Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pakistani Eagles

High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee 1941

For a brief, shining period of time, I was in the Pakistan Air Force.

Pakistan's psyche had been greatly influenced by the circumstances of its break up with India: one million people died on both sides in 1947. The issue of Muslim majority Kashmir being oppressed by Hindu majority India still resonates with every Pakistani, and has caused four major wars to be fought since that time, and each time, Pakistan has held its own against the much larger armed forces of India. It is for that reason the Armed Forces are much respected, and of all the forces, the Air Force is regarded the highest of all, even more than the Army. They are called Shaheen, which means Eagle, but also, Spirit. They are also considered by military specialists to be one of the best trained and professional air forces in the world, even by the Israelis and Americans. Gen. Chuck Yeager said, "these guys breathed and lived flying-I was damn impressed"

The training of the Pakistani pilot begins at age 12, when he is inducted into the Air Force College in Sargodha. Every year thousands of Pakistani students apply for entry, and they must pass rigorous academic, psychological and medical tests before being admitted, no more than 50 or 60 a year. Those who graduate from college must then pass further exams before being accepted into flight school at Risalpur, and then a few go on to advanced jet training in Malir, whose graduates are deemed to be of a higher caliber than the US Navy's Top Gun School.

That's the way it is; they see themselves as the best of the best, and even more rare, the one Pakistani institution that isn't corrupt.

My geography teacher told me about the exams. My parents had mixed feelings, but I knew this was my path. And, placing 11th out of thousands, I was accepted into PAF Sargodha. So, at the early age of 11, I went to Sargodha, 600 miles from home, and did not return until I was 16.

At school, I had an insight: this would be my journey, for who knew how many years, but I would learn what I was supposed to. My uncles were the early pioneers of the Air Force, my cousins would become Army Generals, and my friends went on to reach the highest awards and positions in the Armed Forces; one of them, psst, Chief of ISI, the Intelligence Directorate. I didn't love War, but I would defend my home, and my views can be seen here: http://manfromatlan.blogspot.com/2008/03/nature-of-spiritual-warrior.html but still, I wanted to fly.

It was during this time, away from the distractions of home, that I learned more about my spirituality. I learned a bit about defending myself; since I was obviously different got picked upon, with a nickname meaning 'not pure', which in retrospect is funny because Pak means 'pure'. But the greatest lesson was the rigorous military life that allowed me to not only explore my spirituality but also, develop it. Flying requires keen eyesight, and discipline. So, too, does Spirituality.

One of the reasons why our pilot training is so effective is because of the number of hours spent in the plane, and extensive low level flying. Many drop out or fail because of the intensity, and those who pass are the best. (It was this intimate knowledge that showed me how the official 9/11 story was full of it) Once, a low flying F-104 clipped just over the school roof and crashed just beyond. The engine, weighing well over a ton, flew back at the school and landed right where I'd been standing by myself a few minutes before. I felt fortunate, as though I still had things to do.

When I graduated from college I had to compete again with people from all over Pakistan and also graduates of the other academy, near Murree. I sailed through all the tests, including vertigo and high altitude testing, and then at the very last moment, someone noticed my knock knees. wtf? That was enough to disqualify me.

I appealed of course, made a passionate speech to the board about how I wanted to serve my country. No go. Turned out later they found out my parents were Ahmadi Muslims, which even then had a lot of prejudice directed at it, and so that was it. If I'd said I was Christian or renounced Ahmadis it would have been fine, but that wasn't what I was supposed to do.

Yes, I was disappointed. But University beckoned, I had more to learn, and I moved on. Many of my friends went on to fly fighter jets. An uncle was shot down and killed in the 1965 war. A friend posthumously received Pakistan's highest award, when he deliberately crashed a plane into the desert to prevent it from being flown to India in 1971. He was 21 years old then.

Another friend died in a low flying training exercise. He was 18 years old. Many served as volunteers under Arab flags during the 1965 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, and their training showed as they shot down several Israeli jets, with few losses on their own; not one Pakistani pilot was killed by the Israelis.

The reason why this is so little known may be explained by the observation of a Pakistani when he shot down an Israeli plane: "it was if I was seeing a myth (about Israeli superiority) being blown up". This is not to denigrate the heroism of the Pakistani Army, but really, they are politicians as well. The Air Force made tremendous sacrifices, they made a difference, they won even when the Army lost in 1971. (Read "Yeager, an autobiography" to get a fighter jock's opinion)

This article isn't about what might have been for me. I don't miss that when I know my path brought me to Canada where I was meant to do so much more for the world. At this particular time, some fantasists of the Indian and American variety need a reminder, if they think they can get away with a war with Pakistan. For all their problems, Pakistanis have something unique: their character, and the Pakistan Air Force is the exemplar of that character. I am happy to once have served.

But whenever a plane flies overhead, I confess a part of me still wishes I was there...

~Naseer Ahmad


Anonymous said...

What a lovely article. Thanks, Chaieomie

Tahir said...

Was Rashid Minhas your friend who crashed his plane in dessert in 1971 war? We read his story in text books.

Man From Atlan said...

Yes, he was. And Squadron Leader Muniruddin Ahmed, who died in the 1965 war, was my uncle.

Tom V. said...

You know Dr. Ahmad, the picture is already telling the same story, what your writing tells us. The arrow like plane on the picture is the F104 Starfighter, which was one of the daring, revolutionary design of chief engineer at Lockheed, the legendary John Kelly. It was outstanding in many respect, but alas it demanded extraordinary flying skill from its pilot, which was in fact more artistry than flying. This was of course way above the flying skill of an average fleet pilot in the large airforces of the day, thus the inordinate number of accidents suffered. As a result the planes were replaced after a relatively short, but troublesome history. The only other airforce I know of which bucked this trend, was the Italian Air Force, who was successfully able to employ this type in daily patrol duty for decades after others cursed at it, and retired it. But then Italian Air Force pilots are somewhat in the same category as you described the Pakistani one:
Perhaps aknowledged to some degree, but not to the full extent of their skill.

Tom V. said...

Correction: The designer's name is the equally legendary Kelly Johnson. ☺

Man From Atlan said...

It's funny how I can look at what is a weapon of destruction and still see the beauty of its design.
Warplanes, guns; swords especially.