24 Jun 2011

KARGIL - AIR WAR - IN A TIME WARP: 1948 – 1999

Kargil   1948
The Ninth of Feb in 1948 was a bleak day.  The ‘Western Disturbance’ was moving in with sinister intent.  At ten in the morning, the sky was overcast with high Cirrus and Cirro Cues. At angels two zero (twenty thousand feet), the cockpit of the Tempest  PR 741, in which twenty four year old Flying Officer Livy Mathur sat, was at least twenty degrees below freezing. His teeth chattered constantly.  Livy’s fingers, encased in plain chamois skin gloves, were numb and he constantly flexed them as much out of nervous tension as a conscious attempt to keep the blood circulation going. With gentle care, he readjusted the propeller pitch further coarse, opened throttle to get 30 inches on the manifold and lifted the safety catch to make the mixture control leaner. He had to make the Tempest go long distance, he had limited fuel in the integral wing tanks. The Tempest was armed to the gills.
When Livy looked left, he could see his twenty two year old wingman, Plt Offr Micky Blake, in close echelon.  He felt reassured even though he could only see part of Micky’s head that popped out of the Tempest cockpit.  Micky’s head was covered monkey like, in a khaki coloured cloth helmet. The helmet housed two black cylindrical radio earphones and also permitted the green oxygen mask to hook up under the chin.
“Pursuit  Check In”, Livy called to Micky. The severe cold choking his vocal chords.
 “Pursuit Two”, Micky’s unmistakable Anglo Indian accented voice sounded distant and full of static.
“Check Ops Normal”
“Pursuit  Two Ops Normal”
Livy lifted his hand and waved. Micky waved back.
The actions were clumsy and in slow motion since they were wrapped in heavy woollens and wearing a leather “Irving” flying jacket to ward off the bone chilling cold. Livy had earlier got Flt Sgt (Chiefy) Mukherjee, Sgt Deb and Cpl Yadav, of the ground crew, to duct the air from the cockpit heater into the gun bay to prevent the belted ammo from freezing. Cold he could bear, but not the thought of a misfire, after all the trouble of getting the enemy into the gun sight.  Livy’s personnel innovations on the Tempest included two jet whistles on the wing tip for special effects. Livy and Micky were the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) strike package on their way to attack the mujahedeen surrounding the Skardu fort deep within the Himalayan Kingdom of Kashmir.  The mujahedeen were commanded by the officer corps from the newly formed Pakistan Army. They were till recently, friends and comrades at arms of Livy and Micky in the erstwhile British forces in India. There was no emotional quotient to their job, it was just like any of the training missions that they had flown, just doing a job with the grim determination to do it well.
Kargil  1999
Fifty One years later,  on the twenty fourth of March 1999, the weather was equally foul, with a top cover of Cis that preceded the Western Disturbance.  At angels 30, twenty five year old Flt Lt Vijay was warm and snug as a bug in a rug. He reached below the instrument panel with his gloved hand to reduce the cockpit heat. With the ground below resembling the sky above, there was a feeling of being inside a ping pong ball and  Vijay fought hard the feeling of disorientation that could jeopardize not only his life but the whole mission and he concentrated hard on the plethora of instruments in front of him. He did not have to look, he knew that there was the rest of the 16 aircraft strike package ahead of him, in a long streaming wick, spread out for eight kilometres, one behind the other.  Sixteen green coloured Mig 23’s with enough armament under their wing and belly to smother a small city.  He himself was in a Mig 21 BIS which carried no bombs or rockets, just the Red Barron and reccee pods. Unlike the others ahead of him, Vijay’s job was not to attack but to photograph the after effects of the blitzkrieg that the Mig 23’s were just about to do on Tololing hilltop. The photographs would be used afterwards to assess collateral damage and assist retargeting in the next round of strikes. Somewhere up above him, he knew that there would be the wolf pack of Mig 29’s, who were providing the air defence cover against the Pakistani F 16s probably airborne from Gilgit or Skardu. They would be circling few miles to his left, just waiting and watching for the smallest excuse of Indian intrusion into Pakistani airspace.  Above the Mig 29’s, the top cover would be provided by the Mirages with the ECM pods, jamming radar and communications to obliterate the passage of the of the most modern armada in air warfare, from all prying eyes. The Indian Air Force was attending to the urgent call for Close Air Support from the Indian Army.
