Letters from my brother – The Aviator
By Tariq Iqbal
Yeh Hawaon Ke Musafir (یہ ہواؤں کے مسافر ) – These Wayfarers Of The Skies
Song from the 1965 war
Imagine the sixties. Imagine walking down The Mall, the main thoroughfare in Rawalpindi since the British colonial days, heading west. Near the end, before The Mall becomes Peshawar Road, on your right, at the corner of the last intersection, is the white building with the light blue signboard outside the gate announcing “PAF INFORMATION AND SELECTION CENTER” in gold lettering, the Shaheen (شاہین – falcon) insignia prominent at the top, with there being no need, really, to spell out PAF because everyone knows, even people who cannot read, that it stands for Pakistan Air Force.
It was just one such unassuming building that my brother walked into one day, and walked out a GDP, a General Duties Pilot recruit. Over a decade later, I would walk the same walk, but they had no need for a 70 lb weakling. Alas.
Needless to say, I have been in awe of my elder brother ever since, a reverence that has only grown with time, as I watched him first head to the United States for training on the Sabre F-86s, then to France to fetch the Mirage III-Cs, and then to China to ferry the Mig-19s. And if that was not adventure enough, he then headed off to Egypt and Syria in 1973 on an assignment that I could tell you about, but then I would have to kill you (read his second letter though). I then saw him go on deputation to Iraq and the UAE, taking up the reins of the Al Dhafra Airbase in Abu Dhabi as its first Base Commander. And just before retirement, I saw him take over as Managing Director of Shaheen Air International, leaving his mark on a business enterprise as well. His services to the nation were recognized with the award of a Sitara-i-Basalat in 1976 by the President of Pakistan.
To us, his younger siblings, his life has seemed to be one great exploit after another. When asked to share his stories with us, he mixes them with subtle humour to make us laugh every time. Take the 1965 war. Home on furlough after the war, and aware of how eagerly we wanted to hear about what it was like to have fought in battle, he told us wide-eyed youngsters how, in daring sorties, he would fly so low that when he eventually pulled up, there would be tree-leaves on the plane’s wings. It took us a few moments to get there.
Let’s read a couple of his letters to enjoy his witty life sketches. Here’s Air Cdre Khalid Iqbal, in person:
Letter #1 – My First Golf Coach
Moji [our father] had asked me to play golf as he was himself a golfer and had asked me to accompany him to the Rawalpindi Golf Club to see him play. To encourage me, he also pointed to some players in the distance and remarked that President Ayub Khan was playing with his group! I was in high school and at that time was the Punjab Boy’s and Men’s Number One in table tennis. I replied to Moji that I was not interested as golf was a painfully slow game lacking action.
Many moons later, I was posted on the personal staff of the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal Shamim around March 1984. As I was the Assistant Personal Staff Officer (APSO), I spent a lot of time at the Air House with the Chief and his family, following the instructions of Begum Shamim and also the Chief’s children, two very well behaved and pretty daughters, and one utterly spoiled son who was the youngest. I was a Wing Commander and not being promoted to Group Captain as my boss at Abu Dhabi had given me a good report but put in an adverse remark (puts self before service).
One day, when I was the Officer Commanding Wing at Sargodha, a prized posting, I got a message that I had to be at Air Head Quarters the next day to meet the Chief and should take an overnight kit. I took a light aircraft, landed at Chaklala, changed into uniform and reported at the Chief’s Secretariat. The Chief called me having known me from Sargodha when he was the OC Flying and we had taken part in the 1965 war. Since I had a brand-new VW, the Chief and family had taken a lift with me a few times from Sargodha to ‘Pindi and back as they did not own a car at that time. I was told by him in the meeting that he wanted me to serve directly under him so that he could report on me and promote me to the next rank after three months.
I enjoyed working with the Chief and the Begum and used to accompany them on inspections to the bases. The CAS was very fond of playing golf and his ADC, a Squadron Leader, used to accompany him. The ADC had to go on leave in an emergency. That afternoon, the CAS buzzed me and told me that the ADC was on leave and that I would play golf with him, and called off. I sneaked into his office and informed him that I had never played golf and didn’t even have a golf set. He smiled at me, looking at me with his sparkling green eyes, and said that he had read my dozier and that I would do fine being a good sportsman. A brand-new golf set would be made available and that I should pick him up from the Air House at 3PM.
