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Untold story of an IAF Canberra & its crew, 60 years before Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG

The 27 February dogfight has many similarities with an incident with Pakistan 60 years ago, only the Indian pilots then were blindsided.

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New Delhi: When Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, flying a MiG-21, downed a cutting-edge F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) during the 27 February dogfight, it marked a major feat in India’s air-defence capabilities.

It also bore several similarities with an incident with Pakistan six decades ago, when that country first scored a hit against an IAF aircraft. The April 1959 operation ended with Pakistan shooting down an Indian Air Force (IAF) plane, detaining its two pilots and repatriating them to India, just as happened with Wing Commander Varthaman.

The operation in question took place on 10 April 1959, as India deployed an English Electric Canberra PR 57 aircraft to conduct a photo-reconnaissance over Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.

The morning of 10 April 1959

It was Eid, and most PAF personnel had been given the day off, with a skeleton crew, mostly comprising unmarried officers and airmen, on duty.

They included Flight Lieutenants Mohammad Yunis and Naseer Butt of 15 Squadron (the unit also known as the “Cobras”), stationed at Peshawar.

As Yunis and Butt sat drinking tea, the radar operator, Pilot Officer Rab Nawaz, operating a Second World War-era radar set, announced that an “intruder” had flown in from Indian airspace, towards Gujrat in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

The pilots scrambled two F-86F Sabre 55-005, which had then recently been given to Pakistan by the US — the two countries were at the time part of the erstwhile Cold War-era security alliance CENTO.

“At about 20,000 ft, we spotted a double trail way above and far ahead… When we were at 41,000 ft, the trails could be identified as a single Canberra flying on a steady northerly heading, clearly oblivious of any threat to it,” Yunis wrote of the incident.

“Overhead Gujrat now, it appeared to be at about 50,000 ft. We punched our tanks and, although we were still out of range, the mounting excitement threatened to get the better of sound judgement,” he added.

Yunis called for clearance to shoot and, for a moment, Nawaz debated whether to go through the full standard procedure for obtaining permission, according to the account. But that would very likely have allowed the Canberra to slip away, Yunis wrote, and Nawaz then took a decision on his own and cleared the Sabres to shoot.

“We were still not within optimum range but Naseer impatiently launched into a series of energy-climb/burst-of-gunfire/stall out sequence which became more desperate with each repetition,” he wrote.

“In the meantime, I kept a steady height and heading in order to give rear cover to my leader. It suddenly occurred to me that, if the Canberra spotted us, he would in all probability turn right i.e., towards the border, so I eased over in that direction,” he added.

“The leader had given me the okay to have a go if I could, but I could see I was still too far below the target.”

“Presently, the Canberra did turn right and then, as if he had spotted me, quickly reversed. On that side he must have spotted [Naseer] Butt, for he seemed to panic and tightened his turn, which of course caused him to lose height rapidly,” Yunis wrote.

The account then retells how the Indian aircraft was battered and its pilots forced to reject.

“I saw my chance and put a bead on his right engine — just in time I remembered my Hunter wingspan setting and quickly ranged on half the Canberra’s span — immediately I could see my bullets impacting on his right engine,” he added.

“I traversed the bead to the centre, not letting go of the trigger till the guns stopped — due to over-heating, as it turned out. But I had fired 1,200 rounds by then and the doomed Canberra whipped into a spiral,” he wrote.

The pilot of the Canberra, Sqn Ldr J.C. Sengupta, and navigator Flt Lt S.N. Rampal were taken into custody after they ejected and landed on Pakistani soil. However, they were repatriated a day later.

Sqn Ldr Sengupta retired as a Group Captain in 1976 while Flt Lt Rampal retired as Wing Commander in 1971.

Talking to ThePrint, a retired senior IAF officer said it was an “oxygen problem” that had made the Canberra vulnerable that day.

“The Canberra, in this mission, was invincible at the planned altitude, as no PAF fighters could climb up to that altitude,” the officer added.

“The Canberra experienced an oxygen problem… The crew, instead of returning, decided to fly at a lower altitude, which made them vulnerable to Sabres,” the officer said.


