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A nation takes off


Apr 24, 2007
A nation takes off

By Huma Yusuf

Monday, 01 Feb, 2010

Pakistani planes, both military and commercial, have come to symbolise national identity, in good times as well as bad. Pakistani history can be charted through flights that have landed, crashed, shot down or hijacked on this nation’s tarmac.

Urban theorist Michel de Certeau famously wrote that the only way to “see” New York City was from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. At the city’s summit, lifted away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds, traffic, and street corners, one can start to make sense of the city’s complexities, he argued. From a bird’s eye view, the city becomes readable, and the practices of those who inhabit it are laid bare for one to consider.

This argument is even truer for one looking down on the world from a plane. As flights land, passengers look down on cities that suddenly seem orderly, expansive, and inevitable. Familiar places take on new identities, and their proximity or similarity to other landmarks is revealed. Coming in for a landing – suspended in that liminal space between here and there, leaving and arriving, past and future – one enjoys a fresh perspective on what has long been known.

Perhaps for that reason it is apt to view the history of Pakistan from that same vantage point, from the cockpits of the innumerable flights that have landed – or crashed, or been diverted, hijacked, or shot down – on this nation’s tarmac. After all, planes, and those they have carried, have changed the course of Pakistan’s political history, shaped its national identity, enabled foreign policy, determined the outcome of wars, spurred immigration and exile, and even inspired art and fiction.

Any mention of planes in Pakistan, and most people are transported to an open space on the outskirts of Bahawalpur, on August 17, 1988, where the scattered and smoking parts of a C-130 Hercules announce the death of everyone on board, including General Ziaul Haq, then American Ambassador Arnold Raphel, and General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, then chairman of the Pakistan Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By going into a near-vertical dive, that plane ended 11 years of military rule, ushered in a tumultuous ‘decade of democracy,’ and chartered a new course for General Zia’s process of Islamisation. The plane crash also forever altered US-Pak relations, once robust, now tainted with suspicion and conspiracy theorising as many in Pakistan’s intelligence agencies believed that the CIA had masterminded the crash by spiking a crate of mangoes on board with VX gas. Others, who believed a secret 365-page report on the incident by Pakistani investigators that pointed towards sabotage, blamed the KGB, Mossad, or the al-Zulfikar group led by Murtaza Bhutto.

Accident or assassination? That question prompted Mohammed Hanif to write A Case of Exploding Mangoes, one of the most popular English-language novels from this country. It also enshrined cynicism, suspicion, and irony as the bases of Pakistani identity. The fact is, as a nation we learnt unforgettable lessons from the remains of that C-130: that obvious circumstances (such as a plane crash) have sinister origins; that there is no such thing as absolute truth in politics; that nothing is what it seems; and, finally, that those who fly high will eventually come crashing down.

But the plane in which General Zia died is not the only one that has altered the course of Pakistani history – many aircraft that have crisscrossed these skies can take similar credit.

Sky warriors

Of course, the Pakistan Air Force planes that have taken off during wartime – and the pilots that manned them – have played an important role. Not unexpectedly, the PAF’s first real altercation involved the Indian Air Force (IAF) in April 1959, when an IAF Electric Canberra intruded into Pakistani airspace and was brought down over Rawat. This skirmish was to set the tone for most of the PAF’s outings in years to come.

During the 1965 war, for example, the PAF fleet was outnumbered by its rival five to one, but the former lost only 19 aircraft during that conflict, while the latter lost at least 75. And it was in this war that Air Commodore M.M. Alam downed nine Indian fighters – five of them in less than a minute.

That feat earned him a Sitara-e-Jurrat, and forever changed the iconography of Pakistan’s roads. Not only has a major artery in Lahore been named after Commodore M.M. Alam (and duly populated with a string of fancy restaurants), but hundreds of roundabouts across the country are adorned with the plane Alam piloted: F-86 Sabres, a hundred of which were received by the PAF under a US aid program in 1957.

