Peshawar, Early 1950s, No. 9 Sqn & the Formation of Red Dragons

by Fred Isaacs

At that point in time the entire RPAF fighter air defense rested on the shoulders of number 5, 9 and 14 squadron pilots based at Peshawar. The wing was commanded by W/C Garred Cole seconded from the RAF

In January 1950 those of us from 4GD assigned to fly fighters reported in to Station Peshawar and were spread thinly among the three undermanned squadrons.  P/Os Kabir Khan, Fred Isaacs (writer) ‘Jan’ Janjua and M.Pir. were posted to 9(dragon) Squadron was commanded by S/L Bertie Mirza with F/L Abdul Rahim (AR) Khan the Flight Commander. Making up the rest of the complement were F/Os Trevor Gotting 2GD, and Ghanni Khan3GD, a grand total of eight pilots. From time to time Risalpur flight instructors would keep their fighter skills current by flying with the squadrons on a temporary basis. F/Os MZ (Mitty) Masud and Pat Callaghan flew with 9 squadron from time to time.

Once you have met your CO and fellow pilots, cleared in to the Station, and were settled in quarters the first priority was to buy a bicycle, the mode of transport for most personnel. The daily routine was breakfast then biking down to the flight line to start the days flying. We jousted on our mounts, jumped over hurdles and flew bike formations on the way down.  At about ten the tea wallah was around for the break. When summer temperatures made aircraft skins unbearable to touch all flying operations were started and ended earlier in the day.  It was then quiet time indoors until tea time and the cakeman making his rounds again. His cakes tasted so good. He allowed ‘tick’ without reservation knowing the pilots were good for it and knew just when to appear with his book on paydays to collect.

Hashim and Azam Khan were the squash and tennis professionals who looked after the lawn tennis courts and squash courts… These facilities were well used in the cooler evenings. The standard of squash in the Mess was high due to their influence. Most of the Mess staff were also good players. Sometime later a fund was started to fund Hashim’s first participation in the world squash championships staged in London, UK. all the officers contributed and were rewarded with a win by Hashim.

The  fighter-bomber Wings main objective was to be ready for any hostilities and to this end the squadrons were in constant training in battle formations, practice weapons delivery and watch and ward duties. The well used air-to-ground range at Jamrud, a few minutes flight time away provided facilities for air/ground strafing, rocket firing and dive bombing enabling young pilots to gain valuable expertise in these exercises. At this time there was not an air-to-air firing range established, air to air attacks using gun cameras was the next best thing.

For watch and ward the squadrons rotated through the forward airstrip located in Fort Miranshah which was manned by the Tochi Scouts who provided a security perimeter. The aircraft hangers were located within the fort gates as was the messing and living accommodation. Physically lower in elevation than the surrounding area it was not uncommon during the rainy season to be woken up at night with water levels right up to the beds forcing evacuation.

The aircraft were wheeled out on the tarmac outside for daily flight operations. From here watch and ward flights were carried out with live operations from time to time in close air support of the Tochi Scouts in their actions against the trouble maker of the time, the Faquir of Ipi.

No 9 squadron flight line at Miranshah  NWFP. Visiting P/O Hyat Khan handing P/O Jan Janjua a practice bomb  to be mounted on his Tempest fighter-bomber.

[Picture Copyright: Fred Isaacs]

At Miranshah there was also a weapons range co-located on the airfield. The locals were avid metal scavengers. After each air to ground live firing pass they would rush out to pick up the empty shell casings then dash back under cover before the aircraft had completed a circuit and was in position for another run..

Live 500 pound bombing exercise by No.9 Squadron in 1950.

L to R: P’Os M. Pir, Fred Isaacs, F/L ‘AR’ Khan, S/L ‘Bertie’ Mirza, F/O Trevor Gotting, F/O ‘Mitty’ Masud and  P/O Kabir Khan. P/O Janjua was flying.

[Picture Copyright: Fred Isaacs]

Not shown in the picture above was P/O Ghanni Khan. He was killed one day performing a split S dive at high altitude, his Tempest running into high speed compressibility effects that resulted in a loss of control with his aircraft breaking up. These effects were first encountered by WW2 Spitfire pilots diving during the air battles over Britain. This drove home to us recent arrivals that apart from the thrills, fighter operations were a very serious business.

In July the squadrons were equipped with the new Hawker Fury fighter bomber a development of the Hawker Tempest. With a more powerful engine, a five- bladed prop and improved technology the Furies had far better performance and were even more reliable. Besides receiving multi scratches from sharp metal edges in the wartime produced Tempest cockpit we grew to expecting engine failures in these old aircraft. An engine failure took the life of our first course fatality which occurred early in his conversion training in Risalpur, another caused  Pir to make a forced landing in the Peshawar area but he was unhurt. Fate caught up with him later though when flying a Fury, he pulling too tight a turn on final approach and stalling in killing himself. The Fury had a higher wing loading.

In July AR Khan was promoted to S/L becoming squadron CO. F/L Saeedullah Khan was posted in as Flight Commander. Whenever the squadron was in Miranshah we got to expect game birds for breakfast courtesy of AR , he was an avid hunter and partridge and pheasant varieties abounded in these parts. A favored flight time of his was the late evening sorties enjoying the spectacular sunsets in the hills and valleys around Miranshah  when it was cooler and less bumpy.

As each GD course graduated from Risalpur the squadrons strength increased. One  veteran  pilot ‘Boss’ Ahmad rejoined the Air force and came to 9 squadron.

Some names remembered were Durrani, Akhtar,  Latif and Zulfiquar.  We were looking at some nine or ten pilots. Some were lost in accidents. One went in during the annual air display in Karachi  getting ‘target fascination’ on an air to ground strafing run. Another needlessly killed himself showing off a slow low roll over his home town. We lost Kabir, a passenger in a Bristol Freighter crash into a mountain.

