THE STORY OF ARGUABLY THE GREATEST FIGHTER PILOT OF THE INDIAN AIR FORCE — WHO TENACIOUSLY ENGAGED FOUR PAKISTAN AIR FORCE SABRE JETS ALL ALONE IN A FIESTY AERIAL DUEL
HOW A DARING IAF FIGHTER PILOT ENGAGED WITH PAKISTAN AIR FORCE JETS OVER THE SKIES OF KALAIKUNDA AFB ON 7 SEP 1965; SHOOTING DOWN ONE PAF JET OVER KALAIKUNDA, WHILST DAMAGING ANOTHER WHICH CRASHED ACROSS THE BORDER IN EAST PAKISTAN. THIS IS THE TRUE SAGA OF ‘FLIGHT LIEUTENANT ALFRED TYRONE COOKE’, WHO PROBABLY FOUGHT OFF THE INDIAN AIR FORCE’s TOUGHEST AIR BATTLE OF ALL TIMES
Fate Whispers to the Warrior —
“You cannot withstand the storm”
And the warrior whispers back —
“I am the Storm!”
1965 INDO PAK WAR: EASTERN FRONT
Twelve PAF F86F Sabres of 14 Sqn PAF were based at Tejgaon in East Pakistan and represented the sum total of PAF’s striking power in the Eastern sector. When the PAF issued the diktat to strike the IAF on 6 September 1965, the message was received late by the PAF in East Pakistan. Hence when the PAF struck with their pre-emptive strike effort on the western front in the late evening of 6 September, due to the bad light conditions at their location and an hour’s difference in time in East Pakistan, the Sabre strike was postponed to the following morning.
Meanwhile, the IAF counterstrikes against PAF commenced on the night of 6/7 September. As a part of the effort, IAF Hunters were tasked to destroy the PAF Sabres of 14 Sqn. However, due to contradictory intelligence about the location of the PAF Sabres, the IAF Hunters of 37 Sqn, hit Kurmitola airfield instead of Tejgaon at 0530 hours on 7 September. This was the time when the PAF Sabres at Tejgaon were getting armed on their dispersal for the planned strike into India. They were indeed lucky to escape destruction at the hands of IAF Hunter counter air strike.
Alarmed by the IAF strike at Kurmitola, the base commander at Tejgaon, Group Captain Ghulam ‘Gulli’ Haider, directed the CO of PAF 14 Sqn, Squadron Leader Shabbir Hussain Syed to immediately get airborne for the strike on the IAF base at Kalaikunda near Kharagpur, the main hub of the IAF’s offensivepower in the east.
Armed with 1750 rounds of front gun ammunition and long-range fuel tanks, five Sabres led by Shabbir Syed, taking a 300 km masking detour over the Bay of Bengal, struck Kalaikunda airfield at 0640 hours on 7 September. The raid achieved complete surprise over Kalaikunda and destroyed six IAF aircraft on ground. The PAF Sabres extricated successfully back to East Pakistan post their attack.
The PAF was upbeat with the successful airstrike over Kalaikunda. Though their claim of 14 Canberras destroyed and eight other aircraft damaged was an enormous exaggeration, the PAF had reasons to be enthusiastic after this successful strike. Lacking anti-aircraft artillery (the army AAA unit was just moving into theairfield) and a dedicated base CAP, the weak IAF defence over Kalaikunda provided an assurance of tactical superiority to the PAF. Gulli Haider reckoned, it was time to go for the jugular and eliminate Kalaikunda for the remaining duration of war. With its defence in tatters after the morning PAF raid, Kalaikunda would be in a state of utter disarray and pandemonium. Hence the PAF decided to swiftly launch four more Sabres to strike and destroy the surviving strength of Canberras, Hunters and Vampires at Kalaikunda for good!
The Sabres planned to exit East Pakistan at medium levels towards the south, cross at low levels over the Sunderbans into India and finally follow the coastline to south of Kalaikunda. From there the Sabres were to proceed towards the Dudkhundi firing range west of Kalaikunda and make their attack run towards from awesterly direction. This attack direction would be least expected by the IAF. Haider had another ace up his sleeve to checkmate the IAF and ensure that his strike struckKalaikunda unchallenged. He launched a pair of decoy Sabres flying at 25,000 feet on course to raid Calcutta, which he hoped would be picked up by the IAF radar at 411 SU. He reckoned that the IAF would vector all its air defence CAPs to counter this assumed strike and the Sabre strike would get through to Kalaikunda without any threat.
