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INTERVIEW: What makes a Fighter Ace? (2006)

Written many moons ago when i was an Asst. Ed with Social Pages.

Published in Defence Journal September 2006

Republished in PROBENEWS(2006)

Legend has it that a Sabre took off from Sargodha airfield to intercept Hunters on a fateful September morning & landed back with an Ace.

120 Seconds: Squadron Leader Alam in a Sabre is on Air Combat Patrol accompanied by his wingman. Upon observing IAF Hunters exiting after an unsuccessful air strike over Sargodha, Alam sets off in hot pursuit of the enemy formation. He pursues a fleeing Hunter and eventually shoots it down with a missile shot.

He spots the other members of the Hunter formations flying very low and as he approaches the trailing member he is spotted and the entire formation breaks (violent turn) in the same direction - a fatal error as in less than two minute Alam has taken out four of them, (as confirmed by more than one independent eye witness) 1 bringing his tally for the mission to five…… And an Ace is born - a legendry instance of speed shooting which remains un-paralleled to this day. Was this purely a chance encounter in the sky gone right or in fact, a premeditated rendezvous with destiny - meticulously planned, brilliantly executed, superbly rendered? The story I am about to tell is about the 32 years of intense training, complete dedication and single-mindedness of purpose concentrated into the now famous 120 seconds.

Beginning of the Legend

An uncle in the de-Havilland aircraft factory in UK brings back pictures and stories of the magnificent flying machines for young Alam who has been mesmerized with toy airplanes ever since childhood. Later, as Alam witnesses the Pakistan movement, he is truly inspired by the idea of a Pakistan and vows becoming a defender of this nation. After migration to Pakistan, financial constraints force the Alam family to opt for Urdu Medium schools for their children over the preferred elite English medium institutions of the time. But Alam’s flawless Queen’s English belies this Urdu Medium educational background and what he lacks in opportunity he makes up for it with enthusiasm. After matriculation, Alam’s parents hope that he will continue studies and appear for the Civil Services of Pakistan.

Alam is convinced that his destiny lay in the defence of Pakistan instead.

Risalpur: He comes to the prestigious RPAF Flying Training College at Risalpur in 1952, after six months training in Pre Cadet Training School Quetta. Alam’s lifelong dream of flying is now within reach, as he qualifies for pilot training and graduates as a Pilot Officer on 2nd October 1953. Ever passionate and dedicated, Alam marks excellence as his ultimate goal. He remembers his flight instructor, Flt. Lt. Ahmad (from Hyderabad Deccan) for generously giving him latitude when Alam needs to be free; to the extent that the young Pilot Officer Alam proudly engages in unauthorised low speed scissor manoeuvres with another instructor and escapes censure. Not a naturally gifted flier, Alam still gains on his comrades by doggedly pursuing his objectives. It is Alam’s strong belief that “the desire to achieve excellence will make you outstanding over time”. From his time as a pilot officer, Alam has been fascinated by the stories of British Aces of WWII and understands early on that a fighter is essentially a weapon of war. In 9 Squadron, Alam enjoys flying the exceedingly manoeuvrable piston engine Furies.

Kohat:Be one up as a fighter pilot’. Upon learning that his squadron which was based at Kohat was planning a surprise mock air raid on Alam’s detachment deployed at Miranshah, Alam and his buddy carry out a pre-emptive air strike by taking off in the wee hours of the morning - sneaking up and surprising them just as they are about to taxi out, ‘much to the dismay and amusement of his own squadron commander ‘Sikki Boy’ (Pilots tend to reserve such irreverent names for one another- an occupational hazard) - the memory of that day still cheers Alam up.

Flying was and continues to be Alam’s passion; any mention of it brings back the young Alam who excitedly recounts his fascinating encounters in the sky. Even now, in air combat, height is extremely advantageous to your aircraft for it can get converted into extra speed – more speed equals more g’s (it enables your aircraft to swoop down faster from a greater altitude). When challenged to an air combat duel at 20,000 feet by his comrade Hameed Anwar, an exceptional flier, Alam cheerfully arrives to patrol at 25,000 feet; meanwhile Hameed, equally crafty, thinks to himself, aha! I bet the chap is lurking at 25,000 feet and so he awaits the other at 27,000 feet. And hence the games continue.