In 1971, Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas emerged as the PAF’s airborne hero (and prompted the naming of another road, this time in Karachi) when he crashed a T-33 plane rather than let it be hijacked and taken over to the Indian side. Minhas’s valour came to have particular significance as the PAF’s performance during the rest of the conflict left much to be desired. Outnumbered 10 to one in East Pakistan, the PAF decreased the number of its sorties, and eventually failed to support Pakistan Army ground forces during the Battle of Longewala, despite repeated requests. The defence of Karachi, too, was left to the Pakistan Navy when the Indian Navy staged a raid on the port city.

In recent years, the PAF’s wartime activity has decreased. During the Kargil conflict in 1999, the PAF shot down an Indian MiG-21 fighter. One month later, over the Rann of Kutch, the IAF brought down a Pakistan Navy Breguet Atlantique patrol plane, with 16 people on board, sparking fears of yet another conflict between the long-time rivals.

Despite its checkered history, the PAF has fired the imagination of three generations of schoolboys who are endlessly fascinated by its pilots’ heroics – and by its impressive fleet. Interestingly, the sense of national pride evoked by the air force has, at times, been matched by Pakistanis’ admiration for their national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

A nation takes off

In its early days, PIA came to symbolise this young country’s aspirations on the world stage. In 1976, the airline’s green-white-gold logo was recognised as the most visible tail in the world (a record PIA holds to this day) and helped sealed Pakistan’s reputation as a proud country, eager to make it mark in the global arena. The savvy marketing decision to have French fashion sensation Pierre Cardin design uniforms for air hostesses raised the bar for in-flight style, and made the PIA pajama a fashion sensation across Europe.

It seemed as if PIA were destined to take flight, metaphorically speaking, especially in light of Pakistan’s aerial colonial legacy (Karachi became the first airport in the British Empire in 1924). The national carrier flew its first service between Karachi and Dhaka in 1954, and went on to break many records before breaking the hearts of Pakistanis who had come to rely on their national airline and take pride in its reputation.

In 1960, PIA became the first Asian airline to fly a Boeing 707-321 jet aircraft. Just two years later, the carrier broke a world record when Captain Abdullah Baig flew a new Boeing 720 from London to Karachi in 6 hours and 43 minutes during its delivery flight from Seattle. Many feats were to follow, as PIA was the first airline to show in-flight movies on international routes; operate a flight with an all-female crew both in the cockpit and cabin; and set up Pakistan’s first planetarium in Karachi.

But declining standards over the years took their toll, and in a trajectory that echoed the failures of the Pakistani state, PIA came to stand for ‘Perhaps I Arrive’ by the late 1980s. In 2007, the airline experienced its darkest days when the European Commission banned all but eight planes of the PIA fleet from flying to Europe, citing safety concerns.

Despite the ups and downs – or more appropriately, take-offs and landings – of both PIA and the PAF, flights launched in Pakistan came to impact global events in profound ways, and, in some instances, dictated this nation’s foreign policy.

Airborne diplomacy

Pakistani planes have bridged the distance between Islamabad and Beijing, cementing Sino-Pak relations since the 1960s. In April 1964, PIA offered a service to Shanghai (from Karachi, via Canton), making Pakistan the first non-communist country to fly to the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, PIA was also the first non-communist airline to fly between Europe and Asia, via Moscow.

This airborne diplomacy continued into the 1970s, when President Yahya Khan arranged for then US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to take a stealth flight from Islamabad to Beijing, a journey that began the process of normalising US-China relations.

Of course, Richard Nixon was not the only American president to use Pakistan’s planes as a conduit for US foreign policy. Previously, in 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower had requested permission to fly U-2 ‘spy-in-the-sky’ planes over the USSR from Badaber, the airbase at Peshawar.

Starting in 1981, as a testament to strong US-Pak relations in the context of the Cold War and anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the two governments also struck numerous deals for Pakistan to purchase F-16 fighter jets. It was a proud day for this country (one that is enshrined in artful painted numbers, letters, and images on almost every truck, minibus, or water tank in this country) when Pakistan’s first F-16 touched down at Sargodha airbase on January 15, 1983.