Vijay rechecked the green, rapidly winding, figures of the GPS mounted on the cockpit coaming to reassure himself that he was on a direct track and making good a pre-planned ground speed of  900 kmph. The sortie would last less than thirty minutes and hence he could use the reheat and go supersonic if he so desired. He wished that he could call up the rest of the formation, but he knew better. Radio silence was paramount, at least till they reached the target.  The aircraft was practically flying on it’s own and Vijay reached up to adjust his oxygen mask more firmly around his face. He was wearing a cream coloured FRP Russian helmet similar to an astronaut’s helmet. The pressure breathing black mask was comfortable and forced air, enriched with oxygen, into his lungs. He could hear his own breathing, not so much because he was labouring to breathe, but mainly because of the lack of static on the radio and the highly sensitive radio phone within the mask.
Livy and Micky had taken off earlier, one by one from the hard packed, mud airstrip at Jammu.  The advance guard of No 8 Squadron, named “Pursuit”.  They were part of what was left of the squadron after the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) had been partitioned. The other half was across the border, the new Pakistan Air Force, and now the enemy.  Jammu airstrip had very little infrastructure, only some Nissan huts. The runway section had been compacted using manual rollers by the army engineers. During the previous afternoon, the middle aged dynamic Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had flown in to Jammu in a Dakota piloted by Meher Singh. Nehru travelled alone. He had shared jokes with the very young airmen, and accepted the proffered canned meal and a mug of the bubbly. The Prime Minister had then explained to Livy the frantic messages that he had received from the Maharaja of Kashmir for assistance to save the Kashmiri troops stationed in the frontier outpost at Skardu fort. Neither Livy, Micky nor the ACP (Advanced Control Post) army liaison officer Lt Banerjee, who was with them, had been to Skardu. After a frantic search, they could barely manage to spot Skardu on the large-scale relief maps used by the army. Nehru was young, charismatic and persuasive. Livy was not too sure how much help he could bring to bear at Skardu with the four, five hundred pound, high explosive iron bombs that he could carry under the wing of a Tempest. Or what three hundred rounds of belted ammo of the twenty millimetres Bofors gun could do to defeat the mujahedeen surrounding the Skardu fort. However, Livy agreed with Nehru that something had to be done for the lot at Skardu fort. Livy, Micky and Banjo had put their heads together and worked out the strike details with Nehru looking over their shoulder with scowling impatience. The only saving grace was that there would be the element of surprise and Livy was not likely to be attacked from the air since, at that time, there was neither an enemy air base nor enemy air force near about Skardu. Nehru left for Delhi only after he had extorted promises from Livy and Micky that they would leave no stone unturned to save the Kashmir Kingdom, so dear to him, from the clutches of the marauding Mojahideen.
IAF’s huge mission package had got airborne from several dispersed airfields, far away from Kargil, some from Awantipur, others from Adampur, Srinagar and Vijay had taken off from Pathankot. Coordinated manoeuvring made possible with split second timing by third generation technology of the fourth largest air force in the world. Vijay had been in the underground Base Ops all night and had watched the impending air war of the western air command unfold on the back lit, wall to wall, glass, mission board. Despite the central air conditioning, nervous sweat had collected under the pits of his tight fitting “g” suit.. There were at least twenty telephones of various sorts connecting the Base Ops with various operational nerve centres and a horde of officers and airmen who manned the Base Ops. They constantly chatted into the telephones, coordinating operational activities. Vijay itched for a drink but then alcohol was taboo before flying operations. Finally Pushy, the AOC, had ordered him to bed in the aircrew rest room within the Base Ops. The last thought in Vijay’s mind before he fell asleep that night was that Pushy, with his ramrod bearing and handle bar moustaches, is the best Army Officer in an Air Force uniform.