Fighter Pilot

In the middle of the day, Alam sits strapped in his cockpit in searing Sargodha heat. He peers at the sun through a tiny hole cut on a cardboard piece and by doing so he successfully works out a simple yet effective method of keeping the enemy in sight if the latter tries to evade him by pulling up into the glare of the sun. He then turns his neck to the left and right repeatedly in an effort to see as far as possible behind the tail of his aircraft. As any good pilot knows that letting the enemy within 3000 feet behind your aircraft puts you at risk of being shot down, therefore by training himself to look over his shoulders at the rear at all times, Alam ensures that he at least will not be caught off guard. ‘A professional anticipates and stays prepared for all eventualities’.

Shooting down an enemy aircraft in the air requires an accurately computing gunsight. The Sabre’s gyroscopic gunsight is advanced for its time and enables the pilot to aim accurately provided it is correctly calibrated. Alam develops an uncanny sense of knowing exactly when his ‘gyroscopic gunsight’ is inaccurate. The erring ‘gunsight’ is brought back and placed on a calibration turn table and tests confirm that the instrument is, indeed at fault. Alam likens the unerring eyes of a pilot to that of a golfer who shoots from over a hundred yards and still makes it to the heart of the green.

Given the limitations of air to air missiles of his era which are useless against maneuvering targets, pilots had to rely primarily on aircraft mounted guns to achieve aerial victories. While other PAF pilots in his time are perhaps more renowned than him in other phases of flying like aerobatic displays and air to ground firing but few can match Alam’s expertise in air combat manoeuvring and air to air firing. Alam’s average air to air gunnery score is above 20 % and occasionally he returns with over 60 % hits on the banner (above 20% was deemed exceptional considering the immense skill required in the tracking and hitting a flying banner). The banner (generally of cloth) trails far behind the tow aircraft.

Behind Alam’s glory are months of preparation, sitting in the cockpit working with the men to maintain his aircraft to make certain that they remain trouble free and voluntarily flying extra hours to hone his combat skills. It’s taking deliberate calculated risks in peace time that helps Alam prevail in war. He credits himself with developing his own version of the first virtual flight simulator in his mind - precise enough to let him play back the mission details accurately. Alam notes down all mistakes made during his missions and tries to improve upon them and by so doing he trains himself meticulously into becoming an expert hunter. ‘Inexperience is akin to failure’.

His was a brilliant strategy based on the age old wisdom of perseverance, fuelled by sheer willpower & driven by clear vision.

Sabre vs. the Hunter

Fighter Pilots either hunt or get hunted’.

Knowing the adversary’s capabilities is vital for victory in any form of combat, Alam professionally evaluates the combat performance of the Hunter aircraft and is convinced that if it can be forced to engage in a turning (horizontal plane) battle his Sabre will prevail. PAF Sabres & IAF Hunters are otherwise fairly evenly matched, both being contemporary fighters with each having an edge over the other in certain regimes and flight parameters.

The four 20 mm canons of Hunters give it greater lethality and longer range than the six 0.5 inch Browning guns of the Sabres. Pit a Sabre against a Hunter and the Sabre has to register 10 to 15 bullet hits to bring down the adversary against 2 to 4 of the Hunter. Sabre’s advantage is in the form of a higher rate of fire, a larger spread of the volley of its six guns (the fired bullets will cover a wider area enhancing the hit probability) and longer firing time.

Hunter is more powerful and can out pace, out run and out climb the comparatively underpowered Sabre. However, Sabre’s smoother wing profile & better aerodynamics enables it to out turn the Hunter. Since aircraft guns/canons are the primary tools for achieving aerial kills in his days and this meant getting behind and steadily tracking the quarry from ranges below 500 metres to achieve a kill, the better turning ability of the Sabre gives it a decisive edge in this mode of close combat dogfight with the Hunter.