Also read: Wing Commander Abhinandan being shot down is the real Rafale scandal


What the Indian government said

Addressing the Lok Sabha a day after the incident, on 11 April 1959, India’s then defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon said the Indian aircraft was engaged in taking aerial photographs over Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir when it strayed across the border.

Explaining the presence of the aircraft in the Pakistani air space, he referred to the height that the Canberra was flying, saying that a navigational mistake could easily be committed at that altitude.

“The straying of our plane from our airspace was not and could not be part of any hostile design or policy,” he added.

Saying he doubted whether Pakistan had issued any warning before they shot down the Indian aircraft, he described the action as unwarranted and contrary to international law and custom.

The Canberra aircraft

Canberra, the only bomber of the IAF until the late seventies, came to India in 1957. An aircraft of British origin, the high-altitude bomber was a force to reckon with in the war scenario prevailing in the Indian subcontinent at the time.

Capable of cruising at four-fifth the speed of sound at 40,000 feet, Canberra was the right weapon to carry the war well beyond the frontiers, and deep into enemy territory.

Negotiations to acquire the Canberra began in 1954 and, in January 1957, an order was placed for 54 aircraft, including eight PR57 photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and six T4 training aircraft.

The deliveries began in the summer of that year.

Squadron No. 5 of the IAF was the first to get the Canberra bomber, in May 1957. The eight PR-57s were operated by the 106 SR Squadron, while the T4 aircraft were formed into a jet-bomber operational conversion unit (JBCU), which is basically a training formation.
The Canberras were mostly based at Agra. The target-towing version was added to the IAF fleet in 1975.

Over the years, Canberra became the backbone of the IAF for bombing raids and photo-reconnaissance operations. On 11 May 2007, the IAF retired its Canberra aircraft after 50 years of service.


Also read: How the Indian army went deep into enemy territory to take the Haji Pir pass in 1965 war


The 1965 war

Canberra’s mettle was tested for the first time during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, as numerous high-level bombing missions were successfully flown during the course of the short war.

In recognition of their bravery and valour, several Canberra crew members were awarded Maha Vir Chakras and Vir Chakras — the second- and third-highest wartime gallantry awards — among other decorations.

However, the battle scenario changed dramatically in the following years with the entry of radars and high-performance fighters with night-combat, reducing the potential of the Canberra.

However, the air space closer to the ground was still a grey area for the radars and the fighters, and this was exploited well by the Canberra.

#1965War & IAF: 13 Sep 1965 13 Sep saw another first in the war. PAF had moved the bulk of its forces to the rear…

Indian Air Force यांनी वर पोस्ट केले गुरुवार, १३ सप्टेंबर, २०१८

The 1971 war

When the 1971 war between India and Pakistan broke out, within hours of a Pakistani pre-emptive strike, the Canberra spearheaded a strong counter-attack on a number of Pakistani targets.

Throughout the war, the Canberra gave the enemy no respite, even at night, with its persistent raids on numerous targets.

The highlight of the 1971 operation were the bombing attacks carried out over the Oil Refinery Complex at Karachi, which proved so devastating that the target was ablaze for nearly a week.

Canberra squadrons were rewarded with four Maha Vir Chakras, a dozen Vir Chakras and many other gallantry awards and distinguished service awards in recognition of their contribution to the 1971 war.


Also read: Indian diplomacy and defence were always two steps ahead of Pakistan in 1971 war


This report has been updated with additional information

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28 COMMENTS

  1. A telling anecdote on the capabilities of the IAF and the PAF by a famous journalist
    Pakistan is losing aircraft at a rapid rate to the Gnats of the IAF. Trainee pilots of the PAF are being put through crash courses to make good the losses.
    They are taught how to take off, react in dogfight etc but not on landing procedures, one trainee finally musters up courage and asks ” How do we land Sir”.
    Response – don’t worry about that, leave it to the IAF and their Gnats

  2. Oh please stop writing about the false report of shooting down PAF F-16. Now it time to admit you own losses. I wonder how much Indian govt has paid to the media to publish false reporting.

  3. In 1973 our house in Peshawar was next to the house bombed during that Canberra raid on Peshawar 13 September 1965 an air Force family was killed as the house was almost completely destroyed ,it was a British colonial bungalow all that was left was the lawns with a pile of rubble where the house once stood ,we were less than a mile from the airfield .