 Vijay had, the previous morning, been flown to Srinagar in a Dornier 228 for the combined command level briefing where all the pilots from the entire mission had also been brought. The briefing had been exhaustive, lasting four hours, and with a toothcomb they had gone over the satellite and reccee photographs, sand model and video of the target area. Last night he was confident of finding the target in the dark. Now encased in the cockpit, heading towards Kargil at breakneck speed, Vijay was not so sure of finding anything. Even though he was at 30,000 feet above sea level, the ground was just 10,000 odd feet below. Looking down at the rapidly passing black and white jiggered landscape, he could hardly decipher any of the ground features and had to rely completely on the GPS to navigate and get him to the target area. With his left index finger, Vijay punched the  “TR/GS” button on the GPS and instantly was reassured to see that he was on track and in position behind the strike force. 
Tippnis, the Chief Of the Air Staff had made a short visit to Srinagar when Vijay was being briefed. He had travelled incognito by Indian Airlines, regular flight to Srinagar, to keep the impending air strikes a secret. He had then visited the army formations in Kargil in an unmarked chopper for first hand information on the tactical scenario.  The chief had drawn up the macro level objectives for the Air Force and then left it to the operational commanders to draw up micro level plans. Kargil strikes could blow up as a whole scale war with Pakistan and the Air Force had to be prepared for all eventualities. From Leh in the north to Bhuj in the southern extreme of the north to south border with Pakistan, more than twenty airbases were bristling with fully armed aircraft in Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs). Back at the Air HQ in Delhi, the Chief would monitor and oversee the air war, minute to minute as it unfolded.
Vijay was delighted that the brass had left them alone to their own highly specialized and skilled tasks.  What he could not have withstood at that time was moral lecture and pep talk. Top Brass breathing down his neck. He was thankful that the country reposed faith in the professionalism of the services. Old Winston Churchill had said something about “never in the history has so much been owed by so few”, he must have been talking about pilot’s mess bills,  Vijay giggled into his mask on his way to Kargil.      
Livy felt as if the Tempest was standing still and had to look at the air speed indicator for reassurance that he was indeed moving at about 200 mph. He peaked out through the aviator’s rubber and plastic “Rod” goggles at the colour less, black and white sea of barren mountain ranges to try and spot “Pope’s Nose”.   Pope’s Nose was a sinisterly up turned piece of Himalayan masonry which identified to them the turning point to Srinagar – some where between Kud and Banihal. There were no maps or radio aids to help them navigate on a direct, ‘as the crow flies’, routing. They flew by the seat of their pants and visual identification of the ground below them.  They followed the valley, going from one ground feature to another, first to Srinagar then over the Zojila Pass to Drass, left turn to Kargil , over the Indus and north west to Skardu. A long haul, round trip, of over two and half hours. It was the limit of the Tempest endurance and to permit maximum weapon load, Livy could not carry the drop tanks.
As they went deeper and deeper into the hills, the mountains rose to meet them, like driving down an alley.  On the intercom, along with irritating static, Livy could hear his own laboured breathing. The green rubber mask that he wore was an ordinary one, not the pressure breathing type and Livy had to take deep breaths and then force the air out of the lungs.  Just to break the tedium and to confirm the land marks as they crossed first Srinagar, Zojilla pass, Drass and then Kargil,  Livy called up Micky on the radio several times  to confirm if they were on the right track. Each of Micky’s anglo drawls on the radio gave Livy mounting confidence.
