by Air Cdre (Retd) Kaiser Tufail
It is a twin-engined, twin-tailed aircraft….with four side windows, probably an eight-seater….it is flying at 3,000 ft AMSL. Request further instructions.” Flg Off Qais M Hussain, who had been scrambled from Mauripur Station to check a suspicious radar contact south-west of Bhuj, was reporting to the Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) controller at Badin’s FPS-20 radar.
“Standby,” replied the GCI controller Flg Off Aziz A Khan, hesitantly, as he decided to consult the higher ups.
Qais, a rookie who had completed his conversion on F-86s from USA only four months earlier, belonged to No 18 Squadron and was part of a small detachment of pilots that was being rotated at Mauripur, while the rest of the squadron operated out of Sargodha. While on alert duty on 19 September, his F-86F pair was scrambled around 1545 hrs (PST). Qais, however, had to take off as a singleton since his leader, Flt Lt A I Bukhari, had aborted due to a starting problem. Another standby aircraft, flown by Flt Lt A S Kazmi, took off after a delay of 6-7 minutes, but it never caught up with Qais and continued to hold over the border at 20,000 ft.
Initially, Qais had also been told to climb to 20,000 ft to conserve fuel, but was later directed to descend lower and try to spot the reported contact visually. Somewhere during the descent, Qais lost radio contact with Badin but luckily, Kazmi’s F-86 came in handy as a useful radio relay. Looking around intently, Qais caught a glint of bare metal in the afternoon sun. After having closed in and, having examined his quarry thoroughly, Qais passed his initial report to Badin via Kazmi. He then started orbiting over and around what was only later confirmed as a Beechcraft Model 18 commuter aircraft.
“When I saw this aircraft, I asked myself what was I to do with it,” recollects Qais. To his surprise, the Beechcraft pilot reacted to the interceptor’s presence by climbing up from its cruise altitude of 3,000 ft. Qais thought to himself that if shooting orders came, it would only make his job easy, compared to the trickier high-to-low shooting from stern, had the aircraft ducked down to low level.
“During the anxious wait of several minutes, I was wishing and hoping that I would be called back immediately, without firing any bullets,” recalls Qais pensively. However, the stark orders from Badin were relayed by Kazmi: “You are clear to shoot.” Adjusting himself behind the doomed Beechcraft, Qais fired a short burst from about 1,000 ft and saw a splinter fly off from the left wing. Speeding past the stricken aircraft, Qais readjusted for a second firing pass. Firing a long burst this time, he saw the right wing in flames. Moments later, the Beechcraft nosed over into a near vertical dive and exploded in a ball of fire near the village of Suthali, about half a mile from the coast (about 45 nautical miles WSW of Bhuj). Just then, Kazmi called out that Badin radar was reporting several aircraft – possibly Vampires from Jamnagar, it was thought – heading towards the scene of shooting.
Having flown a good 210 nm from home base and, been aloft for 30 minutes, the fuel state of the F-86 was low and precluded possibility of escape while hugging the ground. Qais was, however, fortunate to stumble onto a towering coastal cloud bank that he could hide behind, while climbing away. Reaching 15,000 ft over the border, Qais started a slow descent for Mauripur. His fuel tanks bone dry, Qais landed through a precautionary flame-out landing pattern.
The same evening it was learnt through All India Radio that the eight people on board the Beechcraft, including the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Balwantrai Mehta, had been killed; also on board were the Chief Minister’s wife, Mrs Sarojben Mehta, three members of the Chief Minister’s personal staff and a press reporter from the daily Gujarat Samachar. The crew of two included an ex-IAF pilot, Jehangir M Engineer, one of IAF’s four famous Engineer brothers. He was the chief pilot of Maharashtra State Government but was on loan to Gujarat. The aircraft had taken off from the Gujarat capital of Ahmedabad and was on its way to the small town of Mithapur that lay 200 nm WSW, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. The aircraft had apparently drifted off-course considerably, for the crash site is almost 40 nm north of the intended destination.
An Indian inquiry into the incident submitted the facts four months later. According to the inquiry report, the IAF authorities at Bombay had refused to let the aircraft proceed on the flight. When the Gujarat government pressed for clearance, the IAF authorities agreed reluctantly, giving clearance for the pilot to proceed at his own risk.
