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Muhammad Mahmood Alam

Muhammad Mahmood Alam
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Air commodore Muhammad Mahmood Alam (known as "M.M. Alam"; born Muhammad Mahmud Alam; 6 July 1935 – 18 March 2013) was a Pakistani fighter pilot, North American F-86 Sabre Flying ace and one-star general who served with the Pakistan Air Force. Squadron Leader Muhammad Mahmud Alam, Commander of No 11 Squadron, was already a notable leader and highly experienced pilot in 1965, when he was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat ("The star of courage"), a Pakistani military decoration, for his actions during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. In earning his decorations, Alam downed five Indian aircraft in less than a minute — the first four within 30 seconds — establishing a world record. He also excelled in gunnery competition, a skill that without a doubt contributed greatly to his becoming the first and the only jet ace in one mission.

Early life

Alam's brothers are M. Shahid Alam, an economist and a professor at Northeastern University, and M. Sajjad Alam, a particle physicist at SUNY Albany.His family moved to West Pakistan around 1971. In 1971 war Pakistan Air Force (PAF) grounded Alam and was not allowed to fly because of Alam's Bengali origins. Contrary to later accusations that also embittered him towards the establishment, ethnically Bihari Alam remained loyal to Pakistan and not to the newly created Bangladesh.

Being the eldest among 11 siblings in his family, MM Alam never married as he had to share the financial responsibilities of his younger sisters and brothers. Several of his younger brothers excelled in various academic and professional careers, owing their success to MM Alam’s hard work.

Born July 6, 1935 to a well-educated family of Kolkata, India, MM Alam completed his secondary education in 1951 from Government High School, Dhaka. He joined the PAF in 1952 and was granted commission on October 2, 1953.

A decorated serviceman

During his air force career, MM Alam underwent many courses including Fighter Conversion Course, F-86F Familiarization Course, Fighter Leader Course, PAF Staff College Course, Orientation Training Course-USA and Royal College of Defence Studies Course, UK.

His major appointments included Air Gunnery & Tactical Instructor at Fighter Leader School, Officer Commanding No 11, No 5 and No 26 Squadrons, Director Operation Research, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Flight Safety) and Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Plans) at Air Headquarters. He also served in Syria on deputation.

Remembering M.M Alam: What Makes a Fighter Ace?

"Legend has it that a Sabre took off from Sargodha airfield to intercept Hunters on a fateful September morning & landed back with an Ace."

120 Seconds:Squadron Leader Alam in a Sabre is on Air Combat Patrol accompanied by his wingman. Upon observing IAF Hunters exiting after an unsuccessful air strike over Sargodha, Alam sets off in hot pursuit of the enemy formation. He pursues a fleeing Hunter and eventually shoots it down with a missile shot.

He spots the other members of the Hunter formations flying very low and as he approaches the trailing member he is spotted and the entire formation breaks (violent turn) in the same direction – a fatal error as in less than two minute Alam has taken out four of them, (as confirmed by more than one independent eye witness) 1 bringing his tally for the mission to five…… And an Ace is born - a legendry instance of speed shooting which remains un-paralleled to this day. Was this purely a chance encounter in the sky gone right or in fact, a premeditated rendezvous with destiny – meticulously planned, brilliantly executed, superbly rendered? The story I am about to tell is about the 32 years of intense training, complete dedication and single-mindedness of purpose concentrated into the now famous 120 seconds.

Beginning of the Legend

An uncle in the de-Havilland aircraft factory in UK brings back pictures and stories of the magnificent flying machines for young Alam who has been mesmerized with toy airplanes ever since childhood. Later, as Alam witnesses the Pakistan movement, he is truly inspired by the idea of a Pakistan and vows becoming a defender of this nation. After migration to Pakistan, financial constraints force the Alam family to opt for Urdu Medium schools for their children over the preferred elite English medium institutions of the time. But Alam’s flawless Queen’s English belies this Urdu Medium educational background and what he lacks in opportunity he makes up for it with enthusiasm. After matriculation, Alam’s parents hope that he will continue studies and appear for the Civil Services of Pakistan.

