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Brother Sekhon: Retelling Last Battle of Air Force’s 1971 War Hero

Read the riveting story of Indian Air Force’s only Param Vir Chakra winner NJS Sekhon, told by his ex-colleagues.

Updated
India
6 min read
Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon.
i

Here’s the riveting story of Indian Air Force’s only Param Vir Chakra winner NJS Sekhon, as told by his ex-colleagues.

14th December. Srinagar. Dawn. The morning that Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon chose to become the Indian Air Force’s greatest war hero.

The 1971 War was on. No 18 Squadron was based in Srinagar. ‘Brother’ Sekhon was a great fan of the Gnats he flew. His big worry — that the war would end before he brought down a Pakistani plane.

Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, winner of the Param Vir Chakra.
Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, winner of the Param Vir Chakra.
(Photo: The Quint)
“He called everyone ‘Brother’, so that became his nick-name. He was simple. Full of Josh. He had this heavy Jawa motorcycle… that was his personality”
Air Cmde BS Ghumman, Retd IAF to The Quint
Air Commodore BS Ghumman’s log book from December 1971. ‘Scramble CAP’ is marked next to 14th December, 1971.
Air Commodore BS Ghumman’s log book from December 1971. ‘Scramble CAP’ is marked next to 14th December, 1971.
(Photo: The Quint)

Known to his colleagues as ‘G-Man’, this is how Air Commodore BS Ghumman, whom The Quint met, remembers young Sekhon. G-Man, senior by a few years, got Sekhon to fall in love with the Gnat, the tiny fighter that had already been the nemesis of Pakistani Sabre fighters in the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

The cover of the issue of Indian War Comics that immortalises Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, the IAF’s greatest war hero.
The cover of the issue of Indian War Comics that immortalises Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, the IAF’s greatest war hero.
(Photo: The Quint)

“I was his Flying Instructor. He loved being in the air. And he enjoyed flying with me. He said quite early, ‘G-Man, I want to be your permanent #2’”.

Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon and his Gnat.
Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon and his Gnat.
(Photo: The Quint)
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And that’s how it was on 14 December. Though no longer with 18 Squadron, Ghumman had been recalled a few days before Diwali, and so ‘Brother’ and ‘G-Man’ had flown several times together.

That morning too, the duo was on ‘Stand-By 2’. That meant they had to be airborne in two minutes if ‘Scramble’ was ordered.

IAF pilots scrambling towards their Gnats during the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
IAF pilots scrambling towards their Gnats during the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
(Photo: The Quint)

From Peshawar, earlier in the morning, 6 Sabres from the Pakistan Air Forces’ (PAF) 26 Squadron, had taken off. Their task – a bombing raid on Srinagar airfield. Leading them was a ‘65 war veteran, Wing Commander Changazi. Part of the PAF team was Flight Lieutenant Salim Baig Mirza, the man fated to bring down ‘Brother’ Sekhon.

Cloaked in winter fog, the Pakistani planes crossed the border unnoticed. But they were spotted by Observation Posts a few kilometres from Srinagar. And a ‘Scramble’ was sounded.

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It was a reflex once we heard Scramble... ran to our Gnats... Sekhon yelling ‘I’m with you brother!’ I rolled my Gnat out first onto the runway. He followed. We didn’t know the Sabres were already diving into attack.
Air Cmde BS Ghumman, Retd IAF to The Quint
A still from <i>War Hero Comics </i>showing Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon scrambling towards his Gnat to join the action.
A still from War Hero Comics showing Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon scrambling towards his Gnat to join the action.
(Photo: The Quint)

Also there, were Flying Officers GM David and Y Singh. ‘Hooch’ and ‘Yogi’, as they were known in the Squadron, were on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) Control duty, to guide their colleagues once they were airborne. Now retired, Yogi told The Quint he and Hooch had spotted the Pakistani Sabres, and radio’d the Air Traffc Controller (ATC) to call off the scramble. But the ATC wasn’t in position and G-Man and Sekhon went ahead.

If the ATC had been able to tell G-Man and Brother to stand down before they rolled out, the story may have been different. The Gnats would have stayed safe in their bomb-proof pens. But now, on the runway, they were sitting ducks.
Wg Cdr Y Singh, Retd IAF to The Quint
Officers of the 18 Squadron taken at Srinagar airfield in 1971. In the background is a Gnat and the bomb-proof pen where both the pilots and planes could have been safe.
Officers of the 18 Squadron taken at Srinagar airfield in 1971. In the background is a Gnat and the bomb-proof pen where both the pilots and planes could have been safe.
(Photo: The Quint)

As it happened, G-Man took off even as the Sabres neared. But as Sekhon gathered speed on the runway, the first two Sabres dropped their bombs, one of them falling just metres behind his Gnat. Seconds later, Sekhon was airborne. As he lifted off, he saw the two Sabres going past him, and in a split second, the hunters became the hunted.