 The broad and menacingly blue Indus river, which they met with after Kargil, was awe inspiring and the best navigational aid that Livy could hope for. As they flew along, Livy hoped that they would be able to spot Skardu fort before they bumped into it.. The critical tool in the cockpit was the clock and Livy watched the seconds tick away.  As they rounded a bend in the river, the cloud cover suddenly parted and there was brilliant sunshine in the valley. Livy could see minute details on the ground. The Skardu fort was in a bowl and Livy could see the pall of thick black smoke suspended like a cloak over the fort. Because of the clamour from the engine and propeller up front, and the wind whistling through the cracks in the canopy, he could not hear the shock waves produced by the gun and motor fire echoing from the surrounding hillside. But he could see the puffs of smoke and yellow claws of flame when the mujahedeen shells struck the fort. Skardu fort was besieged and under heavy attack
 “Pursuit check in”
“Pursuit Trail, Trail, Go”.
Livy glanced left and saw Micky decelerate immediately and go astern for the attack. He is good, thought Livy.
“Two in Trail” , called Micky indicating that he was in place for the fight .
“Mixture Rich, Armament to live” called Livy.
And he himself pushed the pitch and mixture control levers, on the throttle quadrant, fully forward. With unhurried ease, he also switched on the gun sight and gun camera. He felt the reassuring click as the first high explosive (HE) round in the belt was pushed into each of the breaches of the four Bofors Guns, two each in the middle of either wing. Cpl Yadav’s talent as an armourer was just about to be displayed. He had, early that morning, when Livy was still asleep, belted each of the three hundred rounds with his own hands, four HE rounds followed by one incendiary tracer, and then laboriously wound up the ammo belts in their ratchet within the wing. 
All of Livy’s actions were emulated by Micky in his own cockpit. As a wing man, his job was to guard Livy’s tail while Livy went about his task. He was also to augment Livy’s fire power on the target. If Livy had any mechanical difficulty, he would simply call up on the radio, waggle his wings and change roles with Micky. There was nothing that they could do for each other if one of them was shot down.
The digital clock on Vijay’s cockpit coaming showed that he had less than two minutes to go to reach the target. With automatic reflexes, from having done this hundreds of times, Vijay reached between his legs to arm the recee pods. He began to concentrate on the sky around him, reflexive scanning, starting with the left quadrant and moving right, his focus and gaze shifting in up and down pattern so to miss nothing. He could hear the chatter on the radio now, of the lead aircrafts coordinating the arrack with the heli-borne FAC (Forward Area Controller).  The voices that carried the frustration of not being able to spot targets. At the speed at which they were flying, the mind registered the small details of what they saw on ground only many seconds after having flown over them, and by then it was too late to punch the trigger. They had to do the attack in one pass, if they missed the target, too bad, they just had to go home and leave the task to the man who followed in the formation.  Vijay as absolutely calm, nerves rock steady. There was little excitement to his task. Routine mission.
The element of surprise was total. The mujahedeen were every where, on the valley floor and on the hill slopes and their focus was totally on the fort, many with their backs turned.  Livy knew that every second now counted. He picked out the large concentration of soldiers directly ahead. His decision to attack was instantaneous. He closed the throttle and used bank and rudder with practiced ease to turn the aircraft and bring the group of soldiers into the centre of the yellow reflected pipper diamonds within the gun sight. He was now in a ten degree dive. Quickly he glanced at either wingtips to check wings level, and at the turn and slip indicator below the gun sight to get ball in the centre. If the aircraft was skidding or slipping, the aim would not be true. With his right thumb, he turned the ‘U’ shaped ring around the firing button and eased his grip on the ring atop the control column. ‘Wait’, he said to himself. ‘Wait till you can see the silly bugger’s eye balls’.  At three hundred yards from the crowd, he pressed the firing button and heard the high frequency clattering of the guns. Behind and to the left, he could hear Micky’s guns. Livy saw the yellow flecks of the tracer bullets, from either side of the cockpit, claw forward in dotted lines converging into the crowd and before he saw the impact, he was over them. He removed his thumb from the firing button, bashed open the throttle and heaved the control column fully back into his stomach. The Tempest hesitated only for a second and then stood on its tail into a gut wrenching 4 ‘g’ pull up. The ‘g’ force compressed Livy’s torso and slammed him into the seat pan. He felt the blood drain from his brain and his vision stated to blur. Livy opened his mouth wide and roared abuses into his mask. This squeezed his trachea and larynx preventing the blood from draining completely, another second and his vision would have blacked out completely. His feet and hands felt as if they were made of lead. Livy used sheer physical force to move his limbs for the psychomotor coordination required to fly the aircraft. The excitement mounted within him and he was like a thorough bred hound closing in on the fox.
