On 16 September 1965, as the air war between India and Pakistan was raging on its 16th day, a young fighter pilot from Indian Air Force (IAF) was able to draw first blood shooting down a F 86 Sabre jet of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) from his British made Hawker Hunter F 56. Indian pilot was Flying Officer PS ‘Pingo’ Pingale, and for him the sweet taste of victory was laced with larger satisfaction of getting his scores even with PAF in a period of less than ten days.
On 07 September 1965, Fg Offr Pingale while flying a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) mission over Halwara, Punjab was shot at by a PAF Sabre who had managed to creep in behind unnoticed and let go a deadly volley of machine gun fire from point blank range on his Hunter fighter. On looking back Pingale spotted his attacker behind and turned into him. But his controls were sluggish and his cockpit was already getting filled with smoke. He was left with no other option but to pull the ejection handle of his Martin Baker seat as his aircraft was plummeting towards ground with mere 100 feet to go. He did survive the ejection but had to be hospitalised with a severe a back ache, a common injury that most fighter pilots suffer in an ejection. The injury was serious enough for any pilot to be grounded for months on health ground as another ejection during recovery period can either be fatal or result in permanent injuries like complete paralysis from waist down. For Flying Officer Pingale, spending the rest of the war lying on a hospital bed while his squadron was fighting a war was unthinkable. There was also a burning desire in his guts to get even with Pakis. Pingo managed to convince the doctors in Military Hospital that he was fine and fighting fit although he was nurturing a nagging pain in the lower back. For this young fighter pilot, country was in a raging war and years of military training had taught him that for a soldier.. “personal comfort and welfare come last always and everytime”.
Very soon Pingo joined his ‘Battle Axe’ squadron at Halwara. His life in hospital of deathly silence and overpowering stench of disinfectant were replaced by piercing whines of jets engines and aroma of burnt ATF (aviation fuel) from powerful jets raring to go into action and he felt at home at last. It did not take too long for him to strap into a cockpit and fly across the border with his buddies in search of enemy. But while engaging targets on ground his eyes constantly scanned the sky to find an enemy fighter to even out his personal score with his enemy. On 16 September 1965, that opportunity arrived as the Hunter formation flown by him on an air defence mission with Flying Officer FD Bunsha as his wingman was vectored by the GCI station (ground radar) for an intercept on two enemy aircraft prowling in Indian airspace at around 20,000 feet. Pingale’s made visual contact with one Sabre approaching head on and from beneath. As he manoeuvred his section to get behind the Sabre it turned on a Southerly heading and carried on straight. It appeared to him that the Sabre had not spotted the Hunters at this stage and that helped the Hunters to steadily close in on the lone enemy. However, gut feeling and months of air combat training kept telling Pingale to look for a second enemy aircraft and on deepening his scan in the rear quarter he spotted the second Sabre at 4 O’clock at approximately 800 yards rapidly closing in and ready to fire. Pingale told less experienced Bunsha to split and go for the enemy ahead as he turned on to face his adversary in rear quarter.
Pingale crossed the Sabre head on and reversed steeply to engage him using the vertical plane, a tactics that was well suited for a Hunter with a more powerful engine as compared to a Sabre. Sabre, on the other hand, was an extremely well designed fighter for a dog fight especially at low level. Its six browning machine guns could fire an extremely lethal envelope of bullets that could rip apart an aircraft to shreds. However, it lacked a powerful engine. Combat advise to all Hunter pilots was never to engage a Sabre in a turning plane as it can out turn any fighter in the world at low level. Take the fight vertical and watch his performance bleed owing to a less powerful engine and then close in for a kill, it said.
As combat with the Sabre progressed, Pingale started gaining on his adversary forcing him to make series of errors that helped him to close in further and open fire with his four 30mm cannons spewing bullets at 1200 to 1300 rounds per minute. First burst was from 400 yards but missed as aiming with a gyro gunsight required steady tracking for few seconds and in the excitement of the battle Pingale’s aiming had gone wild. But soon training took over and he settled down for his second shot from 200-250 yards with proper ranging and tracking. The correct aiming index in a dog fight is always the opponent’s cockpit which ensures a sure kill. For the second salvo of bullets, Pingale had pipper of his gunsight perfectly resting on the Sabres’ cockpit but Pingale hesitated.
In the annals of air to air combats, a fighter pilot is often compared to a “Knight in shining armour” who fights duals as perfect gentleman with sense of fairplay and compassion. Flying Officer Pingo Pingale was perfectly positioned behind his enemy to open fire with aiming index steadily positioned over the cockpit. But he hesitated, thinking, ‘Saala mar jayega, rahne do’ (the poor bugger is going to die, let him be). He eased back the pipper (aiming index) a bit behind the pilot and pressed the trigger for the second time and watched the Pakistani jet literally explode in front him. Young Pakistani pilot, Flying Officer Shaukat Ali who managed to eject unaware that a fellow pilot’s benevolence had saved his life. Shaukat spent rest of the war in an Indian POW camp.
While combating with his Sabre, Pingale had noticed Bunsha gradually loosing his hold in his battle with the first Sabre and warned him to be careful. But to his dismay, he saw the Pakistani getting better of Bunsha and Hunter going down spewing smoke. He yelled at Bunsha to eject but to there was no response from Bunsha’s aircraft as it continued to go down.
By now Pingale’s Sabre was a ball of flame and he instantly put his Hunter in a turn towards the Sabre who had continued to fire at the stricken aircraft of Bunsha. Bunsha did not to eject as cannons shells from Pakistani pilot seemed to kill him instantly. As Pingale turned into Sabre on Bunsha’s tail, it gave up firing and turned sharply to face him. Both aircraft crossed head on at high speed and Pingale immediately reversed hauling the Hunter around half expecting to find the Sabre doing the same. But he was in for surprise. The Sabre choose to fly away at high speed from the fight on a homebound course. An indignant Pingale gave chase diving steeply with an aim to close in behind the running Sabre. As ground rushed in Pingale pulled hard to recover from his steep dive and immediately felt a shearing pain from his back injury suffered during his recent ejection. High ‘g’ force also blacked him out completely. As he was recovering his wits about, the Sabre made a clean get away. Later it was confirmed that one who got away was none other than ace of ace of Pakistani Air Force, Squadron Leader MM Alam. Alam claimed both the Hunters, Bunsha as well as Pingale and Pakistan Air Force obliged its hero with two more kills to its credit.
Satisfied at shooting down of a Sabre and sad at losing Bunsha, Pingale flew back to his base under radar cover. Back at the base his gun camera footage was analysed to grant him the kill of Flying Officer Shaukat Ali’s aircraft and that earned him a Vir Chakra.