Group Captain Saiful Azam never truly got the recognition he deserved
Ever since the first birds of war, made of wooden frames and canvas, clashed with each other in the sky over the battlefields of WW1, fighter pilots have been holding a very special place in the public imagination.
Front-line soldiers, living in the trenches full of mud, blood, and filth, looked enviously at the aircraft moving elegantly in the clear sky in formations. Pilots who survived the initial charnel of death and managed to have some successful air victories under the belt, went on to become the superstars of their respective countries, where their fame and celebrityhood exceeded all others. Kings and queens and generals lined up to have photos taken with fighter pilots, like the German ace Manfred Von Richthofen, the Red Baron, surely the most famous personality to come out of WW1.
Fighter pilots caught public imagination not just because of the dueling knight-like fighting that characterized air-to-air combat, but also because the pilots themselves were a special breed of men.
They had to have extraordinary physical and mental abilities like a keen sense of balance, eyesight, reaction time, etc to be able to defeat similarly skilled opponents in three dimensional maneuverings that human beings were never built to do. Moreover, all ace fighter pilots had an ineffable factor, a Han Solo like sangfroid, that people instantly recognized.
Glamour of air battles perhaps reached the peak in WW2 when hundreds of thousands of young men, and some women, fought for air supremacy all over the globe. WW2 air-land-sea battles seem to have a permanent hold on popular imagination; what are the Star Wars movies except recreating those WW2 battles in space?
In Nazi Germany, ace fighter pilots got the highest medals, received the most extensive press and media coverage. In the US, fighter pilots were so popular that the army took famous pilots out of the front-line and made them tour the country to sell war bonds and boost public morale.
The jet age brought highly sophisticated, expensive machines that tore across the sky within a blink of an eye. Nations could afford only a few of these metal birds now and only an exceedingly small number of people had the increased skills and physical ability that flying combat jets required.
Air battles no longer took place day after day, month after month, but for a few frantic hours within which the fate of the whole war got decided. Pilots who managed to outfight their opponents in those tense few moments, earned lasting fame.
The age of piloted fighters is probably drawing to a close. Computers and avionics have advanced so far by now that putting a human being in a fighter jet probably degrades capability. While the age of manned fighters may be ending, the fame that fighter pilots earned in the 20th century, has already secured them a place in public memory alongside legendary warriors of history like armoured knights, Mongol archers, Samurai swordsmen, and others.
When, in the future, people will tell tales of 20th century knights of the air, among others, there will be a Bangladeshi name, Group Captain Saiful Azam.
I am not going to write about aerial exploits of Group Captain Azam here; they are easily available on Google. I want to use this limited space to emphasize the extraordinary feat of Saiful Azam that earned him a place among the most elite of 20th century aces, and how his world-class heroic record went unutilized in his home country that birthed soon after his days of thunder.
Saiful Azam, in just two combat sorties in two days during the 1967 Arab-Israel War, downed four Israeli fighters and fighter-bombers (three according to some reports). This feat is exceptional even in 20th century air combat in several respects.
First of all, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has earned a reputation as one of the world’s best air force with the most skilled pilots, from many combat operations since the birth of the country.
Secondly, Saiful Azam shot down Israeli aircraft in older, subsonic Hawker Hunters. Outmaneuvering fighter jets that have superior performance and capability, repeatedly, is almost a superhuman feat even for ace fighter pilots.
Saiful Azam earned his place among the greatest fighter pilots in those two days of flying in the desert sun. His accomplishment was well-known among Israelis, Middle Eastern countries, and combat aviation enthusiasts in the West.
Surprisingly, the world-beating achievement was unknown in his homeland where he spent the remaining five decades of his life. A new country like Bangladesh could have used his fame the most.
Like his illustrious predecessors going back to days of WW1, he could have been used to tour the country to inspire the youth and fire up the imagination of people of this land in those early decades when we were all too provincial and very unsure whether we too could compete with the world’s best and triumph. As far as I can see, this was an all-round failure of all governments from the 70s till now.
Saiful Azam did not get any statues or any named installations in his lifetime. As we are seeing now, statues are often toppled, buildings renamed; records of heroic deeds like Azam’s live on and reverberate down the centuries.
Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.