A panel from <i>War Hero Comics </i>showing ‘Brother’ Sekhon out-manoeuvring his Pakistani foes.
A panel from War Hero Comics showing ‘Brother’ Sekhon out-manoeuvring his Pakistani foes.
(Photo: The Quint)

“2 Bas***ds ahead of me, chhodoonga nahi!” is what Hooch and Yogi heard Sekhon scream on his radio set as went after the two Sabres. What followed was the last great dogfight in air warfare history.

A Pakistani account written by retired Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail also describes how ‘Brother’ Sekhon took on the Sabres by himself.

The Gnat gained on the Sabres at a dizzying rate… he was soon in a menacing position.
Air Cmde Kaiser Tufail, Retd Pakistan Air Force

Flight Lieutenant Manchi Captain (yup, real name. Parsi.), Sekhon’s colleague in 18 Squadron, due to fly at 8 am, had almost reached the airfield. Hearing the planes roar overhead, he stopped on the road and saw Sekhon’s Gnat chasing down the two Sabres.

We saw 2 Sabres turning right, a Gnat just 200 yards behind. The Gnat fired and one of the Sabres seemed to be hit and disappeared from view.
Then Flight Lieutenant Manchi Captain, Indian Air Force
Flt Lt Salim Baig Mirza, Pakistan Air Force in 1965.
Flt Lt Salim Baig Mirza, Pakistan Air Force in 1965.
(Photo: The Quint)

In his Sabre, Flt Lt Salim Baig Mirza too had a view of the action, and he now saw a third Sabre, getting behind Sekhon.

Saw No 3 Sabre firing at the Gnat, thought it would soon be over. But then No 3 yelled ‘Winchester’ indicating he was out of ammunition.

Meanwhile G-Man, going into a turn after take-off, had lost sight of his wingman due to poor visibility. It was in that crucial minute that Flt Lt Mirza swooped in. It was now 4 Sabres against 1 Gnat.

We heard the escorting Sabres diving. Sekhon transmitted - ‘I have a guy in front of me, but someone getting behind me also” - We then heard a short burst of 30mm fire, probably Sekhon hitting the 2nd Sabre.
Wg Cdr Y Singh, Retd IAF to The Quint

By now Sekhon had done the impossible, downing two Sabres. But the odds were against him. In the Sabre behind him was Flt Lt Mirza, who hit Sekhon’s Gnat with his 0.5mm guns. On the ground, Hooch and Yogi, and in the air, G-Man, all heard Brother’s last transmission -

“I think I’m hit. G-Man, come!”

The wreckage of a PAF Sabre shot down by the Indian Air Force.
The wreckage of a PAF Sabre shot down by the Indian Air Force.
(Photo: The Quint)
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“Sekhon turned out to be a hard nut to crack. His effort was commendable, he kept the field single-handedly to the end.”

Yogi and G-Man recall that his cremation took place that same day at the airfield. G-Man says he was feeling lousy, but with a war on, there was no time to grieve.

G-Man, as he was around 1971 (L) and as he is today, the retired Air Commodore BS Ghumman.
G-Man, as he was around 1971 (L) and as he is today, the retired Air Commodore BS Ghumman.
(Photo: The Quint)
Yes I was sad. But if Sekhon or I, or any of our fellow pilots had any fear of death, we would not have been able to fly into battle with a clear mind.
Air Cmde BS Ghumman, Retd IAF to The Quint

Today, having survived his brave colleague by 44 years, Yogi says his fondest memory is of Sekhon’s marriage,

“His wife Manjit was a very simple girl. It was a typical rustic Punjabi wedding near Ludhiana. We drank rum from stainless steel glasses for 8 hours straight!”

Sekhon had not been married long. While The Quint could not reach Sekhon’s family, we learnt that Manjit, understandably, did get married again.

Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was only 26 when he died. There was both pride and grief when Sekhon’s father, himself a serving Warrant Officer in the Air Force, collected the Param Vir Chakra awarded to his son.

‘Brother’ Sekhon, the nation salutes you!

(This story was first published on 8 October 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint to mark the birth anniversary of Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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