February 8, 2023

Remembering Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon

On this day in 1971 Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon sacrificed his life while defending the Srinagar air base. On 14 December 1971, Srinagar airfield was bombed and strafed by 06 Pakistani F-86 Sabre aircraft.

The pilots at readiness were Flight Lieutenant Ghumman and Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon. Just as the first F-86 Sabre of Pakistan Air Force strafed the airbase, Flt. Lt. Ghumman led Flying Officer Sekhon to move their aircraft out of their pens and tried taking off immediately.

As they were still gaining momentum to take off, the Sabres kept bombing the runway, making strafing runs, and shaking the ground from the detonation of the bombs.

Amidst all of that, 2 Gnats were just rolling forward to take off! With a runway being bombed to hell, it indeed turned into a pilot’s nightmare. Meanwhile, with Flight Lieutenant Ghumman’s Gnat was spraying dust, delaying the take-off of Flying Officer Sekhon.

Yet, the 2 Gnats got airborne without a scratch, and Flying Officer Sekhon didn’t waste any time to engage the first Sabre pair that was re-organizing after the bombing run. Unfortunately, Flight Lieutenant Ghumman lost visual of his wingman due to the terrible fog and couldn’t manage to get back into the air battle.

Meanwhile, Flying Officer Sekhon scored his first kill, knocking down one Sabre and shooting down another. The second Sabre caught fire but still managed to stay airborne. Trailing smoke, it fled back towards the direction of Rajouri, heading towards Pakistan.

Yet, being alone in the battle and with still more F-86 Sabres in the air, Flying Officer Sekhon decided to bash on regardless!!

Right then, a 3rd Sabre latched on behind Flying Officer Sekhon and started shooting at him, missing his aircraft over and over again. By then, all the Sabres had used up their munitions for the bombing raid, hence there was no other way left for them other than to flee.

With confidence, Flying Officer Sekhon managed to shake him off and engaged another Sabre, opening fire on it. Now, this Sabre was the one leading the 6 aircraft formation and he called all available Pakistani aircraft of his formation to attack this lone Gnat. Unfortunately, the Sabres were at a height, for which they managed to dive and engage Flying Officer Sekhon’s aircraft. Being hit, plummeting down, and fighting with the sluggish controls, he radioed back- “I think I’ve been hit Ghumman, come and get them!”

Being hit, trailing fire and smoke, the lone Gnat crashed to the ground. He managed to make a last-minute ejection, but he didn’t survive the crash. The wreckage of the Gnat was found a few miles near Srinagar airbase, but unfortunately, his remains were never found.

For the defense of Srinagar airbase and the supreme sacrifice he made for doing his duty, he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his gallantry.

Later when a wreckage of the plane was found no less than 37 bullet marks were found on the wreckage of the plane. All this at the age of 26.

For his selflessness, dogged determination and raw courage in the face of the enemy, Nirmal Jit Singh Shekon was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra (collected with immense pride and grief by his young wife and father, himself a serving Warrant Office in the IAF). He was the first and only air warrior to be awarded India’s highest wartime gallantry award.

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