It was 3 December 1971, 5 p.m when two PAF officers entered the transit lounge at Lahore airport and were anxiously waiting to fly to Peshawar by a PIA flight, en route from Karachi. They were Flight Lieutenant Salim Baig Mirza and Squadron Leader SM Anwar. SM Anwar had been charged with carrying some classified documents to Air Headquarters Peshawar. That is when they found that war has erupted in West Pakistan when PAF Mirages struck Indian airfields. Baig being the younger and yearning for combat, wished to join the action and reach his squadron at the earliest. He believed that he belonged in his Sabre cockpit and that he should have been there when the war started. He always believed that he had been trained and mentored for that very day. They were told that the PIA flight had been canceled and they would have to move by road from Lahore to Peshawar. After some insistence, the PIA station manager arranged a van for their journey from Lahore to Peshawar. There was no motorway in those days but a less busy Grand Trunk Road from Lahore to Rawalpindi and then leading to Peshawar. They were made to travel with the headlights off which made the journey longer and a lot more agonizing. Enemy air raids were expected and there was a complete blackout in the towns driven by. Of course, there were no mobile phones those days to keep abreast with the ongoing developments in the war. Thus, the two curious officers endeavored to reach Peshawar at the earliest. “We reached PAF Officers’ Mess Peshawar at about 0600 hrs on 4 December and after changing into my flying gear, I headed straight to my parent unit, the No 26 Sqn. I was keen to get into the action because I had already missed the opportunity to take part in the first strike to Srinagar airfield,” recalled Wg Cdr Salim Baig Mirza (Retd) while talking to the author. With a thousand plus hours on the F-86 Sabre, having traveled all night with no sleep, this plucky combat aviator was itching for a fight with the enemy. He was delighted to be put on cockpit alert straight away on reaching the ADA (Air Defence Alert) hut, along with Flight Lieutenant Khalid Razzaq as his leader. As he was being updated and briefed for the mission, Indian Air Force (IAF) Hunters struck Peshawar airfield at 0715 hrs. They caused no damage except to destroy two dummy aircraft on the tarmac. The Base Commander gave instructions to keep on standby two additional aircraft, ready to scramble at a moment’s notice, if the need arose. Sitting in the cockpit of Sabre tail No 412, Baig had to wait for an excessively long time, along with his leader. Despite the rigors of the night journey, Salim Baig was wide awake, with no signs of fatigue. “Excitement was running high in anticipation of action with the enemy aircraft who had dared us and thrown up a challenge with the first strike. But it was seemingly an unending wait of more than two and half hours in the cockpit. During this waiting period, all sorts of questions came to my mind. Will the IAF aircraft again attack our base? Will we get a scramble in time to intercept? Will it be a futile wait? Will some other pilots replace us before we launch into action etc.?” reminisced Wg Cdr Salim Baig Mirza (Retd).
