Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon and his Folland Gnat fighter aircraft. That is all that the Indian Air Force needed to prolong the extraordinary defence of the Srinagar airfield as six F-86 Sabre jets of the Pakistan air force raided the vital installation on December 14, 1971.
Even as enemy aircraft began bombing and strafing the airfield, Flying Officer Sekhon — who attained martyrdom during the defence in which he alone engaged with six enemy jets — paid no heed to the dangers of taking off in the midst of the attack and immediately engaged a pair of the attacking Sabres. “In the fight that ensued, he secured hits on one aircraft and damaged another. By this time, other Sabre aircraft came to the aid of their hard-pressed companions. Flying Officer Sekhon’s Gnat was again outnumbered, this time by four to one,” reads the citation dedicated to the air warrior for the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) awarded to him posthumously.
Flying Officer Sekhon is the only one from IAF to have been awarded the PVC. Even when he was fighting the remaining enemy jets, Flying Officer Sekhon engaged in an unequal combat. “In the fight that followed, at treetop height, he almost held his own, but was eventually overcome by the sheer weight of numbers. His aircraft was shot down by gunfire from one of the Sabres and he was killed,” adds the citation, describing his gallantry as setting “new heights in Air Force traditions”.
As the nation celebrates the 1971 war victory, the martyr’s native village, Issewal in Punjab’s Ludhiana district, continues to revel in the glory brought by the son of the soil. “It is an honour that we are from the family of the only IAF officer to get such an award. Our villagers are also proud of our uncle,” says Amardeep Singh (38), a nephew of Flying Officer Sekhon.
Amardeep lives with his mother Jagnandan Kaur at Rajguru Nagar in Ludhiana. He says the IAF continues to honour his uncle’s supreme sacrifice. “As the government is celebrating 50 years of victory in the 1971 war, I was called by IAF to Adampur (Air Force station in Ludhiana) where I lit a baton. The air force will bring it to our native village in Issewal, where they are getting a memorial constructed at Government Senior Secondary School. Though the program was scheduled for March 30, it has been delayed due to Covid,” Amardeep says.
Just a year before his martyrdom, Flying Officer and his brother, Amardeep’s father, got married on the same day in 1970. “He did not even have any children. His wife remarried later on, while my father, Sukhminder Singh died in 2011,” he adds.
Issewal locals remember Flying Officer Sekhon, whose heroism found praise even from the PAF pilot who shot him down, as a brave man. “Even his father, Tirlok Singh, a mechanic in the Indian Air Force, was known for bravery,” says Choor Singh (70) from Issewal. The martyr is a hero for youth from the village. “We have heard about his bravery. He is an inspiration for us,” says Devinder Singh, another resident of Issewal.
While memorials constructed at the National War Memorial in Delhi and in Ludhiana continue to keep the gallantry of Sekhon alive, his remains were never found after his fighter aircraft crashed. Sekhon, after being hit, was advised to return to base. However, what is suspected to be a failure of the control system, his plane plummeted down. A last-minute ejection did not prove successful as his canopy was seen to fly off. The wreckage of his jet was found in a gorge, near the road from Srinagar to the base. However, his remains were never found due to the mountainous terrain.