How I Crossed Swords With Chuck Yeager

This piece is a "first person" account of an episode of the 1971 Indo-Pak war written a lighter vein by Adm Arun Prakash for Vayu magazine. He was on deputation to No. 20 Squadron, commanded by (then) Wing Commander CV Parker, MVC, VM. This IAF unit is credited with having won the highest number of gallantry awards in the conflict.

The First Supersonic Man

Lest the title of this story mislead people into thinking that I am attempting to wreck the newborn Indo-US d├ętente, let me start by quoting Henry Kissinger's words from his book "My White House Years". He says, "An aircraft carrier task force that we had alerted previously was now ordered to move towards the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly for the evacuation of Americans, but in reality to give emphasis to our warnings against an attack on West Pakistan".

There can be little doubt that the sailing of Task Force 74, headed by the carrier Enterprise into India's backyard on 10th December 1971 is something that has rankled Indians ever since. Especially since attacking West Pakistan was not on the agenda. However, with the Henry Hyde Indo-US Cooperation Act of Congress now in place, it is time to iron out these wrinkles. Fortunately, information has come to light recently, which shows that there may have been good and valid reasons for this action by the Nixon administration. And what's more, it also appears that Brig Gen Charles "Chuck" Yeager USAF, and I may have contributed to this denouement!

For those (very few) readers who may not be familiar with Chuck Yeager, let me just mention that he is the person who inspired the book "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe, and the famous Hollywood movie of the same name. A few words about this legendary test pilot's career would not be out of place here.

ChuckYeager.jpg (10229 bytes) The first man to break the sound barrier - Brigadier General Charles E "Chuck" Yeager, USAF.

He enlisted as a Private in the US Army Air Corps in 1941 and entered pilot training to graduate two years later as a flight officer. During World War II, he flew 56 combat missions, which he shot down 12 German aircraft (including five Me-109s during a single mission). Returning to the USA in 1945, his remarkable flying skills caught the eye of his superiors and he was assigned to the USAF Test Pilot School then at Wright Field.

On graduation, Yeager was selected as project pilot for one of the most important flight test programmes in history; to fly the rocket powered Bell X-1. On 14 Oct 1947, after launch from the belly of a B-29, he accelerated to Mach 1.06 at 42,000 feet and became the first pilot to shatter the once dreaded "Sound barrier". During his career he flew over 10,000 hours on 330 different types and models of aircraft.

After commanding the USAF Test Pilot School and a fighter wing in Philippines, (flying 127 missions over Vietnam). In 1969 he was promoted to Brigadier General and in January 1971, in his penultimate assignment, he was sent as the US Defence Representative to Pakistan in Islamabad. And that is where fate decided that our paths should cross.

Tribe Twenty

The cramped and cryptic entry in my flying logbook for 4th December 1971 reads as follows:

Date Type Flown No. Mission: Duration Results
4 Dec Hunter Mk 56-A 463 2 aircraft gun strike (Lead) PAF Base Chaklala 1 hr 15 mts 424 rounds HE fired, one C-130 on ground

The preceding entry for the same day says simply: "Delhi-Home Base". And thereby hangs the somewhat unusual tale that I am going to relate.

As a young naval Lieutenant, in the late 1960s, having recently carrier-qualified on the Armstrong-Whitworth Sea Hawk, from the deck of the Indian Navy's sole flat-top Vikrant (R-11) I was just settling down to polish up my embarked flying skills when I received orders for an exchange posting with the Indian Air Force (IAF). So I packed my bags and with great reluctance, left the sunny beaches of Goa (where our Naval Air Station was located) and headed for north India.

Having converted to the British Hawker Hunter ground attack fighter (a second-generation trans-sonic descendant of the Sea Hawk) I was posted to No.20 Squadron "The Lightnings" based close to New Delhi in end-1970. It did not take me long to find my feet on terra firma; the air force did everything more or less like the navy, except that they were very serious and professional. But we thought that we performed with greater style and panache, and wore orange "mae wests' while doing it!