Every year to celebrate Independence Day the whole wing would fly down to Karachi to participate in an air Display then back to Peshawar. Training aircraft from Risalpur were also there tasked with displaying their formations and flying skills. The fighter bombers displayed their accuracy in strafing, rocket firing and bombing targets set up in the in-field area within easy sight of the spectator stands.

Mess life in Peshawar in those days included dinner and dance parties. In addition to seconded RAF personnel there was a sizable contingent of Polish air and ground crew, both officers and other ranks who had signed up for service with the RPAF. Alcohol was available in all the Messes. A group of us younger pilots formed the ‘Ragmop’ gang singing the song ragmop at the doors of the more friendly married officers who would invite us in for drinks. The Peshawar Club also held functions which were well attended. On leaving the function it was a must stop at the tikka kebab vendor’s stall parked at the gate. He did a roaring business selling us hot tikkas which were so tasty, especially after a few drinks during the night.

Left:  F/O TH Gotting on liaison Harvard at Fort Miranshah.

[Picture Copyright: Fred Isaacs]

A Harvard in camouflage colours was on the wing inventory based in Peshawar which was used for conveniently carrying single VIPs like Political Agents, Army senior officers etc. on trips to various destinations like Wana, Chitral, Miranshah, Fort Sandeman and other locations which had landing strips and closest to the places they had to visit in the execution of their responsibilities. It was flown generally by the more experienced pilots in the wing.

In April ’51 S/L Zaffar Chaudhry replaced AR as squadron CO. A squash enthusiast he soon organized a squadron team and we would fly to Risalpur to challenge the college team. When the squadron was in Miranshah for a spell Zaffar broke the tedium by running track and field events on a squadron “Sports Day’ with participation by the Tochi Scouts as well. W/C Garrard Cole and A/Cmd ‘Barney’Keily also attended.

Air Cdre Keily (RAF) presenting a prize. S/L Chaudhry at right of picture, F/L Saeedullah sitting in whites at centre.

[Picture Copyright: Fred Isaacs]

It can be fairly said that the man who pioneered formation aerobatics in the PAF was Zaffar Chaudhry. An excellent aerobatics display pilot himself in 1951 he made it happen. Informed that the outgoing CinC, AVM Atcherly (RAF), also known as a keen aerobatics pilot in his younger days, would be coming to Peshawar on his final farewell visit Zaffar started the ball rolling. Choosing pilots only from within the squadron he assembled, trained and successfully flew the first four-place formation aerobatics team demonstration, a showing never done before on the sub-continent.

Putting F/O Trevor Gotting, an experienced squadron pilot in the lead Zaffar took the right wing and Saeedullah took the left in a three-plane formation. They practiced over the next few days to a comfortable degree performing loops, barrel rolls, steep turns and semi-stall turns. It was time for the slot to be filled to form the basic box. Since both Zaffar and Saeed had been my instructors at Risalpur who had given me my basic flying skills I was the logical choice, a known quantity.

To ease my apprehensions Zaffar first checked me out in the dual-Fury flying the slot position behind the other two; I got the hang of it finding it not as difficult as I thought it would be. The next step was four-plane close-formation aerobatics, the historic moment or moments for the Air Force as the four Furies took off and climbed out in box formation then came back over the airfield. We went first into steep turns then barrel rolls and finally loops keeping tight station and being watched by our peers on the ground.  The day was the thirteenth and Trevor joked about that being an unlucky number.

The big five bladed prop disc of my Fury was just a few feet away from the other three airframes and one had to be handy with the throttle and steady with the stick to match leads attitude and accelerate or decelerate to maintain position pulling ‘G’ while ignoring the topsy turvey earth/sky spin outside. My job was helped considerably by the steady station keeping flown by the two experienced wingmen Zaffar and Saeed. Thereafter we practiced almost every day for the rest of the month of April.

The ‘Red Dragons’ sitting in their box-formation positions on the tarmac outside 9 Sqn crew room – April 1951. Lead Trevor Gotting, right wing Zaffar Chaudhry, left wing Saeedullah and box Fred Isaacs.

[Picture Copyright: Fred Isaacs]

I was given a bad fright one practice day. We had completed a barrel roll and rolled out at the bottom quite low. At that point in time Trev in Lead thought Zaffar had called on the radio for another roll. In fact it had been S/L Johnny Rollo (Co 14 Sqn) in another aircraft watching the show from afar and not appreciating our low altitude. With us hanging on Lead gained as much altitude as he could before banking into the maneuver. Once around over the top inverted and rolling out right side up I got a shock to see my Fury, the lowest in the formation, almost tickling the tops of the trees. Needless to say our procedures were tightened up especially as to radio calls and minimum altitudes.

The big day came on 2 May 51 when the team gave a low level formation aerobatics display for the outgoing CinC Atcherly and also witnessed by the whole Station Peshawar and Group Headquarters personnel. After the event  Zaffar received the CinCs  personal congratulations with pride for the squadron. To capture the team performing sometime later FS Hussain, who was then the Flight Commander of 5 Sqn. flew in another Fury mounted with an oblique camera to take a picture of us inverted at the top of a barrel roll over the historic Khyber Pass. That photo made it into the British ‘Flight’ magazine (shown following).

‘The blue sky beneath me and green earth above’, “Red Dragons” over the Khyber area.

[Picture Copyright: Fred Isaacs]

During the summer reports circulated that new jet fighters had been purchased from the UK and were arriving in Karachi. Soon postings to the newly activated No 11 (jet) fighter squadron were received at the squadron. Gotting was the first followed by Durrani Janjua and Isaacs.