A Day With the Dragons

A Day With the Dragons A Salute to Dragon Operators
A Salute to Dragon Operators

The news of the induction of the latest, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capable, stealthy, 4.5 generation J-10C ‘Vigorous Dragon’, into the No 15 Sqn of PAF remained the top trend in mainstream and social media platforms during the month of March this year. As the nation wanted to know more about the new weapon system of the PAF, the team of ‘Second to None’ decided to visit the Unit and bring out for the readers, the firsthand information from the people at the helm of affairs. Meeting the resolute, professional and highly motivated personnel of the elite No 15 Sqn left no doubt in our minds that the defence of the nation is and will remain in the safe hands of these proud guardians of skies.

Today, No 15 Sqn, is the PAF’s new pointy tip of the spear. It is different from other PAF sqns because of the unique aircraft it operates. Its newest acquisition, the J-10C is a powerful platform, the PAF is proud of. It doesn’t need to fly treetop level, too low to be detected by enemy radar. To conceal itself, the Dragon relies on stealth technology and has advanced weapon delivery capabilities, with a refueling probe that extends its combat range. J-10C has fully integrated weapons, avionics and EW suite that make it a potent weapon system under the contemporary environment of modern warfare. The jet is configured with top class weapons, the PL15 missile and variety of standoff precision munitions, advanced radar, enabling it to detect, engage, and destroy targets at long range in air-to-air and air-to-surface domains. With multi role capabilities, the J-10C aircraft, will revolutionize PAF’s operational thought, ensuring impregnable defence of the nation. 

The most distinguished capability the No 15 Sqn has, is the precision and the accuracy of the fire power it can deliver. And of course, one of its most striking features are the pilots in the squadron. This is what brought the team of ‘Second to None’ to the ‘Home of Cobras’ on a fine March morning this year. Majority of pilots and the ground crew of No 15 Sqn that greeted the ‘Second to None’ team were part to of the first contingent that had gone through of gruelling training of J-10C at Chengdu China.

The Aircraft

As we got settled in the office of the Officer Commanding, No 15 Sqn, it was the time for an informal chat with the men at the helm of affairs. “It’s no ordinary combat aircraft. It’s a supersonic high-performance super computer with wings,” said the squadron’s new commander, Wg Cdr Imtiaz Rahim Shahzada. The J-10C is currently the most modern weapon system of the PAF. This omni-role jet can engage targets in the air, land and on sea, armed with air-to-air missiles and various combinations of guided and un-guided bombs/ missiles. Stationed at their headquarters, their jobs are clearly defined. The Cobras can breach time and space far differently than any other air force in the region. They can escalate quickly, telling the enemy, to stop there and then, and quickly de-escalate, which is also equally important. 

Wg Cdr Imtiaz Rahim is part of the small group of pilots entrusted to fly the PAF’s brand new jets that can be used across all theatres of conflicts. Specialized for the delivery of pin point fire power, the J-10C is capable of things that pilots of the 50s and 60s only dreamed of. Able to withstand nine times the force of gravity and ready to strike anywhere, anytime with precision gives the J-10C a unique edge over its contemporaries. Once airborne, pilots were at the controls of a supercomputer completing thousands of operations per second, all while travelling at speeds faster than sound. The massive engine output was over 29, 000 lbs of thrust. “Kind of like being shot out of a gun, wakes you up, gets your adrenaline going,” said Wg Cdr Bilal Raza of No 15 Sqn.

“Open power and it’s like the plane goes  through a transformer sequence,” described Sqn Ldr Jibran Rashid of No 15 Sqn while talking to our team. Airborne maneuverability and visibility were excellent, as well as the payload range, the other fighter pilots of the squadron described.  “Voice Recognition System available to pilot in the cockpit is also a huge plus. It helps the pilot talk to the aircraft and get the various information required like fuel state, radio channel change etc,” said Wg Cdr Bilal Raza with a smile.

Introduction of low observable technology has changed the way war is waged from the air. Pilots feel they have more space to operate on their own terms – changes that are taking place to make airmen more lethal during battle. “The Dragon is a ghost in the sky, meaning that it’s almost invisible to radar, which has been a nemesis to strike aircraft since long. The aircraft is taller compared with the low seated JF-17,” Sqn Ldr Jibran Rashid said. The cockpit is not congested and the jet is powered by one of the best, thoroughly tested, WS-10 Chinese engines.

The squadron pilots were proud of the Dragon’s survivability in a contested environment. This involves the J-10C avoiding threats using standoff weapons from longer ranges combined with updated tactics. The aircraft can send weapons to different targets with one button push whereas before it took a lot of pilot’s workloads. The combination of J-10’s tight turn radius and array of PL missiles allows no chance to aggressive enemy fighters.

“If an enemy jet finds itself in close quarters of J-10, its left to choose between two difficult options – out turn the J-10 and fire weapons before it can or turn tail and run. Problem is if the enemy turns and runs, he’s running into PL-15’s trap,” said a young officer at the sqn.

The first time the PAF pilots flew the J-10C that’s when they really started to appreciate what the new weapon system can do for them. The Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), enhanced situational awareness, offering the same overlay in all directions as the Heads-Up Display (HUD), with complete weapon envelope available. “Every detail is displayed on the helmet visor with every turn of the head when looking outside the cockpit. The weapon is looking in the same direction as the pilot – look, lock, shoot,” said Sqn Ldr Jibran  Rashid.