The IAF was good enough to give me a longish spell of leave in mid-1971, during which a friend and I hitch hiked to Europe via Iran, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. We spent 4th of July amidst boisterous GIs in the Hoffbrauhaus in Munich, and Bastille Day amongst celebrating Parisian crowds on the Champs Elysees. But everywhere we went, the newsstands flashed an unfamiliar but ominous new word: "Bangladesh".

I returned to New Delhi to find that my IAF squadron had been moved further north and went looking for it. Our new base was located within 2 minutes flying time (at 420 knots) from the India-Pakistan border and would certainly be an interesting place to be in when the "Balloon" went up.

My Squadron "Boss" was an unusual combination; a great flyer, and also a martinet1].   He made it clear that if we ever went to war, he wanted to be sure of two things: (a) that he had prepared us for it in the best possible manner, and (b) that he went in ahead of everyone else. So for the next four months we were put through a most rigorous training programme, focusing on target recognition, low-level navigation, weapon delivery at dawn/dusk and air combat.

The only long-range combat aircraft in the sub-continent in that era were the Canberra light bomber in the IAF inventory, and its US derivative, the Martin B-57 that equipped our rival, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The Hunter Mark 56-A that my squadron flew carried four large under-wing fuel tanks, which gave it (for those days) an extraordinary radius of action at low level. Therefore, as far as reach was concerned, apart from the Canberra, my outfit had the longest legs in the IAF.

As single a single-seat fighter, the Hunter's operating milieu was, however, restricted to daylight hours, whereas night bombing missions were the forte' of the Canberra. It was therefore an unstated sine qua non that wars on the Indian sub-continent would commence only on a full moon night so that the Canberras and B-57s could be fully exploited.

During summer of 1971, as we watched the sequence of tragic events unfolding in East Pakistan, most of us were convinced about the inevitability of conflict. At the end of the monsoons, to avoid becoming "Sitting ducks" for a PAF pre-emptive strike; every full moon phase saw my squadron retiring to a rear base (a few hundred miles away from the international border). Since the December full moon was to be on the 2nd of the month, on 25th November we flew down to Ambala (in Punjab) for some firing exercises and on 1st December we flew even further south (and east) to Delhi.

Sure enough, on the evening of Friday 3rd December the radio announced that at 5.40 pm, PAF fighters had carried out a coordinated strike on nine Indian air bases all along the western border. Later that night we clustered around the radio to hear Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tell the nation that we were at war with Pakistan.

TribeTwenty.jpg (90722 bytes)
TRIBE TWENTY:  The Pilots of No.20 Squadron. The author, Arun Prakash can be seen kneeling in the middle row , 2nd from left.

Lightning Strike

Since the die had now been cast, our first task was to get back to base and commence the retaliatory air war ASAP. Having briefed for a 5.30 am take-off, we grabbed a couple of hours of fitful sleep, and tumbled out of bed at 4 on a bitterly cold morning to find the base completely fog bound! Starting up and taxying in blackout conditions would have been bad enough, but the fog made things even more interesting. Some people took a wrong turn on the taxiway and got lost, but my wingman and I were glad to find ourselves lined up for a timely take-off.

It was eerie to be airborne in the pre-dawn dark, flying at 500 feet with a hint of moonlight in the sky and a sheet of fog below. We knew no enemy fighter could be around, but that did not prevent the hair on your neck prickling now and then. We had a safe transit of about 45 minutes to base, save two minor incidents.

As we neared home, one could see in the distance, a very pretty but intense fireworks display. It was the "Friendly" tracer, which our local air-defence gunners seemed to be putting up to welcome us back! Some frightfully bad language on RT from the Flight Commander soon put a stop to it.

Shortly after I had touched down on the darkened runway, I saw from the corner of my eye, a green light whizzing rapidly past my port wingtip. It was my wingman who, in his excitement, had landed a few knots "hot" and after overtaking my aircraft came back on the centerline ahead of me, luckily missing the runway lights! I heard a muttered apology on the radio, but we had more important things on our minds.

It was still dark as we taxied into our blast pens, and there was just time for a quick wash and bite, while the aircraft were fuelled and armed. Briefing for the first wave of retaliatory strikes on Pakistan was businesslike and we walked to our aircraft just behind the Boss. I had drawn a two-aircraft mission against PAF base Chaklala, located a few miles SE of the new capital city of Islamabad. The briefing was to carry out a single pass attack on briefed targets and to look out sharply for enemy Mirage III fighters on patrol, both over target and en-route.

