When the sturdy Canberra saved its crew despite a missile hit

By Prashant K. Nanda, Indo-Asian News Service

Agra: It was 9 a.m. on May 21, 1999. A Canberra bomber was flying on reconnaissance duty over a hill in Kargil when a Pakistani Stinger missile slammed into it, damaging the engine and portions of the plane. But the sturdy aircraft did not fail its crew, it carried them back to the base.

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“We all are alive,” said crewmembers of the warrior plane, profusely thanking the Canberra, which was phased out of the Indian Air Force Friday.

“The Kargil (in Jammu and Kashmir) operation was on full swing. We took off from Ambala air base on a photo reconnaissance duty and were assigned to photograph the exact positioning of our enemy in seven different locations northeast of a hill in Kargil when we experienced a violent jolt,” said Wing Commander Uday Kant Jha, who was navigator of the aircraft.

“For a moment, we were thrown completely out of our senses. Our first reaction was – we may not live beyond a few minutes,” Jha told IANS, almost eight years after the Kargil conflict.

“The US-made Stinger missile, fired by Pakistani soldiers, damaged our starboard (right) engine. At least two meters of the jet pipe was damaged and there were some holes in other places as well,” he said, narrating his experience.

The IAF escort aircraft reported seeing a bright flash along with debris flying off and smoke emanating from the Canberra’s right engine.

Jha said that initially he and his pilot A. Perumal decided to eject out of the hit plane but decided otherwise after realising that the fuel tank was intact.

“I salute the plane and its unchallenged valour. We are alive today because of the Canberra and its reliability,” said Perumal, recounting the eventful day when he was in the cockpit.

Besides the crew’s skill and efficiency it was the fighter aircraft that supported them ably in their return to the Srinagar air base.

“We returned safe within 30 minutes of the missile hit and that too with the photographs intact, which helped us in our further operation,” he said.

Wing Commander Jha said it was only after they reached Srinagar air base that they were able to gauge the magnitude of the damage to the craft. “We simply thanked the aircraft for not falling apart in the sky.”

“Though I got the ‘Vayu Sena Medal’ and Group Captain Perumal received the Shaurya Chakra, yet we believe that a lot of credit goes to the warrior bird,” Jha said.

Canberra, the only bomber of the IAF until the late 1970s, was inducted into the Air Force in May 1957. The bomber was phased out Friday after serving the nation for 50 long years.

The British-origin twin-engine jet bomber has been a force to reckon with in the then prevailing war scenario in the Indian subcontinent. Cruising at four-fifths the speed of sound at 40,000 feet, Canberra was the right weapons carrier then. It could carry the war well beyond the frontiers, deep into the enemy territory.

It performed stellar service during the liberation of Goa in 1961, during the 1965 and 1971 wars against Pakistan, and also during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The Canberra also served with India’s UN peacekeeping contingent in the Congo in the 1960s.

Hailing its contribution, IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, termed the fighter plane as the “eye of the nation” and said: “No other aircraft ever has served that long and as gloriously as the Canberra.”