Through this write up, the author, Air Cdre Muhammad Ali honours the sacrifices and heroism of late Group Captain Saiful Azam. His experiences in the 1965 Pakistan-India war and the Israel-Arab conflict two years later, read like chapters of a thrilling book. His stories as a pilot are more than exceptional in every way. His career as an aviator gives an insight into the depth and character of Pakistan Air Force and its brave men in blue.
There were many amazing fighter pilots in the aerial battles that Pakistan Air Force fought. The most known is MM Alam, who is credited with five kills on a single mission. Maybe not a famous equal to MM Alam, probably to a lot of readers, but perhaps as big as Alam, was another PAF fighter pilot, Saiful Azam. He has the unique distinction of having aerial kills against the air forces of two different countries while serving under four different ones, Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq and Bangladesh. To-date, he remains the highest shooter of Israeli aircraft in the history of dog fights. Among the great fighter pilots that Pakistan Air Force produced, Saiful Azam was amidst the few who became legends.
Saiful Azam was born in Pabna District, East Bengal in 1941. At the time of partition, his family moved east to an area that became part of predominantly Muslim East Pakistan. In 1955, he went to West Pakistan and attended school until 1958, when he joined the PAF school Sargodha. Saiful Azam took to flying naturally. He was such an exceptional pilot that by the time he was completing his training on the tricky Harward, his instructors knew Saiful Azam was destined to become an exceptional fighter pilot, top of the line.
Soon after graduating in 1960, the young Pilot Officer was sent to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, USA, for an Advanced Fighter Course. During his training there, he flew T-33 and F-86 Sabres and earned the distinct title of ‘Top Gun’ from the United States Air Force. After returning to Pakistan, he was posted to the elite No 14 Sqn as Operational Fighter Pilot. During his attachment with the No 14 Sqn, Saiful Azam was admired and respected for his professionalism, soft nature and dedication to service.
When war broke out with India in 1965, Saiful Azam was flying the adventurously designed F-86, an aircraft that gave pilots the feeling of being free and to do as they pleased. On one combat sortie, the Indian Air Force picked a wrong game day to jump his four-ship formation. In the ensuing fight, Saiful Azam shot down one of the two attackers flying the Gnat, and spared the life of the other, after he surrendered. For defending his country, he was awarded Pakistan’s third-highest military award, the Sitara-e-Jurat, or Star of Courage. To Saiful Azam, it was just him, just doing his job- and just the beginning.
By the end of 1966, Saiful Azam headed on deputation for some sun and fun to the Middle East, where he flew Hawker Hunters with the No 1 Sqn of the Royal Jordanian Air Force. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1967, Saiful Azam again distinguished himself in the air. He shot down one Israeli jet and sent the other trailing smoke. But on his greatest day, on June 7, 1967, Azam, who was flying an Iraqi Hunter this time, downed two Israeli intruders.
Saiful Azam flew offensively often risking and attacking, even if circumstances were unfavourable. One of his greatest skills was marksmanship in aerial gunnery. The day he gunned down his first Israeli victim while flying for the No 1 Sqn in RJAF, he did it without assistance. The ground controller had declared the sudden blizzard of enemy aircraft approaching, and it was difficult to make out who was who. Saiful Azam was, therefore, asked to be on his own. For his services, Saiful Azam received Jordan’s Wisam-al-Istaqlal and Iraq’s Medal of Bravery, the Nawt-al-Shuja’a.
After the aerial combat over Jordanian skies, it’s King, Hussein bin Tatal had offered the Iraqi government pilots, as its President Abd Al-Rehman joined the war against Israel. The next mission offered him the chance to full fill his dream of shooting down an Israeli Mirage. Former PAF Pilot and aviation blogger Air Commodore, Kaiser Tufail, finds the words in his article dedicated to the late veteran, ‘A Sword for Hussein’ and neatly describes the dogfight over Iraqi airspace.
“Reversing his turn, Saiful Azam noticed one of the Mirages still turning right, apparently having lost sight of the Hunters. Saiful Azam managed to turn inside the Mirage, and started to catch up fast. At the extreme limits of range, the Mirage could not light up its fuel-guzzling afterburner, or else it could have easily out-run the subsonic Hunter. In the event, the Mirage had to face the Hunter’s lethal cannon. Uttering ‘Bismillah,’ Saif pressed the trigger for about two seconds. The bullets landed squarely on the wings, as sparks flew off the metal skin. Suddenly, the Mirage was engulfed in a big ball of fire. The pilot, Capt Dror, ejected in full view of the Base personnel watching from the ground.”
Immediately pulling a ‘split S’, and airspeed alive, Saiful Azam, was behind his second target, the Vautour. Chasing the Vautour, just 200 feet behind, too close for the safety of his own aircraft were the much larger Vautour to explode like his previous victim, he decided not to miss the chance. “Saif opened fire and after three bursts of his cannon, saw parts of the aircraft fly off. His own aircraft juddered as if hit by something. Saif had to look around to be sure he was not being shot at.”
After 1971, Saiful Azam served the Bangladesh Air Force until his retirement in 1980, following which he was chairman of the Civil Aviation Authorities of Bangladesh and a member of parliament from 1991–96. According to Arab News, around three years ago, Saiful Azam was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. After his death on June 14, 2020, tributes poured in from around the world, including a call from Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal, “to convey his condolences on behalf of all Jordanians.” His death has an impact on Pakistan Air Force today. To have Saiful Azam on the team was huge to PAF pilots looking for inspiration. The Chief of the Pakistan Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, paid glowing tributes to Saiful Azam in a statement. “The late Group Captain was an exceptional fighter pilot, who would always be remembered for his valour and professionalism,” Aviation is about achieving your dreams and taking chances to accomplish what no one else has done before. Aviation is about courage and confidence. Being a PAF pilot is about being part of something bigger than yourself. He broke the glass ceiling and more importantly, had the chance to do what he loved, to fly with the best, and that is not hard to say for Pakistan Air Force fliers.
We all have value and a story to share. History recognizes Saiful Azam’s astonishing achievements in the air. History will remember him as a fair and brave opponent who logged hundreds of hours of combat time, whose professionalism should be admired by all nationalities and generations of fighter pilots. “In the aviation world, he is an international hero who was recognized with high appreciation,” said Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman, the current civil aviation chairman in Bangladesh. “He is our national pride as a fighter in the sky,” he told the Arab News in an interview.
The late veteran’s wife Nishat Ara said there couldn’t be a more accurate description of her late husband.
“The sky was his home; he was the happiest when he was flying,” she said. But while the world knew him as an ace pilot, Nishat Ara said, much more would be revealed about the man in an upcoming biography.
“Saiful Azam was many things to many people, but through this book, the best part of his personality will shine through,” she said adding, “That he was always a friend first.”.