Alam is convinced that his destiny lay in the defence of Pakistan instead.

Risalpur: He comes to the prestigious RPAF Flying Training College at Risalpur in 1952, after six months training in Pre Cadet Training School Quetta. Alam’s lifelong dream of flying is now within reach, as he qualifies for pilot training and graduates as a Pilot Officer on 2nd October 1953. Ever passionate and dedicated, Alam marks excellence as his ultimate goal. He remembers his flight instructor, Flt. Lt. Ahmad (from Hyderabad Deccan) for generously giving him latitude when Alam needs to be free; to the extent that the young Pilot Officer Alam proudly engages in unauthorised low speed scissor manoeuvres with another instructor and escapes censure. Not a naturally gifted flier, Alam still gains on his comrades by doggedly pursuing his objectives. It is Alam’s strong belief that “the desire to achieve excellence will make you outstanding over time”. From his time as a pilot officer, Alam has been fascinated by the stories of British Aces of WWII and understands early on that a fighter is essentially a weapon of war. In 9 Squadron, Alam enjoys flying the exceedingly manoeuvrable piston engine Furies.

Kohat: ‘Be one up as a fighter pilot’. Upon learning that his squadron which was based at Kohat was planning a surprise mock air raid on Alam’s detachment deployed at Miranshah, Alam and his buddy carry out a pre-emptive air strike by taking off in the wee hours of the morning – sneaking up and surprising them just as they are about to taxi out, ‘much to the dismay and amusement of his own squadron commander ‘Sikki Boy’ (Pilots tend to reserve such irreverent names for one another- an occupational hazard) – the memory of that day still cheers Alam up.

Flying was and continues to be Alam’s passion; any mention of it brings back the young Alam who excitedly recounts his fascinating encounters in the sky. Even now, in air combat, height is extremely advantageous to your aircraft for it can get converted into extra speed – more speed equals more g’s (it enables your aircraft to swoop down faster from a greater altitude). When challenged to an air combat duel at 20,000 feet by his comrade Hameed Anwar, an exceptional flier, Alam cheerfully arrives to patrol at 25,000 feet; meanwhile Hameed, equally crafty, thinks to himself, aha! I bet the chap is lurking at 25,000 feet and so he awaits the other at 27,000 feet. And hence the games continue.

Fighter Pilot

In the middle of the day, Alam sits strapped in his cockpit in searing Sargodha heat. He peers at the sun through a tiny hole cut on a cardboard piece and by doing so he successfully works out a simple yet effective method of keeping the enemy in sight if the latter tries to evade him by pulling up into the glare of the sun. He then turns his neck to the left and right repeatedly in an effort to see as far as possible behind the tail of his aircraft. As any good pilot knows that letting the enemy within 3000 feet behind your aircraft puts you at risk of being shot down, therefore by training himself to look over his shoulders at the rear at all times, Alam ensures that he at least will not be caught off guard. ‘A professional anticipates and stays prepared for all eventualities’.

Shooting down an enemy aircraft in the air requires an accurately computing gunsight. The Sabre’s gyroscopic gunsight is advanced for its time and enables the pilot to aim accurately provided it is correctly calibrated. Alam develops an uncanny sense of knowing exactly when his ‘gyroscopic gunsight’ is inaccurate. The erring ‘gunsight’ is brought back and placed on a calibration turn table and tests confirm that the instrument is, indeed at fault. Alam likens the unerring eyes of a pilot to that of a golfer who shoots from over a hundred yards and still makes it to the heart of the green.

Given the limitations of air to air missiles of his era which are useless against maneuvering targets, pilots had to rely primarily on aircraft mounted guns to achieve aerial victories. While other PAF pilots in his time are perhaps more renowned than him in other phases of flying like aerobatic displays and air to ground firing but few can match Alam’s expertise in air combat manoeuvring and air to air firing. Alam’s average air to air gunnery score is above 20 % and occasionally he returns with over 60 % hits on the banner (above 20% was deemed exceptional considering the immense skill required in the tracking and hitting a flying banner). The banner (generally of cloth) trails far behind the tow aircraft.

