Conceived as a Cold War interceptor for France, the Mirage has fought with the Pakistan Air Force for half a century. We spoke to former PAF Mirage pilot Fahad Mahsood about flying and fighting in what is now one of the oldest fighter-bombers in frontline service.
Describe the Mirage in three words...
Gorgeous, Lethal, Challenging
What was its role, and was it successful?
In the Pakistan Air Force, it has had a diversified role from Mach 2.0 air-to-air intercept fighter to air-to-ground bombing. It has shown its prowess in all roles, the event of note being its role in Operation Swift Retort of 27th February 2019 when it successfully delivered a H-4 SOW (Stand-off Weapon) against Pakistan’s eastern neighbour.
What’s the best thing about it?
Tactically, its innate ability to fly steady at extremely low altitude, at high speeds even with ground-based thermal currents in hot summers. In the long term, with correct maintenance practices, its airframe has unlimited life. So, it can fly ’till one wants it to fly. The PAF recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in service since 1967.
...and the worst?
Lacks slow-speed manoeuvring capability, dog-fighting, vis-à-vis contemporary fighter aircraft. Well, it was never made to be in a turning battle anyways. ‘Energy Maneuverability’ is its forte’ in air-to-air engagements and its good at what it does. Come in fast, point & shoot with high instantaneous turn rate capability, if no joy/unable, extend maintaining speed, gain separation/distance from the adversary, pitch back in oblique, re-enter the fight!
What was its biggest achievement?
The Mirage III/V, being a design of the 50s has stood the test of time. Not to mention the excellence poured in by engineers and technicians in keeping this beast alive and kicking. It has been the backbone of PAF for more than half a century. From strategic to tactical operations, you name it, it has done it for the Force… and done it well!
How would you rate it in the following
A. Instantaneous turn
Best in 30 to 40 degrees turn from linear flight path due high wing loading.
B. Sustained turn
Same reason as above, ‘high wing loading’ meaning increased induced drag generation with even small control surface deflection as well as relatively low thrust-to-weight ratio does not enable to it be a good dog-fighter in a turning battle.
C. Climb rate
Depends on the load carried. In the air-to-air configuration, it is ‘decent’ but cannot match present-day fighter jets.
D. Ride at low-level
This is where it beats everyone, IMHO!… The jet just doesn’t pay heed to any updrafts nor downdrafts… smooth as silk over land… and over water, even better! 😉
E. Crew comfort
Mirage is an ‘old-skool’ jet. Crew-comfort in dreary humid monsoon months did not mean a lot to designers in France in the 1950s. So air-conditioning is negligible on the tarmac during the summer, but in winters it is as cosy as sitting by a fire in a log cabin. I’ve performed ADA (Air Defense Alert) when the weather and the geopolitical situation were as hot it gets.
What are the biggest myths about the aircraft?
Until the end of the 1973 Arab-Israel War, the gleaming ‘David-Star’ Mirage-IIICJ had been considered unbeatable’ by middle-eastern Islamic countries. In came Flight Lieutenant Sattar Alvi (Retired Air Commodore) – a PAF member who flew for the Syrian Air Force with callsign Golan-8 on his MiG-21 – and shot Captain M Lutz of the Israeli Air Force out of the sky. The myth of the invincibility of Israeli Mirages was broken then and there. It only goes going to prove the old adage, ‘the gun matters, but the man behind the gun matters more!’
Tell me something I don’t know about the Mirage…
A smart, sleek and slender technician is always kept in the maintenance team by engineering officers to physically enter shock-cone laden, side-intakes of the Mirage to witness and identify the condition of the first few compressor blade stages for any cracks, bird hits or IOD (Internal Object Damage). I could not believe it till I saw it with my own eyes! 😊
What should I have asked you?
Until when is the PAF going to fly this ‘hunk of junk’? Honestly! I cannot say because it is playing some vital roles in the National Security matrix. That being said, the up-and-coming JF-17 Thunder is rather quickly taking over those duties with the correct amount of en vogue (and necessary) risk management. So, maybe another few decades, give or take a few! 😉
Advice to potential Mirage pilots?
- Completely comprehend slow-speed handling characteristics of the weapon system.
- Never-ever leave things to chance. Prepare missions well by reasoning through information on the jet ‘dog-houses’. Synthesize whole sortie into a mental model.
- Never go below the ‘magic number’ of 300 knots in combat. Backside of the power curve is a no-no.