I dressed up in my tennis dress and shoes. The Mercedes 500 picked me up and I presented myself at the Air House at 2 minutes to 3PM and rang the bell exactly after 2 minutes. The Chief came out immediately and I sat with him on the rear seat. I used to sit in the front when the Begum and children were present. The journey to the Golf Club was in pin drop silence with me wondering what would happen to me at the golf course.
We reached the Golf Club and started waiting. I was wondering who we were waiting for, as the CAS was the number three person in Pakistan with General Zia number one and Navy Chief number two. I did not have to wait for long as President Zia’s cavalcade entered the gate of the Golf Club. For a moment I forgot about my predicament as I saw the President along with his Military Secretary walk up to us. After the salutations, General Zia hit the golf ball about 160 yards, the CAS about 200 yards, and the MS being an excellent golfer almost 300 yards. I was hoping that we would walk off as I heard General Zia say your turn son. My caddy pulled out the brand-new number 1 wood, the most difficult club to swing as I would find out later, and I stepped up close to the teed up ball. I tried to recall the swing of the MS, took a back swing and came down on the ball. I heard a chuckle from the President and also the Chief with the President saying you missed the ball son, which I clearly saw still sitting on the tee! I must have gone red in the face. The President walked up to me and showed me how to grip the club and to take a short backswing and to keep my eyes on the ball. I tried again and this time I connected with the ball flying to about a hundred yards.
So Tony, my first golf coach was the President of Pakistan. I took up this game as a challenge and was beating the Chief and the President within the next three months. I had purchased a National video camera from Abu Dhabi with which I used to record my swing and then make appropriate changes. The word reached the CAS and he asked me to record his swing. The Chief’s Begum found out about it when the Chief was assessing his swing at home and wanted me to record the Mehndi functions when the daughters got married. But then, that is another story which I must tell you, about the trouble I got into with Rooida (my bhabi – sister-in-law).
Letter #2 – Great Encounters
In March, 1980 I was pleasantly surprised by one of my colleagues, 6 months junior to me, who charged into my office, really upset and almost shouting. “It is not fair you have already done your deputation to Iraq and now again you have been earmarked for deputation to Abu Dhabi.” Arshad was then a Wing Commander, Deputy Director (Plans) whereas I was Deputy Director Operations in the Plans Directorate at Air Head Quarters then located at Peshawar. I retorted, “Arshad why are you upset with me? I have nothing to do with the selection and if you think I should refuse to go to Abu Dhabi you are sadly mistaken.” This was a prize three-year deputation where from Rs 6000 per month one went up to 17000 UAE Dirhams and later I found out, two bonus pays every year, free centrally air conditioned three bed room fully furnished villa, Mercedes 250 with zero mileage, free fuel and electricity. The British ‘goras’, who had been replaced by the Pakistanis, had made these rules . The Pakistan Government had sliced the pays of officers to all the other Arab countries and kept 40% of the emoluments (citing Pakistan Air Force pilots would get spoiled by getting such high pays), but the UAE Air Force refused this cut mentioning that they had expatriates from over 20 countries and it was not possible to make these reductions in the pay for one country.
Fortunately for me the requirements for replacement of then Wing Commander Farooq Firoze Khan had been sent by the Commander UAE Air Force, Air Commodore Jamal A. Khan, also a PAF officer on deputation, who wanted the new officer to have experience on Mirages and have commanded a Mirage Squadron in PAF and other qualities in which I fitted squarely. Both these officers later on became the Chiefs of the Pakistan Air Force. Soon after my earmarking to Abu Dhabi, Allah bestowed upon us our darling daughter who we named Rabia after Rabia Basri.
I left for Abu Dhabi in June 1980 and took over as OC Fighter Wing in July, 1980 after spending 30 days’ overlap with the previous OC Fighter Wing. As I had reserved accommodation the family joined me in the middle of July 1980.
The son of President of UAE Sheikh Zayed Al Nayhan, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed had recently returned to Abu Dhabi after graduating from Sandhurst Military Academy, United Kingdom as a young and smart Lieutenant, but instead of joining the Army convinced his father to let him join the UAE Air Force, wanting to become a fighter pilot. Sheikh Zayed did not allow his favourite son to fly fighters, being too risky, but agreed to permit him to become a combat helicopter pilot and command the combat helicopter squadron equipped with the French Gazelle helicopters.
