Hailing from the Isewal village of Ludhiana District in Punjab, Nirmal Jit Singh was born on 17 July 1943. His father, Tarlok Singh Sekhon, was a warrant officer in the Indian Air Force. Nirmal Jit Singh had always looked up to his father since childhood and got inspiration from him. At a very early age, he had decided to become a pilot and would always ask his father about planes.
Nothing excited him more than flying. After completing his formal education, he went on to join the force. He got commissioned into the Indian Air Force on 4th June 1967 as a flying officer.
It was during the dark times in 1971 when East Pakistan was witnessing the genocide of its Bengali population. They were being burned, raped and killed by the Pakistani military. Millions of refugees were crossing the borders and entering the eastern states of India. The Indian government, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, decided to help the refugees on humanitarian grounds and send the army to East Pakistan to stop the genocide of innocent civilians.
It enraged Pakistan so much that on 3rd December 1971 the Pakistani Air Force launched attacks on the Indian airbases on the Western front. This started a full scale war between the two countries.
Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, also known as Brother Sekhon among his coursemates, was serving with the No. 18 Squadron (The Flying Bullets) of the IAF based at Srinagar. He was trained to fly Folland Gnat fighter aircraft, which after its role in 1965 War was called as the ‘Sabre Slayers’. He was put on readiness duty at that time, which meant he was trained to take off within two minutes of the calling.
In the early morning of 14th December 1971, without getting spotted by observation posts due to thick fog, six F-86 jets of PAF attacked the Srinagar airbase and started bombing the runways and destroying the aircraft to cause maximum damage to the airbase.
Shekhon was being accompanied by Flt Lt. Ghumman, who was known as ‘G-Man’ in his unit. He had been Sekhon’s flight instructor in the initial days of his training.
They both were waiting for the ATC to give clearance to take-off. Just as the first bombs were falling on the runway, Ghumman took a call by himself and took off without wasting even a second. After the dust got cleared, Sekhon too rolled for take-off as No. 2 in a two-Gnat formation.
In the very initial phase, G-Man lost his way due to thick fog and could not take part in what is termed as one of the most fierce and deadly assaults in the history of air warfare. As it happened, out of the six PAF saber’s, four were given the task to bomb the airbase while the other two were put on hold to give cover to their partners. So when Sekhon took off, two sabers were directly in front of him and two were chasing him.
He went after the first saber pair and seeing it the PAF leader yelled: “Gnat behind, all punch tanks”. He fired from his front guns of the gnat and shot down the saber ahead of him. It frightened the No. 2 so much that he decided to escape and went back to Pakistan leaving his men behind.
Now, Sekhon was left with two sabers where the fight turned into a circling tail chase. Sekhon was heard saying “I’m in a circle of joy, but with two Sabres. I am getting behind one, but the other is getting an edge on me”. He showed extraordinary flying skills to dodge all the bullets being fired by the No. 3 saber from behind. It was a moment of relief for Sekhon when the No. 3 gave his message on the radio as “Three is Winchester”, which meant that he had gone out of ammunition and he left the fight midway. Now Sekhon got a chance and went after the only saber ahead of him with full force.
He used all his ammunition and was firing with full might to take down the enemy saber. At this point in time, the Sabre leader realized that he alone cannot take on the Gnat and could lose his life if he does not get help from his team.
He immediately called for the escort pair to join the combat. The two PAF jets who were put on hold entered the fight at the last moment for which Sekhon was not prepared and his Gnat was hit by bullets from behind.
Sekhon in his last moments tried to balance the plane but could not do so. His last message was heard by Ghumman on the radio as “I think I’m hit. G-Man, come and get them!”.
He also attempted a last-minute exit but it could not succeed because the gnat came to a very low height till then. He sacrificed his life to save the Srinagar airbase from the enemy attack. He showed his fighting spirit till his last breath and died doing what he loved the most. The highest degree of honor for a soldier is when he earns enemy’s respect. The pilot whose bullets shot down the Gnat was Flt Lt. Salim Baig Mirza, who later went on to praise Sekhon for his heroic acts against all odds.
He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the highest military decoration, for showing extreme valor in the face of the enemy.
He single-handedly fought with six PAF jets in which he was successful in shooting down one, making two flee away, and fighting from the rest to defend the territory. He is the only warrior of the Indian Air Force who has been awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
Brother Sekhon will always be remembered for his sheer courage and determination. The nation must remember such legends who do not think twice before giving up their lives for the motherland. Their sacrifices must not go in vain. Our salute to the great soul!