Livy did not look for Micky but knew instinctively that he would be right behind and to the left in fighting trail. Livy groped with his left hand under the bucket seat and unlocked his shoulder harness, pushed forward with his shoulders, turned his torso from the hip and craned his head right at an impossible angle to look back over his shoulder at the fort. His head weighed four times it’s normal weight and Livy had to strain the neck muscles to move his head.  He had to pick his next target before he rolled out towards the target.  A quick inward glance at the altimeter told him that he had gained about five hundred feet and yanking the throttle closed he went into a right wing over. Bank and rudder, let the nose drop gradually, automatic reflexes while he continued to turn back to the fort. Form the corner of his peripheral vision, Livy noticed the rope bridge and the commotion on either banks of the Indus river below him. The ground was rushing at him like a bat out of hell. Adrenalin pumped into Livy’s heart and he felt light headed. The bloodied mujahedeen were running, scattering, in utter confusion and fear. The healthy roar from the Napier engines coupled with the banshee shriek from the jet whistles, Livy’s special effects, were enough to wake the dead. The first volley of high explosive bullets from the eight guns brought to bear on the enemy by Livy and Micky had a devastating effect.   Like ants, the caboodle of men and mules were converging on to the approach to the rope bridge spanning the high embankments of the Indus. Livy made an instantaneous decision.
“Pursuit check in”. His voice choked from the ‘g’ forces.
“Yeh Livy, right behind you”. Micky’s voice boomed.
“Micky, go for the bridge … We will take the left embankment…. Target the ropeway pylons …. Bombs to outer”, barked Livy in mounting excitement.
Without looking, Livy groped for the armament switch on the instrument panel and flicked the armament switch from ‘Guns’ to ‘Bombs’ and the bomb toggle to ‘Outer’. The three position bomb toggle facilitated a drop of either ‘Outer”, ‘Inner’ or ‘All’ stores under the wing pylon.
There was few seconds pause for Micky to answer.
“Roger Livy”,  squealed Micky, equally excited.
Livy, kept his gaze on the pylon from which the ropeway was suspended and let the aircraft rollout to coincide with his gaze. He was now in a fifty degree screaming dive accelerating towards the ground barely a few hundred feet away. Livy felt his heart beat like a drum.  He chopped the throttle and let the gravity pull him into the earth. On the ground he could see people frozen in slow motion, they were falling flat on their face to take cover. Some on the embankment and some on the rope way. The frightened mules with military stores strapped to their backs were trampling the mujahedeen into a stampede. Livy waited till he was at four hundred yards and punched the firing button on the ring that he was now gripping with all his strength.  The Tempest bucked like a horse as the bombs fell away and the aerodynamics altered around the wings. Livy was waiting just for this. Slamming the throttle open, he yanked the Tempest into another gut wrenching pull out and wing over. He did not see, but felt the ear splitting thud as the two 500 lbs high explosive bombs burst on impact and the shock waves rocked his Tempest. Livy turned around and placed his last two bombs exactly where the previous ones had fallen, next to the pylon holding the rope way. Now, upside down, on his back in a half roll, eight hundred feet above, he looked up at the ground and felt a wave of immense disappointment, his bombs seemed to have done no damage and the ropeway was still standing, but the people and animals on ground had stopped converging. They were frozen in time and space.  Suddenly the radio came alive, excited clatter from Micky.
