By Maj Gen Waqar Ahmad Kingravi (Retd), 50 PMA
Editor’s Note: Maj Gen (R) Waqar Ahmad Kingravi was commissioned in 26 Punjab Regt in Oct 1974 and joined Army Aviation in the early stage of his service. After the retirement, he has settled in DHA Islamabad.
A few months ago, Brig Qasim (51st PMA Long Course) posted a group photograph in the Facebook of graduating officers and cadets, who had just completed Parachute Training and earned their wings. The photo pertains to Basic Airborne Course BAC-44 conducted from 22 Apr to 15 May 1974. This triggered nostalgic memories of the thrilling experience of doing Para jumps in 1974. Even before joining the Army, I used to admire the smart officers displaying their Para Wings on their chests. Once I was in Lawrence College, me and my close friend, Nadeem Iqbal Qureshi used to meet Old Gallians, Capt Jamal, who was from 10 Punjab and from the same unit as Nadeem’s father, and Capt Javed Meyer (Jogi) from 11 Baloch. Capt Jogi was the ADC to GOC 12 Div in Murree. We as youngsters were really in awe of these inspiring officers, especially Capt Joji, who was ruggedly handsome, smart and tough. He was a qualified paratrooper and used to wear a beautiful Para wing on his chest. Both Nadeem and I had decided to join the Army and emulate our fathers, who were also serving in the Army at that time. No other career came to mind as far as we were concerned. Thus we landed up in PMA in the winter of 1972 and started to realize our dream of becoming officers.
Obtaining a Para Wing by any member of the Armed Forces is a matter of great pride and satisfaction. As young cadets in PMA, it was all the more alluring and glamorous because it not only set you apart from other mortals, but was also a sign of your toughness and daring. The insignia of blue wings with a white parachute in between, gave a dashing touch to your uniform. The selection procedure for attending this adventure training was quite arduous and uncompromising. Only the ones in peak physical condition got selected after a series of demanding physical tests. We also knew that if we do not get selected as cadets when we are in our prime, it would be very difficult to do so once we would have to compete with volunteer officers from the entire Army, after passing out from PMA. Therefore I was determined to get selected the first time once the tests were conducted towards the end of First Term. Unluckily, I was not selected to undergo this course and only three cadets from our platoon were selected. They were Bahadur Sher Mahsud, Sultan Mehmood Satti and Habib Asim Bilfaqi. Once they came back with their Para Wings after the Term Break, we were really envious of them. Similarly, there was a sprinkling of colour in each platoon once we marched into the drill square.
Bahadur Sher was one of the most handsome, dashing, tough and charming cadets of our course (Unfortunately he died in a road accident a few years after being commissioned, may God bless his soul). Satti was perhaps the most hardworking, determined and dependable cadet while Bilfaqi was the naughtiest. We were slightly jealous of them since they had successfully earned their wings while we were still ‘wingless’, but at the same time we were also very proud of our platoon mates’ success. Our Drill Instructor Havildar Allah Ditta (AD) and Company Havildar Major (CHM) were also very happy to have these paratroopers under them because it not only gave added colour to the Platoon and Company, but was also a source of fierce pride in the success of their cadets. I remember, in the first drill period after the Term Break, Staff AD placed the cadets with Para Wings in the front row. Once the drill started and the CHM observed the absurd drill movements of Bilfaqi, he roared at AD, “Hide Bilfaqi Sahib somewhere in the middle ranks”.
Para Course was just one of the activities which were planned by the PMA Staff for promoting a sense of adventure and inculcate leadership qualities amongst the cadets. This was a wonderful way for channelizing the energies of the cadets during the Term Breaks, during which three out of four weeks were utilized for such activities. Deep Sea Diving, Glider Training and land tours to various remote areas were the other such activities. Some of the cadets who were home sick never volunteered for these activities while others who were used to living in hostels of institutions like Aitcheson College, Lawrence College, Burn Hall, Military College Jehlum, PAF College Sargodha or the Cadet colleges of Hassan Abdal, Petaro, etc, had no qualms in being away from their homes even during these Breaks. Of course there were volunteers from cadets of other colleges too. Since I had missed out on the Para Course in the first attempt, I volunteered for the Frogman training which was conducted by the Pakistan Naval Academy, with the thought that I will try for Para Course in Second Term. Unfortunately, there was no Para Course at the end of Second Term, so I had to contend myself with Glider Training at PAF Risalpur. Finally at the end of the Third Term I was selected for the Para Course and thus, came closer to realizing my dream of acquiring Wings. The other cadets from my Platoon were Ehsan ul Haq, Muhammad Ali and Ghulam Sarwar. Sarwar was as tough as a bull while Muhammad Ali was a real good long distance runner. Ehsan was also very tough, although a bit reserved. We reached Peshawar on a hot and sultry afternoon and were housed in a soldier’s barrack, because we were not officers as yet. Our Platoon Commanders were accommodated in the Officer’s Mess and we saw them in the mornings when all students were made to Fall-in at the Para School.
