A Lucky Pilot - Pakistan Aviation

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Wing Commander Lanky Ahmad passed away on October 12, 2004 at Lahore, Pakistan where he was born in 1924 and is buried in the Pakistan Air Force graveyard located just before the landing strip of the Lahore International Airport runway.

1949 to 1951
Transport Flying in Kashmir Operations

During the early fifties, the Dakotas had begun to give concern about their serviceability due to their long service and the lack of spare parts. An engine failure for an example, while flying on the Indus Valley route, meant an obvious catastrophe.

The following episode is an illustration of the poor condition of these aircraft and the lucky survival of two crewmembers and a foreign passenger after an engine caught fire in the Kashmir operations. It was one of the last sorties on a Dakota aircraft of No. 6 Squadron. I was authorised to fly from Chaklala to Gilgit with only air signaller Sgt. Quddusi, due to the acute shortage of aircrew in those days. My lone passenger was a Belgium Colonel of the United Nations, who was on an urgent mission. The aircraft cabin was loaded with over one hundred petrol jerrycans. While entering the aircraft the grey-haired, pale looking UN officer gingerly requested, if it was possible for him to sit in the cockpit as the passenger cabin was full of gas fumes. I had already decided to put him in the second pilot's seat which was lying vacant.

On the chilly morning, of 10th January 1950, the good old Dakota with the rear door open, took off with as much fuel in the cabin as there was in the four tanks of the aircraft. The weather was clear and the aircraft was flying at 9,000 ft. above the mean sea level, which was about 6,000 ft. over the Indus river bed. Just before Chilas, one of the engines started cutting with a few bangs. The Colonel grew paler and shouted, "Captain, there is a lot of smoke in the right engine". I was seriously contemplating to feather that engine and did not waste another moment. Luckily, despite my worst fears, the engine feathered quickly and the aircraft started to lose height gradually.

The signaller was busy sending out "Mayday" messages and asking the old Colonel to throw the Jerrycans out of the aircraft, to reduce the payload, was out of question. He could hardly lift one. At this point, the distance to Gilgit was approximately 80 miles, the rate of descent was four to five hundred feet per minute, but improving with the decreasing altitude. I considered the possibility of putting the aircraft down at Bunji air dropping zone, where a small emergency landing ground existed. It was made by the British for their light Wapati biplanes. At that time, the Dakota was flying 1,500 ft. above ground level and the risk of aircraft catching the fire was so great and imminent, that I had to make a snap decision to go for Gilgit which was still about 25 miles away. Soon after Bunji, there was a ridge which the aircraft just managed to clear. I had to take that action as the crash landing at the small dropping zone would have been disastrous.

Ten miles short of Gilgit airfield, the aircraft was only one hundred feet above the ground. With fingers crossed, I asked Gilgit control tower for a straight-in approach. At long last the aircraft reached short finals, when the wheels were lowered and a safe single engined landing was made. Upon investigation it was found that one of the cylinder-heads had sheared off and a new engine had to be installed. We were flown back to the base the next day to continue flying in the valley operation. It was a pity that no commendation was awarded for this unavoidable incident except that after some years an article was published in the PAF History Book as "Tired Work Horse".

Those were memorable days and it times the pilots were also well looked after at Gilgit by some senior officers and given the V.I.P. treatment. On may occasions, the late Sardar M. Aslam Khan the Political Agent, father of AVM Asif Khan used to send Maharaja Kashmir's horse named 'Moty' for me to ride and shoot some ducks or partridges, by the time the aircraft was being unloaded. Col. Ismail, the Commandant of Gilgit Scouts always entertained us extremely well in the mess, whenever we had to spend a night at Gilgit. By the way, the PAF aircraft were the only source of supply for them to get newspapers and fresh vegetables.

In those days, we took a lot of risks to continue supporting our soldiers by free and para droppings in the remote areas of Northern Kashmir. Once in the winter of 1949 Col. Aslam the Commandant made me fly over the Mintaqa Pass, 80 miles west of the famous Khunjarab Pass at the Chinese and Pakistani border. He said that his troops did not have ration for many days due to the heavy snowfall in the area. He sat with me in the second pilot seat to show the exact spot. We had to fly over 13,000 feet A.M.S.L. to reach the site. A wireless message had already been sent to the Platoon Commander from Gilgit, and he was waiting for us with the firewood signal, and the white bed sheets spread out on the ground marked as dropping zone at 11,000 feet.