  4. You missed 1 thing canberra also shot down an F 16. It dropped its bombs 60 years ago and they hit an F 16 on 27 feb 2019.

  5. Pakistan should be thankful to allah that they managed to capture indias brave pilot wing cmd abhinandan becus if that would not have happened , pakistan would have been literally burned down to ashesh by now …….. Br thankful to allah that he saved u people from being a part of history forever…

  6. कटुओं को तो बुरा लगेगा। पाकिस्तान का वजूद मिटाने के लिए ही तो हम पैदा हुए हैं।

  7. Yes. Pakistan is a beggar country fighting India with begged weapons. India should once and for all finish this problem of Pakistan.

  8. Karachi king …like all paki brethren…believe they won 65, 99 and 2019. Why not 71 ? U win all of them. U win 65 but only thing is Indian troops had reached Lahore a d sialkot… they had to cede them as per international border laws…otherwise pak won the war. In 71 pak won the war albeit u lost East Pak and Indian troops made some small number…93000… pak soldiers to surrender. U won 99 but the only thing is u had to cede the captured mountains to India with a little pleadings before the US. As far as Wg Cdr Abhinandan is concerned, even if u rekease one Indian soldier every day…it will take u hundreds of years to equal Indian large heartedness which released ur 93000 troops in 71 in Dhaka. Bloody hell…

  9. What about Bangladesh and debacle from kargil heights you fucking brainwashed terrorist son of pigs and beggars when your army surrendered to Indian army and in kargil your soldiers flew with fear of Indian army soldiers. So come again terrorist and we will provide you the way to reach your beloved 72 bitches in pig hell .

  10. Watch out now for Sri Lankan Jets ..they will also come and pound you !! Hide your F16 or it will get destroyed 🤣🤣 Bloody beggars begging every country for money and harbouring all the terrorists of the world…shame on you and your rag tag defence forces.

    • You stupid Infians always talk stupidity and keep telling lies.

      We show you your face in last air fight

      Sri Lankan army trained in Pakistan military academy and know Indian bunya actual face and mind set.

      You cow urine drinker can only talk rubbish as per your SOP of your PM

      Your PM is a killer of Gujrat..

      Shame on you and your terrorist govt.

  11. 1. There is still zero reason to believe that Abhinandan shot down anything at all.

    2. The Canberra was not India’s first bomber. That was the B 24 Liberator, which served from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s, after being literally salvaged from the scrapyard by HAL.

    3. The 10 April 1959 incident was not a “dogfight”. The Canberra made no attempt to fight. It was desperately trying to escape.

    4. The Pakistanis had their own version of the Canberra, the B57, of which they made excellent use both in 1965 and 1971.

  12. Why you forgot to mention the pride of pakistan M.M.AlAM.now pakistan has so many m.m alam.never under estimate PAKISTAN.other wise u will b vanished💪💪💪💪💪

  13. instead of telling your 1 story tell the numerous similar stories of Indian Air Force. The story of the Mystere Jet which rammed a PAF Sabre jet in mid-air. PaF has no area to boast as IaF used much backward jets compared to the PaF counterparts and still India prevailed the air war. PAF pilots, first learn to fly and then fly a jet. For your expertise, piston engine planes suits PAF.

    • We are getting smell of milk from your mouth..
      Grown up butcher of Gujrat follower.
      PAF is 1000 times better skilfully than IAF.
      If dont agree then ask your Israeli boy friends..

    • Then suddenly your eyes opened, and you realized that it is already 12 in the afternoon. Pleasant and engaging dream that was, you said to yourself. Then went back to sleep again. Pakistan is still in slumber.

    • Oh no…plz look up at the references and stop spreading fake news ..if u put something put it up with references please
      Or else delete the comment

    • o karachi king, remember the raid on karachi harbor?..and read your history first though pakistan is a country full of lies. your ISPR manages all fake news and all pakistani nationals are bunch of donkeys. Thank India, for not taking your Lahore. You are talking about kargil, your Pakistan denied to take their own. And feel good that we are not taking back PoK. Read history not circulated by Pakistan ISPR.

    • When Karachi was burning after being bombed by us U must be on leave. Nothing wrong in being in love with yrself.

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