The Caribouís magnificent flyers
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Imagine a family of three children and their mother huddled around a transistor radio through two weeks of cold December nights ó ears pricked to catch every word of the newsreader through the static. Imagine sitting in a darkened room with a solitary candle casting eerie shadows on the blackened window panes. Imagine shivering and breaking out in cold sweat in spite of the room heater. Imagine hoping that no news is good news.
It should not be hard to do, considering that I am referring to the first fortnight of December 1971 when hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan. My father, the late V.C. Mankotia, was commanding the air force base in Guwahati and the rest of the family was ensconced at the other end of
The Eastern Air Command (EAC), the operational command of the Indian Air Force in the eastern sector, based in Shillong, had squadrons of Hunters, Su-7s, Gnats and MiG-21s at various bases. In Guwahati, Caribous were operated by 33 Squadron.
The Caribou was a Canadian tactical transport plane designed to supply the battlefront with troops and provisions and evacuate casualties. It could take-off and land on short landing strips. It was a rugged aircraft and was used extensively in the Northeast. Its maximum speed was only 216mph.
The IAF had gone into action within hours of Pakistan's pre-emptive strikes of December 3 and 4, 1971.Counter air sorties were so successful that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was neutralised within two days of the outbreak of war.
What is not well known is the role of the Caribou as a bomber in the war. My father came up with the innovative idea of converting Caribous to bombers. The IAF had only conceptualised the usage of AN-12s (the Russian cargo plane) as bombers. The AN-12 was much bigger, sturdier and faster. Converting the Caribou to a bomber, at first glance, appeared to be foolhardy. However, the EAC saw merit in the idea. Subsequent events resoundingly vindicated the concept. The PAF had been knocked out by then but the enemy still had plenty of anti-aircraft guns which could be devastating. The aircraft, fitted with old World War II bombs, flew at tree-top level in complete darkness. Approaching the airfields, they pulled up and dropped their deadly cargo from the open back. Many planes came back with bullet holes caused by small arms fire.