Chuck Yeager, India and Pakistan

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Chuck Yeager, India and Pakistan

Chidanand Rajghatta, December 9, 2020: The Times of India

WASHINGTON: Chuck Yeager, the American flying legend who was the first to break the sound barrier, was venerated by the Pakistani military, but while his aerial feats were respected by many Indian pilots, his swagger and political partisanship was the butt of jokes in the diplomatic circuit after he went total Pakistani during the 1971 war. Yeager never forgave India and IAF pilots for destroying his beloved twin-engine Beechcraft.

Yeager, who died on on December 8 at 97, was deputed to serve in Pakistan as head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) with the "modest task" of seeing that the residual trickle of American military aid was properly distributed to the Pakistanis and "to teach Pakistanis how to use American military equipment without killing themselves in the process," according to Edward Ingraham, a US diplomat who served in the American Embassy in Islamabad.

"One of the perks of Yeager's position was a twin-engined Beechcraft, a small airplane supplied by the Pentagon to help keep track of the occasional pieces of American military equipment that sporadically showed up in the country. Ambassador (Joseph) Farland, however, had other designs on the plane. An ardent fisherman, he found that the Beechcraft was the ideal vehicle for transporting him to Pakistan's more remote lakes and rivers, with Yeager often piloting him to and fro," Ingraham wrote in an article titled "The Right Stuff in the Wrong Place," taking off from Tom Wolfe's celebration of US test pilots in his acclaimed book The Right Stuff.

Ingraham describes a US Embassy in Pakistan where staff was increasingly preoccupied with the deepening India-Pakistan crisis and meetings became more frequent and more tense. "We were troubled by the complex questions that the conflict raised. No such doubts seemed to cross the mind of Chuck Yeager. I remember one occasion on which Farland asked Yeager for his assessment of how long the Pakistani forces in the East could withstand an all-out attack by India. 'We could hold them off for maybe a month' he replied, 'but beyond that we wouldn't have a chance without help from outside?' It took the rest of us a moment to fathom what he was saying, not realising at first that "we" was West Pakistan, not the United States," Ingraham writes. When Ingraham asked him to be be a little more even-handed in his comments, he says Yeager gave him a withering glance and snapped "Goddamn it, we're assigned to Pakistan. What's wrong with being loyal?!”

According to Ingraham, Yeagar began to take the war with India personally the morning after Pakistan's then military ruler Yahya Khan opened up the western front. On the eve of India's counterattack, he says, Pakistanis had been prudent enough to evacuate their planes from airfields close to the Indian border but no one thought to warn General Yeager. "Thus when an Indian fighter pilot swept low over Islamabad airport in India's first retaliatory strike, he could see only two small planes on the ground. Dodging antiaircraft fire, he blasted both to smithereens with 20-millimeter (sic) canon fire. One was Yeager's Beechcraft. The other was a plane used by United Nations forces to supply the patrols that monitored the ceasefire in Kashmir," Ingraham writes.

Ingraham says he never found out how the UN reacted to the destruction of its plane, "but Yeager's response was anything but dispassionate. He raged to his cowering colleagues at a staff meeting. His voice resounding through the embassy, he proclaimed that the Indian pilot not only knew exactly what he was doing but had been specifically instructed by Indira Gandhi to blast Yeager's plane. In his book he later said that it was the Indian way of giving Uncle Sam 'the finger'"

"Our response to this Indian atrocity, as I recall was a top priority cable to Washington that described the incident as a deliberate affront to the American nation and recommended immediate countermeasures. I don't think we ever got an answer?" Ingraham writes with mild disdain for Yeagar's outrage.

The Indian pilot who destroyed Yeager's aircraft was Arun Prakash, who would go on to become Indian Navy chief but who was then an exchange pilot with the IAF. In a tongue-in-cheek account of the episode in Vayu magazine some years ago, Prakash describes how he decimated the Beechcraft on spotting it during a second run of the Chaklala airfield after first destroying a Hercules C-130 on the first run.

"After reading Ingraham's account, and especially after retiring from the navy, the thought has often crossed my mind that perhaps Yeager had it coming to him from Mrs. Gandhi. And if Indira Gandhi did indeed personally order the destruction of Chuck Yeager's Beechcraft, then Nixon may have been quite justified in personally directing the Enterprise task force to sail into the Bay of Bengal as an 'immediate countermeasure," Prakash writes, adding tongue in cheek, "In which case the honours are equally shared, and I owe no apologies to anyone, except perhaps UN Secretary U Thant!”

Yeager though carried the torch for Pakistan well into his advancing years, insisting that while Pakistan was defeated on land and sea, it won the air war. Asked in a recent Twitter exchange which pilots among those he had flown with he respected most, he named Pakistanis. "In 1971-73, I flew with the Pakistan Air Force in the war with India. They were the best in the world because they had the most experience - over 75 hours/month," he wrote.

While much of Yeager's account of the India-Pakistan skirmish is noise that has been debunked by military historians, the feat he is being remembered for today is his breaking of the sound barrier.

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