Saiful Azam (1941-2020) Jordan and Iraq and Palestine, and in Pakistan.
On the same day that the deaths of two of the ruling party’s stalwarts to COVID-19 seemed to usher in a pall of gloom and trepidation over the nation, another Bangladeshi passed away without causing much of a ripple in the local scene. But the sands seemed to shift in faraway lands - beneath the desert in Jordan and Iraq and Palestine, and in Pakistan.
Bangladeshis have always been steadfast in their support for the cause of the Palestinians, to this day shunning diplomatic relations with Israel. And yet, who in Bangladesh knew that one of their own would take to his grave the proud record (among Muslim nations anyway) of having shot down the highest number of Israeli fighter jets in aerial dogfights? Almost no-one. Not until it was brought to the nation’s attention by the news of his death.
Saiful Azam, who passed away in Dhaka on June 14 at the age of 79, wasn’t the highest scoring fighter ace of the jet age. Yet the Bangladeshi-born aviator downed at least five enemy planes during a 20-year military career – one that saw him fly for no fewer than four different air forces. It’s a record that stands to this day.
Born in Pabna in 1941 when it was still part of British India, Azam left home in 1955 to go to West Pakistan and attended high school there until 1958, when he entered the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Cadet College. Graduating in 1960, he was commissioned as a pilot officer in the PAF. He trained in the Cessna T-37 and then traveled to Luke AFB, Arizona, for an advanced fighter course in the North American F-86 Sabre, securing the Top Gun distinction -an award given to the highest scoring candidate in any military gunnery (any weapon larger than small arms) course in the United States. He returned to the then-East Pakistan and flew the Sabre until 1963.
He next flew the T-37 as an instructor at PAF Base Mauripur from 1963 to 1966. During the September 1965 war with India, Azam was flying Sabres in No. 17 Squadron from PAF Base Sargodha. After successfully executing a ground attack strike, his formation was bounced by Indian Air Force fighters. In the ensuing fight, Azam shot down one of the two attackers, a Folland Gnat, and earned his first victory. He was awarded the Sitara-I-Jurat, Pakistan's Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 1966, Azam commanded No. 2 Squadron and instructed again in the T-37. In late 1966, he became an advisor to the Royal Jordanian Air Force and flew the Hawker Hunter with No. 1 Squadron. After only a few months in the region, he suddenly found himself at war as Israeli jets mounted a string of pre-emptive surprise attacks on Syria, Egypt and Jordan on June 5, 1967. The raids, which were part of the opening moves of the Six Day War, thwarted top secret Arab plans for an upcoming invasion of the Jewish state. As fighting broke out all along the border with Israel, the Jordanians quickly appointed Azam and his Pakistani comrades to the RJAF. Within hours, the foreign pilots were intercepting enemy jets in their Jordanian Hawker Hunters. During one of these encounters, Azam managed to bring down an Israeli Dassault Super Mystère while damaging another as a flight of the French-built jets struck the Jordanian air base at Mafraq. The crippled Mystère crashed on its way back to base.
The following day, Azam and his colleagues were hastily transferred to the Iraqi air force where they were similarly “deputized” into the service — the third air force into which the Bangladeshi-born flier was inducted, for those keeping score.
Within hours, Azam was in the air attacking a flight of four Israeli Vatour bombers and their Mirage escorts. During the raid, one of the Mirages destroyed two Iraqi jets, but Saiful brought the aircraft down, along with one of the enemy bombers. After scoring four kills in just two days (a remarkable feat), Azam was awarded an Iraqi medal for bravery and was inducted into Jordan’s Order of Independence.
After serving two more years in the Middle East, Azam returned to Pakistan. His four victories during the Six Day War give him the distinction of downing more Israeli aircraft than any other fighter pilot in history.
He returned to East Pakistan in 1969 and became a flight commander in a squadron flying the Shenyang F-6, a Chinese-built version of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19. Next, Azam became a flight commander at the PAF Fighter Leader's School. In 1971, he was arrested the day after Matiur Rahman’s daring escape in August, as were many other Bengali officers serving in West Pakistan. His repatriation did not take take place till 1974.
In 1977, he became Wing Commander and Base Commander of the BAF base at Dhaka, before retiring as a group captain, well before his fortieth birthday. In the 1980s, Azam twice served as Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority, and went on to serve his constituency in Pabna as an MP from 1991-96. During which he mostly realized politics wasn’t for him.
In 2001, the USAF bestowed Azam and 22 other fighter pilots from around the world with the “Living Eagle” title.
The Eagle has landed
This legend of the skies breathed his last in Dhaka on June 14. Immediately, the tributes started pouring in from far and wide. Mourning him on Facebook, Palestinian historian Osama al-Ashqar hailed Azam as a great airman.
"Our brothers in Bangladesh and Pakistan were our partners in resistance and defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque," the holy site in Jerusalem, he added.
The Palestinian professor Naji Shoukri posted on his Twitter prayers mourning Azam.
"Saiful Azam loved Palestine and fought for the sake of Jerusalem," said Shoukri, saluting him and wishing him God's grace.
Renowned Palestinian journalist Tamer al-Mishal lauded Azam, calling him "the Eagle of the Air".
“While paying rich tributes to Group Captain (retd.) Saiful Azam, the air chief acknowledged his heroic deeds during the 1965 Indo-Pak and 1967 Arab-Israel wars,” the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) said in a statement, quoting PAF chief Mujahid Anwar Khan.
Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan sent out a letter condoling the family. “The Group Captain remains a legend in Jordan, for his gallantry in supporting the Jordanian Air force during the ‘Six Day’ Arab Israeli War in 1967, when he helped defend the skies of Jordan, and we will always be grateful to him,” added the letter.
Even the Israelis acknowledged his passing with respect. Israel Hayom, the country’s most widely read newspaper, acknowledged the unmatched success he had against Israel in the air.
His Namaj-e-Janaja was held on Monday at around 1:45pm at the parade ground (Big Top Hanger) of the BAF Base Bashar. Bangladesh Air Force organised a fly-past in his honour. And yet despite it all, the question may haunt this nation for a long time: did we accord him the honour he so richly deserved, when he was in our midst?