Behind Alam’s glory are months of preparation, sitting in the cockpit working with the men to maintain his aircraft to make certain that they remain trouble free and voluntarily flying extra hours to hone his combat skills. It’s taking deliberate calculated risks in peace time that helps Alam prevail in war. He credits himself with developing his own version of the first virtual flight simulator in his mind – precise enough to let him play back the mission details accurately. Alam notes down all mistakes made during his missions and tries to improve upon them and by so doing he trains himself meticulously into becoming an expert hunter. ‘Inexperience is akin to failure’.

His was a brilliant strategy based on the age old wisdom of perseverance, fuelled by sheer willpower & driven by clear vision.

Sabre vs. the Hunter

‘Fighter Pilots either hunt or get hunted’.

Knowing the adversary’s capabilities is vital for victory in any form of combat, Alam professionally evaluates the combat performance of the Hunter aircraft and is convinced that if it can be forced to engage in a turning (horizontal plane) battle his Sabre will prevail. PAF Sabres & IAF Hunters are otherwise fairly evenly matched, both being contemporary fighters with each having an edge over the other in certain regimes and flight parameters.

The four 20 mm canons of Hunters give it greater lethality and longer range than the six 0.5 inch Browning guns of the Sabres. Pit a Sabre against a Hunter and the Sabre has to register 10 to 15 bullet hits to bring down the adversary against 2 to 4 of the Hunter. Sabre’s advantage is in the form of a higher rate of fire, a larger spread of the volley of its six guns (the fired bullets will cover a wider area enhancing the hit probability) and longer firing time.

Hunter is more powerful and can out pace, out run and out climb the comparatively underpowered Sabre. However, Sabre’s smoother wing profile & better aerodynamics enables it to out turn the Hunter. Since aircraft guns/canons are the primary tools for achieving aerial kills in his days and this meant getting behind and steadily tracking the quarry from ranges below 500 metres to achieve a kill, the better turning ability of the Sabre gives it a decisive edge in this mode of close combat dogfight with the Hunter.

Hunters are hard to catch in the vertical plane but easy to bring down on the horizontal one, and with this in mind, Alam’s tactics involve forcing Hunters to engage in a turning plane where his Sabre will be able to out perform it. Alam remains unfazed by the superiority of Hunters, believing that with the right tactics Sabres will emerge clear winners. He concludes that in the end the more skilful pilot will win the duel and in this area he is supremely confident about the superiority of PAF pilots over their IAF counterparts, especially in the art of air combat. The results of aerial combats between Sabres and Hunters during the 1965 War which are overwhelmingly in favour of the former justify Alam’s confidence and his predictions prove correct. As Alam looks back with nostalgia over the events of the 1965 war he cannot but help mutter with a twinkle in his eyes and the typical fighter pilot’s bravado that if he was flying the Hunters and the Indians the Sabres during the 1965 war, he would have performed as well, if not better.

4 Raids Over Sargodha Airfields

0530 hr: When 6 IAF Mysteres came upon Sargodha for a surprise attack, the PAF aircrafts sat well camouflaged but for 4 F-86 & 2 F-104′s, parked outside in readiness for immediate take offs. The Mysteres, fortunately, took out only a dummy Starfighter placed on the end of the runway, whose aluminium foil covered wooden frame made it appear to be an obliging target. With the dummy Starfighter under its belt, the formation exited but not without losing one Mystere to the PAF ground defence fire.

0551 hrs: By the time 6 Hunters came in for a second attack over Sargodha base, four F-86 and one F-104 had already taken off on their interception mission. MM Alam made history by shooting down 5 Hunters.

0947 hrs: 4 IAF Mysteres evaded the intercepting PAF fighters and arrived once again at Sargodha airfield to find the same 6 aircrafts still there. Again, out of 6, only one F-86 was destroyed by the Mystere cannon fire as was an old abandoned ATC building. Luckily, that was the extent of the damages.

