In 1971 I was a young Captain flying PIA’s Fokker F-27 aircraft based at Chaklala, Rawalpindi. It was a small base with five aircraft operating to the airfields of Gilgit, Skardu and Chitral. Our mission was to support the building of the Karakoram highway (KKH), and also service passenger traffic. We supported the KKH construction with two aircraft in cargo configuration and the rest were for passengers. We also operated a daily flight to Peshawar and Lahore, and one for Karachi via Multan and Quetta. Though a long flight, it was a popular for the crew as they stayed overnight in Karachi.
In November when war seemed imminent, the Chief Pilot gave me a confidential file with the war plan for PIA aircraft at Chaklala. Each aircraft was assigned a team of pilots, engineers and mechanics. I was the youngest and the junior-most Captain on base and was surprised (and I must admit: flattered), to be appointed a team leader. In case of war, we were to ferry our aircraft to Zahedan in Iran where arrangements were being made to receive and base us.
On the 2nd of December I operated the flight to Karachi and the next morning, when I picked up the newspaper from under my door at the Hotel, the headline screamed out at me. The Indian Air Force had shot down three F-86s in East Pakistan. I found out later that one of the pilots shot down was Squadron Leader P.Q. Mehdi, an acquaintance who would one day command the Pakistan Air Force. The paper also carried the news of the creation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Little did I know that years later, I would be a member of the team that raised the Emirate Airlines and later be its General Manager Flight Operations. While working with the Emirates, I met the Indian pilot who had picked up P.Q. Mehdi after he was shot down and captured. He was all praise for P.Q.s’ deportment, his conduct and his courage. He said he and others who met P.Q. were full of admiration for his conduct in captivity and considered him the epitome of an officer and a gentleman.
Back to the 3rd of December: when I arrived at Multan, the Station Manager ran up to me and in a highly agitated state told me contact the head office in Karachi. I wondered if I was in trouble but when called, Captain Mehmood, the Chief Pilot, informed me that the War Plan had been activated and I was to immediately deplane all passengers and cabin crew and fly to Zahedan. The team assigned to me would arrive on the aircraft flying directly from Chaklala. The Captain of a Karachi-bound F-27 standing at the ramp was to do the same but its pilot Captain Siraj Ul Hassan was clueless about the War Plan. Though he was senior, he decided to let me be in charge and accompany me to Zahedan. All unnecessary equipment was off-loaded and the fuel tanks were topped-up. Once airborne, we switched off all cabin, anti-collision and navigation lights, and near Kalat I was reassured to hear the transmissions of the other aircraft from Chaklala who were only 45 minutes behind.
The remaining aircraft landed in perfect sequence exactly three minutes apart and Agha Khorasan gave me another bear hug. Our subsequent operations from Zahedan were greatly facilitated by this larger-than-life individual but years later I heard that he was tragically killed during the Iranian revolution
At Zahedan we were greeted by Agha Khorasan, the Airport Manager, a large immaculately dressed man in very smart flannel trousers, blue blazer and striped tie. He welcomed me with a bear hug and asked how many aircraft were following. I told him minimum five but could be more. He said he was short of staff space but would direct the parking and asked me to man the control tower after he familiarized me with its layout. The irony was not lost on me. I, a Pakistani pilot controlling air traffic at an Iranian airport. The remaining aircraft landed in perfect sequence exactly three minutes apart and Agha Khorasan gave me another bear hug. Our subsequent operations from Zahedan were greatly facilitated by this larger-than-life individual but years later I heard that he was tragically killed during the Iranian revolution.
During the war, our main task was transporting crates that the Iranian Air Force ferried to Zahedan, and delivering them to airfields in Pakistan. We also patrolled Pakistan’s coast, though our weather radar was useless for spotting hostile ships. Sadly, one F-27 from Karachi base on a similar mission was shot down – apparently after it had spotted the Indian flotilla that attacked Karachi. However, it was not known who shot it down because all the crew along with the naval observer on board perished.