- When in doubt, DECIDE and ABORT!
Which other types have you flown?
Short diversification. MFI-17 Mushak, MFI-395 Super Mushak, T-37 Tweety Bird, K-8 Karakoram-8, T-38C Talon (with USAF), Cessna 150, Cessna 172 to mention a few.
Is the Mirage still a viable warplane today?
It is very much a ‘player’ in the doctrine of the PAF as it was demonstrated on Swift Retort ops of 27th February 2019 skirmish with India. In air-to-ground role… YES! In air-to-air role… NO!
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What was your most notable mission?
That’s a very good question! Next question?!… ‘I-can-tell-you-but-then-I-would-have-to-kill-you!’ sort of a query… Let’s just say I have had my fair share of ‘exhilarations’ & ‘experiences’ that any Mirage operator can dream of doing.
What enemy aircraft types would it likely face in war and how would it fare against them?
My threat perception is based on the deep study of regional geo-politics & air power milieu. I would say stand-off weapon capability is the Mirage’s ‘go-to’ role for PAF, maybe it will be for tactical or strategic effect. Hence, the Force will not be willing to enter the hornet’s nest with this trusty ol’ steed and expose it to HIMAD (HIgh to Medium Air Defense), SHORAD (Short Range Air Defense) nor THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense).
16. What systems or weapons did it lack?
Contemporarily, ‘avionics’ is the biggest difference amongst various generations of fighter jets. Mirage is rather rudimentary a machine that does not hold too much gadgetry under its hood. This has its plus side, no EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) bomb nor emanator can disrupt its operations. But it does make it a more challenging fighter to fly for the pilot in the hot seat.
Arsenal-wise, the obvious choice of weapon is first-shot capability BVRAAM (Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile). With it, the ‘first-see’ competency is a pre-requisite. Hence, a pulse doppler, PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) or better yet an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar would be nice! I know it’s going a bit overboard, but for the glory of the Mirage… ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE! 😉
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Describe life on ADA
We were doing ADA (Air Defense Alert) duties from a Main Operating Base in central Pakistan in 2008 after the infamous Mumbai attacks. Some Indians had proclaimed that Pakistan was involved. It was the month of October and dense fog had settled over the whole area. There was near-zero visibility. We were always keeping an alternate base for recovery because our then base commander (now a retired three-star) had said, ‘I won’t stop you from taking-off but do not come back to land due to the bad visibility conditions. So, we were always keeping another base in the north as an alternate for recovery. The plan was simple, whoever gets to the runway first liaises with ATC, lines-up single ship and take-off. The others will follow. There were many cockpit standby’s, even start-ups but alas! No scrambles. There were eight jets doing ADA. Good Times!
How do you rate the cockpit?
For a conventional cockpit, ergonomics was never the strong point. But all ‘information’ was within reach and dials well-placed. The ‘kidney-pad’ was always a relief and needed to be settled well while strapping up especially for the ‘long’ sortie.
What were the weapons and what was it like firing each? Were they effective?
It is safe to say, they were not ‘Smart’. So, it was a lot of pilot ability at play, rather rudimentary firing cues enable a little to use gadgetry on-board to engage the bull’s-eye.
General-purpose bombs, Durandals, CBU’s etc. But the best of the lot was the H-4. It was accurate yet the man behind the gun was literally flying the stand-off weapon to the target.
Should the Mirage be retired?
With the JF-17 Thunder taking-over responsibilities and over-taking the Mirage technologically, it is inevitable but a specific timeline cannot be given. In my personal opinion, it has paid for its money’s worth.
What do the F-16 pilots think of the Mirage community?
Both have their specific roles to play in their own arena. That does not mean there is no rivalry amongst the Viper and Mirage clan. It is always a ‘healthy’ competition between the two when in Dissimilar Air Combat Training. But on the ground, we are all on the same team.
Did the aircraft have a nickname?
No… Mirage is a Mirage!… The oldest one was nicknamed ‘Baba’ (Tail Number 101)
How reliable are the aircraft?
The reliability rate varies with Mirage’s version-to-version but engineers and technicians from the maintenance team have done a bang-up job keeping these birds airworthy even in this day and age.
What should I have asked you?
What is the FCF (Functional Check Flight) profile for the Mirage?
Highest of altitudes at highest of speeds to slowest of speeds to mid-air engine switch-off and relights in the air… One of the most demanding yet enthralling missions in the long list of profiles it conducts.