The Pakistanis had an audacious plan and the means to pull it off!
On that decisive day of 7 September, Gulli Haider — the PAF’s master tactician in East Pakistan would have pulled off the PAF’s most spectacular offensive action of the 1965 war against the IAF rendering an IAF base out of the war — but for an IAF fighter pilot by the name of Flight Lieutenant Alfred Tyrone Cooke.
Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta. 1008 hours, 7 September 1965
‘Red formation, Scramble, Scramble, Scramble,’ the ATC’s piercing call fol- lowed by the howling siren propelled the on-duty pair of Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke and Flying Officer S.C. Mamgain towards their parked Hunters on the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP). Within two minutes the pair from IAF’s 14 Sqn ‘The Bulls’, was heading towards the eastern border with Pakistan.
‘Red formation, your initial vector is on course zero one zero. Climb to 20,000 feet’, the Sector Director (SD) informed Cooke. Cooke looked behind to spot Mamgain, Red 2, slotting into a loose wingman’s position. Five miles from the border, the pair set a race course orbit at 20,000 feet and started scanning the skies for enemy fighters. The SD informed Cooke, the ‘Red’ formation leader, that the 411 SU Radar had pick up on two bogeys at 25,000 feet flying close to them inside East Pakistan.
Cooke knew that the PAF had raided Kalaikunda in the morning and the next raid might be on Barrackpore or Dum Dum. He removed his sun visor and looked harder towards the reported position, aiming to spot the bogeys across the border. 411 SU informed him that the bogeys appeared to be setting up an orbit at their present location inside East Pakistan. ‘Something was not right,’ Alfred Cooke thought. The PAF aircraft had done a similar profile an hour ago and were blatantly showing off their presence to IAF radars at 25,000 feet. Was it a baiting game to draw the IAF Hunters out of their den? Were these guys some kind of decoys?
Cooke asked the 411 SU controllers to check with the 55 SU radar at Kalaikunda, if they had any contacts? The reply was a negative. Cooke had a steady bad feeling in his stomach about the state of affairs. The PAF was definitely up to something. ‘Think hard Cookie boy, what would you do in the shoes of the PAF commander?’ he muttered aloud, impatiently fidgeting in the Hunter cockpit. This cat and mouse game was vexing his nerves.
As far as he could remember, Alfred Cooke had always wanted to be a fighter pilot. He grew up in Agra, watching the famed Hurricanes, Spitfires and Mustangs tangling with each other in mock combat during WWII. This made an impression on his young mind. He whole-heartedly got down to worshiping military aviation. Cooke joined the IAF and as a cadet excelled in both flying and ground studies. His keen understanding of the principles of flight stood him in good measure during flight training. Soon Alfred Cooke achieved his childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot. The tall and lanky Cooke found himself flying the Hunter aircraft. Cooke was trained by some of the best Hunter pilots in IAF. His mentor was ‘Piloo’Kacker, one of the finest pilots in IAF. Piloo Kacker, with a gruelling air combat training programme, taught Cooke to fly his Hunter outright to the very edge of flight performance and control, especially at low levels. Alfred Cooke proved his mettle as the top air defence pilot of 14 Sqn and solemnly embodied the virtues of guts and glory.
On 7 September 1965, Cooke and Mamgain flew their first mission of the war, taking off from Kalaikundaat 0500 hours in air defence configured Hunters to escort a Vampire strike over Jessore in East Pakistan. On their return, they provided air defence cover for the landing of a formation of Hunters of 14 Sqn led by their CO, Wing Commander Dennis La Fontaine at Dum Dum airfield, and post that landed at Dum Dum at 0615hours. Their formation, Red 1, 2, was designated as the primary air defence CAP deployed to guard the Barrackpore, Dum Dum and Kalaikunda airfields. When the PAF struck at 0640 hours at Kalaikunda, they were on ground as their aircraft were being refuelled and nothing could be done about it. They got airborne for their second mission at 0800 hours on a ‘Scramble’, to be vectored against some unknown contacts north of the airfield at 100 miles. The enemy maintained inside the bounds of East Pakistan and no action materialized. They landed back at Dum Dum at 0900 hours from this wild goose chase.