At about 1030 hrs, the hooter finally blew and they were asked to scramble. Excited with impending combat, the adrenalin rushed as the pair started up their trustworthy Sabres. Both aircraft were airborne within minutes. The radar controller asked them to climb to 5000 feet and head for Cherat Hills about 30 miles southeast of Peshawar. Just after two to three minutes of flight in the direction of Cherat, they were asked by the Controller to return to base to counter an imminent Indian attack. One hard turn and both aircraft were approaching the base in a westerly direction. While doing so they heard “Killer Control” (ground observer), which meant that the airfield was under attack by Indian Hunters who were seen heading in the easterly direction towards Peshawar town. Baig spotted one enemy aircraft at a very low altitude heading in the opposite direction. He immediately informed his leader and they both made a hard turn-about to pursue the enemy aircraft. However, as they rolled out, they received another call, “Hunters pulling up for another attack.” Apparently, sensing no opposition, the raiders had decided to have one more go at the airfield. Baig and his leader were determined not to let that happen. The pilots turned in the direction of the airfield and pushed their aircraft to the max. Baig made a call and punched his extra fuel tanks as he prepared for hard maneuvering combat at low altitude. The North American F-86 Sabre, designed by Edgar Schmued, was a legendary jet fighter and perfect for dogfights against the Hunter at lower altitudes. No wonder, it was the backbone of the Pakistan Air Force in both the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971. Flt Lt Baig had mastered this fine machine by then and was about to push its maneuvering and shooting prowess to its limits. Right over the base, Baig spotted one Hunter turning left across the runway and informed the leader. By then, the leader Flt Lt Khalid Razzak too had seen the raider, called contact, and was already in a dive to position himself behind the enemy aircraft. Baig held off for a while looking out for other enemy fighters. That is when he spotted another Hunter from the right side, trying to sneak in behind the leader. Baig immediately updated his leader and maneuvered for the second Hunter who was still more than a mile behind Khalid Razzak. It was a unique situation, a lethal, high-speed merry-go-round you see in World War II war movies. The lead Hunter was chased by the Sabre-leader, who in turn was pursued by the No 2 Hunter, which in turn was being pursued by the Sabre flown by Salim Baig. While the two in front lagged behind their targets by almost a mile, Baig being lighter with no extra fuel tanks closed in behind the second Hunter. This is the point where his skills instincts and all the training kicked in. He tracked his target in the A-4 gunsight, with the pepper on the adversary canopy, and opened fire. “While firing at the enemy aircraft, I was getting closer in range but in spite of my bullets hitting the target, there was no sign of smoke or fire. The Hunter was proving to be a tough nut to crack. I was aware that Hunter’s distance from the leader’s aircraft was becoming less and could be fatal if not warned in time. I, therefore, told the leader to “Break” – a maneuver performed by fighter aircraft to avoid extreme danger. At the same time my bullets showed their effect and the Hunter aircraft started to emanate thick smoke from the right side of its fuselage and wing root and in the next instant, I saw it hit the ground,” recalled Wg Cdr Salim Baig Mirza (Retd). Flg Off Kotteiezath Puthiyavettil Muralidharan could not eject and go down with the aircraft. Muralidharan was from Nilambur and belonged to No 20 Sqn of IAF. The other enemy aircraft managed to escape. Later, it was revealed through IAF war history that Flt Lt Khalid Razzak had damaged the other Hunter and the pilot managed to land at an under-construction runway at Jammu in Kashmir. PAF personnel including ground crews, and support personnel at the flight line saw the entire dogfight with excitement. As the duo landed back, the crew lifted Baig on their shoulders and shouted ‘Allah-o- Akbar’ at the top of their voice.
On 14 Dec 1971, a formation of four F-86F Sabres, led by Wg Cdr Sharbat Ali Changezi, along with Flight Lieutenants H K Dotani, Amjad Andrabi, and Maroof Mir, took off from Peshawar to attack Srinagar airfield. To ensure the success of the bombing mission, Flt Lts Salim Baig and Rahim Yusufzai flew in two F-86s as escorts. They knew that the IAF had no radars in Kashmir valley and depended on the observation posts pitched atop the Pir Panjal ridges, and elsewhere, to detect the aircraft. The Sabres descended to low level over the Pir Panjal Pass and turned toward the north of Kasba village to line up southeast to northwest, in 31/13 direction, the Srinagar runway orientation. The leader, Wg Cdr Changezi, and his team pulled up on calling contact with the runway, lined up, and dropped their bombs on the runway. Instantly, they were face-to-face with IAF Gnat. “I heard my leader telling his No 2 to immediately ‘Break’ to the left because there was an enemy Gnat aircraft