An Old Nowshera resident cherishes childhood memories of nascent Army Aviation.
By Maj (R) Aziz-ur-Rehman (15 War Course)
Back in 1953/54 when I was just 9 or 10 years old boy, our school bus ‘Pick-up and Drop’ point for going to our school (Convent School, Risalpur) was near the Assistant Commissioner’s office and courts on Nowshera – Mardan Road. Nowshera was then a Tehsil Headquarters and was elevated to District Headquarters level in later years. On our return from school, on odd occasions, after exiting the rail–road bridge on river Kabul, we would see small propeller aircraft either landing or taking off from the ground on our left. This ground was neither a park nor a sports ground. Only cattle grazing activity was seen sometimes or may be golf was played but this sport was not popular at all then as it is these days. Sometimes, if the sortie was not in the air, the windsock hoisted at the ground would indicate that the aircraft were likely to arrive. Children, irrespective of their age or gender, are highly fascinated by aircraft, static or flying or for that matter doing some aerobatics. And nothing can be more exciting than witnessing aircraft from close quarters, landing or taking off at an unexpected place, without any protocol / security cordon.
A few 180 Pounder tents used to be pitched near the place where these aircraft were parked, to accommodate PAF airmen (I think in those days the technicians in Army Avn were taken from the PAF) brought as the ground support staff. We, the inquisitive lads, were told by these affectionate and kindhearted airmen that the aircraft, the support staff and the pilots (called Air OPs), all came from Rawalpindi. These noble souls, seeing our curiosity and interest in the aircraft, would tell us that the aircraft were two-seater AUSTER (Later in 1957, replaced by L-19 (Bird Dog), the mainstay of our Army Aviation fixed-wing aircraft). I still remember the names of two ground crew; Talib and Sarwar, though I don’t remember their ranks.
For starting the plane, the airman would shout “contact” before cranking the propeller; the word “contact” being repeated by the pilot in the cockpit. If the plane started; well and good, and if not, the airman would say “off ” repeated by the pilot “ off “. I do not remember whether the L-19 also entailed the same fatigue for starting as AUSTER would do.
The Air OPs used to be Capt Saleem Ullah, Capt Vajid Ali (who later expired in an air crash in Rawalpindi in May 1953), Capt Muhammad Zaffar Khan, Capt Mahmood (who was considered by these airmen as hot-rod pilot, usually taking small run-up for take off), and Capt Naseer Ullah Babar who later became our war hero of 1965 and 1971 Wars and rose to Maj Gen rank, would have still risen higher in army rank, if not dragged into politics by then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When Capt Vajid learned from the ground crew about my passion for the aircraft, he was kind enough to give me a joy-ride in the AUSTER. After a lapse of 60 years, I still cherish that thrilling and fascinating flying experience over Nowshera and river Kabul.
(Editor: On 2 May 1953, Capt Vajid Ali returned to Chaklala from a flying mission (Dhamial Base was not operational at that time and the Air OP set up was stationed at Chaklala Airfield). He flew over his house at Connaught Road. His wife was standing on the rooftop and saw him do a slow roll. Unfortunately, his aircraft crashed four miles from his home. He was taken to the hospital, but he could not survive the consequences of this accident. This was the first fatal crash of Army Aviation.)
When some aircraft used to be still airborne, spending more time in the air than scheduled, the ground support staff would refer them as KITES, that were still to land. It later transpired on us that the aviators call the aircraft KITES in their jargon. The Air OPs would conduct or direct the Artillery fire, while carrying out aerial observation or surveillance of the area. This small team of Air OPs in the early 1950s, were the pioneers of the Pakistan Army Aviation who had laid the foundation of this enviable Corps that was to perform multifarious tasks in diverse roles, terrain, adverse operational conditions accepting all types of challenges, making it comparable to any old and advanced Aviation Corps of the world.
1. Nowshera has the honour of fostering great scions as aviators which include Sqn Ldr Ghani Akbar, SJ of Nowshera Kalan (commonly called paar Nowshera by the people of Sadder or Cantt), Maj Gen Naseer Ullah Babar, AVM Bahar ul Haq, Col Shah Alam (26 Cav), whom I owe much as he is my benefactor.
2. Whereas AUSTER and later L-19 were aircraft attractions from the Army side in Nowshera Cantonment, single-engine twin seater propeller aircraft HOWARD was the basic trainer, after glider, in PAF Academy Risalpur. These trainer aircraft also used to fly over Nowshera, Risalpur and the surrounding country producing ace fighter pilots. The blazer coat badge of the cadets read the motto “ I will rise ” and one in Persian (A couplet of Allama Iqbal), which read; “Sehra ast kay Darya ast, tahay baal-o-paray ma ast”.
3. The Commandant of PAF Academy was Air Commodore Das. Later, Air Commodore O’Brian also served as Commandant in mid 1960s. Sqn Ldr Edward Carrapeat served as fighter pilot instructor in the PAF Academy. His brother, John Carrapeat, was English newsreader from Radio Pakistan. Members of our minority communities have rendered great services for the country and it was shocking to learn the remarks of Director Artillery, whom Lt Gen (R) Tahir Mehmood Qazi had referred in his obituary article on Brig JJK Tajik (“Remembering Col Tajik”).
Editor: It is requested that any old Aviator having photo of Col Muhammad Zaffar Khan (not Col Zafar Ullah) may please send to the Editor’s email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for inclusion in this article.
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