The direct distance to Chaklala was not great, but we were going to do some tactical routing over mountainous terrain and approach from the northwest, so that the radars would not see us till very late. A few minutes into the mission, the butterflies settled down in the stomach as one concentrated on the map, compass, airspeed and stop-watch (which were all the navigational aids one had 35 years ago!). As we approached the target, it became apparent that the fog, which had bedeviled us over north India a few hours ago, was going to spoil our fun again; the sun was still low, and the slant visibility poor, but one could see tall objects and feature right below.

Anyway, we pulled up from low level to about 2000 feet by the stopwatch, and were gratified to see the murky outlines of the cross-runways of Chaklala airfield, but little else. Then a huge tower appeared out of the haze and I thought that the air traffic control would be a worthwhile target for want of anything better. A short burst from my four canon saw the tower collapsing, and as I flew over it, a huge column of water rose to greet me from the debris. Oops! A water tower! I consoled myself with the thought that the PAF would at least go thirsty tonight.

Pulling out of the dive, I desperately scanned the airfield for something more lucrative on the surprisingly bare tarmacs. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I spied protruding from a large mango grove, the unmistakable shape of a tall aircraft fin, and a sharply swept-up rear ramp section. A Hercules C-130 under camouflage!

With a bootful of rudder, and the stick hard over, I swung my fighter around and in a shallow dive, hosed the grove with 30 mm shells. A thin wisp of black smoke gave cause for optimism, and I thought that another pass would be necessary. My wingman2], keeping a vigilant eye for enemy combat air patrols felt that we were stretching our luck in hostile territory and made his views known.

Pulling out of the second dive, through a gap in the fog I caught a glimpse of a row of small transport aircraft lined up on the secondary runway. The sight was too tempting. Putting all thought of the Hercules out of my mind, and ignoring the multiple arcs of tracer fire, I swung around in a tight high-G turn and emptied my guns on whatever was visible of the light aircraft. By now my wingman had lost patience and was yelling on RT. We departed Chaklala at full throttle hugging the deck amidst intense antiaircraft fire, which seemed to grow by the minute.

Fate was kind, and empty guns notwithstanding; we had an uneventful return passage. We landed back safely at base, feeling elated that we had opened our account and given the enemy a dose of his own medicine. In the de-brief, I concentrated on the hidden Hercules, and other target details, with a passing mention of the light aircraft and skipped the water tower episode altogether.

That evening I heard that Radio Pakistan had complained bitterly about an IAF attack on UN aircraft but decided to ignore it as enemy propaganda. The Boss, sharp as ever, would however not let go, and for many months after the war, I had my leg pulled mercilessly about the Navy attacking "unarmed neutrals".

The Right Stuff in the Wrong Place

The 1971 war had receded into the depths of my memory when last year, I received via e-mail from a young aviation journalist, a copy of an article published in the Washington Monthly of October 1985, with the cryptic remark: "You may find this of interest!"

The article titled, "The Right Stuff in the Wrong Place", was written by Edward C. Ingraham, a (former?) US diplomat, who had served as political counselor to Ambassador Farland in Islamabad, when Brig Gen Yeager was head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Since the article dwelt exclusively on Chuck Yeager, and touched upon events of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, I did find it of interest, and the reason will emerge shortly. However, at this juncture, I must emphasize that the views and opinions that I am going to quote, are entirely Ingraham's and I continue to hold Yeager in great regard for his professional skills.

"In 1971" says Ingraham, "Yeager arrived in Pakistan's shiny new capital of Islamabad to head the MAAG. Yeager's new command was a modest one: about four officers and a dozen enlisted men charged with the equally modest task of seeing that the residual trickle of American military aid was properly distributed to the Pakistanis. All the chief of the advisory group had to do was to teach Pakistanis how to use American military equipment without killing themselves in the process. The job wasn't all that difficult because the Pakistani armed forces were reasonably sophisticated."