It was a para dropping from 12,000 feet, the highest we could go without Oxygen and Super-Charged engines required for the tight turns in the narrow valley. The speed of the aircraft came down to near stalling at 100-110 miles per hour at that altitude. The aircraft behaved like a feather flying in thin air. Luckily with two straight in approaches from the opposite directions, the winter rations were para dropped. When we returned to Gilgit, I told the Commandant that it was the first and the last sortie by an old and faithful "Work Horse". He made us stay overnight in the Mess and sent a long report to the G.H.Q in the morning, about the dangerous and risky mission which we undertook to save our soldiers at the Mintaqa Pass. Incidentally, the four international boundaries meet in that area, Russia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. No letter of appreciation was ever conveyed to us for this hazardous mission, we were called upon to do.

In 1949 when the Indian fighters shot one of our Dakotas we started night operations. We used to fly the most difficult route of the world. With the rising full moonlight, we could see the shining river bed, lakes and the snow clad peaks. Later, we also carried out para Dropping with the Halifaxes. The Indian never came near the aircraft as it had gun turrets. Wing Commander Asghar Khan used to brief us at Risalpur for the sorties and he at times himself flew in the second pilot seat to encourage and kept our morale high. Till December 1953, I had logged about one thousand hours of flying. The highest number in the PAF in valley in Dakota and Bristol Freighter aircraft, out of which thirty hours were of night. For these operations all the aircrew were awarded the Kashmir medal with "mentioned in the despatches" and a brass clover leaf.

Once in 1951, I flew the Chief Pilot of Bristol Freighter Company in their brand new aircraft to Gilgit and Skardu. I intentionally flew low over the winding route in the valley. He let me do whatever I wanted to show him off, basically the type of flying we had to do, whatever I wanted to show him off, basically the type of flying we had to do, whenever the clouds base was low. He knew that we were in the process of changing over from the vintage Dakotas. They remained in service for over forty years and did a commendable task in the world, especially, in the Chindwin Operations over Burmese jungle in the Second World War. When I flew the Chief Pilot back to Chaklala, he praised the flying and the performance of the new aircraft on the most difficult and dangerous route. He also said that he would not do this kind of operation for any money with a pronounced stammer, with which he was badly afflicted.

Our aircraft did thousands of para and free droppings over the Astore, Khel, Shamshal and Misgar passes. We had a few fatal accidents in the valley, but that was expected as a part of life with that kind of flying. A wise pilot once said that if you don't want accident, never fly.

In April, 1950 one of fatal crashed in Indus Valley was of Flying Officer Ali, a good officer who came from a U.P. family. He flew with me as my second pilot a few times in the Kashmir operations. When he was due for a also flight in the Bristol Freighter I happened to screen him as the check pilot. I cleared and found him capable of flying as a Captain in the valley as I did for many others. After seeing him off for Gilgit, I flew back to my base at Lahore.

Next morning, the Base Commander Wing Commander B. K. Dass walked into my bedroom at the mess with a sullen face. He asked me, whether I had passed Ali for the valley flight operation. I said "yes". Then he asked me another question. How was he, as Captain of the Aircraft? Now, I guessed that something serious had happened to poor Ali. He then told me that he had crashed yesterday in the Indus River while returning from Gilgit. An enquiry was held and my statement was recorded first, as I had screened and cleared him. All the passengers and crew members died in the crash near Sazin, Kohistan area. What actually happened was that while returning he found the Valley blocked with clouds. He decided to fly low over the Indus River instead of returning to Gilgit for the night.

His father was a Veterinary Colonel in the Army who never believed that his son had actually died. He also visited the scene of crash and surrounding areas a few times, but could not recover his son's body along with all the others who were perished in the river. He came to see me at my office after two years when I was the Flight Commander of No. Six Transport Squadron. He asked me a number of questions about Ali, as I was very fond of him and responsible for sending him on his last flight to Gilgit. I was bewildered and surprised when he said that Ali was still alive as he had often dreamt about him in the mountains with some "Parees", beautiful fairies.