firing at him. Leader and No 2 commenced a tight left turn to avoid the danger. No 3 (Flt Lt Amjad Andrabi), after pulling out of the bombing run, spotted them and maneuvered to get behind the Gnat. Meanwhile, No 4 had completed his bombing dive and had no visual contact with the other formation members decided to leave the battle area,” Wg Cdr Baig recalled. Baig asked No 6 (his wingman) to jettison external fuel tanks and headed in the direction of the fight which had developed within visual and hearing distance west of the airfield. Because of high-G turns, No 2 had depleted his speed and was unable to sustain maneuvering energy for the fight. He, therefore, decided to roll out and leave the scene of action by turning away to the right. No 3 had by this time had taken position behind the Gnat and had commenced firing with his guns. He also communicated on his radio that he was going to shoot him down. Baig picked them up from below and settled into an orbit on top at about 3-4000 feet higher. He could see the three aircraft in a tight circle with Gnat being in front, a Sabre (No 3) behind him who was followed by another Sabre (leader) at a height of about 200 feet above the ground. Wg Cdr Baig further explains the battle account in these words. “I was expecting the matter to be over in a short while because No 3 was well placed within gun range behind the Gnat. After a few seconds, I heard No 3 calling that he was “Winchester” which meant that he had run out of ammo and his guns had stopped firing after missing the target in front. Andrabi found after landing that his bullets missed the mark because of a drop tank hang up i.e. when he punched his extra fuel tanks, one of the drop tanks did not jettison and caused asymmetric firing conditions and spoiled his gun tracking.” At that time, Baig saw the Gnat momentarily rolling his wings level to jettison drop tanks and then went into a high G turn with renewed vigor to maneuver behind the lead Sabre. Within a couple of turns, he could see the distance dangerously closing between the two. That is when Baig decided to get into the act. “At the same time, I heard an anxious call from the leader asking me to come down and relieve them of this imminent threat. I asked my wingman to get into a fighting position and then dove down maneuvering my aircraft to get into the orbit of the fighters below. In a matter of a few seconds, I was behind the Gnat and firing from a close range of about 1000 feet. In a three-second burst from my Sabre’s six machineguns firing at the rate of 120 rounds per second, I hit him square and thick black smoke started coming out from under his fuselage belly. The Gnat leveled his wings and headed for the airfield. It was obvious that, for him, the fight was over. I stopped firing at him and saw the canopy of his cockpit fly away from the aircraft. But the very next moment, the Gnat snapped over inverted on its back and crashed into the undulated ground of the valley, killing the pilot,” reminisces Wg Cdr Baig (Retd). Later after the war, the same dogfight was covered in an article by Wing Commander G M David, a retired Indian Air Force officer, he narrates, “They found 37 bullet holes on the Gnat’s rear fuselage, tailplane, and fin. That knocked out its flight control system, meaning the laws of flight had abandoned the Gnat.” IAF’s No 18 Sqn (Flying Bullets), equipped with Gnats, was responsible for the Air defense of Srinagar Air Field on that day. Flight Lieutenant Baldhir Singh Ghuman (G-Man) and Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, were ordered to scramble to meet the Pakistani formation. Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, was decorated posthumously with the Param Vir Chakra, the highest wartime Indian gallantry award. After the war, Baig was redeployed to Risalpur as a flying instructor, where he resumed training the budding potential pilots of PAF. During this tenure as the flying instructor at the Academy, Baig trained scores of student pilots who later rose to senior ranks while serving the PAF. One of his personal students at the Academy was Flt Cadet Masood Akhtar who later rose to the rank of an Air Marshal in PAF. “I was most fortunate to be mentored by one of the best instructors of the Academy. Being more of an introvert and a shy person to boot, I would not have survived flying training with a gung-ho, brash flying instructor. There was no way I could have made it to an aviator in the PAF without this great man. There was not a single occasion when Baig Sahib raised his voice or lost his temper on my failures or weaknesses, of which there were quite a few. He was so down-to-earth and humble that I actually never discovered his stellar achievements during the war. He, in fact, never talked about his extraordinary performance during the conflict with India. Very frankly, while many hands shaped my career during my 35 years of service with the PAF, without Baig Sahib’s nimble hands and mature and sober nature, there was no way I would have survived the tough and grueling flying training at Risalpur. In brief, Baig Sahib has had a major hand in what I am and who I am today in life. I am truly grateful to this great combat aviator.”