Army Paratroopers are different from civilian Para Jumpers. They are trained by Special Services Group (SSG) Commandos and undergo three weeks of intensive training specific to ensuring safe conclusion of Para jumps during day as well as night. In foreign countries even ladies make Para jumps with minimal training, but since this is the Army, the training is very difficult and tough. It is purposeful, realistic and thorough. At the end of it, you are not only supremely fit and confident, but also qualified to make these jumps in a professional and safe manner. In 1974, this training was conducted at Para Training Wing (PTW) located on Jamrud Road, on the outskirts of Peshawar Cantt. Later, in 1981, this Wing was upgraded to Para Training School (PTS). The Basic Airborne Course is especially run for non-SSG officers and cadets, while other courses are run for SSG Commandos by this institution. The Officer Commanding at that time was a young, tall and dashing Capt of SSG, Capt Sultan Habib. He was ably assisted by a team of extremely dedicated and well qualified JCOs and NCOs. The most famous among them was Hav Karam Elahi, who probably had the maximum number of Para jumps to his credit at that time. He along with many others was also qualified for HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) Jumps. These are basically free fall jumps from a very high altitude, in which the parachute is opened at a low height, so that the enemy does not detect the intrusion of these commandos into their territory.
I recall that most of these soldiers were extremely tough, rugged and awe inspiring. They were very courteous, but at the same time, no nonsense type of individuals. All students were treated alike, whether they were cadets or commissioned officers. Since BAC-44 was run specifically for PMA, we had Gentlemen Cadets (GCs) as well as some officers (Platoon Commanders) in this course. During the course, it was a novelty to see our fearsome platoon commanders sweating it out along with us. Platoon Commanders like Major Talat Saeed, Ahmed Nawaz, Zia and some others, were supremely fit. There was one officer who was not in prime shape, but he soon caught up with all of us. He was our respected Adjutant, Maj Sarosh Ghani (He is no more in this world. He died in Canada on 10 July 2014. May God Bless his soul). In PMA, it was a sight to see him riding on his white charger during parades. His roaring word of command would resonate in the entire Abbottabad valley. It was really impressive to see him conducting the Passing Out Parades.
The routine at PTW was really rigorous and punishing. The erring or naughty individuals were punished with extra work outs. A lot of camaraderie was inculcated and a buddy system was enforced in which pairs were designated, who had to look after each other, even to the peril of their lives. Loud slogans were encouraged and roars of Airborne boomed around the PTW once such courses were being run. Typically the Staff would shout, “What are you?” and everyone would vociferously respond, “Airborne” even while firmly riveted to the ground. For every minor infringement, the order “Get Ten” was given, which meant, get ten pushups while counting loudly. This was dished out lavishly to individuals as well as collectively.
The mornings used to start with a vigorous run which culminated in a sprint followed by Para PT. The training staff also had a wry sense of humour. I remember that once a student asked very innocently, “Staff, what will happen if our Main Parachute malfunctions and our Reserve Parachute also does not open?” The prompt answer with a naughty smile was, “Don’t worry Sahib. In case of this improbable eventuality, we will pick up your splattered body with spoons” Hardly an answer to stoke up your confidence! Anyway, the Para School had an excellent record and there were hardly any incidents of malfunctioning parachutes. The Riggers who packed the parachutes were highly trained and dedicated.
The training facilities at PTW were well equipped with different types of apparatus to impart training in various activities. The students were divided into groups and sent progressively to each. A lot of emphasis was made on making a correct Para Landing Fall (PLF). In this, you had to ensure that your feet are together, knees are slightly bent and after landing on your feet, you fall towards one side in a twisting motion where the side of your legs, thighs, buttocks and back absorb your fall in one smooth progressive motion. First we were made to practice this on the ground and then we were strapped up in parachute harnesses and suspended a few feet in the air, given a few swings and then released. If you did not make the correct PLF, you ended up with a big flop quite painfully on the ground. We did realize the utility of this silly exercise during the actual jumps once you see the ground come rushing up towards you at an alarmingly fast rate. This is because the basic T-10 Parachutes used for military jumps have a fast rate of descent as compared to civilian chutes, so that the paratroopers come down with minimum exposure to the enemy.
