“CIA founded the Internet, Larry created the Google and Jimmy gave us Wikipedia.”
May be the intro sounds too dramatic for a change, but its gotta be so; for if there was no Wikipedia… i wouldn’t be sitting here at this time of the night (3:15 am to be exact) writing about people whom I am in no way associated with or ever would be.
While I watched “Pearl Harbor” on Zee English and waited for someone to come online random endeavors into the knowledge chest called Wikipedia soon landed me on a page titled “Bangladesh Air Force”. Knowing no stories of stealth fighters or B-52 bombers would ever feature in that page, all I expected was reading up on the history and a bit about the meagre fleet we possess. “Expect the unexpected” is the only phrase that could describe my sensations for what I unearthed was nothing short of a miracle.
Living in a country where the Air Force only makes headlines with relief efforts after natural calamities or about tragic crashes of young pilots while flying deathbeds (what else would you call the half a century old PT-6 trainers); the least of all our expectations is, valor. Today’s armed forces of Bangladesh occupy the news-front with their indirect hands in all that’s said and done in running of the country rather than with the stories of the men and women who fight for a cause, make a mark in the history. And with the demise of the infamous Shanti Bahini (PCJSS) from CHT only meant the stories of bravery and heroics would only be written on a foreign soil (perhaps as a UN Peacekeeper). Adding the recent brutal massacre of army men in the BDR carnage, all that’s left for the military to take pride on, is perhaps its past glory.
Without any further suspense or biased judgements, I wanted to shed lights on the valiant pilots Bangladesh had produced even before this nation was born. Since I consider myself to be quite up-2-date of the history of Bangladesh, the only name that ever struck me while talking about planes and pilots was that of Flight Lieutenant Motiur Rahman, who tried to defect from the PAF by stealing a T-33 aircraft (named “Bluebird”) and was forced into a deadly crash by the co-pilot Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas. The story is extraordinary in its own means with both the men being decorated with the highest medal of honor of respective countries (Bir Srestho for Motiur Rahman and Nishan-e-Haider for Rashid Minhas) and each having an airbase named after them.
However beyond the “act of bravery” by the fallen Bangladeshi pilot in ’71 there were no further heroics that I could recall. Yes, we also had Group Captain A K Khondker (who has the Assistant Head of Bangladesh Forces during the Liberation War) or even Squadron Leader Md. Hamidullah Khan (who commanded the largest group of freedom fighters, in the largest of all sectors, Sector 11 and also spearheaded the Chilmari Landing expedition during ’71). Without a doubt they deserve all the honor there is, but none of them were made part of history with their dogfighting skills or even enemy aircraft kills in a war. After all, that’s all the air force is all about, isn’t it!
Thanks to Wikipedia and the unknown writer who co-authored the title “Bangladesh Air Force” wiki, I now had much more than the above to talk about. Gasping to believe what these unsung heroes of Bangladesh achieved in their “days of glory”, I couldn’t resist myself in sharing the knowledge of their existence and feel disheartened about how these stories were lost in the course of time. I might not have found the stories of all of ’em out there, since I tried to read up about the notable few who were simply too hard to miss. The following are mostly quoted from the wiki and various other sources (mentioned in the reference section); forgive me for not producing more authentic literature on them.
Born in Rajshahi back in 1935, Squadron Leader Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui (died 6 Sep 1965) is a well-known pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. He is recognized for services to his country during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, and is a recipient of both the Hilal-e-Jurat (Crescent of Courage) and the Sitara-e-Jurat (Star of Courage). He was commissioned on 10 June 1953 winning the Best Pilot Trophy from Pakistan Air Force Academy, Risalpur.
On 1 September 1965 Squadron Leader Sarfraz Rafiqui shot down two Indian Vampires in Kashmir. On 6 September he led a formation of three F-86s against Halwara. In the ensuing battle, his guns jammed after shooting one Hunter. Still, he refused to leave the battle area, providing cover to his formation. He laid down his life in an outstanding display of courage against overwhelming odds. For his bravery and selfless leadership he was awarded both Sitara-i-Jurat and Hilal-i-Jurat. Pakistan’s third biggest air base, Rafiqui Airbase is named after him.
Nicknamed “little dragon”, Air Commodore Muhammad MahmoodAlam (M. M. Alam in short) is well known for his actions during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 when he was posted at Sargodha, Pakistan. He is credited with downing of nine Indian fighters, six of them being IAF Hawker Hunters in air-to-air combats, and as if that wasn’t enough; 5 of the kills were in less than a minute. To this date, he remains the top scorer in aerial combat in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent.
Although the PAF figures have been disputed by Indian sources, he is a recipient of the Pakistani military decoration, the Sitara-e-Jurrat (The Star of Courage) and a bar to it for his actions. However he was never very popular with the top management of PAF and had been removed off command of the first squadron of PAFDassault Mirage III procured in 1967 citing the reason of not being “literate enough”.
