Saiful Azam might not be the highest scoring fighter ace of the jet age. That honour goes to Israel’s Giora Epstein (17 victories between 1967 and 1973). 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 1941 and raised in India, Azam left home at 18 to enlist in the Pakistani Air Force (PAF).
After learning the fundamentals of aviation, Azam was sent for advanced air combat training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Following his stint in the U.S., the junior pilot was posted to his native Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) as a military flight instructor.
When India and Pakistan went to war over the disputed Kashmir region in 1965, Azam was sent to Punjab where he flew Canadian-made PAF Sabre jets. Sometime during the 17-day conflict, which was fought between August and September, aircraft from the squadron were jumped by a flight of British-built Indian Folland Gnat interceptors. In the ensuing melee, the 24-year-old pilot managed to bring down one of the attacking aircraft. The victory was widely applauded in Pakistan considering that the Indian Air Force outnumbered the PAF more than 5 to 1. Azam was awarded the Pakistani’s Star of Courage medal and given command of his own squadron.
In late 1966, Azam was dispatched to Amman as a technical advisor to the Royal Jordanian Air Force. 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 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. It was the third air force into which the Bangladeshi-born flier was inducted.
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.
Following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the veteran fighter jock joined the air force of his newly-independent homeland. In 1980, he retried from the military and pursued a career in the civil service and later became a politician for the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party.
Azam’s four victories during the Six Day War give him the distinction of downing more Israeli aircraft than any other fighter pilot in history. Yet, according to Pakistani sources his contributions and those of other volunteer fliers of the Arab Israeli wars have been more or less forgotten. Ironically, Azam was recognized by the United States Air Force in 2000 as being one of the world’s 20 greatest living flying aces.