The supply missions were flown at night without navigation aids and with a total blackout below there were no lights to guide us. The aircraft were refueled while the supplies were off-loaded and we were out of Pakistani airspace by dawn. Fortunately, there was never a mishap but that is not to say that there were no hairy moments.
On my fifth or sixth flight heading to Chaklala, we routed over Kalat, then turned northeast for Zhob and Mianwali. The idea was to stay far from the Indian border and approach our destination from the safety of the airspace on the west. This was all done by deduced reckoning at which we had become proficient during the previous sorties and were relaxed. We arrived over Kalat on time and settled on our northeastern course. Since there was a blackout we could see no lights below. With no navigation aids or a navigator to calculate winds, we used the upper level meteorological data from the forecast charts and the wind date in the pre-flight briefing, to calculate and correct drift. The winds here were almost always westerly and only varied in speed and we set course with a westerly wind correction, that is nose to the left of track. Unknown to us, the wind that night was easterly and the correction should have been nose right. Proceeding comfortably, we turned at what we thought was Zhob and continued towards Mianwali. A bright moon had risen and we were beginning to see the major features on the ground. Our concern at this stage was calculating where to descend from our safe altitude when we arrived east of the Indus.
However right in front of us shining in the bright moonlight was a range of snow covered peaks. It took us time to realize that this was the Safed Koh overlooking Parachinar and we were way off west of our track, perhaps in Afghan airspace. We immediately turned due east and within minutes were challenged by Pakistani radar and were told that we were being tracked as a hostile craft and on the verge of being intercepted. This had a salutary effect on our state of attentiveness, to say the least. Crossing the Indus, we dropped down low as the moonlight was bright enough to recognize landmarks and landed safely.
The fall of Dhaka and the surrender cast a pall of gloom and we sat silently in groups. All we wanted was to return home as soon as possible, particularly those who had family in the armed forces or in East Pakistan. A few days after the war began, the Air Chief’s F-27 had been ferried to Zahedan by three PAF officers. We offered them a ride back to Chaklala but they said their orders were to immediately catch the train departing for Quetta – and ended up stuck on trains for the entire duration of the war. Meanwhile, a signal arrived instructing me to ferry the C-in-C’s F-27, AP-ATW to Chaklala.
I had never flown north of Gilgit and on the outward leg, I identified and marked prominent landmarks on our charts to help us navigate back. The bearings from K-2 – which towered like a lighthouse – were a great help
We landed in the middle of the night. As we emerged from the aircraft we were challenged by an extremely aggressive sentry with a stentorian “Haaalt! Whogossthaar”. Funnily enough, this welcome lifted my spirits. I was back in the Pakistan I knew and loved. AP-ATW was the same Fokker aircraft that crashed in the Cherat hills killing the Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir and his entire team.
The aftermath of the war continued for a few more days. The Fokkers at Dhaka departed just before the runway was bombed and flew to Kunming in China. They then flew all the way to Hotian south of the Taklamakan Desert, from there they were to be flown over the Northern Areas to Chaklala. The Dahaka-based crews were not qualified for this leg and Captain Shaukat Ali and myself were sent to guide these boys home. I had never flown north of Gilgit and on the outward leg, I identified and marked prominent landmarks on our charts to help us navigate back. The bearings from K-2 – which towered like a lighthouse – were a great help.
However, the Fokkers at Hotian were so heavily loaded that it was impossible to fly them over the mountains, and we mapped a route over the Khunjerab Pass into the Hunza valley and on down the Indus valley to Chaklala. We took-off on a bright cloudless day, with Captain Shaukat Ali leading the formation and I was the sheepdog herding the rest from behind. We needed to ensure no one got lost in this totally unfamiliar terrain. A wrong turn could have been disastrous but we all landed safely in Chaklala and for us the war finally came to an end.
Note: The author flew for PIA for the next 18 years as well as holding operational posts. In 1985 he was deputed to assist in the establishment of the Emirates and joined it permanently in 1987. His final appointment was General Manager Flight Operations and he retired in 2011 with over 25,000 flying hours of flying. He is now settled in Michigan USA.