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.
Interview by Shehar Bano Khan Published in the "Frontier Post" in 1995
Only a few people can claim to have the honour of meeting the 'Father of the Nation', Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. And those few, at the moment, are either dead of forgotten to describe the joy of seeing Jinnah. At the age of 70, Wing Commander S. M. Ahmad, is a picture of health and discipline. Apart from a servant, his constant companions are the unforgettable memories as a pilot. Sitting in his living room, recalling the peak of his youth in the Pakistan Air Force, is a novel occasion for him. "Most of the people are not interested in the life of another person", says Ahmad regretfully. No doubt people seldom show interest in the frayed past of others. In Ahmad's case it is different. During his assignment in the PAF, he experienced some unforgettable moments.
Among the various incidents seasoning his career, he vividly remembers flying the Quaid to his last destination in Quetta. "Yes, I remember Mr. Jinnah's last flight to Ziarat. Luckily, I was a second pilot in that aircraft," a tinge of pride is evident as he speaks.
Wing Commander Ahmad joined the Indian Air Force in 1945 and retired in 1970. In 1951, he became the Air Force C-in-C's pilot. Flying dignitaries and VVIP's was one of his nominal credits. In the flying log book, he was awarded the 'Green Endorsement' by the then C-in-C of the PAF Air Marshal Asghar Khan, for flying 2000 hours in multi-engine aircraft, from 1951 to 1959. Without an accident. An astonishing 33 years of his life have been spent in aviation and logging about seven thousands hours of flying. Not in the least bit sounding arrogant, he said, "For my services in Kashmir, in 1948/49, I was mentioned in despatches and appreciated on record by the President of Pakistan."
In his library Wing Commander Ahmad suddenly gets up and walks to the Almiras full of pictures and a frame full of medals. A young Ahmad standing beside Ayub Khan, Colonel Nasser of Egypt, Mrs. Roosevelt and several other Heads of States. Nostalgia reflects from his face as he looks at the photographs, perhaps trying to visualise the various occasions when they were taken. Walking back to the chair, shaking his head, Ahmad fights hard to remain in the present. A rueful expression spreads across his face as he says, "It is difficult to imagine most of those people are dead. Time move so fast. It seems, only yesterday I flew the Quaid to Quetta to recuperate".
On July 26, 1948, S. M. Ahmad was detailed to fly a VIP passenger. But the destination was not disclosed to him, neither was the identity of the passenger. Being the second pilot, the flight was kept a secret till the last minute. Except for the Captain, none of the other crew members knew where they were heading and who the VIP passenger was. "At four in the morning, I remember a solitary figure wearing a combination of 'Chooridar pajama', an "Achkan' and a 'Rumi topi' covering his greying hair. It was none other than Khawaja Nazimuddin, the President of the Muslim League. He had come to see off the 'mysterious passenger' at Mauripur airfield, which was also the first Air Headquarter building of the Pakistan Air Force. Little did he know, the VIP passenger was Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the figure in 'Achkan' was the next Governor-General of Pakistan. A feeling of anticipation was welling up inside me about the identity of the passenger. Khawaja Sahib relieved me of my curiosity and asked at what time the Quaid's aircraft will take off for Quetta."
Taking a deep breath, Ahmad squints his eyes to look back at the passage of time. "After the briefing and clearance from the control tower when we went to the aircraft we were surprised to see a temporary arrangement of white bed sheets had been hung up on either of the door". Apparently, all necessary measures were taken to conceal the identity of the ailing passenger. Even the hanging of the white bed sheets was so designed to provide access to the ambulance between the make shift screen and the entrance. Employment of utmost secrecy was surprising, keeping in view the condition of Mr. Jinnah. "I did not see any dignitary on the tarmac, not even Khawaja Sahib, who was perhaps the only one to know about the departure," noted Ahmad surprisingly. Jinnah, leader of Muslims of India for a separate homeland, was ushered into the aircraft devoid of any ceremony.
Understandably, the whole affair was organised to avoid the anguish of Pakistanis. But a lack of proper observance of protocol to Jinnah came as a rude shock to Ahmad. Not even a single Air Force Officer was present to see the Quaid's last flight to Quetta. Only a few Air Force ground personnel were present to remove the purdah at the entrance to the aircraft. "We went to the cockpit. I hoped at that time the Captain would confide to us, but he too was secretive about who our sick passenger was."
In order to avoid turbulent weather, Ahmad and the crew took off for Quetta with the rising of sun. "We were instructed not to enter the passenger cabin during the flight and not to use the toilet situated at the rear of the aircraft." To reach the toilet from the cockpit, the crew had to pass the area where the 'mysterious passenger' was lying on a stretcher surrounded by his medical attendants and personal staff.
