Birth of the Karakorum Air Safari

Birth of the Karakorum Air Safari
After almost two decades, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is once again resurrecting the Air Safari. When it was last operational the then MD  Air Vice Marshal Farooq Omer and his team claimed credit for the idea. Be that as it may, now that it is reborn in a more comprehensive form, whoever is responsible deserves to be congratulated for bringing it back from the dead.

In actual fact, the original Air Safari came into being exactly half a century ago. Sadly, the memory of the stalwarts who initiated the idea and then put it into operation has been completely wiped out of the PIA story. Allow me to take you back fifty years when PIA really was great – and when initiative and new ideas were not only welcome but were encouraged and appreciated. Here is the story of the birth and operation of the original Air Safari operated on Fokker F-27 aircraft in 1971.

In the summer of 1971, I was a newly minted Captain on the F-27 aircraft and based at Islamabad Airport: what was referred to as our Rawalpindi Base. We were a small team flying mainly non-scheduled flights to Gilgit, Skardu and occasionally to Chitral – collectively called the Northern Areas. The main task of the base was to provide support to the Army building the Karakorum Highway, carry essentials for the people of the area and give them communication with the rest of the country. Since the flights to the Northern Areas could only be operated during the day and in good weather, the base had only a few scheduled flights, mainly in the evenings. One of these Was the famous 'Night Coach' to Lahore and back. When the weather was clear in the Northern Areas, it was full-steam-ahead and each aircraft did as many sorties as the weather would allow, sometimes up to four per aircraft per day.

While keeping the performance of the Fokker F-27 in mind, we planned a safe route that gave the tourists the best possible view of the peaks

Tourism had been steadily building up in the past few years and travel companies were beginning to open up northern destinations – Gilgit and Chitral in particular. One such company was, and still is Waljis’ Travels. The owner, the late Sadr Uddin Walji, was one of the most active in this field. Walji’s was regularly bringing in big groups, mostly Europeans, to Islamabad: taking them to Gilgit for a couple of days, back to Rawalpindi, then Chitral, then Peshawar, back to Rawalpindi and then back to Europe. In the summer of 1971, Walji’s was bringing in up to three big groups per week, but was beginning to have problems.

A magnificent vista of the central part of the Karakorums, showing the Gasherbrum Group and the Siachen Glacier. In the centre is the massive Baltoro Glacier, with K2 to th

Since the flights to the Northern Areas were cancelled when the weather turned bad, some of his groups were getting stranded in Gligit or Chitral, sometimes for two or three days at a time, completely disrupting their group plans and bookings. Since the weather was so unpredictable, he was having to change plans on the fly. Every day he would have to change hotel and flight bookings and in the busiest time of the year his plans were completely disrupted. This not only resulted in very disgruntled European tourists but also hurt him financially.

Sadruddin Walji was a good friend and called me one day to complain that he was beginning to lose hair. He asked if I could help him in any way. I told him that the weather in the Northern Areas was very capricious and we have to live with it. He would have to build flexibility and delays into his plans. He was not happy with my suggestion but said that he would think about it. The next day, we met on his request and he told me that he was thinking of dividing his groups into two categories. The smaller groups would be taken to Gilgit and Chitral and if their plans were disrupted it would be easier to re-schedule. The bigger groups would be given just a sightseeing flight: “If we could take them up, show them a few mountains and bring them back, it would make them happy.” In case of bad weather, if the flight were cancelled, he could arrange a whole day of activity –  perhaps give them a tour of Taxila or Panja Sahib etc. with no disruption to travel plans, flights or hotel bookings.

I thought it was an excellent idea. Since this would amount to a charter flight exclusively for Walji’s Travels, he would have to talk to the Area Manager, the late Mr. Hameed Butt. Once the idea was accepted, I would talk to the Chief Pilot, the late Captain A.T.M.A. Hussain, and plan out the actual flight. Mr. Butt was a through professional for whom I had the utmost respect. He called the Chief Pilot and they both discussed the idea with me. They were a little reluctant initially but finally agreed to give it a try. I was asked to work out a flight plan in conjunction with Flight Dispatch, who had all the maps and charts.

While keeping the performance of the Fokker F-27 in mind, we planned a safe route that gave the tourists the best possible view of the peaks. An escape route from any point was a must to allow the pilot to drift down to a safe altitude in case of engine or pressurization failure. The route took us from Rawalpindi to Naran – Chilas – Bunji – Skardu – Gilgit – Sazin –Besham and back. With the exception of the Skardu – Gilgit – Sazin sector, we were flying this route just about daily. The Safari flight would fly at 17,500 feet till Skardu and then climb to 18,500 feet as we turned west towards Gilgit. The first Air Safari was flown by the late Capt Osman Khan and myself. Many more were operated through the summer of 1971 by the two of us and late Capt Javaidullah. These were amongst the most enjoyable flights I have operated in my long career and the passengers were very pleased.

Unfortunately, the war in December 1971, put an end to the Air Safari and the blossoming tourist industry in the north came to a screeching halt

The flights always left very early because visibility was at its best. The first peak that appeared as we passed Naran was Malika Parbat at 5,290 metres. Proceeding further the Nanga Parbat massif came into view with the Haramosh Range and Rakaposhi posing a seemingly impassable barrier a little further away on the left. As we flew over the Indus Valley gorge and passed Chilas, the full glory of Nanga Parbat was an awesome sight. It anchors the western end of the Himalayan range and at 8,126 metres, it is the worlds’ sixth highest mountain. Further up at Bunji, the Raikot glacier flowing out from the base of Nanga Parbat could be admired.

Arriving over Skardu, the tourist would see a proliferation of high peaks to the east. In this jumble, those keen of eye could observe two separate groups. The closer one is the Masherbrum Group and its highest peak at 7,821 metres carries the name of the group. Further away Gasherbrum Group has three peaks above 8,000 metres and a multitude of peaks above 7,000 metres. In the far distance, the magnificent pyramid of K-2 at 8,611 metres, the world’s second highest peak, was visible to the tourists on a clear morning.

Turning west overhead Skardu, we flew parallel to the stark white intimidating barrier of the Haramosh Range with the peaks of Diran (7,266 metres), Haramosh (7,409 metres), Malubiting (7,458 metres) and the magnificent Rakhaposhi (7,788 metres) forming a wall on the right and towering over the Fokker. Coming overhead Gilgit we left the Karakorum Range and turned southwest for Sazin heading towards the Hindu Kush Range on the borders with Afghanistan. As we passed Falak Sar (5,957 metres), the imposing sight of Tirich Mir (7,708 metres), the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalaya-Karakoum ranges, came into view. We then flew over Besham on the Indus and back to Islamabad.

For a Fokker F-27, that was quite a flight!

Unfortunately, the war in December 1971, put an end to the Air Safari and the blossoming tourist industry in the north came to a screeching halt. The summer of 1972 was a complete washout in terms of foreign tourists in the Northern Areas. It picked up a bit in 1973, but the sightseeing round trip joy ride had effectively ended. It was resurrected a long time later and flown on Boeing 737s but then went into slumber.

It has now been revived once again and I pray for its success, just as I pray for the recovery and success of PIA, which I treat as my alma mater.

During the course of my long career, I flew various big jets at high altitude to and from the Far East over this area. Gazing down at the plethora of peaks, valleys and glaciers, I would be awed at what nature had gifted Pakistan. Every flight brought back memories of the time we were flying in the valleys and between the ranges in our trusty Fokker F-27.

Hopefully our initiative will be acknowledged as the first PIA Air Safaris fifty years ago.