The duo scrambled for their third sortie of the day at around 1000 hours. By this time, Alfred Cooke was anxiously looking forward to getting a crack at some real combat.
Within less than an hour, the ‘Red’ formation led by Alfred Cooke with Mamgain as his №2, would be entangled in the greatest air battle in the history of air combat seen in the Indian subcontinent.
Port Canning area, 24 Paragnas, West Bengal. 1015 hours, 7 September 1965
The four Sabres were flying very low at 450 knots. Flight Lieutenant Haleem, the strike leader, was running his finger along the map as he carried out ground to map navigation. He identified a familiar feature and corrected his heading. He was flying over Fort Canning area towards the southern edge of Indian Bengal. As he scanned around, he assuredly picked the Sabres of his No, 2, 3 and 4 in tightposition keeping. ‘The boys are doing well,’ he thought, ‘fifteen more minutes to the target’. All his formation members, including Haleem, had flown in the earlierstrike on Kalaikunda, hence were familiar with the layout. Haleem readjusted his throttle setting to catch up on his Time Over Target (TOT).
The formation crossed a small hill feature and got down again to the deck level. At the designated time, the raiders uncaged their gyro gunsights and selected the gun master ON. The guns were HOT. He remembered Gulli Haider’s words during the mission briefing, ‘Boys, you have hurt the IAF, now go and slaughter them!’
IAF CAP area. 120 miles north of Kalaikunda. 1016 hours, 7 September 1965
Cooke was running out of patience. He had worked out that the PAF had another strike airborne to hit Kalaikunda. Simply because the IAF would be not be expecting another one so soon! Dum Dum and Barrackpore were low hanging fruits and the PAF wouldn’t go to the length of putting up decoys with its precious few resources in the east to masquerade for these targets. Cooke again inquired from 411 SU if any radar had a pick up any unidentified blips.
Yes, 55 SU had just reported a brief pickup on two unidentified aircraft overa small hill feature in Fort Canning area before the blips vanished. Cooke’s heart went ballistic. ‘That’s a strike on its way to Kalaikunda! The PAF is hitting the airfield again. We need to be vectored towards Kalaikunda ASAP,’ Cooke pleaded with the radar controllers.
Meanwhile, the OC, Flying at Kalaikunda, Wing Commander Dicky Law was also informed of a suspected strike heading their way. Law immediately asked for the ‘Red’ formation to be vectored over Kalaikunda to intercept the strike. Formally tasked, a charged-up Cooke was given pigeons for Kalaikunda. The CAP was 120 knots away from Kalaikunda. Both Hunters accelerated to 500 knots and set coursetowards the endangered airfield. Cooke led the Hunters in a shallow dive at 0.9Mach. He calculated his speed and rate of descent so as to arrive 10 km short ofthe Kalaikunda airfield at 500 feet.
About miles from the airfield, 411 SU informed the Red formation that PAF fighters had hit Kalaikunda. Cooke’s worst fears had come true. He was in a race against time to save Kalaikunda airfield from certain obliteration.
Kalaikunda airbase. 1030 hours, 7 September 1965
Haleem’s Sabres pulled up over Kalaikunda as planned. By this time, three ack-ack guns had been deployed at the airfield and they opened up on the PAF Sabres. However, against the fast moving Sabres, their low density proved ineffectual. As the IAF personnel dived for their air raid trenches on the ground, the PAF pilots got down to their planned task of summarily locating and destroying the IAF’s war-making infrastructure. One Sabre orbitted overhead as ‘top cover’ as the other three carried out shallow gun dive attacks in a racecourse pattern. The PAF commenced their dance of death over Kalaikunda!
And then — Red formation arrived in the nick of time over Kalaikunda to spoil the PAF’s party!
