During the 1965 India-Pakistan war that was fought for 17 days and caused thousands of casualties on both sides, another dark day went down in history when a passenger airplane carrying Gujarat Chief Minister Balwantrai Mehta was shot down by a Pakistani Air Force pilot.
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Mehta, who was accompanied by his wife, three members of his staff, a journalist and two crew members, was on board a commuter aircraft piloted by an Indian Air Force pilot named Jahangir Engineer.
The plane was heading to the Mithapur district of the Gujarat state, where Balwantrai Mehta was to address a rally. It was shot down in the area between the district and Kutch border lying between India and Pakistan, killing all on board.
The plane was the first civilian aircraft to be shot down in the India-Pakistan war.
Decades later, the Pakistani Air Force Pilot, Qais Hussain penned an apology letter to the daughter of the Jahangir Engineer, as to how the actual events transpired and why he shot down the aircraft.
Qais, who had back then just returned from the United States after finishing a flight training course, was instructed to get on board his US-made F-86 Sabre fighter jet and track a plane, which had appeared on the radar.
“At an altitude of 3,000 feet, I saw this Indian plane heading towards Bhuj. I intercepted it over a remote village. When I saw that it was a civilian plane, I did not immediately shoot at it. I reported to my controller that it was a civilian plane,” said Qais, while speaking to the BBC.
It is reported Qais was so close to the eight-seater aircraft that he could read the letters “Victor Tango” inscribed over it, and he constantly asked for instructions from the Pakistan Air Traffic Controller.
“They told me to stay there and wait for our instructions. Three or four minutes passed while waiting. I was flying low enough, so I was worried I would run out of fuel on the way back. But then I was ordered to shoot this plane,” said Qais.
However, Qais did not immediately follow the orders and rather asked the control room for confirmation regarding whether they really wanted to shoot the plane down.
“The controller told me to shoot him (the plane). I fired at (the plane) from a distance of 100 feet. I saw something fly off the left side of the plane. Then I slowed down and fired a little longer and then I saw flames coming out of its right engine.”
The plane then took a 90-degree-step dive to the ground. As soon as it fell to the ground, it was in complete flames and I found out that all the people on board were dead.” said Qais.
Qaid had stated that just before he opened fire, the plane had repeatedly tried to signal it was a civilian plane, he waited before following further instructions to shoot down the plane.
“I was hoping that I would be called back without firing a shot. There was a lapse of 3 to 4 long minutes before I was given clear orders to shoot the aircraft.” Qais wrote in the letter to Engineer’s daughter, Farida Singh.
According to Qaisar Tufail, an aviation historian in Pakistan, the passenger plane might have been shot down as both nation’s forces used civilian planes for military purposes.
“Both India and Pakistan used civilian aircraft for military purposes in the 1965 and 1971 wars, so the military capabilities of each aircraft were being assessed,” said Qaisar.
Four months later, an investigation report gave a detailed account as to why the plane was allowed to enter the warzone without permission. The report stated – “The Mumbai Air Force did not allow the Chief Minister’s plane to fly. When the Gujarat government insisted, the Air Force had said that if you want to go, go there at your own risk.”
In 2011, in an article published in a Pakistan Newspaper, the blame was put on Indian Traffic Controllers for allowing the plane to enter the war zone.
Following this, Qais wrote the apology letter to Singh, stating – “I did not apologize (before) because there are only two cases when the fighter pilot is under the order. If he misses, there is a Court of Inquiry as to why you missed. And if you don’t kill intentionally, it’s a matter of why you violated the order.”I did not want to be a part of any of these allegations.” Said Qais.
The apology was later accepted by Singh, who said that incident happened in the “confusion of a tragic war”.
Penned By Mansij Asthana. Edited By Xavier Francis. Inputs from the BBC and BeenaSarwar.com