“It is falling, Livy, it is going”.
As Livy looked on in amazing wonder, the ropeway shook gently and then started to fall away into the turbulent river far below.  Taking with it soldiers, rifles, ammo boxes, bits and pieces of clothing. As the bridge hit the water, there was a cloud of water spray.  Within seconds the waters settled and the river ambled along as if nothing had happened.  Livy had no time to gloat. He was into his next dive and strafing run along the western moat next to the fort. Livy and Micky kept this up till they ran out of ammo. On the last run,  Livy waggled his wings to indicate to the cheering soldiers in the fort, an indication that he was going home.  Livy’s overalls were drenched in sweat despite the extreme cold. He unhooked his mask, unzipped the Irwing jacket and took deep breaths to cool off.
Vijay did not see anything other than the bleak mountain slopes when he flew over the target area. He simply armed and energized his cameras as per the GPS indication. He knew the enemy was down there. They would be hiding in the sangers and the bunkers indistinguishable from the air. There would be tents too, but they would be white and the enemy would be smart enough to pull out the support poles and flatten them during day. Their artillery guns, like our own, would be miles away from the action. Vijay would see it all after landing back, when the films were developed and the photo interpreters had marked up the collateral damage done by the strike aircraft. Mooncraters, where each bomb had ploughed through the rugged Himalayan landscape.  Vijay banked his aircraft eastwards and turned to go home. He scratched his crotch in ennui.


The Kashmiris held on to Skardu fort for several more months. The mujahedeen forces were decimated and they could not keep up the logistic support after the ropeway broke off.  However, when cease-fire came, Skardu fort was enveloped by the huge tracts of Himalayas under mujahedeen occupation. Skardu fort surrendered without another fight and was swallowed up by Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).
 During a three week air campaign, the IAF bombed and rocketed a lot of real estate in the Himalayas. The boys and their aim were good. However, the bombs had little effect on the Mojahidin dug into bunkers and sangers, due to the terrain littered with massive rocks and boulders which absorbed the explosions, shock waves and the shrapnel from the bombs. Since the ground was also mostly covered with dozens of feet of freshly fallen snow, the rockets went clean through and most of them with contact fuses, did not explode. And even when they did, the thick snow absorbed the shock. The mujahidin sat tight.  The army then went in with all their guns blazing.  There were many young Vijays on the ground and in the air. Too many of them. Some earned name, and some fame. Some lived to tell heroic tales and many did not. But as it usually happens, the stories will remain unsung, at least for a long time.  
Foot Note
All the characters in this story, except Vijay, are real heroes. Small liberties have been taken unabashedly, with both the 48 & 99 stories, for preserving the sanctity and good image of the Air Force, in which I myself proudly served, and flew with, for twenty four years.  Livy (Wg Cdr KL Mathur) is a real hero and so are all the others in the story.   Micky served in the Air Force till late sixties and after he migrated to Australia, there has been no news. Lt Banerjee went on to become the pioneer of parachuting in the army and was instrumental in creating some of the toughest para-commandos in the world. He too retired sometime in the seventies and now lives in Delhi next to Livy. Livy is one of the last of the ‘old and bold pilots’ of yore left alive. Though handicapped with old age, he continues to be a role model for many generations.  And an inspiration for his neighbour – that is me !!!!


  1. What an excellent recount of air action., Kartha! The stories interwoven between 1948 & 1999, with the attention to details depicted, did make my adrenalin rise a few notches. Keep them coming!

  2. Guys you have made such a great blog,I was looking for a tracer heaters suppliers in India and this blog appears in the search engine, except this , this blog is awesome.

  3. Livy Mathur. Passed into the great beyond in January four years ago. Proud to be the daughter of such a brave fighter pilot.