, "Are you the Yeager who broke the sound barrier?" They couldn't believe I was in Pakistan or understand what I was doing there. I told them, "I'm the American Defense Rep here. That's what I'm doing."