Kolkata, Sep 28: It was a clear sky over Dimapur, with just a few clouds floating by as Capt. Shahabuddin Ahmed, a Pakistan International Airlines pilot, who had volunteered to fly combat sorties for the yet-to-be-born nation of Bangladesh drew himself up to attention along with a motley crew of eight other pilots and 49 technicians.
Fifty years ago to this date, Indian Air force chief Air Chief Marshall P C Lal and Group Capt. A K Khandker, deputy chief of Bangladesh Armed Forces or 'Mukti Bahini' (Freedom Force) as it was popularly called, walked down the tarmac to inspect them and declare the formation of the Bangladesh Air Force.
"The day remains etched in my memory … I had crossed over to India on March 3, with help from a couple of Indian journalists a day after Pakistan Air Force had bombed Chuadanga. Till then, I had been a pilot with PIA. I was itching to join our liberation effort and this ceremony on September 28, 1971, was the starting point for it," Capt. Shahabuddin told PTI in a telephonic interview.
The fledgling air force started out with a DC-3 Dakota gifted by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, a DeHaviland Twin Otter plane and an Alouette III helicopter. Of the nine pilots, only three were from the regular Pakistan Air Force, four, including Capt. Shahabuddin, were commercial pilots and two were from the agriculture department, who used to fly crop sprayers to kill pests.
The Dimapur base where they were to be trained was a World War II vintage airfield with ramshackle flight control and a short runway, where Indian airlines flew in one weekly 40-seater Fokker Friendship flight.
The idea of 'Mukti Bahini' fielding an air wing was first mooted by Group Capt. Khandker, the senior-most Pakistan Air Force officer who had joined the liberation war. But Indian top brass kept vetoing the thought, stressing the need for secrecy, which they believed precluded a rebel air force taking on Pakistan openly in the skies.
However, according to veterans, towards August-end, Air Chief Marshall Lal and his wife Ela threw a dinner for Khandker in Kolkata. As before, his request for an air wing for the 'Muktis' was once again politely turned down. However, to the surprise of the Bangladeshi officer, the air chief's wife suddenly intervened in support of his idea and seemingly convinced her husband to think afresh.
A month later, Khandker flew down in an IAF Caribou aircraft to Dimapur after having assembled the personnel for his air wing. Khandker is believed to have told his newly recruited fly-boys : "Our days of waiting are over. We are going to establish our air force in exile and you are going to be the first officers of the Bangladesh Air Force."
Soon after the formal inauguration on Tuesday, September 28, 1971, as conversion training started for the pilots, the flight of three disparate flying machines was officially dubbed the 'Kilo Flight' in the ledgers of the Indian Air Force. Squadron Leader Sultan Ahmed, formerly of the PAF, was brought in as a commanding officer of the unit.
"It was not just a morale booster for the 'Muktis', it was a sensible decision given the Bangladeshi talent that was on hand," said Brig. Niladri S Mukherjee (Retd.), of the think tank Research Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Regional Studies.
Capt. Shahabuddin was to train on the Aluette III along with Flt Lt. Badr-Ul-Alam, while some of their comrades were asked to take over the Otter, the other warcraft of the budding air force which was to be used as a bomber. The Dakota was to be used to ferry troops and material.
"Our technicians punched a hole in the Otter to be used to throw bombs … rockets were fitted and our conversion training commenced," said Shahabuddin, who later went on to help found Biman Bangladesh, his nation's first airline.
The plan was to strike fuel dumps near Dhaka and in Chittagong at midnight on November 3 to cripple the Pakistan Air Force in the East from another discarded World War airbase at Kailashahar in Tripura. "To our disappointment, we were told to stand down as then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was going to the US and Europe to meet world leaders to persuade them of our cause and an attack at this juncture may not go down well in global capitals," said Capt. Shahabuddin.
However, exactly one month later, the planned attack did take place. On December 3, PAF jets struck Indian airfields in Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Jodhpur, Ambala and Agra among others. The same evening, the 'Kilo Flight' was asked to prepare for war.
"We were tasked to start off the air war and we did with an attack at 12.01 midnight on the Narayanganj fuel depot near Dhaka using our helicopter and at 12.10 with a strike by the Otter on Chittagong port's fuel dump," he said, adding "these were totally successful and the fuel dumps were ablaze in no time".
Air Chief Marshall Lal had requested Gandhi to delay her official declaration of war which was originally scheduled for midnight by 20 minutes, to give time to Bangladesh's Air Force to start its war, according to Capt. Shahabuddin.
The Indian prime minister's declaration over radio said "the war in Bangladesh has become a war on India", which was followed by India's own massive aerial counter strikes.
The psychological impact of the news that Bangladesh had fielded its own air force in the skies was tremendous. Said Syed Badrul Ahsan, former Executive Editor of Dhaka's Daily Star and author of several books on the 1971 liberation war "we in Dhaka were absolutely thrilled. The news that we had our own air force and it was successful in blowing up vital war materials caught the imagination of the youth. It boosted the morale of people who had been living in fear and suffering for nine long months since the Pakistani crackdown in Bangladesh started."
"By November 5, we could proudly say Bangladeshi and Indian Air forces had freed the skies over Bangladesh. The victory over land forces took 11 more days," said Capt. Shahabuddin, who was later awarded the Bir Uttam, Bangladesh's second-highest gallantry award, by a grateful nation.