Sheikh Mohamed would often come to my office and listen to my stories about the 1965 and 1971 wars and also about my time spent in Iraq and about the 1973 Arab Israeli war in which I had participated and flown Mig 21s of the Egyptian and Syrian Air Forces. In short, we clicked and he had a very soft corner for me. One day he requested me to visit the new base at Maqatra later named as Al Dhafra. I inspected the base in great detail as I expected that Sheikh Mohamed would have a lot to ask me about my visit. The base was in its final phase of completion. It was the most modern and largest in the gulf countries. The biggest surprise for me and other officers senior to me including the national Deputy Air Force Commander, Egyptians and Jordanians and my Pakistani Commander Air force was the announcement that I was to take over as the Base Commander of the new base and shift the two Mirage Squadrons and also the Flying Academy which was to be placed under me. I suspect Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed played a role in my appointment. (Do look up Al Dhafra Base in its present shape on the internet or Google Earth).
We moved to the new base and settled down comfortably. I would also fly the Pilatus Trainer aircraft off and on. Sheikh Mohamed would visit the base regularly and fly over in his combat helicopter. On one such visit he came to my office and asked me seriously whether his squadron be categorized and be placed in Transport Wing or Fighter Wing. I immediately told him Fighter Wing as his squadron comprised combat helicopters. His next question was whether he should talk to his father and move his squadron to Al Dhafra Base and whether I would support this move. I welcomed him and told him that there would be no problems. It was soon announced that the Gazelles were moving to Al Dhafra. Sheikh Mohamed would address me as ‘Sir’ and I would address him as ‘Your Highness’. Sheikh Mohamed became very close to me and invited us to the palace numerous times. Rooida and I also attended his marriage.
During the Ramzan of 1982 when all nationals observed holidays and expatriates worked for 2 to 3 hours, I was at the base on a maintenance day and informed by Air Traffic Control that Sheikh Mohamed had taken off from Al Ain Palace and heading for Al Dhafra. I knew that there was a Red Met Warning for Fog and that Dubai and Abu Dhabi international airports were closed due to intense fog. Fog was also becoming intense at Abu Dhabi Transport Base and knowing that we would be affected in the next 10 to 15 minutes, I went to the Air Traffic Tower and asked Sheikh Mohamed to return to Al Ain. Sheikh Mohamed told me that he would continue and keep in contact with the road from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi. The fog at our base started getting denser and at the same time Al Ain also got fogged up. I asked the Air Traffic Controller to put the runway lights to 100% and also the Rotating Beacon to 100% although the limit was 80%. I told him to maintain radio silence and not make any calls so that Sheikh Mohamed could concentrate on flying. The visibility came down to zero and I became more and more worried about his safety. A shaken-up call came to the ATC, “Sir, please come and pick me up. I have landed at the beginning of the runway.” I got into my Mercedes with fog lights and full beam on and started crawling along the center-line markers of the taxi track wondering how the pilot made it safely in this weather; could be only the Bedouin instincts that saved him. I stopped at the last turnoff and did not enter the runway as I could have rammed into the helicopter. I blew the horn with emergency lights on and as I saw Sheikh Mohamed’s profile appear I got out of the car and shouted at him, “Your Highness, what a stupid thing to do, you could have killed yourself and what would I have told your father?” Having said this now I got worried about his reaction. He embraced me and quietly mentioned in my ear, “I am sorry, Sir.”
The Air Traffic Staff were briefed not to disclose the happenings of the day and the matter was forgotten. At the end of my deputation, I got a message from Sheikh Mohamed that I should get release from the PAF and join the UAE Air Force on contract which I humbly declined. On his official visit to Pakistan, I was made the Military Secretary to him and his brother Sheikh Sultan and yet on another visit to Peshawar he asked for me and I visited him at the PC Peshawar. He requested me if I could help him in his project of purchasing a vast area in the Northern Area of Pakistan where he wanted to set up a bird sanctuary. I again declined as I was in uniform. He is now the Crown Prince and Commander in Chief of Abu Dhabi Armed forces.
This is all for today till I come up with another encounter.
Click here to read more from the author: Letters from my Brother: Tale of the Pantaloon (پتلوناں مضبوط)
Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art:
- Postnational Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders (Memory Studies: Global Constellations Book 15)
- Introducing Peace Museums (Routledge Research in Museum Studies)
- The Anthropology of Peace and Reconciliation: Pax Humana (Critical Topics in Contemporary Anthropology)
Tariq Iqbal Tariq Iqbal, aka Tony, is a retired banker who refuses to retire and is, therefore, a freelance consultant (aren’t we all) who advises banks on the profitability, or lack thereof, of their customers. He dabbles in writing, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is generally likeable, if he says so himself.