The purpose of the risky visit to Mithapur remains unclear. One could speculate, though, that the Chief Minister may have sought to publicly demonstrate solidarity with his coastal constituency in the wake of Pakistan Navy’s earlier attack on Dwarka which, while tactically insignificant, was wholly morale-shattering. After all, the Chief Minister had, only earlier that morning, presided over a mass National Cadet Corps rally in Ahmedabad “to boost the country’s defence effort.”
Regrettable as the news of civilian deaths were, no one at Headquarters No 2 Sector at Badin had feared that civilians would be on board an aircraft in the thick of the war zone. The Sector Commander, Wg Cdr Mehmood Hassan and the Officer Commanding of the Operations Wing, Sqn Ldr Abdul Moiz Shahzada had hastily surmised that the aircraft was proceeding on some sort of a reconnaissance or air transport mission. Shooting down of the aircraft was, thus, deemed an indisputable answer to the prevailing quandary. The niceties of territorial inviolability had obviously no room for debate, for this was clearly not a peace-time situation.
Both India and Pakistan had utilised civilian registered aircraft for transportation of military supplies, equipment or manpower and, for maritime reconnaissance during the 1965 War (as well as 1971 War). The inherent military potential of any aircraft was well understood and, was suitably exploited. The onus of safety of these platforms lay on the host country, as the lines between their civilian and military usage were blurred during hostilities. Except for United Nations or Red Cross / Red Crescent aircraft whose identity is unmistakably displayed, all other aircraft could be construed as liable to serving military objectives, not withstanding their civilian registration markings. Proper codification of aviation law to remove any doubts on the issue did not exist in the 1965 era and, in fact, was first made part of the Geneva Convention as late as 1977.
It would be worthwhile to study a portion of ‘Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions’ of 12 August 1949, and ‘Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) Article 52’ of 8 June 1977. Even a cursory reading reveals that total or partial destruction, capture or neutralisation of those ‘objects’ that can make effective contribution to military action by virtue of their nature, location, purpose or use, is defensible. The statute clarifies that while civilian ‘objects’ per se shall not be the attacked, it clearly makes an exception ‘if these objects serve military objectives.’
Rather than attempting to seek cover of a later legislation through retroactive application, it would be instructive, purely from an academic standpoint, to see how the incident stands up to contemporary international legalities. It can be seen that the object under discussion namely, the Beechcraft aeroplane, by its nature, was capable of transporting military stores/personnel as well as performing land or maritime reconnaissance (visually at least); its location was also in an area contiguous to the land and maritime war zones. The actual purpose of the flight – which, in the event, turned out to be VIP movement – borders on the suspect when seen in the light of the other provisions mentioned heretofore, which unequivocally qualify the aircraft as ‘serving military objectives.’
Unfortunately, the safety of the aircraft stood compromised from the outset. Worse, the IAF failed to appreciate that the PAF had, time and again, carried the battle to the enemy and, the fate of the hapless Beechcraft should have been a foregone conclusion. Sadly, the loss of innocent lives has cast a shadow under which, more than anyone else, Qais has had to live for over four decades. He looks back ruefully, though he has no doubt that he was doing his duty.
 Badin’s FPS-20 radar was designated as the Master GCI Station for HQ No 2 (Southern) Sector which was co-located at Badin.
 ‘The Times of India’ News Service, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 20 September, 1965.
 ‘Express’ News Service, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 20 September, 1965.
Author's Note: Based on his familiarity with the ‘scramble-identification-shooting’ loop, and the not infrequent pilot-controller miscommunication during interceptions especially on a faulty radio, the author is inclined to consider the intriguing possibility of a case of mistaken identity. In such a scenario, the staff at HQ No 2 Sector would have found Qais’ initial report broadly matching the description of a C-119 ‘Packet’ transport aircraft of the IAF, to the extent of being ‘twin-tailed, twin-engined, with four side windows.’ In all likelihood, no one knew what a civilian Beechcraft Model 18 looked like, whereas the unique C-119 military transport aircraft was a recognisable silhouette in Aircraft Recognition charts and manuals readily available in Ops Rooms. The prompt shooting orders may have, thus, come straightforwardly, not withstanding the civilian registration number called out by Qais earlier. However, in view of lack of irrefutable evidence to this effect, this contention is not wholly supportable to be included in the main text.
Acknowledgement is made to Air Cdre (R) Abdul Moiz Shahzada, Wg Cdr (R) Aziz A Khan and Flg Off (R) Qais Mazhar Hussain for their description of the incident.
This article was published in 'Defence Journal', April 2011 issue.