We carried out innumerable landing sorties at Gilgit and Skardu, where the runway and other facilities were not adequate and safe. I was one of the few pilots who never made any excuse for not flying at day or night in the valley. I used to wear a golden ring which was given to me by my brother when I joined the Indian Air Force. It had a verse from the Holy Quran, meaning "Is God not enough, for whatever He has created". Whenever, I was in trouble while flying I used to feel for the ring under the hand-glove and recited the verse. Once I misplaced it somewhere at Skardu. It was so cold that it just slipped out of my finger when I wanted to remove some warm clothes from the parachute hand bag, but luckily found it the next morning. Although, I never believed in any superstitions, that ring became my most precious possession and an article of faith. I unfortunately again lost it for ever in the Gulf while swimming at the Abu Dhabi beach. I continued flying without it for another year in 1980 as my faith in God was greater.

In 1951 Col. Ismail the Commandant took me to Skardu for an inspection trip. His fiancee Sheila, whose father was Doctor Deen, the Agency Surgeon of Gilgit also accompanied him. She was allowed by her Scot mother, who was everybody's Mummy, only when I promised to bring them back safe before the evening. After the inspection of troops the weather suddenly clamped in. I took off in a gale and found the Valley completely blocked and could not return. I had to fly very low over the Indus River. My crew and the couple thought that the wings were nearly touching the sides of the hill. Thank God we landed back in one piece at Gilgit. I would never forget the night, the way it was celebrated by the parents and the great Col. Ismail and his fiancee. It is a shame, that he would not be able to read what all I have written about him, he has left this world in 1995.

The first time I ever visited Naltar was for an Ibex shoot in 1949. Lt. Shah Khan, the uncle of late Mir of Hunza was my host. We had to ride small mountain ponies of the Gilgit area, as there were no jeeps in those days. We stayed two nights in the so-called 2-room old dilapidated dak-bungalow. In the morning we had to climb another four thousand feet to shoot the animal. Naltar's height is about 10,000 ft. After two thousand feet I gave in, but my host, kept on climbing like a goat and shot one female horns. The next day he again tired, but could not get the coveted 'Trophy'. We cooked and ate the dry Ibex meat for the next two days and nights, as no vegetables were available. On the third day, Shah Khan shot a 'Ram' Chokor which made a delicious meal.

In 1950, Shan Khan joined the Air Force and retired as a Group Captain. He was responsible for training the aircrew into physically being tough officers. Kala Bagh Rescue school near Nathiagali and the Naltar ski resort for the Air Force were mainly constructed because of his efforts. Both the places are now fully established with comfortable heated rooms and messes. I have been to Naltar twice for skiing in the Northern Area and for many visits to Kalabagh. My children, became very fond of these places. Masood my eldest son and his wife has recently shifted to Colorado from New York after resigning from the Bank jobs. Just because they love the high mountains and the terrain which is like 'Pakistan'. He has recently met a serious accident while ski-Jumping at the Copper Winter resort in Colorado. Thank God he only broke his right pelvis and is recovering fast after the operation.

Talking about old Dakotas I nearly had a near fatal accident in one of them while carrying out a single engine night landing practice at Mauripur Airfield in early 1951. On my final approach the live starboard engine suddenly cut and there was no time to restart it. I was three-hundred feet above the ground and there was no alternative but to belly land, straight ahead. I told my second pilot to retract the undercarriage and found the aircraft was luckily swinging to right towards the fair weather strip because of the low speed and no engine power.

The normal procedure for such emergencies in Dakota is to shift oneself to the second pilot seat and send the crew to the passengers cabin. The reason for this drill was that the left propeller always entered the Captain's seat after shearing off from its hub upon hitting the ground. It had already cut many heads into half in similar accidents. Apart from the fact, that I had completely forgotten for such an eventuality, there was also no time to change the seat. When the aircraft came to a halt the propeller blade was resting only one inch behind my head after piercing the back of the steel chair. It was the closest call to meet the Almighty. But perhaps He wanted me to live and write these memories for the benefit of future pilots.

To finish this article it will be appropriate to produce a letter from the late Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to the C-in-C Air Force on 1st January, 1949 after an attempt was made by Indian Pilots to shoot our aircraft in the Kashmir Valley.

"Due to the lack of fighter protection and the hazards of weather and other conditions you have faced, in continuing the airlift on which the people of Gilgit Agency mainly depend for the sustenance during these winter months. Under these conditions your work had been admirable".

To quote PAF history book on the subject:-
"With the pioneering exploits, the transport crew has set very exacting standards of daring and enterprise in the very first year of RPAF life. In the decades to come the example, would inspire the successors only to ever greater heights of courage and history."

I was lucky to serve my country in those difficult times.