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Dhaka Tribune

A portrait of an eagle as a young man

During the Six-Day War, he was the only pilot to have downed four Israeli fighter jets

Update : 19 Jun 2020, 07:32 PM

It’s rare that three countries honour a man with gallantry awards for valour in air combat, but then Saiful Azam was never an ordinary man. He was tall and stoic, with kind eyes. One could be forgiven for thinking he was a professor or a businessman, and his demeanour never gave away that he was one of the most prolific dogfighters in military aviation history. 

During the Six-Day War, he was the only pilot to have downed four Israeli fighter jets. This is where his combat skills really shone. The Israelis had the French supersonic Dassault Mirage III, a state of the art fighter jet in those days. Saiful was flying a 1949 subsonic British Hawker Hunter, a World War II relic.  

In 1967, the year the world was erupting in protests, volatility was in the air. On June 5, after years of escalating tensions between Israel and Egypt, Israel responded to Egypt's closure of the Straits of Tiran, forever changing Middle Eastern politics and borders. 

Thus began what Israelis call the Six-Day War and what Arabs call the June War against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. 

Siaful and Nishat Azam on their wedding on November 21, 1966 | Courtesy of Nishat AzamIn a now declassified conversation between then US secretary of defense Robert McNamara, and the former head of global operations for Mossad, Meir Amit, the secret agency’s boss essentially confirmed to McNamara that the war would be over in a week. Such was the prowess of the 19-year-old country’s armed forces. 

“I told him that I’m personally going to recommend that we take action, because there’s no way out, and please don’t react,” Meir Amit said. He said McNamara asked only two questions: how long the war would last, to which Amit replied: “Seven days.” 

The other question was about how many casualties Israel would sustain. Amit said: “Here I became a diplomat. I said less than in 1948, when we had 6000,” according to the US Department of State. 

Five months before war broke out in the Middle East on November 21, 1966, a 25-year-old Saiful Azam married Nishat Azam. 

“He told his parents he wanted to get married before they sent him to Jordan and that's how we happened,” Nishat Azam reminisced. 

“He left for Pakistan the day after we got married. We were supposed to leave together but they told him they did not have any family accommodations on the base for him. So I stayed back. I wanted to be with my mother just a little longer too. He left for Amman five months later.”

Saiful Azam was a promising young pilot in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). He graduated from Pakistan Air Force Cadet College as a pilot officer. His instructors saw something special in him and he was sent to Luke Air force base in Arizona to train in an advanced fighter course on the F-86 Sabre. There he earned the coveted US Air Force accolade of Top Gun.  

CollectedIt was this remarkable talent that saw him being sent to the frontlines of the second war with India over the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1965. Hostilities intensified that August when the Pakistani Army attempted to take Kashmir by force. 

At just 23, Saiful Azam commanded the skies with the level-headedness of someone much older and more mature. Serving in the 17th Squadron of PAF's Sargodha base, other than inflicting heavy damage to Indian forces in 12 ground-attack missions, Azam also downed an Indian Air Force plane - an IAF Gnat on September 18, as it’s Flg Off V Mayadev ejected and became a POW. This, when the Indian Air Force outnumbered the PAF more than 5 to 1, reports the popular fighter jets world. 

He was awarded Pakistan’s Star of Courage (Sitara-e-Jurat) medal for his bravery, the third-most prestigious award of its military. This was his first of three military awards from different countries. 

With recognition came visibility. In 1966, the same year he and Nishat married, he assumed command of PAF's 2nd Squadron. Soon he was deployed to Jordan as an adviser to the Royal Jordanian Air Force. Tensions that started with the 1956 Suez Canal crisis were reaching a boiling point, with Israel convinced that an attack from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria was imminent.  

The Six Day War

With the Vietnam protests of the late sixties, when Twiggy became the poster child for the new female form, and Detroit was burning from race riots and the Grateful Dead freestyled at concerts, the conflict in the Middle East was furthest from everybody’s mind. 

Within months of his arrival in Jordan, on June 5, 1967, Israel made a preemptive strike on Egypt. Israel decimated Egypt’s entire air fleet since they did not have protective hangers. Within hours, Israel also wiped out almost all of Egypt’s artillery from air. They also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. Israel's objective was to capture East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian administration. 

Jordan, where Azam was a trainer, had entered into a defence pact with Egypt. They would help to hold the fort but not take an offensive position. Within hours that changed.  

Around midday, after Israel annihilated Egypt’s artillery, including their recently bought Russian MIGs, Israel entered Jordanian airspace. The Jordanians scrambled and asked Saiful Azam if he would volunteer and within minutes he was strapped into a Hawker Hunter at Mafraq Air Base. As five jets were readying to take off, the Israelis flew over the base, blowing up Major Firas’s plane. 

“He was a lovely man,” Nishat Azam said. “Sweet, kind, very handsome. He was Saiful’s best friend. We had to honour his memory somehow and when our son was born, we named him Firas.” 

