‘Shooting USAF plane brought Seventh Fleet to Bay of Bengal in 1971’


New Delhi : The unwitting shooting of a US aircraft parked at Chaklala air base in Pakistan, hours after the India-Pakistan conflict began in 1971, may have prompted the Nixon administration to send a naval task force to the Bay of Bengal, says the pilot who flew the mission.

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Former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, who flew a Hunter while on deputation with the Indian Air Force in the wee hours of Dec 4, 1971, destroyed a number of light aircraft parked at the base.

One belonged to the United Nations, another was a twin-engine Beechcraft supplied by Pentagon to its military advisor, Brigadier General Charles "Chuck" Yeager, the legendary US Air Force pilot who was the first man to fly above the speed of sound and who later inspired a book by Tom Wolfe – "The Right Stuff".

An angry Yeager sent a "top priority" message to the Pentagon, and himself moved to Peshawar to direct the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) operations against India as the two-week war that led to the liberation of Bangladesh raged, according to American diplomat Edward C. Ingraham.

In an article written years later, entitled "The Right Stuff in Wrong Place", Ingraham said that Yeager's dispatch contained an accusation that then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi had personally ordered this mission.

Yeager called it "a deliberate affront to the American nation and recommended immediate counter-measure".

In his just-published book, "From the Crow's Nest", Prakash makes light of the event. "Yeager had it coming from Indira Gandhi", he says.

"…If Indira Gandhi did indeed personally order the destruction of Chuck Yeager's aircraft, then Richard Nixon may have been quite justified in personally directing (the) Enterprise task force to sail into the Bay of Bengal as an immediate countermeasure.

"In which case the honours are equally shared, and I owe no apology to anyone, except perhaps UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon," says Prakash, referring to the UN aircraft he destroyed.

The former navy chief quotes Henry Kissinger in "My White House Years" to point out that the Nixon administration sent the task force of the Seventh Fleet, led by USS Enterprise, "ostensibly for the evacuation of the Americans, but in reality to give emphasis to our warnings against an attack on West Pakistan."

Prakash says he has "no intention to wreck" the newborn Indo-US détente, highlighted by the impending nuclear deal. But he emphasises that the Nixon administration's action has rankled Indians who never planned to attack West Pakistan.

"It is time to iron out this wrinkle" in Indo-US ties, Prakash says of the 1971 episode.

The book, co-published by Lancer and National Maritime Foundation, was released Tuesday by Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju.