5 December 1971
Uttarlai Airbase (5 km from Barmer) India
Two daredevil fighter pilots belonging to 220 Squadron, Desert Tigers, are on a ground attack mission. Sqn Ldr K.K. Bakshi, nicknamed Joe, and Flt Lt Jawahar Lal Bhargava, nicknamed Brother, have taken off in their HF-24 aircraft (popularly called the Marut). They have been tasked with crossing the international border and following a route that shall take them to the Pakistani airfield of Naya Chor, from where they have to turn left and go to Umarkot, then turn east and head back to India. Their mission is to identify and destroy targets of opportunity en route-like military trains, tanks, army units, camel convoys and vehicles. The Maruts are fully laden with rockets, guns and bombs.
Nearly fifty years later, Air Commodore J.L. Bhargava leans back on the sofa in his Panchkula bungalow, a boyish smile playing on his lips, and tells me about that day. ‘Sometimes, fighter pilots are told to take down pinpointed objectives, but that day we had been told to identify possible targets and destroy them,’ he says.
So the two pilots fly low and check out the area carefully. ‘We found nothing in Naya Chor,’ remembers Bhargava, ‘but around the airfield, we spotted Pakistan’s field formation units. We swooped down, deployed our rockets and then pulled up quickly. Pilots are trained to get out of the area they have attacked immediately to avoid ricochet fire.’
The first attack goes well, but just as Bhargava is going down for the second, enemy anti-aircraft guns start blazing, and his Marut is caught in a hail of bullets.
Naya Chor, Pakistan 0920 hours
Bhargava is about to swoop down for the second attack when he hears the repeated beep of the audio-warning signal. The red light is flashing, and he realises that his plane is on fire. The constant beeps of the fire warning in the claustrophobic cockpit are starting to unnerve him. He leans forward to switch it off. A bead of sweat trickles down his forehead. It drips down his face and, making its way past the chinstrap of his helmet, finds its way into his neck.
Bhargava is itching to wipe it off, but his hands are on the control stick that doesn’t seem to be responding at all. The Marut’s hydraulics have failed, making it very heavy to the touch, and Bhargava is still struggling with the controls when he finds that his left engine has packed up and his radio communication is disabled. In the vast, unending expanse of the sky, he is now completely alone-and in enemy territory.
He aborts the second attack and turns to head back home. Down below him is an unending stretch of uninhabited desert sand. He releases his bombs to lighten the aircraft load so that it is easier to handle. Altitude is dropping steadily, and as Bhargava crosses a deserted mosque, he realises that his aircraft speed has fallen drastically.
Staying calm by reminding himself that India is not too far, Bhargava is struggling with the controls when he finds his second engine spluttering. He now knows a crash is inevitable. If he doesn’t eject, he will go down with the Marut.
(Excerpted from 1971: Charge of the Gorkhas and Other Stories By Rachna Bisht, with the permission of Penguin Random House)