He also taught the tricks of fighter flying to Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir (Shaheed), Chief of Air Staff, as his personal student in a fighter conversion course at Peshawar. Another protégé of his in No 26 Squadron, Air Marshal Qaiser Hussain (Retd), pays rich tributes to Wg Cdr Baig in these words, “I am a lucky person to have been his student in Fighter Conversion Unit. I cannot forget him and his witty remarks. While converting onto F-86 Sabres, I flamed out at 35 feet AGL during a skip bombing run at Jamrud firing range as his No 3. As I pulled up and announced my engine failure, he did a barrel roll and in no time was on my wing, guiding me and getting a relight, as I was told to eject if no joy (not getting a relight of the engine). I was then escorted by him and I landed through a Simulated Flame Out (SFO) pattern. May Allah bless him and his family. I was lucky to be associated with him during our deputation to UAE, where we flew Mirages.” Born in Hisar, Haryana in India in 1942, Baig was the 7th amongst 13 siblings, 7 brothers, and 6 sisters. His father was a police officer who opted for Pakistan. The partition upheaval saw his family migrate to Multan where he attended Muslim High School for his primary and secondary education. Fast forward to the late fifties, he first joined Forman Christian College and then the illustrious Government College. Salim Baig Mirza joined PAF College Risalpur in August 1961 in the 36 GD (P) course. He distinguished himself at the flying training college and along with four-course mates was sent to the USA for advanced training. There he flew the T-37 and T-33 at Laredo (Texas) and then the F-86 for the Combat Crew Training course at Nellis air force base. Baig joined back the PAF in 1964 and was posted to No 15 F-86 Squadron at Sargodha, where he flew operational missions during the 65 War. He experienced his first combat when he saw his leader Flight Lieutenant Yusuf shoot a Gnat in the Taran Taran area between Kasur and Amritsar. Begum and Wing Commander Salim Baig Mirza are presently settled at Lahore where they have raised a family with two sons and one daughter. Their eldest son and the daughter are doctors, their other son is an officer in the Pakistan Navy. There’s another interesting anecdote about the 1971 war. It so happened that two of his Indian Air Force mates from the fighter training stint in the US, Flight Lieutenants Tejwant Singh and Bhargwat were shot down and became prisoners of war in Pakistan. Both were subsequently kept in the PAF Provost Unit along with another nine, just behind the present-day PAF Information and Selection Centre in Rawalpindi. As Baig came to know about them, he decided to visit his erstwhile colleagues in the temporary internment camp with fruits, edibles, and books for them. While he found Tejwant in high spirits, Bhagwat was rather depressed, even though it was mere confinement with a rather friendly treatment. Baig exchanged pleasantries with Tejwant who had been shot down by Flying Officer Maqsood Amer in a Sabre, and asked “Tango (his nickname from US days), why on earth did you get into a turning battle with an F-86?” To which he replied, “…Yaar bus ghalti ho gaee (I made a mistake my dear friend).” There are men amongst us who lead unassuming lives, despite achieving feats that few could even dream of doing. These men live their lives without being recognized or given the distinction that is due to them. What makes these men remarkable is that they are completely fine or even prefer this arrangement. Wg Cdr Salim Baig Mirza is the epitome of this type of individual. Despite having several impressive feats under his belt, he has never boasted about or even mentioned his achievements. After the war, he quietly went back to his purpose, adding more value to the force that he has dedicated his life to. Although they might brush off their feats as simply their ‘duty’, there is no doubt that it is upon the shoulders of men like Wg Cdr Salim Baig Mirza that PAF is always considered ‘Second to None’.
By Sqn Ldr (R) Fahad Masood