In May 1954, Pakistan had signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with the United States and by 1955, it had also become a member of SEATO and CENTO. Those were exciting times for our young air force because the US had agreed to equip it with 102 North American F-86 Sabres as well as T-33 Shooting Star jet trainers and B-57 Bombers. The F-104 Star Fighters would be released a few years later. The Sabre was a battle proven design that had fought extensively in the Korean War. It was the first jet aircraft designed for an air superiority role and by the standards of the 1950s, it was a sleek, modern war machine - a state-of-the-art weapons system.
By the end of 1956 the PAF was halfway past in its conversion to the F-86s, when it was asked to consider a dramatic public introduction of its latest weapon system by staging a ‘Sabre Only’ fly-past on the first 23rd March Parade to be held in 1957. The Pakistan Air Force was young in terms of organization and service of its officers, but some of its leaders had flown combat sorties during the Second World War and were not averse to taking risks. Air Vice Marshal Asghar Khan, the Deputy C-in-C Administration had flown bombing missions in Burma and subsequently commanded a squadron of Hawker Hurricanes. Nur Khan, who was the Deputy C-in-C (Air Operations) in 1957, had flown with No.7 Squadron in Burma carrying out high-angle dive bombing attacks in his Vultee Vengeance. The PAF also had legends like Fuad Shahid (FS) Hussain who was acknowledged as ‘The Prince of Pilots’ and was an inspiration for a breed of younger pilots who would perform brilliantly in the 1965 War.
The PAF not only agreed to a ‘Sabre Only’ flypast, it was also prepared to execute it with 64 aircraft which corresponded with the maximum number of Sabre pilots it could muster. In August 1956, the PAF had established the No. 32 Fighter Ground Attack Wing at Mauripur which was being equipped with the F-86. Of its four squadrons that were to participate in the flypast, two had received the Sabres earlier but No.14 and 16 were newly raised and had the least experienced pilots. At the time the decision was taken, the conversion program had produced about 60 pilots whose time on the Sabre ranged from a couple of hundred hours to ten hours or less. Everything was hurriedly put together to complete the total of 64 pilots with a couple of reserves for the Pakistan Day Flypast. In fact, on the momentous day, some of the pilots in No.14 Squadron had less than 2 hours of flying time on the Sabre! There was no dual-seater version of the aircraft so the pilots first did their jet conversion training on the T-33 Shooting Star, which was a dual-seater. This training was held with the No.2 (Fighter Conversion) Squadron at Mauripur. Then after the necessary classes and cockpit familiarization with the F-86, the first experience of the pilots in flying a Sabre was solo.
The flypast was to be conducted from the PAF base at Mauripur (renamed as Masroor Air Base in 1967), which had been established in 1940-41, as a temporary staging post and air transport base for the US Air Corps. In 1942 it became the site of Air Headquarters, India, and a transit station for thousands of troops moving to and from the Far East during and after the Second World War. In 1945, the Royal Air Force took over the base as a strategic link for India and the Far East. To handle the large amount of air traffic, a very large apron, known as the ’Trooping Apron’, was constructed. The number of flights during 1945-46 made Mauripur look like a scaled-down version of present-day Gatwick, with daily air movements running into three figures and at its peak, the trooping apron held upwards of 70 to 80 aircraft a day. The picture of the aircraft line-up on the 14th of August 1956 provides a view of the trooping apron.
On the day of the flypast, the ground engineers accomplished a miracle by achieving a 100 percent serviceability. In 1956, the US Army Corps of Engineers had undertaken a program of strengthening the main Runway 27 and extending it from 6,100 to 9,000 feet to accommodate large aircraft of the USAF. Therefore 64 Sabres crammed up to takeoff on the old Runway 04. Since Runway 04 was short, the pilots had to apply 98 percent power, consuming precious fuel. The Sabre had no external tanks which drastically limited its endurance. A flypast required slow and low-level flight and the internal fuel tanks gave the aircraft an endurance of just over 30 minutes. Within this time, each aircraft had to taxi, takeoff, form up, fly past and land. Mauripur Air Base was only 5 nautical miles from the Karachi Polo Ground - where the flypast had to take place. Therefore the fleet first headed west, assembled into diamond formations, each comprising of four flights of Sabres in a four-ship formation, before turning towards the polo ground.
The flypast was flawless and population of Karachi was thrilled by this new spectacle of air power from the PAF.
The 64 fuel-starved jet fighters now headed back to land on the single Mauripur runway. If Runway 04 posed a problem at takeoff, recovery was even more challenging - not only because of its short length but at its furthest end was a two-feet-high lip of the under construction Runway 27. In spite of this, the recovery was progressing smoothly when disaster struck. On the short final (the last stage of the landing phase and prior to touchdown), the pilots had to reduce speed to the desired 120 knots, flare out to break the glide of the aircraft and fly parallel to the runway for a smooth touchdown.
A young inexperienced pilot was unable to execute this maneuver correctly and crash-landed, blocking the runway. The control tower at Mauripur had no option but to divert the 40 or so Sabres that were still holding pattern to the Karachi Civil Airport, 13 nautical miles to the east. Within minutes, the Karachi airport witnessed a rare spectacle as swarms of F-86 Sabres made a beeline for it, frantically jockeying for position in the landing stream because no one had the fuel to go around! The last few aircraft may well have touched down with only vapour in their tanks.
The risk that was taken may have been the dying echoes of an era gone by when pilots flew by the seat of their pants but the achievement was spectacular, to say the least, and quite memorable. Not one to rest on its laurels, the following year, the PAF put on a flying display at Maripur for King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan, in which for the first time anywhere, sixteen Sabres did a spectacular loop in formation; but that is another story to be told another time.