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.
An Interview by Ken Scar Published in the Mountain Mail of Colorado, U.S.A. on 28th June, 1996.
You never know who you're going to meet in this town. Here we are living 8,000 feet up in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, hundreds of miles from the nearest shopping mall, and a million miles from the metropolis way of life.
For instance, I was recently invited to a barbecue party at my friend Masood Ahmad's house. Masood (pronounced "Massoot") is probably the only current resident of Buena Vista who is a native of Pakistan, which is interesting, but Masood also operates an unusual business here after his long banking experience in New York. He runs guided trips for people deep into the Himalayan mountains, to a place called Concordia. Concordia is a valley where several of the world's highest mountains bury their roots, including K2, the second-highest and arguably the most terrific mountain on Earth. It so happens that my father is on one of those adventures right now. At the very minute I am writing this, my Dad is in Pakistan trekking up one of the most majestic glaciers in the world, led by one of Masood's guides. You may be asking yourself, what is a man like Masood doing in Buena Vista, of all places? That's another question I've asked myself many times this year.
Now Masood, obviously, is a very fascinating character, but I actually met somebody even more engaging than him at his barbecue. It was Masood's father, retired Wing Commander Lanky Ahmad, who was here all the way from Pakistan to visit his son. When I arrived at Masood's little get-together I found everyone out on the back porch, gathered around Mr. Ahmad, their attention riveted to him as he spoke softly and eloquently about his life. Turns out Mr. Ahmad flew DC-3's and Bristol Freighters for the Pakistan Air Force for nearly 20 years, including five years as a V.I.P. pilot for the rulers of Pakistan. In that time, he was also ADC to no less than four Heads of State, and had the incredible opportunities to know many of the most influential people of our time. It didn't take me long to figure out why the gathering was centered around this man.
"This is incredible!" I said to Mike Bullock, the esteemed editor of this very paper, who was standing next to me at one point. "Are you going to do an article about this guy? I think people would enjoy reading about him."
"I like the way you think, Ken," Mike said. "Write it up and have it on my desk as soon as you can. We'll give you a byline and everything. Two weeks from Monday would be fine."
And so the next Monday I found myself sitting down to do my first bona fide journalistic interview with Commander Ahmad. We talked for nearly two hours, and he held me spellbound the entire time.
Kings, queens, presidents, cultural celebrities ... most of us only read about such people, but Mr. Ahmad, or 'Lanky' as he is called, knew them all. Pakistan is one of the most remote countries in the world, but as a V.I.P. pilot for the Pakistan Air Force, Lanky came to know everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth, to Pierre Cardin and Arnold Palmer. Eleanor Roosevelt, especially, became fond of him and he talked warmly about her during my time with him.
in 1952 Mrs. Roosevelt visited Pakistan during one of her UNICEF world tours. She stayed for ten days, and Lanky was assigned as her personal pilot and assistant. On one particular flight, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Lanky if it would be possible to see Nanga Parbat, another one of the most spectacular mountains of the world that rises from the floors of Pakistan. Lanky said that he knew that area very well, had even flown supplies over it at night during the first war with Indian in 1948. He warned her that they would have to fly at a much higher altitude, and would be 45 minutes late for arrival at the Walton airport, from where she was flying to New Delhi, India. She said that would be fine, and Lanky invited her to sit in the cockpit with him so she could have a better view of Nanga Parbat and the other snow-capped mountains with a community as they flew over. She was very much thrilled by Lanky's gesture, and invited him to visit her in the United States whenever he could. On her return to New York, she sent him a letter of thanks and a signed portrait of herself in a beautiful silver frame, which is still one of his most cherished possessions.