On arrival at Quetta, the same kind of arrangements were provided for the illustrious passenger by the army personnel. As soon as the aircraft landed, a screen was placed on either side of the ambulance which rushed to the entrance. When all was clear, after about 15 to 20 minutes, Ahmad and his crew were allowed to leave the plane. "We came out of the aircraft and realised that our great passenger was indeed the Quaid. In a desperate attempt by his doctors to cure the disease of tuberculosis, Jinnah was taken to Ziarat". Till today, Ahmad remains mystified about the secrecy of Jinnah's flight to Quetta.
"Much later I came to know, while returning from Quetta, the ambulance carrying the Quaid to the Governor-General's house, broke down in the foul smelling area of Keamari, inhabited by the fishermen for drying fish in the sun. All I can say is, I wish I could have seen him on the flight to Quetta." Wing Commander Ahmad sits up to say something, but the rush of emotions prevents his speech.
That is not the end of Wing Commander Ahmad's life as a PAF pilot. It was a beginning of his career. "There are innumerable incidents and if I start relating all of them, you could perhaps publish them as my memoirs!" exclaims Ahmed giving into a hearty laughter. Before taking a trip to the memory lane, he insists on a tea break. Putting aside the teacups, his face lights up as yet another anecdote flashes through his mind. "Do you remember the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan? Oh! Excuse me. You were not even born at that time," a sheepish grin shows his unimpaired sense of humor despite the age.
On October 16, 1951, Pakistan was wracked by yet another tragedy: Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan was assassinated. "I remember that fateful day very clearly. It was about 7 pm, I was summoned to the Commander-in-Chief's office for an urgent mission." The acting C-in-C, Air Commodore Muhammad Asghar Khan asked Ahmad if he had heard the news of the assassination of the Prime Minister. Seeing his blank expression, Asghar Khan told him that the PM was killed at Rawalpindi and his body had to be brought to, in the C-in-C's aircraft. "I got airborne at 9 p.m. No other co-pilot or auto-pilot was available, so I had to do the job on my own. "Judging the mood of the nation, the night was dark. Except for the stars and the occasional late night glitter of a few en route towns, nothing was visible. Ahmad's aircraft landed at Chaklala airfield at 1.15 a.m. "The ADC to the Governor-General was waiting on the tarmac and asked me how many seats did the DC-3 have. I told him it could accommodate eight VIP seats and two sleeping cabins" Ahmad was informed, a change of plans which had taken place.
"The Governor-General, Khawaja Nazimuddin had decided to travel in his aircraft, whereas, the PM's body would be sent in his Viking. Khawaja Nazimuddin boarded Wing Commander Ahmad's aircraft and Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar, a Minister in Liaquat's Cabinet volunteered to accompany the coffin, as a mark of respect for the dead Prime Minister. The Viking took off at 2 a.m. And soon thereafter, my aircraft got airborne. You can't imagine how tired I was at the prospect of flying manually for another four hours". Karachi was covered in thick fog, visibility was at its minimum for landing. "The Viking had already landed, ahead of us, at 5.30 a.m. I had the option of diverting the flight to Nawab Shah, an alternate airfield a 100 miles away, but decided against it, and descended the aircraft safely at 6.30 a.m. Light was so bad, that I could barely make out the acting C-in-C waiting on the tarmac to receive the VVIP."
"Usually, the crew of a VIP flight leave their seats after the dignitaries have alighted from the aircraft. So, after what I considered a reasonable waiting period. I along with my two crew members left the cockpit." Crew of DC-3 were taken aback to find the Governor-General still in hi seat talking to someone. Upon seeing a quizzical expression of Ahmad's face, one of the crewmembers told him, the man Khawaja Nazimuddin was talking to, was Secretary General Chaudhry Muhammad Ali. Evidently, he boarded the aircraft after the entrance door was opened by the ground personnel. "We, therefore, retreated our steps into the cockpit and waited for another 15 minutes before the G.G. disembarked." Khawaja Nazimuddin went on to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. But a year and a half later Ghulam Muhammad, the succeeding G.G., ousted him from power.
"Had Khawaja Sahib not agreed with Ch. Muhammad Ali that fateful morning, to become the Prime Minister, he might have remained the G.G. for life" Muhammad Ali Bogra, the Pakistan Ambassador to U.S.A. replaced Nazimuddin as P.M. Wing Commander Ahmad's library gradually and partially sinks into darkness. Through the window of the room, the sun is bidding farewell to the afternoon.
"It's time for my exercise," he gets up swiftly, regardless of his age. Old habits die hard, just the way old memories are impossible to shake off."