Air Force Day: How I Discovered My Dad Was a Half-Sabre Slayer
Air Vice Marshal Kamal Khanna, riding his Lambretta in the late ‘60s. He was a Flight Lieutenant then. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)
Air Vice Marshal Kamal Khanna, riding his Lambretta in the late ‘60s. He was a Flight Lieutenant then. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

Air Force Day: How I Discovered My Dad Was a Half-Sabre Slayer

(On 8 October 2016, the 84th anniversary of the Indian Air Force, The Quint is republishing this story which was first published on Air Force Day 2015.)

“Papa, how come you never shot down a Pakistani plane?”

“I actually did shoot down half a Sabre”, said my Dad cryptically, not even bothering to look at me from over his morning paper.

“Half??!”

“Yup, in ’65. 20th of September, exactly.”

Kamal Khanna, part of a brood of seven kids, belonged to a family bruised by Partition. Originally from Bannu (a town now known for its kidnap-and-ransom ‘industry’) in the North West Frontier Province. When the family got to Dehradun in 1947, the idea was to get the kids ‘standing on their own two feet’ ASAP.

Young Kamal leaving by train from Dehradun. Heading for NDA, Pune. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)
Young Kamal leaving by train from Dehradun. Heading for NDA, Pune. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

So, soon after he got into his teens Kamal was shipped to the National Defence Academy in Pune. He was 19 when he joined the Indian Air Force in December 1959, as a nubile young fighter pilot.

Soon to bring down half a Pakistani plane.

Pilot Officer Kamal Khanna being commissioned as an officer of the IAF, 19th Dec 1959. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)
Pilot Officer Kamal Khanna being commissioned as an officer of the IAF, 19th Dec 1959. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

Six Years Later, the ‘65 War

Kamal Khanna was 25. He was part of No.2 Squadron in Ambala. Flying this tiny English plane called the Gnat. And married for just over a month. (Ambala Cantt’s Sirhind Club was where many a Colonel’s daughter had fallen for a dashing fighter pilot.)

Young Flt. Lt. Kamal Khanna with his wife Kamini. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)
Young Flt. Lt. Kamal Khanna with his wife Kamini. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

My mum was one of them.

Kamal Khanna with wife Kamini Khanna. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)
Kamal Khanna with wife Kamini Khanna. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

Just days into the marriage, war clouds rolled in. The 1965 Indo-Pak War. All attempts to conceive little Rohit were shelved. In fact, I fell off the agenda for the next three-and-a-half years.

Gnat aircraft at an Indian Air Force base in 1965. (Photo: CombatReform.com)
Gnat aircraft at an Indian Air Force base in 1965. (Photo: CombatReform.com)

Well, the Gnat. It was, by then, Flight Lieutenant Kamal Khanna’s weapon of choice. A tiny fighter jet, produced in England in the late ‘50s, the Gnat was actually rejected by the Royal Air Force. But it was not expensive, and so Jawaharlal Nehru bought in bulk. By 1965, India had four Gnat squadrons. The RAF reject was destined for greatness in the skies above Lahore. It would be called the “Sabre Slayer.”

The Sabre. American. Also called the F-86. Was acquired by the Pakistan Air Force in 1954. By 1965 the PAF had over 120 Sabres, their key strike fighter. But there were whispers about its vulnerability in an aerial dogfight.

Vintage Sabre F-86 in 1965, Pakistan. (Photo: Defence.pk)
Vintage Sabre F-86 in 1965, Pakistan. (Photo: Defence.pk)

In the ’65 and ’71 wars, border towns like Lahore and Amritsar often saw Pakistani and Indian planes spar in the sky. People would watch from rooftops, unable to tell Indian from Pakistani, cheering nonetheless if they saw a plane get hit or go down. A Pakistani writer says it was like the craze for kite-flying - people in Lahore would scream ‘Bo Kaata!’ if they saw a plane going down. They got a full dose on 20th September, 1965.

Kites Over Lahore

That afternoon, four Pakistani Sabres took off from Sargodha airfield to patrol the airspace above Lahore. Pakistani records say the team was led by Squadron Leader Sharbat Changazi. His wingman was Flight Lieutenant Anwaar-ul-Haq Malik.