But in 1990, Washington blocked the sale of F-16s to Pakistan as part of sanctions against the country’s nuclear weapons program, amidst fears that certain F-16s had been modified to carry and deliver Pakistani nukes. It was not until 2005, when the US-led war against terror was in full swing, that Washington reconsidered its policy and resumed sales of the fighter jets to the PAF.

Although eight more F-16s are due to be delivered to Pakistan this summer, US-Pak relations can hardly be described as flourishing. Anti-Americanism amongst the Pakistani public is at an all-time high, owing, ironically enough, to the many flights taken by a different kind of plane: unmanned Predator drones.

Used by the US to strike at terrorists in the country’s tribal region, drones have invoked the ire of Pakistanis for high civilian death tolls. In 2009 alone, there were 44 drone attacks in Fata that killed 708 people. Of these, five successfully hit terrorist targets, meaning that for each militant killed, 140 innocent civilians also had to die.

These drone attacks are not the only examples in Pakistan’s history when planes and terrorism have come together – unfortunately, this country has also seen its fair share of hijackings.

Cabin captives

In 1981, the militant, leftist Al-Zulfiqar group hijacked a PIA flight en route to Peshawar from Karachi, and diverted it to Kabul, before finally touching down in Damascus. Demanding the release of 92 political prisoners, three hijackers kept more than 100 hostages on board for 13 days, and even shot dead Lieutenant Tariq Rahim. At the time, it was the longest hijacking incident on record.

A few years later, on September 5, 1986, members of the Abu Nidal Organisation hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi. Four armed men boarded the Frankfurt-bound flight dressed in the uniforms of Karachi airport security staff, and went on to kill 20 of the passengers they were keeping hostage. The hijackers were captured and sentenced to death by Pakistan, but eventually released, much to the chagrin of the US and India.

In an ironic case of coming full circle, a drone attack in mid-January 2010 is believed to have killed Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, a Palestinian militant who was wanted by the FBI in connection with the Pan Am hijacking.

More recently, the year 1999 saw two – completely different – hijackings. In December of that year, five Pakistanis affiliated with the terrorist Harkatul Mujahideen group hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi. Over seven days, the flight briefly landed in Amritsar, Lahore, and Dubai before setting down in Kandahar. To avoid being implicated in the act of terrorism, the Pakistani government shut down air traffic services and switched of all lights at Lahore Airport. However, when it seemed the plane might crash, it was permitted to land at Lahore for refueling.

The saga concluded only when India agreed to the release of three militants: Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (who was later arrested for the murder of Daniel Pearl), and Maulana Masood Azhar (who later founded Jaish-e-Mohammed). In that way, this hijacking precipitated the Lal Masjid fiasco of 2007 and sparked Pakistan’s internal war against homegrown terrorists which now threatens to destabilise the country.

Earlier in the year, another ‘hijacking’ of sorts had set the tone for a political tussle that also continues into the present. On October 12, 1999, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif replaced General Pervez Musharraf with another chief of army staff. At that point, Musharraf was on a flight to Karachi from Colombo, and Sharif was later accused of attempting a ‘hijacking from the ground’ by ordering that the general’s flight be diverted to another country. But Musharraf landed in Karachi, overthrew Sharif’s government, and ushered Pakistan into another nine-year-long stretch of military rule. A decade later, Sharif was acquitted of hijacking charges and, in turn, began calling for General Musharraf to be tried on various counts.

Great people to fly with

And so it is that, from a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, bestowed with a fresh perspective, one can look at Pakistan and its history through the planes that have charted through its airspace, thereby shaping its future. From the cockpits of PIA, PAF, and other aircraft, this country’s triumphs and turmoil and the psyche of its people come into sharp focus. No doubt, there has been much turbulence during the long-haul flight that is this nation’s forward trajectory, and in the present era many are fearful of an emergency landing. But through it all, Pakistanis have remained great people to fly with.

nice article, but the author could have done a better job of research!


Aug 23, 2009
at one point in time we were ahead of the game! i guess PIA & our nation go hand in hand...the deterioration of PIA & deterioration of our nation are alike!

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