Hunters are hard to catch in the vertical plane but easy to bring down on the horizontal one, and with this in mind, Alam’s tactics involve forcing Hunters to engage in a turning plane where his Sabre will be able to out perform it. Alam remains unfazed by the superiority of Hunters, believing that with the right tactics Sabres will emerge clear winners. He concludes that in the end the more skilful pilot will win the duel and in this area he is supremely confident about the superiority of PAF pilots over their IAF counterparts, especially in the art of air combat. The results of aerial combats between Sabres and Hunters during the 1965 War which are overwhelmingly in favour of the former justify Alam’s confidence and his predictions prove correct. As Alam looks back with nostalgia over the events of the 1965 war he cannot but help mutter with a twinkle in his eyes and the typical fighter pilot’s bravado that if he was flying the Hunters and the Indians the Sabres during the 1965 war, he would have performed as well, if not better.

4 Raids Over Sargodha Airfields

0530 hr: When 6 IAF Mysteres came upon Sargodha for a surprise attack, the PAF aircrafts sat well camouflaged but for 4 F-86 & 2 F-104's, parked outside in readiness for immediate take offs. The Mysteres, fortunately, took out only a dummy Starfighter placed on the end of the runway, whose aluminium foil covered wooden frame made it appear to be an obliging target. With the dummy Starfighter under its belt, the formation exited but not without losing one Mystere to the PAF ground defence fire.

0551 hrs: By the time 6 Hunters came in for a second attack over Sargodha base, four F-86 and one F-104 had already taken off on their interception mission. MM Alam made history by shooting down 5 Hunters.

0947 hrs: 4 IAF Mysteres evaded the intercepting PAF fighters and arrived once again at Sargodha airfield to find the same 6 aircrafts still there. Again, out of 6, only one F-86 was destroyed by the Mystere cannon fire as was an old abandoned ATC building. Luckily, that was the extent of the damages.

15.41 hrs: Many hours passed and then came the final attack of the day when 2 more relentless Mysteres arrived, but this time they had to reckon with the pilot whose F-86 had been taken out not many hours before in the 3rd Mystere attack. Flt. Lt. A H. Malik took out a Mystere with a sidewinder missile and the other escaping Mystere was downed by the Sargodha ground defences.2

In all, PAF claimed 11 out of 19 aircrafts on the 7th with zero losses in air.


Alam & Education: Alam fondly recalls Peshawar’s compact library of 20,000 books where he spent his Saturdays and today, his own room resembles a miniature one. Once the writer of great poetry, Alam has now graduated from literature to philosophy. For him, the Internet is no substitute for books, whatever else its merits might be. He detects a lack of awareness around him and holds the declining trend of book reading in the current generation for this dismal state of affairs. Alam does want youngsters to cultivate their mind by becoming avid reader of books on any subject. “No book is not worth reading! You will always learn something, of course with the best of books you will learn more. Cultivate your spirit by relating to God. Religion is more than prayers and fasting, it’s knowing the purpose of your life and having good values”.

History & War: Alam stresses on the establishment of a Military history unit in all history departments in the country with qualified young PhD’s as historians, in view of our long association with wars. He also notices the absence of trained War Correspondents in Pakistan and considers the study of war as being absolutely critical to becoming a competent War Correspondent.

Alam & Air Power: Alam still feels that the existence and need for a robust air power should never ever be questioned as our sovereignty cannot last without a strong armed force of which air power is an integral part and a vital component.

While Alam’s exploits of 65 continue to inspire awe 40 years on, his humility and spartan lifestyle has endeared him to a new generation of Pakistanis. Come September, the spark of interest in such heroes rekindles, bringing with it a surge in patriotism. Let this spark light up the way towards glory in your chosen profession.

1. Fricker John, Battle for Pakistan, Ian Allan Ltd. Shepperton,Surrey,1979,pp.13-15
2. Op.Cit. Fricker John, pp.111-115

Acknowledgement: Technical details provided by Jamal Hussain.
Archive Images Provided by Sqn Ldr Tauseef OIC Library AWC. (to be added later)

These Images from:

New Image with MM Alam taken in Early 2012


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