A Flight that Changed the World

A Flight that Changed the World
On this particular night in July 1971, we were told to to get ready for a 3 AM departure.

Pakistan International Airlines was routinely used for VVIP (Very Very Important Person) travel from its very inception and in the 1960s had developed a security check-list to cover such operations whenever needed. The basics involved securing the aircraft with armed guards during preflight maintenance and ensuring flight operation by a crew that had prior national security clearance.

Being one of the Chief Pursers at the time who had such security clearance, I was asked in July 1971, to proceed to Rawalpindi from Lahore where I was on Vacation. A Boeing 707 crew under the command of Captain M T Baig was assembled in Intercontinental Hotel Rawalpindi without a clue as to the nature of this VVIP operation. We were only told in clear terms that we were not to communicate with anyone and that we would be told to operate a VVIP flight on short notice.

Chairman Mao Zedong with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Beijing, 1973

And so it was that on this night in July 1971, our departing Aircraft was parked in a Pakistan Air Force steel hangar at Rawalpindi/Islamabad Airport under strict security. About half an hour before departure, a Chinese navigator boarded the aircraft. With that solo passenger we departed in the early morning hours for what is called a proving flight to Peking (now called Beijing), non-stop via the north of Pakistan – flying close to K-2 and arriving at Peking in the afternoon.

In a brief stopover, a Chinese dignitary and an English speaking female interpreter boarded for our return journey. By all previous operations this seemed to be a very strange so-called ‘VVIP’ flight indeed!

On our return the aircraft was again parked inside the steel hangar. The crew returned to Rawalpindi Intercontinental and were asked to await further instructions and to stay in isolation.
At daybreak,
I opened the window shutter of Dr Kissinger’s seat and pointed to him a view of the grand K2 mountain, which he found very impressive

Rawalpindi/Islamabad Airport looked quiet but I noticed that US One was parked on the tarmac!

On the 9th of July, the crew of this Boeing 707 was asked to get ready for a 2 a.m. departure with a VVIP. With a complete blackout we had to prepare for this VVIP flight with the aircraft parked again in a steel hangar.

First to arrive were the Chinese dignitary and the Chinese interpreter that we had brought on our previous trip.

At about 2 a.m I saw a Volkswagen Beetle coming in and stopping next to the first class steps. It was being driven by Mr Sultan Mohammad Khan, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary.

Cover from Time Magazine,
July 26, 1971

Since it was dark, it was difficult to see the passengers in his car. But as soon as they came out of the car and started to come up the steps, lo and behold! the man following Mr. Khan was none other than Dr. Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the US President for National Security affairs!

I was the first to greet him aboard, introduced myself as Purser in charge. Dr Kissinger then introduced me to the other gentlemen in the party –  namely Winston Lord, John Holdridge and Richard Smyser. Mr. Khan got out, the door was closed and departure announced to Peking. I remember having told Captain M.T. Baig, the commander of this flight, as to who exactly our VVIP passengers were. He was as surprised as one might expect.

Soon after take-off, the flight was to follow the same route as our earlier proving flight through the northern areas of Pakistan, entering China through a narrow corridor that links the Pak -China border, then along the majestic Karakorum Range of mountains all the way over Chinese territory to Peking.

Dr Kissinger without wasting any time started his meetings with the Chinese official in the presence of the Chinese interpreter. This lasted a few hours. At daybreak, I opened the window shutter of Dr Kissinger’s seat and pointed to him a view of the grand K2 mountain which he found very impressive. A hot American breakfast was served to all guests at this time.

Dr. Kissinger was very relaxed in general, but at one point I could sense a bit of anxiety and I asked him if I could help. He said that the trip was such a secret that his staff had not brought his suitcase on board, and so he had no change of clothes. Apparently his staff was told that he was going to Nathiagali, a hill station near Murree, and they had dispatched his stuff off to that location! (and Airlines are famous for mishandled baggage)

I advised Kissinger that the Chinese hosts were very capable of laundering his shirt in no time.

At around 1430 Peking time we arrived at a secluded section of Peking Airport and Dr. Kissinger and his entourage were whisked away in black curtained Chinese limousines.

I also stayed back for the return VVIP flight arrangements, while the aircraft returned to Rawalpindi/Islamabad Airport.The same aircraft returned around midday on the 11th of July to take Dr Kissinger and party back to Pakistan.

Dr Kissinger and his companions were very busy on the entire return trip, writing down reports etc of their historic visit to China. At one point he did ask me to brief him about Nathiagali, since on his return the press was going to ask him about his stay there. I told him about the breathtaking mountains with pine trees and the cool clean breeze. I am sure this is what he told the reporters when asked about his stay there!

On our arrival at Rawalpindi/Islamabad airport, Mr. Sultan Mohammad Khan came on board to greet the Americans. Dr. Kissinger before deplaning thanked us most profusely and I remember him telling me to come visit him in Washington next time I was there. This never materialized.

After the guests departed (this time in ‘proper’ limousines) Mr. Khan gathered all the crew of the flight and said that we were the few people who knew “who went where” - and this was to remain a secret till such time as President Nixon was to declare to the entire world what had transpired.

The flight is no more a secret. Its impact on the course of history is no more a secret. All details of Dr Kissinger’s discussion with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai are now a matter of public record. All those interested in world history will agree that this secret flight and the 48 hours of meetings in Peking in 1971 set the stage for ending the Vietnam war and a new and vigorous Sino-American relationship.

The writer was awarded the Tamgha-e-Khidmat by the President of Pakistan in 1971.He lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and Dallas, Texas, USA