18 March 2013

In Memoriam: M.M. Alam (1935-2013)

Air Commodore (Retd.) Muhammad Mahmood Alam, popularly known as "M.M. Alam", Pakistan's first fighter ace, who shot down nine Indian Air Force (IAF) jets in the 1965 India-Pakistan War, including five in a single sortie, passed away in Karachi on 18 March 2013, aged 78.

Born into a Bengali family on 6 July 1935 in Calcutta, British India, Alam completed his secondary education from Government High School in Dhaka in 1951 and joined the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) College (later Academy), Risalpur in 1952, enrolling in the 16th General Duties Pilot (GDP) Batch from which he graduated a year later. He was commissioned into the PAF on 2 October 1953.

At the outbreak of the 1965 India-Pakistan War, Alam was serving as Squadron Leader with the PAF's elite No. 11 Squadron, flying F-86F Sabres out of Sargodha Air Base.

During the War, Alam downed a total of nine Indian fighters in air-to-air combat with two additional unconfirmed probables. Alam's tally of confirmed kills comprised nine IAF Hawker Hunters. On 7 September 1965, Alam downed five IAF Hunters in less than a minute, the first four within 30 seconds, thereby establishing a world record.

John Fricker, the noted British aviation writer, wrote of M.M. Alam in his article "Thirty Seconds over Sargodha" (Air Enthusiast, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1971):
"...Mohammad Mahmood Alam is a scrap of a man who appears almost lost in the none-too-roomy cockpit of a Sabre. Yet during the 1965 conflict with India, this Pakistani squadron commander, established a combat record which has few equals in the history of jet warfare...Many pilots have scored several air victories in one sortie, and have exceeded or equaled Alam’s...shooting down up to five enemy aircraft of superior performance within a few minutes. But few are likely to be able to match his record of destroying at least three opponents – Hawker Hunters of the IAF [Indian Air Force] – within the space of somewhere around 30 seconds."
Alam's confirmed kills are as follows:
Date: 6 September 1965
Aircraft Used: F-86F Sabre
Downed Aircraft: 2× IAF Hawker Hunters
Downed Pilots: Squadron Leader Ajit Kumar Rawlley, No. 7 Sqn, KIA; 1 Unknown IAF pilot
Location: Over Taran Taran, India
Other Information: Dogfight involving 3 PAF F-86s versus 4 IAF Hunters

Date: 7 September 1965
Aircraft Used: F-86F Sabre
Downed Aircraft: 5× IAF Hawker Hunters
Downed Pilots: Squadron Leader Onkar Nath Kacker, No. 27 Sqn, POW; Squadron Leader A.B. Devayya, No. 7 Sqn, KIA; Squadron Leader Suresh B. Bhagwat, No. 7 Sqn, KIA; Flight Lieutenant B. Guha, No. 7 Sqn, KIA; Flying Officer Jagdev Singh Brar, No. 7 Sqn, KIA
Location: 1 Kill east of Sargodha near the Chenab River and 4 Kills 30 miles away over Sangla Hill - midway between Lahore and Sargodha, Pakistan
Other Information: Dogfight involving 2 PAF F-86s versus 6 IAF Hunters. All 5 aircraft shot down in a single sortie, 4 within 30 seconds. 1 AIM-9 Sidewinder Kill, 4 Gun Kills

Date: 16 September 1965
Aircraft Used: F-86F Sabre
Downed Aircraft: 2× IAF Hawker Hunters
Downed Pilots: Flying Officer Farokh Dara Bunsha, No. 7 Sqn, KIA; 1 Unknown IAF pilot
Location: Near Halwara and Adampur, India
Other Information: In a single sortie. Dogfight involving 2 IAF Hunters versus 2 PAF F-86 Sabres. 1 Gun Kill, 1 AIM-9 Sidewinder Kill
Alam next to his F-86 Sabre in September 1965 (notice the 11 Indian flags
painted on the Sabre representing 9 confirmed kills and 2 probable kills)

Below is Alam's account of his kills on 7 September 1965 as quoted by Fricker:
"As we were vectored back towards Sargodha, Akhtar called, "Contact - four Hunters", and I saw the IAF aircraft diving to attack our airfield. So I jettisoned my drops [external fuel tanks] to dive through our own ack-ack [anti-aircraft cannon] after them. But in the meantime I saw two more Hunters about 1,000 ft. to my rear, so I forgot the four in front and pulled up to go after the pair behind. The Hunters broke off their attempted attack on Sargodha, and the rear pair turned into me. I was flying much faster than they were at this stage - I must have been doing about 500 knots - so I pulled up to avoid overshooting them and then reversed to close in as they flew back towards India.

"I took the last man and dived behind him, getting very low in the process. The Hunter can out-run the Sabre, it's only about 50 knots faster, but has a much better acceleration, so it can pull away very rapidly. Since I was diving, I was going still faster, and as he was out of gun range, I fired the first of my two GAR-8 Sidewinder (air- to-air missiles) at him. In this case, we were too low and I saw the missile hit the ground short of its target.

"This area east of Sargodha, however, has lots of high tension wires, some of them as high as 100-150 ft., and when I saw the two Hunters pull up to avoid one of these cables, I fired my second Sidewinder. The missile streaked ahead of me, but I didn't see it strike. The next thing I remember was that I was overshooting one of the Hunters and when I looked behind, the cockpit canopy was missing and there was no pilot in the aircraft. He had obviously pulled up and ejected and then I saw him coming down by parachute. This pilot [Sqn. Ldr. Onkar Nath Kakar, commander of an IAF Hunter squadron] was later taken prisoner.