During the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, all personnel who were of Bangladeshi origins or were born in East Pakistan/Bengal were grounded to prevent any defections. Thus, Alam was posted on a staff job and did not fly in combat. After the independence of Bangladesh, he opted to stay back in Pakistan and by 1979 went to Afghanistan to advise the Mujahedin fighters. Alam retired in 1982 as an Air Commodore and currently resides in Karachi. Numerous streets and avenues across Pakistani cities and PAF bases are named after him.
Traitor or not, Alam and his 30-second mythical achievements are as unbelievable as Frank Miller’s “300” but unlike the Spartan king Leonaidas he lived to tell his story to his grandchildren. Reading up on this unreal story, I could only think of Hollywood movies like “Iron Eagle” where the enemy fighters were always outgunned even though they were never outnumbered.
Assuming that the curious reader took a minute of their precious time in reading bits and pieces about the aforesaid two, I saved the best for the last. This guy literally makes the Flyboys (American pilots who went to France during WWI and fought with the Lafayette Flying Corps of French Air Service) look like stupid cowboys from the west. Not only is he honored by the United States Air Force (USAF) and enjoys the status of being one of the twenty-two ‘Living Eagles’ of the world, he remains the only pilot to have flown for three different air forces to war (Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan) with the unique distinction of having kills against air forces of two different countries (India in ’65 and Israel in ’67).
Saiful Azam was born in 1941 in Pabna, Bangladesh, and spent his early years living in Calcutta, India. In 1947, his family moved to the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. In 1955, he went to West Pakistan to attend high school, and in 1958 joined the PAF Cadet College. In 1960, he graduated as a pilot officer and was commissioned in the PAF. He trained with the Cessna T-37 and then traveled to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, for an advanced fighter course in the North American F-86 Sabre. He returned to East Pakistan and flew the Sabre until 1963.
Azam would have his first kill during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India. During the war, he was primarily tasked with ground attack missions deep into Indian territories. He flew a total of 12 ground attack missions in the areas of Kasur, Sialkot, and Wagha. On September 19 1965, during a fateful ground attack mission, two Indian fighters intercepted Azam’s formation. In the ensuing fight, he shot down one of the attackers, a Folland Gnat fighter. His victim was Flight Officer. V. Mayadev, who was captured as a POW. It was an incredible feat as the Gnat had rarely been shot down in aerial combats.
But he would again earn fame during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. He was one of dozens of PAF personnel to volunteer to fight on the Arab side. He first saw action while acting as an adviser to the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF). On June 5 1967, Azam’s formation of four Hawker Hunters bounced an Israeli formation of Dassault Super Mysteres attacking the major Jordanian airbase of Mafraq. Azam shot down one Mystere and critically wounded another.
Two days later, Azam was to see action again, this time in Iraq. On June 7 1967, an Israeli formation of four Vatour bombers, escorted by two Mirage IIIs was in the process of attacking the strategic Iraqi airbase H-3. This time flying in an Iraqi Hunter Hawker (No. 702), Azam intercepted the formation. A Mirage III, flown by Captain Gideon Dror, shot two of his wingman. Azam was quick to avenge his wingmen’s demise and shot down that Mirage. He then pounced upon the camouflaged Vatour bombers, and scored another kill. Both his victims, Captain Dror flying the Mirage, and Captain Golan flying the Vatour were taken as POWs.
Being the highest shooter of Israeli aircraft in the history of dogfighting, to date; SaifulAzam has been decorated with Jordan’s Husame Isteqlal and Iraq’s Medal of Bravery, the Noth-es-Shuja along with Sitara-i-Jurat by Pakistan.
Saiful Azam did not fly during the Bangladesh Independence War if 1971, as he was a Bangladeshi and was grounded in Pakistan. After independence though he joined the newly formed Bangladesh Air Force (BAF) or Bangladesh BimanBahini as the Director of Operations. In 1977, he became Wing Commander and Base Commander of the BAF airbase in Dhaka. After retiring as a group captain, in 1988, Azam twice served as Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority. He was also Managing Director of the Film Development Corporation. A member of Bangladesh’s Parliament from 1991 to 1996, he is now the Managing Director of Natasha Trading Agency Limited, trading in aircraft and other equipments. He also directs a travel agency and with his wife, Nishat, and has three children. However, surprisingly unknown to even my military-veteran dad, this “Top Gun” resides next doors in DOHSMohakhali where he awaits getting lost into oblivion.
Its 5:36 am by my watch and I have no clue how I spent the last few hours reading up and writing on about these unsung heroes of Bangladesh. As we look for new ones everyday, we shouldn’t forget the ones that made us proud with their achievements, etched the name of Bangladesh in the pages of history. Unknown they may be today, it is our duty to spread the word, pay them the respect they deserve…
This article is also available at http://archive.thedailystar.net/lifestyle/2010/12/02/page03.htm