Flying Maha Virs Banerji, D’Costa

Among the first pilots to be trained to fly Sukhoi-7, the two displayed conspicuous gallantry throughout the operations

Flying Maha Virs Banerji, D’Costa

The Maha Vir Chakra Awardees: Squadron Leader Madhabendra Banerji and (right) Wing Commander Allan Albert D’Costa

Sujan Dutta

THEY used to say he saw better blindfolded. Squadron Leader Madhabendra Banerji was among the first batch of pilots from the Indian Air Force trained in the Sukhoi-7 fighter bomber in the then Soviet Russia. “There is nothing as good as total darkness for navigation. Try being a blind person and you will know,” Banerji recalled his instructor telling him, two years before the 1971 war. (Source: Anchit Gupta/bharat-rakshak.com)

As Squadron Leader (later Air Vice Marshal), Banerji was based in Adampur, close to and north-east of Jalandhar. He was flying bombing missions for close air support to the land battles in the Shakargarh sector.

The many battles in the Shakargarh bulge, in part a consequence of a change in the role of an Army formation from an offensive to a defensive strategy, often blurred lines for both the land and the air force. The Army often called for close air support that was tasked to Banerji’s squadron (among others).

The Tribune, Wednesday, December 8, 1971

Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, the Chief of Air Staff in 1971, writes in his book (‘My Years in the IAF’) about the operations over Shakargarh that “although adequate air effort was available, the right kind of targets were not identified. The Sukhois were large aircraft that could be spotted from a great distance and despite packing quite a punch, whenever they delivered rockets against Pakistani armour, they proved to be quite vulnerable to ack-ack (anti-aircraft) guns and came out second-best when engaged by PAF F-86 Sabres and F-6s in aerial combat, losing three aircraft in battle.” At another point, he reports pilots telling him that the situation in Shakargarh was so confusing “that it is difficult to distinguish between friend and foe”.

In his own squadron, the 101 Falcons, where he was the flight commander, Banerji experienced the vulnerability his Air Chief later wrote about. One of his pilots was shot down over no-man’s land. The pilot ejected, broke a leg, but limped to a sparse forest to hide. Hours later, a 1-tonne with soldiers came to him, each side unsure whether he was friend or foe. The soldiers turned out to be Indian. The Captain leading them verified this by asking him for passwords. The pilot was transported to Adampur first, where Banerji met him, before he was sent onward to be hospitalised in Delhi.

The Tribune, Saturday, December 11, 1971

Banerji’s own attempts to initiate night-flying with the Su-7 got mixed responses from Air Headquarters at first. But he did fly late in the night/early in the morning of December 4, hours after Pakistani aircraft had attacked Indian airbases and war was formally declared. Strangely, the Su-7 flew most of its missions in daylight.

“When war happens, human behaviour changes,” he would often repeat to his trainees when he was an instructor. Banerji acknowledged later that implementing night-flying drills was quite a task.

“In the coming months, the letter from Air Headquarters came clearing one squadron in each command to do the night-flying syllabus. The Command gave the task to 26 Squadron, but the squadron did not have their heart in it and did not really utilise the opportunity to its potential, resulting in suboptimal results.

“My CO in 101 Squadron, KC Khanna, got the go-ahead from WAC (Western Air Command), and he gave the task to me. We started the task and had initial difficulties, but slowly we started to make it work. While we could not get the entire squadron operational, but most of the senior pilots had got operational. Simultaneously, TACDE (Tactics and Combat Development Establishment) was formed and moved to Adampur and they were actively testing out night flying too. Sure enough, as soon as the war began, TACDE put in night flying to full use and they were the only force to reach Sargodha and were effective.”

His MVC citation reads:

“Squadron Leader M Banerji, a senior pilot in a fighter bomber squadron, led no fewer than 14 missions within the first week of the conflict with Pakistan against enemy targets, most of them in support of our Army in the Chhamb battles. During these missions, Squadron Leader Banerji destroyed two enemy tanks and two guns. On these occasions, Squadron Leader Banerji was personally responsible for attacking the enemy in the face of heavy ground fire, thus relieving pressure on our own troops. Squadron Leader Banerji displayed conspicuous gallantry and skill in repeatedly attacking enemy forces in the face of extremely heavy ground fire.”

Banerji and his senior from a different squadron, Wing Commander Allan Albert D’Costa, were among the first pilots to be trained in the Sukhoi-7 and were required to train others. D’Costa was in fact the leader of the first batch that was trained in (erstwhile) Soviet Russia in 1968.

Wing Commander (later Group Captain) D’Costa was the officer designated to induct the Sukhoi-7 aircraft into the Indian Air Force, a new acquisition.

For months before the outbreak of the war, D’Costa was priming both the aircraft that were being flown from Russia to India and training the flying and the ground crew. The day after the formal outbreak of hostilities, he flew a low-level photo recce over Pakistan’s Walton airfield and located the radar unit. He conducted repeated strikes over Risalwala and Chander airfields and took out three tanks in Christian Mandi.

Lal wrote in his book: “No.222 (Tigersharks) Squadron led by Wing Commander D’Costa flew against the airfield at Risalwala near Lyallpur on December 4 (from Halwara) in the morning and later gave close support at Sulaimanke and further north along the river at Hussainiwala and Dera Baba Nanak and Narowal in the Shakargarh Bulge.”

His MVC citation reads:

“On December 4, 1971, Wing Commander AA D’Costa, the commanding officer of a fighter bomber squadron, was the first to strike at the enemy’s Risalwala airfield. Next day he led a mission to Christian Mandi and destroyed three tanks. The following day he led an attack on a concentration of tanks at Dera Baba Nanak, notwithstanding intense anti-aircraft fire. On December 7, he carried out a low-level photographic reconnaissance mission in the Sulaimanke area. He followed this up by leading an attack on the same day on the railway station at Narowal, where he personally destroyed and damaged many railway wagons and some installations. Thereafter, he flew a number of reconnaissance missions, bringing back a large volume of intelligence and other missions against railway marshalling yards and Raiwind and the Kasur-Lahore railway track, destroying a large number of wagons and causing devastation at each target in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, and against Pakistani air opposition. Throughout the operations, Wing Commander D’Costa displayed conspicuous gallantry, determination, leadership and professional skill.”

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