Col Alok Mathur, SM
On 14 December 1971, in the early hours of the morning, Six F-86 Sabre Fighters of 26 Squadron (Black Spiders), Pakistan Air Force lined up at Peshawar Air base waiting for clearance from the Air Traffic Control. Their mission was destruction of Srinagar Air Base, especially the runway.
The mission leader was seasoned Wing Commander Sharbat Ali Changazi and with him were Flight (Flt) Lieutenants (Lt) H K Dotani, Amjad Andarbi, and Maroof Mir. The Sabres were armed with 500 Pounds High Explosive crater bombs and .50 inch browning machine guns. Two more Sabres, piloted by Flt. Lt. Salim Baig and Flt. Lt. Rahim Yusufzai were escorting the assault force. The mission was cleared at 0600 hours and the Sabres took off in pairs.
After 15 minutes, the Sabres crossed the River Indus cruising low to avoid the Indian radars. At 0700 hours, they gained height and crossed over the snow clad Pir Panjal mountain range that separates the Kashmir valley from the plains of Jammu. The River Jhelum was now visible to the assaulting force. The mission leader transmitted “Target in sight, pulling up, going in, follow.“ Soon, they flew over Srinagar and the air strip was visible.
Flying Bullet Squadron of the Indian Air force (IAF) had moved from Ambala Air base to Srinagar Air base in the first week of March 1971 and was maintaining constant vigil by operating Combat Air Patrols. There were two Gnats on operational readiness with 5 minutes response time. Flt. Lt. Baldhir Singh Ghuman and Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon were the pilots on duty in the blast pen.
The Pakistani Sabres were detected by the Awantipur Airbase Radar and the warning siren was sounded by Air Traffic Control (ATC). Ghuman and Sekhon, who were a few yards away, ran into the cockpits of their aircraft’s, strapped and lined up for takeoff. The first Sabre was already on top. Anti-aircraft guns had opened up in full fury. The first Sabre dropped the bombs and there were explosions. Flt. Lt. Ghuman took off first.
Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon saw the second Sabre on top discharging its arsenal. He took off amid loud explosions and found the second Sabre ahead of him. He locked on his sight and increased speed. He chased it for a few minutes and opened up with his 30 mm Cannon. The enemy Sabre rolled to escape but was hit and black smoke began to emit. Another Sabre piloted of Flying Officer Andarbi was now behind Sekhon. He fired almost rapidly at the Gnat but Sekhon survived with execution of sharp rolls. Sekhon went for the vertical charlie aerobatic manoeuvre and dodged the Sabre. Sekhon was by then on the tail of the Sabre that had finished all ammo. After a few minutes dog fight, Sekhon knocked out the Sabre. The Pakistani mission leader aborted the mission. The fourth Sabre turned back after discharging his bombs.
Sekhon did not realise that the two Sabres in escort role were watching the dog fight from top. He was shocked by a burst of Machine Gun fire from the rear. Flt Lt Salim Baig was now on the tail of Flying Officer Sekhon’s Gnat, he locked on to Sekhons aircraft. The cockpit was shattered by a bursts of machine gun fire. Sekhon was badly wounded. He tried to control the aircraft. He then heard the voice of his Squadron Leader Virender Pratap Singh, Vrc, VM from the ATC. “Well done Sekhon. You are hit, return to Base immediately,” said Singh. Sekhon however knew that he would not be able to make it home.
Flying Officer Sekhon could be heard faintly by the ATC saying “Wilco Sir.” He inquired about the safety of Flt. Lt. Ghuman. Then ATC saw Sekhon’s Gnat plummeting down, probably due failure of its control system. Sekhon attempted a last-minute ejection, which was not successful, as his damaged canopy was seen to fly off. He crashed into the mountains in a manner that did not cause any casualty to own people and civilians.
The battle was over; the Pakistani Sabres had disappeared without achieving their objective. The runway of Srinagar was still operational with few craters at sides which were repaired immediately.
The wreckage of the Gnat was found in a gorge, near the road from Badgam to Srinagar, a few miles from the base. Despite intensive search by the Army and the Air Force, Sekhon’s remains were never found due to the mountainous terrain where his fighter went down.
Flt. Lt. Ghuman, had lost visual contact with his wing man just after take-off and remained out of the fight due to fog, leaving Sekhon to handle the threat all by himself. In the ensuing air battle, Sekhon had scored a direct hit on one Sabre and set another ablaze. He is truly remembered as the saviour of Srinagar and Sabre killer.
Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon was posthumously awarded “Param Vir Chakra,” India’s highest military decoration during War, in recognition of his lone valiant action for defence of Srinagar Air Base against a strong and daring enemy air raid during Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. He is the only Indian Air force personnel to be honoured with the Param Vir Chak
The Indian flying ace, Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon was born on 17 July 1945 in the village of Isewal, Ludhiana, Punjab. He was the son of Flight Lieutenant (Honorary) Tarlok Singh Sekhon and Sardarni Harbans Kaur. He joined 97 Fighter Pilot (GD) course and was commissioned into the Indian Air Force on 4 June 1967 and posted to 18 Squadron. He was loved by his course mates and colleagues.
The Indian Gnat Fighter Aircraft
Sekhon being six feet plus in height was advised by his Chief Instructor to avoid the Gnat since he would have difficulty in fitting in and instead go for the larger transport aircraft’s. He insisted that he would only fly Gnats. He foxed his instructor by fitting in the cockpit properly with the flying helmet positioned over a Patka. Finally, due to his strong will power, he qualified and became an excellent fighter pilot. After two years service, he was promoted as Flying Officer and got married.
When he prepared to join his Squadron for operations his father said to him, “Son, go and fight the enemy of our motherland.” He reminded young Nirmaljit about the bravery and sacrifices of the great Sikh Gurus and enjoined him to fight like a Tiger. Nirmaljeet did the bidding of his father in totality.
My Regiment was located at Jalandhar in 1993/94 and while on Reconnaissance, I had the honour to visit Village Isewal in Distict Ludhiana,Punjab and meet Flight Lieutenant (Honorary) Trilok Singh(Retd) and Sardarfni Harbans Kaur, parents of Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon at their simple village house. His brother Sukhminder Singh had gone to the fields. We saluted the parents and the full size framed photo of the Flying Ace.
His parents blessed me as I touched their feet. I was made to sit on a Charpoy and offered buttermilk. I asked Sekhon’s mother affectionately, “Bebe, do you have the Param Vir Chakra which was awarded to your son or It has it been given to IAF?” She had tears in her eyes as she said “Puttar, I had preserved it with me as it is the only memory of my son.“ She pulled out a steel box, opened an old lock and took out the PVC medal. I was amazed to see the PVC medal with its four Vajras and Ashok insignia (National Emblem) embossed on it. I showed it to my troops who presented an impromptu Guard of Honour to the medal.
We all bowed our heads in honour of the brave heart, then raised it and chanted three times. “Flying Officer Nirmal Jeet Singh Sekhon Amar Rahe” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” We left the house with moist eyes.
To quote Guru Govind Singh ji, the tenth Guru of Sikhs:
Dehe Shiva Far Mohe Ahe, Subh Karman Se Kabho Na Taroon
Give me this boon, O Lord Shiva; from virtuous deed I should never refrain
Na Daroon Arr So Jab Jaye Laroon, Nischay Kar Apni Jeet Karoon
Fearlessly May I fight all battles of life, determinedly may I accomplish all victories.
Deep respects for our real heroes on whose shoulders falls the responsibility of maintaining the sovereignty and integrity of our great Nation. We live and prosper due to their hard work and sacrifices.