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#SaturdaySpecial: We Spoke To Aircrew of IAF’s Only Jet To Survive A Missile Hit During Kargil War: Part II

These are some of the excerpts from our interview with Group Captain Uday Kant Jha[R], Vayu Sena Medal. As he proceeds to narrate the remainder of his experience of braving all odds and cheating death essentially on the miraculous date of May 21st, 1999. If you have not read the previous part, we encourage you to do so, in order to prevent any interruptions in the flow of the story. You can read the first part here.

Q: For so long we have talked about the background of this mission and before we proceed into the happenings, can you kindly shed some light on the various factors that were kept in mind while planning this mission?

“Secrecy of the mission: Only the crew of the Canberra aircraft was aware of the target areas. Even the AD escorts were briefed just to follow Canberra aircraft.” As acknowledged by many, reconnaissance is one of the most covert and dangerous forms of missions. The entire outcome of future operations rested on the shoulders of these two pilots. Acting as the eye in the skies for both the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, this sortie would bring the Indian armed forces to a closer light to reality. Understanding the seriousness of this mission, the details were retained within a close group of people, only those who were directly associated with it.

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The Canberra was to be escorted by two pairs of MiG-29B’s from No.223 Squadron “Tridents”, in order to prevent any interception by the F-16s of Pakistan Air Force, in case the need arises. 

Q: WHY was there a need for 4 MiG-29s, when two would be enough?

MiG-29B showing off its underslung ordnance. Image source: BharatRakshak

The MiG-29 is a ‘point defense interceptor’ aircraft, which attributes to its low internal fuel capacity. To achieve a complete escort throughout the mission 2 pairs were required, as fuel capacity in a single pair wouldn’t suffice. “It was planned that 2 MiG-29s would rendezvous with us over Leh and escort over the first three target areas until the second pair arrives to substitute the former. The second pair would escort us throughout the remaining target areas, while the first pair would return back to base with enough fuel.”

“As intelligence started flowing in, our target zone was narrowed down from an area spanning several square kilometers, becoming designated,  more specific to just the seven target areas. Now we knew exactly where to go and how to fly…” Another major challenge was at what altitude to fly at.

Q: How does aerial photographic reconnaissance work?

“The way photography works is, if you fly high, the area coverage goes up, but your scale goes down. So you can’t see things that clearly. If you fly low, your scale goes up, but your coverage goes down. So an average height of 10,000 ft AGL was selected. At that height, we had to take two runs over the target.”

10,000 feet was chosen as the optimum flight altitude, to balance between the area to be covered and the scale of photography; to minimize exposure close to the LOC. Since the aircraft was flying from Agra, the scale of the map has to be changed from 1:1 million for the route to 1: 25000 over the target area in steps. The direction to fly was selected to cover the maximum area with the largest possible scale. Except for the first target which was very big to be covered in a single run, all other targets were planned for a single high-speed run. Since the Canberra and Air Defence escorts were operating from different airfields, Leh airfield was selected as a suitable RV point for the first formation and Nun Kun for the second one.

“Photography requires a clear sky over the target area and massive cloud formation over the hills starts by afternoon. So, the photography over all the targets was planned to be complete before noon.” The weather was one of the main issues during the Kargil war. During the initial days of the war (which also continued even during the air operations conducted in later stages), flying was just restricted to a window of just 4 hours in the morning. Flying would resume from around 8:30 in the morning to around 1 PM, as the visibility and weather during this time would be apt for flying. It was reduced post the time as the weather would most likely worsen. This became a common phenomenon especially from late-May to early-July, due to the monsoon.

“Suspecting ground fire by anti-aircraft guns, the height to fly was selected beyond the reach of these weapons. There was no intelligence input about SAM.” This would be the biggest miscalculation of the sortie. As stated, intelligence earlier didn’t consider the threat of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). These shoulder-launched, Infrared guided Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), operate at short ranges, and are a formidable threat to low and in cases medium flying aircraft. The only threat which was considered was Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force’s air defense weapons, set up across the LoC.

Q: How would you describe the sortie before the mishap took place?

“It is extremely difficult to find a clear sky over the hills. Hence the first attempt to photograph the target areas was made on 19 May 1999 was abandoned after reaching the target areas. The second attempt was made on 21 May 1999. RV over the Leh airfield was as planned. The first target area was free of any clouds. Both the runs were photographed as planned, however, at the end of the second run, we felt a big jolt with a thud soon”

To Be Continued…

DISCLAIMER: We request the readers to kindly read the series in their respective chronological order, to prevent any miscommunication. All the rights of this content are reserved by The Frontier Vedette, and in case of remixing or reproducing, must have the necessary consent from the Editor in Chief ( All Rights Reserved.

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