The IAF gifts a model of the Alouette III helicopter to Bangladesh

New Delhi: Fifty years since the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and its Bangladeshi counterpart exchanged last week a legacy Alouette III helicopter and a F-86 Sabre aircraft.

Both aircraft have a shared history of participating and playing a critical role in India’s two-front war with Pakistan in 1971. The victory in the war marked the finest hour of the Indian military with the Pakistani Army surrendering in erstwhile East Pakistan, leading to the creation of an independent Bangladesh.

During his four-day visit to Bangladesh last week, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S Bhadauria gifted a legacy Alouette III helicopter to the Bangladesh Air Force (BAF). In return, the BAF chief gifted an F-86 Sabre aircraft that had been restored by the force after the 1971 war. The exchange was planned to commemorate 50 years of the 1971 war.

The IAF in a tweet said that both the legacy aircraft will find a place of pride in museums. It also symbolises how the two forces worked together during and in the approaching months of 1971 war.

The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) started manufacturing the Alouette III helicopters in 1962 after it entered into an agreement with M/s Sud Aviation (now Airbus). The first Alouette III in fly way condition was delivered in 1965 when India was fighting another war with Pakistan.

Popularly known as the Chetak, the Alouette III was a key helicopter available with India at the time, the other being the Mi-4 helicopters.

They flew hundreds of sorties into Dhaka and other regions for casualty evacuations and to support the ground troops at the time. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had procured over 100 F-86 Sabre fighters in the mid-1950s, but only one squadron — No. 14 Squadron — was based in the eastern sector during the 1971 war.

Almost half of the squadron was shot down in the war, grounding the PAF in the erstwhile east Pakistan. Some pilots were flown to west Pakistan via Burma.

Some of the aircraft were recovered intact and restored to flying condition by the Bangladeshi forces.

More about the helicopter and the fighter aircraft, and the part they played in the war.

Covert Training To Bangladesh

Over two months before the war broke out in 1971, the IAF played a critical role in providing covert training to the Kilo Force — which eventually became the BAF in 1974 — on an Alouette and two other aircraft which were gifted to the force.

“An Alouette III helicopter modified to fire rockets and machine guns, was part of this flight which was to take advantage of the lack of night-fighting capability of the PAF to launch hit-and-run attacks on sensitive targets inside Bangladesh from the air,” defence writer and former IAF pilot Sameer Joshi said.

In his book ‘India’s Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971’, IAF veteran and author Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd) wrote that Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chunder Lal had assigned a base and gifted a few aircraft with instructors to the Kilo Force in late September of 1971. Apart from an Alouette, the inventory had a Dakota freighter aircraft and an Otter light transport aircraft.

“Operating out of Dimapur, a small airstrip in Nagaland, Kilo Force was commanded by Group Captain AK Khandoker, who later on became the first Chief of the Bangladesh Air Force,” Subramaniam wrote.

He wrote that the Otter and Alouette were suitably modified to fire rockets and guns and they would extensively take part in ground support operations during the conflict.

Over 350 sorties, he wrote, were flown by the Mi-4 and Alouettes of the IAF and the 659 Army’s Air Observation Post, lifting nearly three brigades with their logistics and artillery requirements.

Grounding The Sabres

Pakistan had procured around 120 F-86 Sabre multirole fighters and Canberra bombers from the United States in the mid 1950s, which, along with a sizable number of F-104 Starfighters were recognised as a formidable challenge by the IAF. What made them more potent was that they were armed with Sidewinders, which were the most advanced heat-seeking missiles at the time.

The fighters had played a critical role for the PAF in the 1965 India-Pakistan war, and engaged in several dogfights with the IAF’s Gnats, according to this account by Sameer Joshi.

In 1971, the Sabre was still a formidable subsonic fighter aircraft in the subcontinent and was the workhorse of the Pakistan Air Force on India’s western border.

However, during the 1971 war, just one squadron of the fighters was based in the eastern theatre.

Air Vice Marshal A.K. Tiwary, in his book ‘Indian Air Force in Wars’, had written that the IAF had deployed 10 squadrons in the east against one squadron of F-86 of the PAF.

This one squadron, he wrote, could operate from a number of airfields, the most likely being Kurmitolla and Tezgaon in Dhaka area and others being Chittagong, and Jessore.

On 22 November, 1971, the IAF managed to intercept a formation of three Sabres in Boyra near Calcutta in what later came to be known as the Battle of Boyra.

“The Sabres had been attacking the Mukti-Bahini and often violated Indian air space. On this day, four Gnats engaged the three Sabres and shot down all of them. Two Pakistani pilots ejected over Indian territory and were captured,” he wrote.

“This was an excellent start to air operations, though the formal start of the air war was much later,” he wrote.

One of the pilots — Parvaiz Qureshi Mehdi — went on to become an Air Chief Marshal and the Chief of Pakistan Air Force during 1997-2000.

Subramaniam wrote that during the initial days of the air war, the IAF repeatedly attacked the Tezgaon airfield till it was unusable, thus aiding the effective neutralisation of the lone Sabre squadron.

“The systematic degradation of Tezgaon airfield forced the Sabre squadron’s pilots to abandon eleven of the sixteen aircraft by 6 December and flee to West Pakistan via Burma in a twin Otter light aircraft,” he wrote. The IAF, he said, achieved almost complete air supremacy over the region by 7 December, paving the way for unrestricted close air support, heli-borne and airborne operations.

Joshi said most Pakistan Air Force aircraft grounded in Dhaka due to runway cratering by the Indian Air Force during the liberation war were sabotaged before surrender and many of these were also returned to service by Bangladeshi ground technicians.

“These included ex-PAF Sabre jets. These fighters were made operational by ex-PAF Bengali officers and formed the first few of the air combat elements as part of the BAF post Independence,” he added.