‘Contact with four bogeys over the runway,’ the hawk eyed Alfred Cooke informed Mamgain as they reached Kalaikunda. ‘Look at those ba*****s, they think they have already won the war. Let’s get them!’ Cooke’s call was a timeless classic in the annals of air warfare. Contrary to the established leader-wingman protocol, he split the formation and directed Mamgain to go for the Sabre holding ‘top cover’at 5000 feet on the eastern side of the field. Cooke went for the three Sabres on the western side of the airfield, which were busy strafing the flight lines.
Thus beganthe legendary air combat engagement of Alfred Tyrone Cooke, wherein he single handedly engaged four PAF Sabre jets over Kalaikunda.
Alfred Cooke vs Sabre No 1
Cooke spotted the Sabre flown by Haleem diving down to attack the airfield. Cooke closed in rapidly and fired an out of range burst from his 30mm Aden cannons. Seeing tracers around his aircraft, the stunned Haleem broke right towards Cooke and pulled up. Haleem’s No. 4, Flying officer Afzal Khan dived with vengeance over Cooke. Cooke made contact with the diving Afzal Khan and pitched up vertically to zoom out of harm’s way by converting his speed into height. He inverted the aircraft at 3000 feet and headed for Afzal Khan who was reversing towards Cooke from below. They crossed each other again and got into scissor manoeuvring, with Cooke using the vertical dimension to maintain inside the rapidly turning Afzal Khan’s Sabre. The Sabre had a very good rate of turn, which did not go unnoticed by Cooke. By this time Cooke had jettisoned his tanks and was turning better. He also employed the good power to weight ratio of the Hunter to remain above Afzal Khan. ‘Trade your height for speed only when you are ready,’ Piloo Kacker’s word pounded in Cooke’s mind.
Afzal Khan, with every passing scissor, dived down to ultra-low levels to build up his speed. Cooke followed him down to those levels, gradually gaining on Afzal. At low level you do not look insidethe aircraft, you fly with your feel! Afzal Khan was playing a dangerous game at 30 feet above ground level, hoping that the Hunter behind him would invariably mush into the ground. At a stage when Afzal Khan vanished behind a tree line, Cooke realized that his wing had brushed against a shrub while he was pulling out of his dive. Such was the intensity of the combat! With his body pressed to the seat by the ensuing ‘G’ forces, Alfred Cooke was scheming his next move on the Sabre. Cooke had reduced the ‘angle off’ to less than sixty degrees andhad stabilized behind Afzal. So when Afzal dove for the ground to build speed after a break towards Cooke — Cooke was ready with his aim. He fired at 400 yards. Afzal Khan’s aircraft exploded in a ball of flame. Alfred Cooke achieved his baptism by fire with the first IAF kill on the eastern front.
Alfred Cooke vs Sabre No 2 and 3
As Cooke broke off from his attack on Afzal Khan, two Sabres flown by Haleem and his №2, Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habeeb, bounced him. Habeeb fired a volleyfrom behind him, forcing Cooke to break right. Habeeb mushed out of his attack and dived for the ground to build speed. The fight was back at 30 feet above theground. Cooke reversed, using his better acceleration, closed into the diving Habeeb’sSabre. He fired at 300 yards, closing into 100 yards, as large bits of the Sabre’s wing were torn off. A terrified Habeeb straightened his wings and nursed the Sabre outof combat zone towards East Pakistan, trailing white smoke profusely.
His formation leader, Haleem, saved Habeeb from certain death over Kalai- kunda. Haleem, who was busy cutting corners to get behind Cooke all this while, dived onto Cooke’s Hunter with all guns blazing as he watched Cooke register hits on the other Sabre. Cooke rolled out of Haleem’s volley and zoomed up towards the right to get a height advantage. Cooke was situationally aware of Haleem’s maneuvering all the while when he was targeting Habeeb’s Sabre. His gruellingcombat training sessions were paying off. Ironically, Cooke’s mentor, Piloo Kacker had ejected a short while ago near Sargodha, having been shot down by ack-ack fire.