Another interesting exercise was dragging. The cadets who had qualified prior to us narrated exaggerated accounts of how PTW Staff torture the students by dragging them while tied behind jeeps. The actual story was quite different. Once there are high wind conditions, the parachute not only drifts away from the intended point of landing, but can also drag you over the rough ground after you land. Therefore, the jeep dragging exercise teaches you to quickly stand up while you are being dragged. Students are attached to harnesses and made to lie on a rubber mat. They lie on their backs and then the jeep pulls them. The student is required to throw his legs up across one of his shoulders, twist around in a manner that he digs his heels into the ground and stand up in the direction of pull, start running along in that direction and simultaneously, disconnect his harness from the jeep, which is depicting an air filled parachute. Some of the students do get slightly injured during this practice because one has to be very alert and agile to be successful in this.
The next interesting part is jumping from a Tower. In this exercise, students are required to jump out of a Tower which depicts an airplane. Their harnesses are attached to steel wires which run down from the Tower towards the ground at an incline. The height of the Tower is such that it gives a psychological barrier to the students, for whom it seems that they will surely hit the stony ground. However, like Bungee jumping, you are safe and after dropping a few feet, the harness attached to the steel wires arrests your fall and you slide down towards the ground. In the Tower you are required to stand in the door, shout your name and number loudly and then spring outwards as far away from the Tower as possible (In case of actual jumps, as far away from the fuselage of the aircraft as possible). Quite a few jumpers get the shivers once standing in the door. It was really amusing to see some, who would shout their name and number and then freeze in the door. After some persuasion by the staff, they would eventually jump out. In the case of actual jumps from the aircraft, this momentary freeze would overcome a few individuals, in which case a friendly push by the staff would help. Any delay in the aircraft would upset the jumpers who are following because one has to exit the aircraft as soon as possible, otherwise the jumpers would be scattered over great distances and even land up outside the drop zone.
Finally, the great day for actual jumps arrived and we were bundled off along with our parachutes to the waiting C-130 aircraft at Peshawar Airfield. The paratroopers are seated in the aircraft and before reaching the Drop Zone, various time warnings are given, e.g. ten minutes, two minutes, one minute and finally the order, “Stand in the door”, is given. Once over the Drop Zone, the pilot switches on the green light and the Jump Master taps the shoulder of the first jumper, signaling him to jump. The rest follow in quick succession. You do get butterflies in your stomach before the first jump, but the thrill of jumping out into thin air and the relief of seeing your parachute canopy opening up above you, makes it really worthwhile to go through this exercise. You are soon floating down towards mother earth lazily at first and it is a beauty to see so many canopies around you. You regain your confidence very quickly and start calling your comrades around you and shout out aloud in euphoria.
Very soon you realize that the ground is really rushing up fast to greet you and you quickly try to remember all the points taught to you during the last three weeks. Finally you land, with some individuals landing quite abruptly and limping off sheepishly. Then you have to gather your parachute, pack it in a bag and trudge off to the waiting vehicles, after which, the whole exercise is repeated. One has to make minimum five successful jumps in order to qualify for the prized Para Wing.
During our jumps, we saw a legend of SSG, Maj (Later Brigadier) Tariq Mehmood or TM as he was lovingly called by all and sundry. He accompanied us on the C-130 and we saw that he never wore a parachute, nor a safety belt even when the aircraft doors were open. He was always hovering around very close to the door during the jumps. This daring officer was a war hero with numerous gallantry awards including two Sitar-e-Jurats (SJs) and innumerable hair raising exploits during peace time as well in war. Later, I was quite proud to learn that Brig TM was the younger brother of my first Commanding Officer in 26 Punjab, Lt Col (Later Brigadier) Masud-ul-Hassan.
We were also told that we will undergo a night jump, but it did not materialize. Finally, the day came when we were awarded the much sought after Para wings in a small but graceful ceremony. We were awarded these wings by the Commander of SSG, Brig Ghulam Muhammad. There was no limit to our joy once we were finally able to display the hard earned Para Wings on our chests. One odd thing which we observed was that Commander SSG was not wearing his SSG insignia, the ‘Winged Dagger’. I believe that Gen Mirza Aslam Beg who had also served in SSG but he too, did not wear the SSG Wing. Perhaps they did not complete their Para Jumps?
Pakistan Army Blog (Retired Officers)
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