The Unrivaled Sky Warrior: Air Commodore ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh

by Saloni Poddar

In the annals of military aviation, few names resonate with as much reverence and awe as that of Air Commodore Baba Mehar Singh DSO, MVC. Celebrated as one of the most exceptional fighter pilots of World War II and a pivotal figure in the history of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF), his legacy is one of unparalleled bravery, skill, and dedication.

Described by his peers with accolades such as “an exceptionally good pilot” by former Air Vice Marshal H.M. Grave and “a pilot of outstanding ability” by Asghar Khan, former Chief of the Air Staff of Pakistan, Baba Mehar Singh’s prowess in the cockpit was unmatched. His daring feats and heroic actions during critical moments have etched his name into the fabric of aviation history.

Early Achievements and World War II Heroics

Commissioned in 1936 after graduating from the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell, England, where he stood first in flying with an impressive score of 922 out of 1000, Baba Mehar Singh quickly established himself as a pilot par excellence. His early recognition came during the Burma front against the Japanese in World War II. For his extraordinary bravery in the hills of Arakan, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), making him the first and only DSO recipient in the entire RIAF, where there were as many as 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs).

His ability to fly diverse aircraft types—from fighters to bombers to multi-engine transport planes—enabled him to undertake numerous perilous missions. Notably, during the 1941 insurgency, he rescued beleaguered American and Australian personnel from the Habbaniyah Air Force Station, a feat that earned him high commendations. His bravery continued to shine in 1942 during the Sind disturbances, where he received a commendation certificate for his efforts.

The Saviour of Ladakh and Poonch

Baba Mehar Singh’s contributions during the 1947-48 Jammu and Kashmir operations were nothing short of legendary. As the Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group of the RIAF, he was instrumental in numerous critical operations. His most celebrated feat was the May 24, 1948, landing of a Dakota aircraft on a dry riverbed in Leh, the world’s highest battlefield, without an airstrip. This daring mission not only provided crucial supplies to the besieged garrison but also ensured that Leh remained under Indian control, preventing its capture by Pakistan.

The significance of this mission is encapsulated in the words of Sh. A.C. Venkateshawaran in his book ‘Defence Organisation in India,’ where he lauds Mehar Singh’s unparalleled bravery in flying over unsheltered mountain ranges and landing without any proper airstrip. This historic flight opened a vital supply route and is remembered as a turning point in the Kashmir conflict.

Innovations in Warfare

Baba Mehar Singh’s innovative thinking was further demonstrated when he devised a method to arm Dakota supply aircraft with bombs during the crucial defense of Poonch. This unconventional tactic, described as ‘sheer suicide’ by General Russial, involved fusing bombs inside the aircraft and rolling them out manually. His audacity and tactical brilliance played a significant role in sustaining the Poonch garrison and contributed greatly to India’s eventual victory.

A Legacy Immortalized

Promoted through the ranks swiftly due to his remarkable abilities—reaching Air Commodore by November 1947—Mehar Singh’s leadership and daring missions left an indelible mark on the RIAF. His sorties, often conducted under the most hazardous conditions, and his relentless commitment to duty earned him the highest respect among his peers and superiors alike.

Tragically, Baba Mehar Singh’s illustrious career was cut short by a fatal flying accident in March 1952. Yet, his legacy lives on. The statue titled “Saviour of Ladakh,” installed at Leh airport on June 20, 2008, stands as a testament to his enduring contributions. His extraordinary achievements continue to inspire generations of air force personnel, ensuring that his story of valor, innovation, and exceptional flying skill remains etched in history forever.

In the world of aviation, Air Commodore Baba Mehar Singh remains a towering figure—a true legend of the skies whose bravery and skill saved lives and shaped the course of history. His life story is a beacon of inspiration, a tale of unparalleled heroism that will forever be remembered in the annals of military aviation.

Saloni Poddar

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