So when Haleem got in a chancy position behind Cooke, Cooke was ready with his defensive vertical break. Both the aircraft crossed each other in a typical head on cross. Haleem knew that he was engaging with a pilot extraordinaire. Not wanting to give ground to his adversary, Haleem pitched up to meet Cooke’s Hunter hanging at 4000 feet. However the Sabre did not have enough potential to reach Cooke, who craftily maintained height and position, patiently waiting for Haleem to fall back towards mother earth. Haleem, in a desperate wing over dived towards the safety of the ground on course towards East Pakistan. He had had enough ofthis engagement! Cooke pounced at his chance and dove down into a firing positionbehind Haleem. Both aircraft were now in a near vertical dive, with the Sabre pull- ing out at the last moment in a high ‘G’ desperate manoeuvre. This perhaps saved Haleem’s Sabre as Cooke was also forced to pull out of his dive to avoid hittingthe ground. Cooke did so with the firing button on the joystick depressed and hisgunsight trailing the Sabre marginally under the ‘G’ forces. However, the spread ofthe 30mm rounds at 200 yards ensured that some rounds hit the Sabre, identified by pieces chipping off the aircraft. The Sabre, though damaged, continued to flyand exited towards East Pakistan on full throttle.
While pulling out of his dive, Cooke ran out of ammunition. He saw the Sabre escaping. Seeing no point in chasing it, he turned back towards the airfield, where Mamgain had been engaged in air combat with the fourth Sabre flown by PAF’sFlight Lieutenant Basheer. At this stage, Cooke realized that he did not have speed indication inside his Hunter. He saw that the pilot tube located on his left wing was missing. ‘Damn,’ he thought, ‘it must have hit the trees when I was chasing the Sabres all across the countryside.’
Having shot down one Sabre, registered hits on two other Sabres and chasingthem off the battlefield with no ammo and having no speed indication in his air- craft; one would expect any pilot to head home for a well-deserved recovery. But not Alfred Cooke. Because he was not just any other pilot!
Alfred Cooke vs Sabre No 4 — the Tail Chase
Mamgain was in trouble! After battling it out with Basheer for the last three minutes and scoring hits on the Sabre, Mamgain’s Hunter was losing ground to the Sabre, who was steadily getting into a firing position for the kill.
Yet, that was not to be! Cooke, landing between the fight, decided to take things into his own hands, as he dived onto Basheer’s aircraft from his frontal quarters with the mask of the devil on his face. He appeared to be on course
to ram Basheer’s Sabre. Basheer was petrified and pulled hard to get out of Cooke’s flight path. Cooke seized this chance and manoeuvred aggressively to turn hard inside Basheer’s Sabre, ordering a break to Mamgain away from
the combat and asking him to initiate recovery back to Dum Dum. As Mamgain exited the area, Cooke slotted behind the Sabre. The Sabre flew for its money’s worth. Basheer threw all he had in his bag of tricks — loops, barrel rolls, half rolls, high wing-overs,but could not shake off the Hunter that was stuck like glue at his tail in a classic ‘tailchase’ position. It is even more remarkable when one realizes that Cooke, completely out of 30mm ammunition, was chasing an armed Sabre. This requires nerves of steel. Piloo Kacker would have been proud of his protégé that day!
Amusing as it was for the IAF onlookers on the ground, Basheer was waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall upon him soon in the form of the 30mm bulletsfrom Cooke’s Adens ripping apart his Sabre. However, the reality was quite different! After a while, the Sabre pilot smelt a rat. Why was the Hunter not shooting at him? Basheer decided to make a getaway. He broke away from the fight andheaded for East Pakistan. Cooke maintained his position behind the Sabre right up till the border, giving Basheer some very uncomfortable moments of ‘what if’. During the course of the chase, Cooke kept asking for some Hunter to get airborne to intercept the Sabre, but all communications with Kalaikunda were down after the PAF attack had knocked down the radio antennas at Kalaikunda. Cooke was sad to see a potent adversary being let off.
Thereafter, Alfred Cooke made a dramatic low fuel, unserviceable ASI landing at Dum Dum airport. After his landing, when La Fontaine questioned Cooke about his air combat, Cooke was fatigued beyond reason to recall anything except for flashes of memory in which he kept manoeuvring his Hunter in an endless meleeof high ‘G’ manoeuvring, low level environment and the repetitive thuds of his Adens. His outstanding feat of air combat was revealed to all, when his gun camera film was developed for the Sqn debrief.