It all looks graceful and beautiful but what many do not see is all the practice and repetition that goes into making it look that way. Flight operations in a new aircraft are notoriously tough, said Sqn Ldr Bilal Raza, “If you’re not focused and prepared you won’t last in this business very long.” Fighter pilot, the words convey something in the spirit that lies in our squadrons, something young and vigorous, decisive, wanting action at once and finding its expression in the struggle going on every day in air. These young men won’t just be watching a movie such as Top Gun or Iron Eagle, they’ll be starring in it, in their futuristic jets that would prove to be the frontline PAF jet that  would rival the most high-tech fighters of today.

Futuristic Flight Lines

During the visit, the Second to None team witnessed some new protocols being introduced at the flight lines for maintenance and handling of the newly inducted weapon system. On enquiry, we were told that ACM Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu, the CAS PAF has given a new vision of ‘Model Flight Line’, in line with the dictates of any modern air force. During the visit we saw the practical manifestation of that vision unfolding in its true letter and spirit. “This vision has brought about a positive cultural change, the way the flight lines would now operate. Based on modern and practical concepts of maintaining/ handling the aircraft, the ground crew would now operate more efficiently,” Wg Cdr Imtiaz Rahim, OC No 15 Sqn said. The visuals at the flight lines were impressive.

The ground crew that can easily be dubbed as the ‘Soldiers of the Weapons’ were seen on duty in their new ‘Half Sleeve Coveralls’. These resilient men of No 15 Sqn in their smart and practical new gear looked more impressive as compared to their earlier turnouts. When it came to pulling the aircraft out of the pen, we were amazed to see a mechanical towing machine, formally known as ‘Aircraft Tow Device’ (QW-15) doing that instead of ground crew manually pulling the aircraft. We were glad to know that with the modern weapon system also comes the advanced and sophisticated maintenance protocols.

In the meanwhile, we saw a Dragon taxiing back to flight lines after completing an operational training mission. As the Dragon approached the parking bay, we once again observed something new. A smartly turned out ‘Marshaller’ wearing super soundproofed wireless headsets marshalled the aircraft while remaining in conversation with the pilot all the time during parking sequence. This was another modern gadget been introduced with the new weapon system that would also be adopted by other PAF sqns in due course of time.

At the flight lines we observed that Operational readiness of the Dragon was given the highest priority. There were various experts for the new aircraft, mechanical and electronic specialists seen in action everywhere. The squadron’s technical groups moved into position high-tech electronic devices to keep the modern combat aircraft mission ready at all times. As soon as the pilots brought back their Dragons after routine missions, the ground crew headed by their Engineering officers immediately took the jets into shelters for inspection, performing post flight checks. Coupled with visual inspection, an electronic inspection was also carried out using the smart and sleek looking Laptops connected to aircraft.

“It’s an advance weapon system far ahead of the other Chinese systems we use to operate in 70’s. It is easy to operate and easy to maintain, really a pleasure to work on this beauty. The ‘Wireless Testers’ and ‘Auto Analysis Software’ make our lives very easy to detect, analyze and rectify the faults during post flight inspections,” said Sqn Ldr Ejaz Ahmed, the Senior Engineering Officer of No 15 Sqn. He goes on to tell us that F-16s even does not have this capability of auto analyses which gives J-10C a remarkable edge over its contemporaries. In short, we could feel the sense of responsibility, in depth technical understanding and conscientious work, which are basic requirements in any modern maintenance unit, were all seen in their true meaning at the Dragon’s flight lines.

Cobras Glorious Past

No 15 Sqn also known as the ‘Cobras’, have a glorious history of service to Pakistan during war and peace. As you enter the main Headquarter building of No 15 Sqn, a feel of pride grasps you right from the start. Aesthetically curated corridors depicting the proud history of the unit takes the visitors deep down the memory lane. As one side of foyer area depicts the portraits of gallant shaheeds, the other displays the battle colour awarded to the sqn during its remarkable services to the nation during wars. It has the unique distinction of first kill on 10 April, 1959, when Flt Lt Muhammad Younis, shot down an IAF Canberra over Rawalpindi, making the Eid day more special for the whole nation. Later the unit was active in the 1965 and 1971 wars achieving three more aerial kills. More recently, the squadron provided the main offensive effort during Operation Swift Retort, on 27 February, 2019 when its Mirages struck the enemy positions using stand-off weapons with pin point accuracy. Another interesting factor which got our attention was the presence of the portrait of ACM Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu in the line-up of Officer Commandings in the honour board of No 15 Sqn. On further enquiry, it was revealed to us that the honourable CAS has commanded the Cobras from Dec 2003 to Jul 2005, a unique honour for the No 15 Sqn, indeed.

While talking to the team of Second to None towards the end of the visit, Wg Cdr Imtiaz Rahim was very proud about the new induction. He said “No 15 has a unique honour having scored the first kill for Pakistan Air Force. When the time comes, No 15 Sqn, being equipped with this aircraft will be on the forefront in defence of the country. It’s a beautiful jet, highly maneuverable, highly powerful, but most of all being a 4.5 Gen jet it is unrivaled and unparalleled in the region. Its induction is a game changing event”.

PAF has always been fully motivated and trained to deter any misadventure and aggression regardless of the quantum of the threat. Induction of this weapon system will enhance PAF’s capability to deal with contemporary aerial warfare. We are confident that the personnel of No 15 Sqn, will ensure swift induction/ integration of the Dragons into the PAF fleet, upholding Pakistan Air Force’s legacy and the PAF will continue to live up to the expectations of the nation.