Unfortunately, Lanky Ahmad did not make it to the United States until 1964, on a US-AID tour as a guest of the Federal Aviation Agency. Eleanor Roosevelt had died two years earlier. Luckily, he remembered the name of Mrs. Roosevelt's secretary, Maureen Corr, and decided to call her from Washington D.C. She was very happy to hear from him, and arranged a meeting with James Roosevelt, the eldest son, at the Senate House. She also took him to Hyde Park, where F.D.R. and Eleanor are buried, and afterward they had dinner with John Roosevelt, F.D.R's youngest son. He also saw the family archives, where all of Eleanor's "My Day" columns, which she wrote everyday until her death, were kept. The Archivist showed Lanky an article in which Eleanor had written about her trip to Pakistan. He was thrilled to see that she had mentioned him by name in it. "I felt proud and happy that at least the name of a Pakistan Air Force Officer would always remain in the Roosevelt Archives," Lanky reflected. "For many years I wondered why I was given such a wonderful treatment by that family, twelve years after I flew Mrs. Roosevelt over Nanga Parbat. I am sure, now, that it was because she liked me and my country. The people of Pakistan honored and admired her while she was there. She went to India as soon as she left Pakistan, and they didn't even give her government plane! Can you imagine that? She had to fly coach!"
Lanky has memories of another first lady, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Eleanor Roosevelt. Her name was Jacqueline Kennedy, and she arrived in Pakistan in November of 1962. There was a big crowd waiting to cheer and welcome Mrs. Kennedy, who was very elegantly dressed, as usual, and very obviously the product of a high-society lifestyle. "There was a big difference between those two ladies," says Lanky, who happened to be the Base Commander at the airfield where she landed. As he was shaking her hand he noticed something a bit peculiar about her. "She had a strange twitch in her eye," he says, "and one of the people in the crowd passed a loud remark in the Punjabi language, meaning 'she's winking at us!' I was glad that she did not understand our vernacular language!"
I wonder how many people in this world are able to compare the two greatest First Ladies, first-hand, like Lanky can? He's also met Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prime Minister of China, Chou-en-Lie, several Presidents like Egypt, Turkey and King Jordon and Iran and more princes and princesses, I'm sure, than he can count. As we talked, Lanky showed me picture after picture of him standing next to one important figure or another. Many of the men in those pictures have since been assassinated, some of their countries don't even exist any more. Picture after picture fell to the floor, tossed aside by Lanky until they made a pretty impressive pile at my feet. I couldn't help feeling a bit alarmed by that pile. What if I accidentally spilled my coffee on it? What if somebody carelessly stepped on one of those truly fascinating photos? Everyone of them was a historical treasure, as far as I was concerned. But Lanky was not so concerned about them. I think the memories of those moments were much more important to him than the photos. The things he's learned in his seventy years, the peace he feels, and his continuing journey are all that truly matter. That is the Pakistani way. It is no wonder that Eleanor Roosevelt was so taken by that place.
When I left my interview with Lanky, my mind was swimming with images and recollections of Kings, Queens, Kennedy's and Roosevelt's. I felt like I had come just a step away from meeting those people myself. It was a very rewarding two hours.
And all of this from a sweet and gentle old man whom I met at a back porch barbecue party right here in Buena Vista. At one point I mentioned to him that his incredible, Forest Gump-like life should be put down in print, and indeed Lanky is writing a book about his life. It is titled "A Lucky Pilot" Memories of Retired Wing Commander Lanky Ahmad. A simple title for a simple man. I can't wait to get a copy.
After our interview, the most unanswered question was still gnawing away at me: "What crazy chain of events led Mr. Ahmad to be here, in Buena Vista, of all places on Earth?"
Lanky's answer was quite simple. Masood loves the terrain of Colorado which is like our own country. "Ken, the first thing I taught my children was that they should strive to be good citizens of the world, not just good citizens of Pakistan."
It is a lesson that his son, obviously took to heart. When Masood was old enough, he left Pakistan and plunged into the turbulent currents of a global life. Somehow, by-and-by, he landed here in our small community, made a bunch of friends like me, and then one day his father came to visit and now there I am writing about it with a signed portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt given to him sitting on my desk in front of me. Personally, I think that's pretty darned cool.
Masood have a lifelong association with the Himalaya and Karakoram. His father, a pioneer of Pakistan Air Force explored the unchartered valleys and flying routes through these awesome mountains soon after his country came into existence in 1947.