"I had lost sight of the other five Hunters, but I pressed on thinking maybe they would slow down. There were, of course, still only two Sabre’s pitted against the remaining five IAF aircraft. I had lots of fuel so I was prepared to fly 50-60 miles to catch up with them. We had just crossed the Chenab river when my wingman called out, "Contact - Hunters 1'o’clock," and I picked them up at the same time - five Hunters in absolutely immaculate battle formation. They were flying at about 100-200 ft., at around 480 knots and when I was in gun-fire range they saw me. They all broke in one direction, climbing and turning steeply to the left, which put them in loose line astern. This, of course, was their big mistake. If you are bounced, which means a close range approach by an enemy fighter to within less than about 3,000ft, the drill is to call a break. This is a panic maneuver to the limits of the aircraft's performance, which splits the formation and both gets you out of the way of an attack and frees you to position yourself behind your opponent.

"But in the absence of one of the IAF sections initiating a break in the other direction to sandwich our attack, they all simply stayed in front of us.

"It all happened very fast. We were all turning very tightly - in excess of 5g or just about on the limits of the Sabre's very accurate A-4 radar ranging gun sight. And I think before we had completed more than about 270 degrees of the turn, at around 12 degrees per second, all four Hunters had been shot down.

"In each case, I got the pipper of my sight around the canopy of the Hunter for virtually a full deflection shot. Almost all our shooting throughout the war was at very high angles off – seldom less than about 30 degrees. Unlike some of the Korean combat films I had seen, nobody in our war was shot down flying straight and level.

"I developed a technique of firing very short bursts – around half a second or less. The first burst was almost a sighter, but with a fairly large bullet pattern from six machine guns, it almost invariably punctured the fuel tanks that they streamed kerosene.

"During the battle on 7 September, as we went round in the turn, I could just see, in the light of the rising sun, the plumes of fuel gushing from the tanks after my hits. Another half-second burst was then sufficient to set fire to the fuel, and, as the Hunter became a ball of flame, I would shift my aim forward to the next aircraft. The Sabre carries about 1,800 rounds of ammunition for its six 0.5 in. guns, which can therefore fire for about 15 seconds. In air combat, this is a lifetime. Every fourth or fifth round is an armor piercing bullet, and the rest are HEI - high-explosive incendiary. I am certain after this combat that I brought back more than half of my ammunition, although we didn’t have time to waste counting rounds.

"My fifth victim of this sortie started spewing smoke and then rolled on to his back at about 1,000 ft. I thought he was going to do a barrel roll, which at low altitude is a very dangerous maneuver for the opponent if the man in front knows what he's doing. I went almost on my back and then I realized I might not be able to stay with him so I took off bank and pushed the nose down. The next time I fired was at very close range - about 600 ft. or so – and his aircraft virtually blew up in front of me. None of the pilots ejected, and all of them were killed."
Alam's F-86 Sabre as depicted by official PAF artist,
Group Captain (Retd.) Syed Masood Akhtar Hussaini

In recognition of his feats during the 1965 War, Alam was awarded Pakistan's second-highest gallantry medal, the Sitara-e-Jurrat (Star of Courage) (with Bar), by the President of Pakistan, which is the highest gallantry medal that can be bestowed upon a living military person by Pakistan (the highest gallantry medal being the Nishan-e-Haider (Sign of the Lion), which is only awarded posthumously).

In 1967, Alam was one of the select group of six PAF pilots sent to Mont-de-Marsan, France for nine-months long conversion training on the PAF's newly-acquired batch of 24 advanced Dassault Mirage III fighters. Alam was subsequently given command of the PAF's first Mirage squadron, No. 5 Squadron, based at Sargodha.

Being a man of impeccable integrity, Alam was critical of the manner in which Air Chief Marshal Anwar Shamim was running the PAF in the early 1980s, amidst allegations of corruption and abuse of power, which was causing anger and resentment in PAF ranks. Being outspoken, Alam thought it fit to let the Air Chief know of his feelings, which, needless to say, was not taken well by the Air Chief. Alam then lodged a complaint with President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, informing the President that he had made a mistake by appointing Shamim as the Air Chief. Zia replied by pointing out that Shamim was loyal. To this, Alam retorted, "Loyalty to whom? The country or you?" This was too much for Gen. Zia and the Air Chief to swallow and Alam was prematurely forced into retirement in 1982, when he was holding the rank of Air Commodore. According to Air Marshal Ayaz Ahmed Khan, who was then serving as Vice Chief of the Air Staff, there was a lot of resentment in the PAF at Alam's forced retirement. As a mark of protest, Alam refused to receive pension from the PAF. Anwar Shamim's successor, Air Chief Marshal Jamal Ahmed Khan, tried his best to persuade Alam to accept his pension, but in vain. Alam finally accepted his pension (with arrears) under Air Chief Marshal Pervaiz Mehdi Qureshi in the late 1990s.

Despite the treatment meted out to him, Alam never lost faith in Pakistan or the PAF. Alam's bitterness was directed at individuals, never at institutions or the State. In an interview in 2010, Alam said, "Unfortunately we have not understood the real meaning of freedom. I have learned a lot from life. At times I do feel down, depressed and upset, but at the end of the day I know that I am a soldier and a fighter."

M.M. Alam was buried with full military honours in the graveyard at PAF Base Masroor, Karachi.

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