(This article was originally published on 7 December 2015 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives.)
Even in his eighties, Air Marshal (Retd) Denzil Keelor is modest about his achievements in service to the nation. Speaking to The Quint, he recalls his incredible dogfight over Sialkot in the 1965 war. The sector witnessed the greatest battle since the Battle of Kursk in World War II with thousands of men and hundreds of tanks involved.
Keelor, entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the ground troops, shot down a Pakistan Air Force Sabre aircraft in what was one of the first dogfights by the Indian Air Force. Just a few days earlier, his brother Trevor had also shot down a Pakistani fighter aircraft in what became independent India’s first air kill.
Keelor, arguably India’s oldest living MiG pilot, recalls his first dogfight and kill in the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
It was a dusty evening. The sun was setting, we couldn’t see the targets so we circumvented and came towards the sector from another direction. I saw a huge cloud of dust and massive vehicles moving. 20-30 tanks.Air Marshal (Retd) Denzil Keelor
I saw two Sabres (Pakistan Air Force planes) up there and two down below. I asked my number 2, Kapila, to engage the two above and I engaged the ones below. We started a low-level dogfight, perhaps the first dogfight at the height ever and we were flying at 400-500 miles an hour.
I saw them dropping their tanks (when external auxiliary fuel tanks are let go of in case of emergency or combat). That means they had seen me and were ready for a fight. I took a shot when they pulled up right in front of me, but I didn’t get him at the time.
Then he (Pakistani pilot) started manoeuvring and he wanted to stay low because he didn’t have the advantage I had until finally he lost sight of me and started shaking me off and I figured he was a young chap. I got a chance and shot him down.
Awarded a Veer Chakra for his valour, Keelor remains modest about what he achieved along with his brother.
We were not great, but Pakistan got irked. India hyped it up to such a level that even today people say, “You won the war for us.” A lot of people had done a lot of good work (to win that war).
Six years later, in the middle of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Keelor’s aircraft was shot down on the 8th of December, a day after his 38th birthday. Keelor managed to eject safely, but a hard landing caused by entanglement with the parachute resulted in some injuries that forced him to spend the rest of the war in the hospital. An Indian Army unit managed to pick him up from no man’s land minutes before a Pakistani patrol unit arrived there.
But Keelor wasn’t done seeing action yet.
In 1978, Keelor was awarded the Kirti Chakra, one of India’s highest military bravery awards, for two miraculous safe landings.
Gp Capt. Keelor, who had rich and wide combat experience and the destruction of a Sabre aircraft to his credit, was flying a MiG-21 U trainer on 27 Mar 78 when due to structural failure the canopy of the aircraft detached and flew off. Gp Capt Keelor felt sudden decompression and loss of control but managed to fly back to base and execute a safe emergency landing without the canopy. Later on 17 May 78, during firing trials one of the 23 mm Cannon Shells exploded causing extensive damage and total electrical failure to his aircraft. He successfully executed another safe landing back at his airbase.Kirti Chakra citation to Air Marshal (Retd) Denzil Keelor
Though he was an ace pilot trained to fly some of India’s best fighter aircraft from the 1960s to the 1980s, Keelor finds new basic technology fascinating. He was particularly amused by the functioning of an app-based taxi service with the driver’s ability to locate us using the built-in location finder functionality.
Talking about changing trends amongst fighter pilots, Keelor recognises the drastic change.
It’s gone from individual skills to technology. Technology has taken over completely. The art of fighting has changed. Today, the aircraft is just a platform. All the manoeuvering is done by stand-off weapons, the radars and equipments.
In our days when an aircraft was hit, there was a 50-50 chance of survival, nowadays you are just blown to pieces.