CollectedAs the squadron of four jets took off, Saiful’s training in strafing and bombing techniques paid off in his dogfight with the Israelis. They were flying the French Dassault Mystère IV and Saiful shot one down in the blink of an eye. The Israelis never expected a fight and this turn of events quickly made them retreat, but not before Saiful shot down another jet. Saiful Azam’s wingman from the Royal Jordanian Air Force, Brigadier (Lieutenant-General) Ihsan Shurdom, shot down another Israeli fighter jet.

Having lost half of their formation of six, the Israelis retreated. But Mafraq Air Base was completely destroyed. Saiful’s squadron had to land at Amman International Airport. But this was not the end of it. Saiful Azam was just getting ready to fight again. He ordered his jet to be refuelled but the Israelis caught up. They bombed the airport and destroyed all the aircraft there, including a UN plane. Jordan ended up losing her entire fleet too. 

King Hussein of Jordan who had Iraqi support, decided to send his pilots to Iraq. Saiful Azam was transferred to Iraq the next day, where he fought on their behalf on June 7. 

In a documentary about him, Living Eagle Azam says: “I took three other pilots with me, one Jordanian and two Iraqis, and took off towards the H3- Air Base. When we reached there, they told us a big Israeli formation was coming.

“We bounced two on one side and two on the other side. There I shot down the third jet in their formation, a Mirage.”

The supersonic Mirage III was part of an escort for the Vautour II bombers. 

“My number two, Ihsan Shurdom said: ‘Sir, now you’ve got the party!’ I said yes, now I’ve got a confirmed kill of a mirage,” Azam said.

“Azam wasn’t celebrating because he spotted a Vautour 2,000 feet below,” his biographer Masum Billah said. “He did a split-S maneuver, when a pilot half-rolls their aircraft inverted and executes a descending half-loop, resulting in level flight in the opposite direction at a lower altitude, and very quickly got behind the Vautour. He was at a very high speed, at around 450 knots.

“He got so close to the plane that he was hesitant whether he should pull the trigger because he would be in the debris field but he pulled the trigger anyway.” 

However much he tried, Israel that day would gain full control of the West Bank in Palestine and lose only 46 aircraft in the whole war. Saiful Azam alone took out four. He also holds the record for shooting down more Israeli aircraft than anyone else.

For this, the young man from Pabna was awarded an Iraqi medal for bravery and was inducted into Jordan’s Order of Independence. 

Finding Home

When he returned to Pakistan two years later, having flown for three different air forces, he was confronted with war at home. When the Liberation War began, Saiful Azam was preparing to escape from West Pakistan and join the liberation forces. 


Azam was the squadron leader for Matiur Rahman who tried to defect to India with a plane to join the Bangladesh Liberation War, but died in the resulting plane crash on 20 August 1971. 

On that day, Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas was scheduled to fly with a Lockheed T-33 training plane. Rahman saw Minhas about to take off and asked to join him and jumped into the instructor seat. He attempted to hijack the T-33 in midair from Karachi, Pakistan, to India, to join the liberation movement. Minhas sent a message to control tower that he had been hijacked. Minhas wrestled with Rahman for control and crashed the plane in Pakistani territory which caused the death of both pilots. 

“They came for my husband the next morning and we did not hear from him or have any clue about his whereabouts for months,” his wife Nishat said. “We did not know if he was dead or alive.”

On November 15, she went into labour and gave birth to a baby girl. 

“I noticed she had some breathing issues and I asked the nurse who nonchalantly told me it was not anything. But they took her that night, and the next day told me the baby died.” 

Fear and tragedy struck their lives. 

Saiful Azam was sent back from Lower Topa after the war ended. In 1974, after being in two detention camps, the family returned to newly independent Bangladesh and Saiful joined the Bangladesh Air Force. He is the first air force pilot to have served in four different countries. 

In 2000, the United States Air Force honored him as one of 22 Living Eagles of the world. 

CollectedTrue to his roots, Saiful took one last flight into the unknown on June 15. He lived a full life. By the time he passed away, Saiful Azam had gone on to become the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) twice, the managing director of Film Development Corporation (FDC), and was a BNP MP from 1991–95 for the Pabna-3 constituency. 

He was buried with full military honours, and Pakistan, Palestine, and Jordan, have all sent out statements of condolences and appreciation of his bravery. 

Prince Hassan of Jordan on Monday expressed condolences to the family of Group Captain Saiful Azam, who passed away on Sunday in Bangladesh at the age of 80, said the Jordan Times. 

Palestinian historian Osama al-Ashqar on Facebook said: "Our brothers in Bangladesh and Pakistan were our partners in resistance and defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque." 

While Pakistan Air Force Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan expressed heartfelt grief on the demise of the great war veteran, according to a press release by PAF's media wing. PAF chief paid rich tribute to Azam, saying that the former fighter pilot will always be remembered for his professionalism and his part in the 1965 Indo-Pak and 1967 Arab-Israel wars, reports the Dawn.

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