15.41 hrs: Many hours passed and then came the final attack of the day when 2 more relentless Mysteres arrived, but this time they had to reckon with the pilot whose F-86 had been taken out not many hours before in the 3rd Mystere attack. Flt. Lt. A H. Malik took out a Mystere with a sidewinder missile and the other escaping Mystere was downed by the Sargodha ground defences.2

In all, PAF claimed 11 out of 19 aircrafts on the 7th with zero losses in air.

Conspiracy theories

The decorated war hero left for his eternal abode with several conspiracy theories about his services. Some defence analysts and patriotic quarters believed that MM Alam had been denied deserved promotions in the PAF owing to political considerations marring the affairs of the armed forces.

Some others say MM Alam was stopped from taking part in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, which led to the East Pakistan debacle, due to his ancestral background linked to Bengal.

War veteran Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, a former Quetta corps commander, lamented that MM Alam was denied further promotions in air force like several other deserving and meritorious armed force officers. “But we could not do much due to the peculiar working of our system on unmeritorious lines especially the system evolved after 1971 debacle,” he said.

Air vice-marshal (retd) Mehmood Akhtar, another 1965 war veteran and a contemporary of MM Alam, however, said it was wrong to presume that the late war hero had been deliberately denied promotions.

“In the first place, air commodore was an exalted rank in the air force. Secondly, getting further promotions in armed services is a complicated affair depending on a number of factors, including passing several training courses,” he opined. “In my knowledge, every successive air chief gave MM Alam the due promotion he deserved.”

Akhtar cited the example of Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, a British Royal Air Force bomber pilot who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his services during the Second World War, but despite his excellent war services, he was just promoted till the rank of a group captain.

He recalled that he too was an air force squadron leader like MM Alam during the 1965 war and was deputed at the PAF Peshawar Base while the late hero was at Sargodha airbase. “MM Alam was not only an icon of pride for the air force but for the whole nation,” he said. “We are truly proud of him.”

“On September 8th, 1965, I was ordered to fly a B-57 bomber from Mauripur airbase along with another bomber for an across-the-border mission. We flew at 40,000 feet from Mauripur to Jodhpur and Amritsar in India and landed back in Peshawar without the Indian air force or their air defence intercepting us. This was the air superiority we had just two days into the war because of the war heroes like MM Alam and Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui,” said Akhtar. “Although he was of a shorter height, he proved himself as the flying man of a taller stature.”

Lt Gen (retd) Moinuddin Haider, a former Sindh governor, recalled meeting MM Alam in Kharian, Punjab some months earlier before the 1965 war for an inter-services war planning meeting during the peak of Rann of Kutch conflict.

Haider said that he had heard from colleagues and contemporaries of MM Alam that in the later part of his service, he had become too outspoken, blunt, and forthright, which had obvious repercussions. “But then there also are some peculiar requirements of higher command of any armed service for promotion, which sometimes don’t exactly match with exemplary bravery of a fighter pilot.”


Air commodore (retd) Mohammad Mahmood Alam, popularly known as MM Alam, died in Karachi on Monday 16 March, 2013 after a protracted illness. He was 78.

The hero of the Pakistan-India 1965 war, who inspired several generations to join armed forces, breathed his last at the PNS Shifa, where he had been under treatment for several weeks.

MM Alam had been suffering from respiratory problems but his health had deteriorated lately due to his age. He had been under-treatment for about 18 months, said the Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan Navy spokesmen.

MM Alam’s funeral prayer was offered at the PAF Base Masroor – the same place (formerly Mauripur) where he served some finest years of his air force life, conducting fighter conversion courses for younger under-training pilots on newly acquired fighter jets. He was later laid to rest at the Shuhuda (martyrs) graveyard at Masroor airbase.

Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt, Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad, air chief marshal (retd) Farooq Feroz Khan, Sindh corps commander Lt Gen Ijaz Chaudhry, Pakistan Rangers (Sindh) Director-General Maj Gen Rizwan Akhter, several war veterans of the 1965 war and a number of colleagues of MM Alam attended the funeral. One of the younger brothers of the deceased, Zubair Alam, was also present.

In their respective messages, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Khalid Shameem Wynne condoled the demise of MM Alam and eulogised his war services.

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