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.

August, 1951
Crash Landing of a Halifax Bomber

This is a story of days gone-by about an aircraft in distress. A story, which lies in some dormant segment of the minds of a crew of seven. Their undaunted will and the untied determination enabled them to survive through this extraordinary ordeal. Those of us who had the opportunity to fly the old four-engined Halifax Bomber, surely cherish the thrill and challenge of it. This was an aircraft which also played an important role in the Second World War and made a valuable contribution towards the evolution of "Air War Fare".

Soon after Pakistan became independent in 1947, the Pakistan Air Force acquired a few of these second-hand aircraft from RAF. Flying became an adventure for some of the transport crew, who were selected to be in the Halifax Squadron. This was not just because of the thought that these aircraft were one of the most powerful bombers which were extensively deployed in the last World War. But also the fact, that by the time we acquired them they were so worn-out that flying them even in the peacetime training role was an obviously hazardous undertaking.

The mission was the first light, bombing sortie on 23rd of August, out of the Air Force Station Mauripur to the Jamrud Range near Peshawar, about 800 miles away. It was conducted under the guidance of a check bomber pilot Flt/ Lt. Mansoor Shah. The bombing was to be followed by flag showing landings at Risalpur, Chaklala and Lahore by me, before returning to home base the same day. The take off was scheduled at 2 a.m. for which the formalities were completed the previous evening. The weather was good and the flying conditions were ideal. The plane took off on schedule and after three hours, Jamrud Range was sighted, which showed its readiness to receive us with a green flare. At down, after a successful live bombing exercise, we landed at our Alma-Mater, PAF Risalpur for refuelling. Took off again, without Poly Shah who was posted there for the instructional duties on Harvard aircraft.

On our final approach at Chaklala when we lowered the landing gear, a red light came on in the cockpit, indicating that the left main wheel had not been locked down in its ultimate position. Aborted that approach and went around to try again, but as the gear was lowered the light re-appeared. A close fly-past over the Control Tower confirmed our fear. The left wheel was dangling half way down unlike the right wheel which was locked down properly. Climbed to a safer height, to carry out the emergency procedure, which unfortunately did not work. In the meantime, got into further trouble because the right and the tail wheels refused to retract.

This was not a happy situation to be in, because we had a reasonable chance of making a safe belly landing with all the three wheels retracted. Under the circumstances there were two options open to us, either to abandon the aircraft by parachuting or to try and make a controlled crash landing on one wheel. Although the crew sensed the emergency of the situation, they did not show any anxiety. Before I could explain the dilemma to them, we were directed to fly back to Risalpur so that the emergency landing procedure could be conducted at that airfield. Meanwhile, the ATC and the Air Rescue Services were alerted. The choice of that airfield was made by Air HQs Mauripur, which had a vast open flat grassy area around the main concrete runway. However, the final decision whether to bail out or to crash land, was left entirely with the crew. Upon reaching Risalpur we were again unsuccessful in locking the left wheel down. By now it was clear that the hydraulic and pneumatic systems, for both the lowering and retracting the gears were not working properly.

The flight maintenance crew opened the hydraulic pipelines under the cockpit floor and poured all the available liquid which included water, tea and coffee into the system. When all this liquid had been hand pumped, some of the crew members had to leak their own fluid in the thermos, this procedure was actually tried out during the last World War with some success in building up the hydraulic pressure. We then held an intercom conference, it was unanimously decided, to leave the decision upon me to take any action that I considered appropriate. We decided to stay together until the last moment, as none of us had any bailing out experience. Although a controlled crash landing was also risky. It however excluded the possibility of a huge unmanned aircraft hitting even the sparsely inhabited areas, or killing some innocent people in the fields.

Once the decision was made we got busy preparing for the crash with three hours of suspense to consume the excessive fuel. During this long ordeal, each crew member again tried his hand at getting the crippled wheel down and locked. We also had enough time to consult the aircraft handbooks and other technical publications which were luckily available on board. All the possibilities and eventualities were fully discussed and visualized. The instructions from the experts on the ground were meticulously followed, in case something might have been missed. When every effort failed, I decided to hit the right wheel a few times on the runway, to force the left wheel to go forward and lock in its correct position. This too was not successful.