Alfred Cooke had clashed with four Sabres over Kalaikunda and saved theairfield from certain destruction, a fact noted by Dicky Law, the OC flying at Kalaikunda, who saw the battle take place before his eyes. Later in the evening when Law sat down to write the after action report at Kalaikunda, he concluded with thelines — ‘As the second PAF raid stuck the airfield, the only hope for us at Kalaikunda lay in the “Red” formation CAP, which was vectored just in time. The two 14 Sqn Hunters took on four PAF Sabres in a bla- tant display of raw courage. Noteworthy was the tryst of “Red” leader, Flt Lt Alfred Tyrone Cooke, who single-handedly stoodbetween the Sabres and the airfield. We have confirmation that one Sabre was shotdown by Cooke, while he managed to chase the other three away before they could rep- licate the feat of the morning strike. All IAF personnel stand with me, when I unbiasedly say that, the very brave, Flight Lieutenant Alfred Tyrone Cooke, the last man standing over our overwhelmed base, saved the day for Kalaikunda on this fateful day of 7 September 1965.’
Alfred Cooke had foiled Gulli Haider’s masterplan to neutralize Kalaikunda airfield for good during the 1965 war. Haleem, after landing back at Tejgaon, reported being attacked by nine IAF Hunters over Kalaikunda. This admission pays rich tribute to the prowess of Cooke, who was able to move very quickly to engage all the PAF aircraft on multiple occasions. The PAF lost Afzal Khan over Kalaikunda and accepted his loss. Habeeb Khan, who had been Cooke’s second victim and saved by Haleem’s intervention, crashed just inside East Pakistan, when his damaged Sabre crashed due to the damage caused by Cooke over Kalaikunda. He managed to eject successfully out of his Sabre. Indian police authorities visually confirmed his crash, when they saw the Sabre go down just across the border inside East Pakistan. This was also verified by radio intercepts during the ejection. The PAF however admitted only as much that one of its Sabre had landed back, which could not be repaired for want of spares.
Cooke was awarded a Vir Chakra for shooting down Afzal Khan. His №2, Mamgain, was also awarded a Vir Chakra for bravery over Kalaikunda. Alfred Cooke’s stubborn defence over Kalaikunda is the most intense action ever faced by any IAF pilot. In terms of bravery and sheer aggressiveness, this ‘No 14 Vs No 14’ aerial duel between the long time adverseries, will rank amongst the best air combat encounters in the history of air warfare. A better analysis of this historic encounter by the IAF after the war would have made Alfred Cooke a prime contender for the IAF’s first Param Vir Chakra award.
On the other hand, the PAF’s 14 Sqn’s performance under a firebrand Station and Squadron Commander is also noteworthy. They were formally christened ‘The Tail Choppers’ after their standalone performance in East Pakistan by the PAF. With the two raids on 7 September, the Sqn managed to destroy eight IAF aircraft on ground at Kalaikunda.
However, it never really did recovered after the explosive encounter with Cooke. Post this strike, PAF’s 14 Sqn fought for its survival as IAF fighters mounted massive counter-attacks against all East Pakistan airfields, rendering the Sabres ineffectual to conduct any manner of effective cross border raids for the remainingduration of the war.
Alfred Cooke — the ‘Last Man Standing’ had indeed stood tall! His saga of bravery is the stuff legends are made of and will inspire a generation of combat pilots in the years to come.
Jagan Pillarisetti, India’s leading Air Historian needs to be credited for raising awareness about Alfred Cooke’s fantastic feat of bravery over Kalaikunda in his book on the 1965 war at the turn of the century. Alfred Cooke is settled in Australia and visited his old sqn ‘The Bulls’ during the 50th year celebration of the 1965 war by the Indian MOD. He presented his Vir Chakra in a befitting ceremony to the Commodore Commadant of No14 Sqn, Indian Air Force in 2015.
The author is an former fighter pilot with extensive experience on the Mirage 2000 and MiG 21 aircraft of the IAF. He has seen combat in the 1999 Indo Pak Kargil conflict. He writes on military subjects and his article on the Air War in Syria, won the best military aviation submission at the 2017 Paris Airshow.
This article was originally published on Medium.