Retired Air Commodore Imtiaz Bhatti, a recipient of the Sitara-i-Jurat, Sitara-i-Imtiaz and Sitara-i-Basalat, is a decorated Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officer who served with distinction in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars.

Every year, Defence Day and Air Force Day are observed on September 6 and 7, commemorating the bravery of those who sacrificed everything to defend their homeland. But the focus on ceremony often takes away from history, and we know precious little of the stories of real people and their perspectives on how those wars were fought.

While researching Squadron Leader Sarfaraz Rafiqi for an upcoming comic series to be released on September 6, we had the honour to interview the ever charismatic Mr Bhatti and reminisce about some of his memories from that time.

We met at the PAF College, Sargodha, hosted by the Principal, Retired Air Vice Marshall Sajid Habib, a PAF historian and thorough gentleman.

Mr Bhatti was smartly dressed, sporting sunglasses, with a measured way of speaking and a quick wit. He still embodies the public’s image of a charismatic PAF fighter pilot even years after retiring from active service.

How did you decide to join the PAF?

I graduated from an agriculture college in 1952. I was fond of racing bicycles, and even participated as a cyclist in the 1952 Olympics.

I had been trying to do my Masters for a year or so but actually, I wanted to be on my own. There was a professor whose nephew, Salahuddin, was in the Air Force as an admin officer. He saw me walking around smartly dressed and we began talking. He asked me if I wanted to join the PAF and invited me to come over to his office the next day.

The idea of flying fascinated me. I decided to go see him, and that was where it all started for me.

Later when I joined, he was very happy to introduce me, telling everyone he had personally recruited me to the PAF.

What was your earliest memory of the PAF?

My first day in the PAF, Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqi was sitting in the chair across from me. He said to me, “Look around. This is your new home. You’ll be spending more time with us now ─ even more than with your brothers and sisters.”

Back then we weren’t allowed to speak in the vernacular (Urdu) ─ we weren't even allowed to listen to Urdu songs on the radio.

The Air Force was a small service, everyone knew everyone else.

I remember once having to go to my brother’s wedding when I was just a junior flight officer. I only had a day off to attend and had to back right after.

Following a training exercise, the base commander walked up to me and gave me an extra day’s leave. I hadn’t told him or spoken to anyone about it as I just took the rules and discipline as they came. But that’s the way things were, everyone cared about each other’s well-being and they made it a point to look after you personally.

Air Marshall Asghar Khan had started the Air Defence Alert (ADA) in his time. We used to sit at the beginning of the runway out in the open. The breeze would be blowing sand in our face non-stop but we would love to sit there all day, at the ready if ever called.

We were led very bravely in the 1965 war. We were trained very well, and from the air chief to squadron leaders, we had great leaders.

Several squadron leaders even lost their lives in the daring missions of the war and they ensured the PAF’s success with their sacrifice.

Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqi is one of the best known PAF martyrs of the 1965 war. Tell us a little bit about the time you spent with him.

Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqui was a fantastic person. He was a flight lieutenant and flight commander, and he trained me when I was a pilot officer.

When we would train, he would put us on the perch and say ‘Attack me’. We would always ask him how he did it ─ turn an aircraft mid-air just like a rickshaw ─ and he would say it was just like everything else. For him it was normal but there were some things only he could do with an aircraft.

You and Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqi flew the first aerial mission of the 1965 war, which was a decisive victory. Could you tell us what you remember about that day?

A day before formal hostilities broke out in the 1965 war, our base commander, MJ Masood, came to visit us.

He told us to handle the ADA duty by squadron. I was in the No. 15 squadron, led by Arshad Chaudhry (or Arshad ‘Cobra’ as he is fondly remembered).

Sarfaraz Rafiqi was the squadron leader of the No. 5 Squadron. My squadron leader was at the staff college and I wanted a chance to serve on the ADA.

On September 1, I approached Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqi, and asked him to let me stay on ADA duty when our shift ended, as a favour.

He said ‘My squadron’s pilots want to go as much as you do, but this time you can stay on and take one of ours’.

It was noon when our ground liaison officer, a Mr Chaudhry who had served in World War II, came to relay a request for air support by ground troops in the Chamb-Jauriyan sector.

When the call for scramble came, it was just me and Sqn Ldr Rafiqi. He looked at me and said ‘Chalo!’ and without any briefing, we were off.

On that mission, Sqn Ldr Rafiqi’s radar was malfunctioning. I was relaying messages that I was receiving from Radar Control, and we were told that Air Chief Nur Khan had flown over the area earlier to observe the enemy activity.

The Radar Control wasn’t especially useful back then for identifying bogies, so we would have to do it visually.

We were given a heading towards Chamb-Jauriyan, and as we reached the area, I saw a small dot about 10,000 feet below.

I called out ‘Bogie,' and Sarfaraz Rafiqi instantly called out ‘Contact.'

He turned the plane and was off in pursuit in a flash.

As he sped away, I got behind him and spied another aircraft trying to follow him.

I initially gave a call that it was a Canberra but when I got closer, I realised it was two Vampires in close formation which is extremely unusual for aircraft in a battle zone.

So Sarfaraz was facing two Vampires and I was also squaring off against two.

During the dog fight, Sqn Ldr Rafiqi took down his two targets in no time. He directed me to attack the other two Vampires, and we had come down to a very low altitude.

I attacked one and it went down with a well-timed burst.

The Indian Air Force pilots were good at flying low, almost 100 ft to 50 ft from the ground.

I shot at the second but the pilot disappeared into the trees.

IAF records after the war reported that the aircraft ‘staggered back’, meaning it was damaged but not destroyed.

Recently, books from the Indian side have revealed that this encounter caused the IAF to ground their Vampires, reducing their operational strength by almost a third on the first day of the war in the very first mission.

How did you feel about the ‘enemy' when participating in the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971?

One thing that is different from then and now is that we would not demonise the enemy.

I believe that the Indians were not bad pilots, though the relative performance of the PAF and IAF does make it seem so.

We had planned and trained accordingly, knowing we would be outnumbered 3-1 or 5-1 in the air, and that’s what made us better at aerial combat.

I never thought of revenge or enmity with the other side, even when losing close comrades and friends. It was war, and war was linked to politics ─ it was not personal.

I remember something Sqn Ldr Rafiqi once said. Someone congratulated him for downing the two planes, and he asked him:

‘What are you congratulating me for? Making more widows and orphans?’

He was fiercely nationalistic, and I believe he fought for the pride and defence of his country, as we all did.

This mission, and the final mission flown by Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqi in the 1965 war, are presented in detail for young readers in the new issues of CFx Comics’ ‘Haider’ series titled ‘Defenders of the Sky’.

The author is a writer for CFx Comics.