He goes on, "One of the perks of Yeager's position was a twin-engined Beechcraft, a small airplane supplied by the Pentagon to help keep track of the occasional pieces of American military equipment that sporadically showed up in the country. Farland, however, had other designs on the plane. An ardent fisherman, he found that the Beechcraft was the ideal vehicle for transporting him to Pakistan's more remote lakes and rivers, with Yeager often piloting him to and fro."

Speaking of the worsening situation in East Pakistan, Ingraham says, "We at the Embassy were increasingly preoccupied with the deepening crisis. Meetings became more frequent and more tense. We were troubled by the complex questions that the conflict raised. No such doubts seemed to cross the mind of Chuck Yeager. I remember one occasion on which Farland asked Yeager for his assessment of how long the Pakistani forces in the East could withstand an all-out attack by India. "We could hold them off for maybe a month" he replied, "but beyond that we wouldn't have a chance without help from outside?". It took the rest of us a moment to fathom what he was saying, not realizing at first that "we" was West Pakistan, not the United States."

He continues, "The dictator of Pakistan at the time, the one who ordered the crackdown in the East, was a general named Yahya Khan. Way over his head in events he couldn't begin to understand, Yahya took increasingly to brooding and drinking. In December of 1971, with Indian supplied guerrillas applying more pressure on his beleaguered forces, Yahya decided on a last, hopeless gesture of defiance. He ordered what was left of his armed forces to attack India directly from the West. His air force roared across the border on the afternoon of December 3 to bomb Indian air bases, while his army crashed into India's defences on the Western frontier."

"It was the morning after the initial Pakistani strike that Yeager began to take the war with India personally. On the eve of their attack, the Pakistanis had been prudent enough to evacuate their planes from airfields close to the Indian border and move them back into the hinterlands. But no one thought to warn General Yeager. Thus when an Indian fighter pilot swept low over Islamabad airport in India's first retaliatory strike, he could see only two small planes on the ground. Dodging antiaircraft fire, he blasted both to smithereens with 20-millimeter (sic) canon fire. One was Yeager's Beechcraft. The other was a plane used by United Nations forces to supply the patrols that monitored the ceasefire in Kashmir."

"I never found out how the UN reacted to the destruction of its plane, but Yeager's response was anything but dispassionate. He raged to his cowering colleagues at a staff meeting. His voice resounding through the embassy, he proclaimed that the Indian pilot not only knew exactly what he was doing but had been specifically instructed by Indira Gandhi to blast Yeager's plane. In his book he later said that it was the Indian way of giving Uncle Sam "the finger" ".

Ingraham's suggestion that "To an Indian pilot skimming the ground at 500 mph under antiaircraft fire, precise identification of targets on an enemy airfield might take lower priority than simply hitting whatever was there and then getting the hell out"   was met by withering scorn from Yeager.

"Our response to this Indian atrocity, as I recall," adds Ingraham (tongue firmly in cheek), "was a top priority cable to Washington that described the incident as a deliberate affront to the American nation and recommended immediate countermeasures. I don't think we ever got an answer?".

Ingraham says that Yeager's movements and activities during the subsequent conflict remained uncertain, but "A Pakistani businessman, son of a general, told me excitedly that Yeager had moved into the big air force base at Peshawar and was personally directing PAF operations against the Indians. Another swore that he had seen Yeager emerge from a just landed jet fighter at the Peshawar base."

After reading Ingraham's account, and especially after retiring from the navy, the thought has often crossed my mind that perhaps Yeager had it coming to him from Mrs. Gandhi.

And if Indira Gandhi did indeed personally order the destruction of Chuck Yeager's Beechcraft, then Nixon may have been quite justified in personally directing the Enterprise task force to sail into the Bay of Bengal as an 'immediate countermeasure'..

In which case the honours are equally shared, and I owe no apologies to anyone, except perhaps UN Secretary U Thant!

Lightning Rested - A463

An Old warrior revisited -  Hunter Mk56a  A463, seen at Kalaikunda in the late 90s. This aircraft was flown on the fateful day by then Lt Arun Prakash on the mission to Chaklala.

This article appeared in Vayu Aerospace and Defence Review , Issue 1/2007


1 Wg Cdr (Later Air Vice Marshal) Cecil Vivian Parker, MVC VM
2 Fg Offr B C Karumbaya.

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