My dad’s flying log book, which he used to maintain scrupulously, (they still have pride of place among his favourite shirts in his cupboard) shows that he took off from Halvara (Ludhiana) airfield around the same time.

Crucial page from Flt Lt Kamal Khanna’s Flying Log Book - 20 Sept 1965. ‘1235 Hours, Armed Escort.’
Crucial page from Flt Lt Kamal Khanna’s Flying Log Book - 20 Sept 1965. ‘1235 Hours, Armed Escort.’

Flying with his friend Flight Lieutenant AK Mazumdar, aka “Muzzy”, who was also three years senior to him. They were joined by two Hunter fighter aircraft, flown by Squadron Leader DP Chatterjee and Flight Lieutenant SK Sharma. Their mission – an ‘aggressive’ patrol inside Pakistan.

 Flt Lt AK Mazumdar, aka “Muzzy”. (Photo: The Quint)
Flt Lt AK Mazumdar, aka “Muzzy”. (Photo: The Quint)

Pakistani ground radar had alerted the Pakistani pilots about four Indian aircraft over Lahore. As chance would have it, the Sabres spotted the two Hunters first, and went after them. Within seconds, Sqn Ldr Chatterjee was hit, the brave pilot going down with his plane. The other Hunter was hit too, but Flt Lt Sharma got his damaged plane back to base in India.

On their radio sets, Flt Lt Mazumdar and my dad heard the Hunters coming under Sabre fire. They had been unable to help their colleagues, but it was now on them to avenge the death of Sqn Ldr Chatterjee. For a few crucial moments after downing Chatterjee’s Hunter, the Pakistani pilots perhaps got complacent. It was enough for the Gnats.

The Indian Gnat in the foreground in 1965. (Photo: BharatRakshak.com)
The Indian Gnat in the foreground in 1965. (Photo: BharatRakshak.com)

The Avengers

Suddenly Changazi and Malik found the Gnats right behind their Sabres – “Muzzy” and my Dad. The Sabres tried to dodge and weave, but the Gnat’s superiority in a dogfight kicked in. It was smaller, had greater turning ability, greater acceleration, and could even climb twice as fast as the heavier, slower Sabre.

And Flt Lt Malik paid the price. His Sabre was soon hit by the 30mm guns on “Muzzy’s” Gnat. This is how a Pakistani military writer describes it:

…His right wing and fuselage was shattered, he was on the verge of a spin. His panels rattling, radio lost and cockpit full of smoke, he desperately tried to stay aloft. He was lucky enough to nurse the stricken aircraft away from the border and managed to eject over Lahore’s Harbanspura area.
— Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail in Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force

Dad stayed close to Flt Lt Mazumdar right through the attack like a good wingman, and once the ‘Kill’ was confirmed, he tried to line up Sqn Ldr Changazi’s Sabre for a shot.

But then, he recalls, he suddenly lost radio contact. Quick maths told him that he risked taking on the three remaining Sabres by himself, and he was over Lahore. He decided to disengage, turned east for Halvara, landing about a minute after “Muzzy”.

Bringing down a Sabre was a big deal, but both the Gnat pilots knew they had lost Sqn Ldr Chatterjee. So clearly, it was a sober evening back at the air base.

Figures about the Sabre – Gnat rivalry vary depending on which side of the border you are on. But for the ’65 War, here is what a Pakistani Air Force officer wrote:

Pakistani Sabre F-86 during the 1965 war. (Photo: Pakistan Air Force)
Pakistani Sabre F-86 during the 1965 war. (Photo: Pakistan Air Force)

It must be conceded that the Gnat was a formidable fighter. In the few decisive Gnat vs Sabre engagements of the ’65 War, Gnats downed three Sabres and damaged one, while Sabres downed two Gnats and damaged one.
— Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail in Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force

With my father, the half-Sabre Slayer. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)
With my father, the half-Sabre Slayer. (Photo: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

“But you said you shot half a plane?”

“Yup. Muzzy was given the Vir Chakra Medal and 2,500 bucks. He sent me 1,250. He said half the Sabre was yours.”

The 75-year-old ‘Half-Sabre Slayer’ finally looked over the newspaper, and grinned.

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