Assembly of the Pioneers

The month was August 1947 and amid the chaos and carnage that attended the birth of Pakistan, scattered among the millions of trans-migrants on the move, was a select band of men making their determined way to their new homeland. They were select because destiny had already singled them out to write the opening chapters of a saga of courage and honour that would have no parallel in the evolution of the new born state. Numbering a little over 2,000 in a nation of 75 million, they were to found an institution which would become the pride of the nation because, within their own lifetimes, it would one day help snatch the fatherland from the brink of destruction.

These were the stalwarts who would man the new nation’s air defence machine, the Royal Pakistan Air Force. They would display a rare degree of resourcefulness, improvisation and perseverance in the fashioning of their instrument of war. They would scoff at shortages of means and manpower, and would take their handful of worn out aeroplanes to forge a dynamic flying team that would become the forerunner of a powerful 20th century air force. They would set the finest examples of courage and honour for their descendents to follow, and in so doing the latter would emblazon their institution’s name on the national canvas in letters of gold.

Now these pioneers converged upon their assembly points in Pakistan . They came from the farthest reaches of the subcontinent to congregate at Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Karachi, Dhaka . They came singly, in twos and threes, in small groups; some with their families, others with scarcely a handful of wordly possessions. Many of them had had harrowing experiences in road or rail journeys fraught with communal bloodshed; some had lost their all on the way, A few were lucky enough to get airlifts into Pakistan through the good offices of the Royal Air Force. Some had suffered personal tragedies in their families as a result of communal strife in their hometowns in India , others had made great sacrifices of property and possessions in order to migrate to the homeland of their choice. At this moment all were driven by the overriding urge to reach the reassuring security of an air force community.

Who were these men and what were their antecedents? Uptil now they had all been members of the Royal Indian Air Force and had been serving at a score of RIAF stations all over the subcontinent. They were flyers, engineers, administrators, instructors, accountants, doctors and a whole range of other specialists who go into the making of an air force. Many had fought in WW II against the Japanese in Burma; a few were just out of flying school or some other training institution.

At their destinations, some of them soon encountered old friends others searched vainly for a familiar face, but drew comfort from having arrived safely in Pakistan . In the turmoil and confusion pervading the entire country, it was difficult for them to begin to think where to start — but start they must and soon – the parting taunts of some of their erstwhile Indian Air Force  colleagues were still ringing in their ears: “You’ll be lucky if your Pakistani air force lasts six months!”

In the vanguard of the contingent were the officers, the leaders who would constitute the hierarchy of the fledgling air force. Among the pilots, there was Mohammad Khan Janjua who, by virtue of being the senior most, could aspire to becoming the commander of the RPAF, but whose excess of ambition would soon be his downfall. Then there were Haider Raza, Maqbool Rabb and Abdul Rehman; all of whom had held senior command or staff appointments in the RIAF — Raza had flown the largest number of sorties of any RIAF pilot on the Burma front; all three in turn would reach the penultimate position as second-in-command of the RPAF.

And there were Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, both destined to become commanders-in-chief of their air force and, between them, to give its foundations a permanence which nothing would be able to threaten. There were Mohammad Akhtar, ‘Steve’ Joseph, Khyber Khan, Abdul Qadir and Eric Hall, each of whom would in turn serve as deputy commander of the RPAF. Then came Rahim Khan and Zafar Chaudhry, who would also earn the privilege of taking the helm of their fighting machine but whose tenures would be attended by tragic upheavels.

Asghar Khan briefing pioneering team at Risalpur – 1947.

[Picture Courtesy: DPR, PAF]

With them were Masroor Hosain and ‘F S’ Hussain — the one who would become the personification of a ‘complete officer’ before losing his life in a cruel flying accident; the other who would become a living legend as a prince of pilots but whose fear of being grounded would drive him to concealment of a fatal ailment and lead him to a sad, untimely death on a hospital bed.

Following them were Saeedullah Khan, Rab Nawaz and ‘Mick’ O’Brian, who would be the last three of the pioneers to become deputy commanders of their air force. And right at the bottom of the list was the junior most pilot of them. all, ‘Mitty’ Masud who, though not yet twenty, had already been court martial led and punished for breach of flying discipline; he could thus be said to be an archetypical product of the Indian Air Force’s flying training system’ of the time.

Behind the pilots came the navigators, two of whom, Kamal Ahmed and ‘T S’ Jan, would reach the elevated rank of air commodore during the course of their endeavours towards the building of the RPAF. And there was air gunner Alfred Jagjivan who would before long narrowly escape death in the fledgling air force’s first encounter with enemy aircraft.

Then there were the engineers, pitifully few in number and with so little experience, led by ‘jerry’ Khan, a pilot turned engineer; he was flanked by Mohammad Mahboob, ‘Chacha’ Siddiq and Khalilur Razzak who would have the unenviable task of keeping the infant force’s dilapidated aircraft flying despite the absence of spare parts and proper tools. These hard core ‘Tech Engg’ officers were ably supported by narrower specialists, among whom was ‘Musti’ Khan who would play a prominent role in promoting ‘electronics’ awareness among RPAF hierarchy.

After the engineers came an army of administrative officers, outnumbering even the flier. At the head of this contingent was Mofazil Alahdad who would become an air commodore in the process of participating in the development the RPAF. And there was Mahbub Piracha who would not only reach that rank but earn the privilege of heading the administrative branch of his air force.

Then there were meteorologists Hidayatullah and Abdul Qadir who would enact the opening rounds of a long drawn out battle with the civil Met department to bring weather forecasting facilities up to mid-20th century standards. And there was equipper Nazir Rishi whose association with military aviation went further back than any of the pioneers, to 1934 when he joined an RAF stores depot in Drigh Road as a civilian.  There was Riffat Mahmood who would earn distinction of becoming the first pioneering doctor to head the PAF’s medical services; and then educationist Asghar Hussain whose singular services would be permanently enshrined in naming after him of the academics trophy at the PAF’s flying training college. And finally there was Mohammad Aslam, the sole legal expert on the rolls.

These pioneers and their colleagues, numbering 2,332 officers and men in all, would now set about bringing some semblance of order and organisation into the confusion of partition surrounding them, at least in so far as the RPAF was concerned. They had little time for leisure for the very act of achieving an independent homeland had also conferred upon them an enemy who for long years would remain committed to undoing their cherished achievement. And the first confrontation with that enemy over the Kashmir dispute was already brewing. Did this band of pioneering stalwarts have the initiative and enterprise that would be required to tackle the immense problems facing them? What were their credentials for taking up this extraordinary challenge?