The plan, for executing the crash landing, took shape gradually. Risalpur by this time became fully prepared and equipped for the crash of the heaviest aircraft in service in those days. Meanwhile, two extra crash tenders of the latest type arrived from Peshawar. I was directed to touch down at a particular spot on the grassy side of the runway, from where the travelling distance after the impact had accurately been calculated. A few crash tenders and doctors with ambulances were positioned, as close to the site keeping in view to the safety limits. By this time, a huge crowd consisting of the Air Force Academy personnel, Army officers, soldiers of the garrison and hundreds of others had got collected. Their curiosity was aroused after watching a huge aircraft hovering in the sky for three hours. The crew of Halifax, could clearly see all that commotion on the ground below as compared to the cool efficiency on board. Fears in any, were not visible or shown.

The emergency drill was thoroughly rehearsed. The flight engineer, Flying Officer Rehani was the real hero in this trial and tribulation. He was the busiest man on board, who kept a complete watch on all the instruments, and monitored carefully the consumption of fuel from the eight tanks. Because of possible danger of explosion and fire, the crew had rehearsed to evacuate the aircraft speedily, soon after the aircraft came to a halt. Each person knew his particular station and the manner of exit. At last, the long ordeal came to an end and the flight engineer announced that only ten minutes of fuel remained. The ATC was informed and a normal landing circuit was set up, just as it would have been done on return from a routine bombing sortie.

The plane touched down on one wheel on the fair weather strip, exactly at the stipulated and marked spot with a white line. It rolled straight ahead for three hundred yards on one wheel then the left wing fell and touched the ground, the entire plane started swinging to the left. This was aggravated with screeching noises, as the right undercarriage and the left wing began breaking off from the main body of the aircraft. The plane swung almost a complete 180 degrees to its direction of landing, and the stress was so great that it broke the fuselage into almost two equal halves. The huge clouds of dust rose which made breathing difficult. The moment the shattered aircraft became stationary. I shouted to the crew to jump out. Everyone followed the instruction after quickly releasing their harnesses. I was of course, the last one to exit from the roof hatch; which was expected from a captain of aircraft.

Through gradually clearing dust, created by the impact and once safely on ground, we looked for each other. The flight engineer could be seen standing at some distance from the crashed plane, where he had made a quick dash for his safety before the foam from the crash tenders was released to extinguish any likely fire. Soon after, Rehani suddenly keeled over and fell flat on the ground. This was the most unwarranted finale, because he seemed perfectly fit and active with his sleeves rolled up, throughout the difficult period which we all spent together. The spectators were clapping and jubilant at our safe escape from the crash, but became suddenly silent upon seeing this belated casualty. Medical staff rushed to his assistance and carried him off on a stretcher, but before they could get to the nearest ambulance he sprung up on his feet. All set and ready to proceed for yet another bombing sortie.

This certainly was a great survival experience for the entire crew and we surely kept the PAF flag flying, although not in the same aircraft. We were always ready for more thrills and the risks which were a part of the Air Force flying, especially in those exciting and early days of its existence. The entire crew deserved a letter of commendation or some award which unfortunately was not given due to some reason or the other. Presumably, in those days the aircraft were considered more precious than the pilots and crew by some senior officers who were not active on flying duties.

I remember an incident when Group Captain Noor Khan, the Director of Operations at AHQ Mauripur arrived unannounced, while I was just going to taxy out a Halifax. He entered the cockpit and ordered me to sit on the second pilot seat. I knew that it was his first flight on the bomber. I told him that I was not an instructor and it was not right for him to sit at the Captain's seat as he never had any dual instructions. He would not listen and took off with my assistance after two attempts to keep the aircraft straight on the runway mainly due to miss-manipulation of four engines throttles. Luckily, we landed back safely. Only Group Captain Noor Khan could take such kind of unauthorised risk. When my C.O. Dogar came to know about this incident he used a "four letter word" for allowing him this irregularity, to sit at my seat. Dogar reported the case to the Station Commander who forwarded it to the Air Headquarters with strong adverse remarks. Group Captain being the Director of Operations, had his explanation that it was a surprise check to see the standard of training of the Bomber pilots and its crew.

The Halifax Bombers were primarily used for training transport crew. They looked spectacular while information of six aircraft on Independence Day Fly Past in the early years of Pakistan Air Force. We also flew them for real operation in the Kashmir Valley for supply dropping role when the Indian aircraft shot one of our unarmed Dokotas in 1948. Once the Halifax Bombers were deployed in the warzone, the Indian aircraft were not to be seen anywhere near, as the bombers were equipped with the nose and rear gun turrets.

I am glad I did get a chance to take part in the aerial War with India during my service career in 1949.