Written by Arjun Iyer
When one says about a missile chasing your aircraft, the first thing that would probably pop in your mind is the scene from “Beyond Enemy Lines”, when an F-18 is being chased by a SAM.
What if you come to know that something similar happened in the Indian Air Force as well? But the fact that unlike the movie, the aircraft made it back home. Here’s the story of IP990, IAFs only jet aircraft to have survived a missile hit to date.
IP990 is a Canberra PR.57, the photo-reconnaissance variant of the English Electric Canberra jet bomber aircraft developed by the British.
A brief story of the English Electric Canberra:
World War Two saw the importance of a tactical medium-weight bomber, as well as an improvised photo-reconnaissance aircraft. The induction of the jet engine also meant that aircraft could now fly higher and faster than their piston engine-powered counterparts. The Royal Air Force mainly relied on the DeHavilland Mosquito for Photo Reconnaissance and bombers such as Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax for bombing. The aftermath of the War saw the change in requirements.
In a radical design by British aircraft designer W. E. W Petter, the English Electric Canberra was designed. The design was loosely based on Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first serial production jet fighter, which entered service in July 1944. Powered by two Avon engines on each wing, the Canberra had a huge internal bomb bay to carry its load. The prototype first flew on 13th May 1949, in the able hands of Roland Beaumont. The aircraft handled pretty well, and only minor corrections had to be made to the design. The design became such a revolution that even the Americans had no design, which could get close to the capabilities of the Canberra.
Canberras in the Indian service
In a bid to replace the aging fleet of Consolidated B-24J Liberators, used for recon and carpet bombing purposes, the Indian government was looking for modern alternatives. On one hand, the Soviets had offered Ilyushin Il-28 “Beagle” and the British had pitched in the Canberra from the other side. The Indian government, however, selected the latter and signed a contract for 54 B(I).58 bombers, eight PR.57 photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and six T.4 training aircraft. The aircraft entered service in 1957.
The Canberras saw extensive action during the wars of 1965 and 1971 against Pakistan and were used specifically for reconnaissance during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The IAF operated the B(I) 58 and B(I) 68 (tropicalized B.8 and refurbished B.6 respectively) for the bomber role, PR.57, and PR.67 (tropicalized PR.7 and refurbished PR.7s respectively) as photo-reconnaissance variants and T.4 and T. 13 variants as trainers.
Reconnaissance and the missile incident:
106 Sqn “Lynxes”, Squadron was tasked as a dedicated photo-reconnaissance unit. IP990 belonged to the 106 Sqn, based out of Agra. As the war clouds began to thunder over the Indian subcontinent again in the year of 1999, Pakistani regulars, dressed up as Kashmiri separatist militants, began to overrun abandoned Indian army outposts along the Line of Control (LoC). With altitudes of these positions ranging from 10,000 to 18,000 ft Above Sea Level, the intruders had a clear tactical and strategic advantage over the Indians. They could overlook National Highway 1A, which connected Srinagar to Leh, through which the Indian Army convoys would pass. The intruders could then call upon artillery shelling from across the border, to rain hell on the Indian convoy.
To confirm the presence of these intruders, 106 Sqn was tasked to carry out a photo recce operation along the suspected areas on May 21st, 1999. A lone Canberra would take off from Agra, fly through Dehradun to the target areas, and recover back to Agra with sensitive photographs of the zone. Flying this deadly mission were then Sqn Ldr A. Perumal(late), with Flt. Lt. U K Jha as the navigator.
IP990 was escorted by 2 MiG-29s, as there were chances that Pakistani F-16s might try to intercept them along the target area. At about 0900HRS, when capturing images of the target area, Sqn Ldr Perumal felt a heavy thud on the aircraft, post which the aircraft began to yaw extremely. One of the escorts MiGs reported that there was a bright flash on the starboard engine and debris of the engine began to fall apart, but there weren’t any enemy F-16s in the vicinity. Yes, IP990 was hit by a MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defence system). A single Anza Mk-II shoulder-launched Surface to Air Missile (SAM), had hit IP990.
The lives of several hundred Indian soldiers depended on Sqn. Ldr. Perumal’s shoulders, as his sortie’s photographs would be used to understand the situation in the region. If he and Flt. Lt. Jha failed the mission, valuable intelligence gathered during the mission would be lost, leading to the loss of several thousand lives down below in the upcoming days. The pair could have ejected out of the stricken aircraft, but understanding the gravity of the situation, Sqn. Ldr. Perumal kept his calm and successfully flew the damaged aircraft to the nearest friendly airbase, Srinagar. After a grueling flight of over 45 minutes, Sqn. Ldr. Perumal touches down at Srinagar, with all the valuable images intact. It was not until 2006, however, that Sqn. Ldr. Perumal would receive his well deserved Shaurya Chakra for his gallant act. Sadly, Sqn. Ldr. A Perumal, who later became Group Capt., passed away at his residence in Salem, Tamilnadu, India; on 6th January 2012 due to a heart attack. Flt. Lt. Uday Kant Jha, later promoted to the rank of Group Captain, took early retirement, and now works as a professor at a University somewhere in the USA. The aircraft spent 4 days at Srinagar, under repairs, after which she was flown back to her home base Agra.
IP990: The last straw for Canberras of the IAF
While IP990 clearly became the most visible Canberra of IAF, it was also in her fate that she would become the last straw for the entire Canberra fleet of the IAF. As the aging fleet of Canberras had to be retired, as their time neared, there was a debate as to retain the aircraft or not, but IP990 clarified these doubts, in a brutal bloody way, to retire the fleet.
On 19th December 2005, IP990, piloted by Sqn. Ldr. Sanjeev Beri, with Flt. Lt. Anurag Sharma as the navigator, took off from Agra for a routine sortie. The weather was clear with optimum clouds that night. The aircraft crashed when it suffered an engine malfunction while performing the landing approach. Both the occupants were killed in the crash. IP990, the only Indian jet to have survived a missile strike, was ironically destroyed due to an engine failure, and gone forever into the annals of history…
This article is dedicated to Group Captain Alagaraj Perumal (late), SC and Group Captain Uday Kant Jha(Retd.) . Extended gratitude to Jagan Pillaresetti sir’s Bharat Rakshak forum, Wing Cdr. Joseph Thomas (Retd.), ex 106 Sqn, and Vikramaditya Chaudhury sir (Author: Six to Ghenna) for providing additional information.