PIA at War

Maj Gen Syed Ali Hamid on the wartime adaptability and experience of PIA in times of major conflict

PIA at War
In every major conflict that the nation fought since 1947, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and its predecessors have provided valuable support. During the Kashmir conflict of 1947-49, Orient Airways – which was merged with PIA when the airline was established in 1955 – provided a lifeline to the population of Gilgit and Skardu. The occupation of Kashmir by the Indian Army severed the land route and half a million people faced possible starvation. On the directives of the Pakistan Ministry of Defence, Orient launched Operation GILGIT AIRLIFT in 1948. English, Polish, Australian and some American pilots were the daredevils who flew the DC-3s into the valleys – at times wearing oxygen masks. These flights, which could go up to 10 a day, were operated out of the base in Peshawar. More than anything else, it was the experience of these pilots that led them through the treacherous terrain. There were no navigational aids, or radio or refueling facility, and maps were not entirely correct. Pilots would follow the snaking Indus River and land on air strips of dirt to unload critically needed supplies.

Fifteen years later, during the 1965 War, PIA was operating under the leadership of Air Marshal Asghar Khan – who is recognized as the father of the modern PAF. PIA’s fleet of Boeings and their crews provided sterling service in transporting war supplies from abroad. There was an acute shortage of artillery ammunition and the five old propeller-driven Lockheed Martin Super Constellations, each with a capacity of 25 tons, were flown on resupply missions to Iran and Turkey. Even the medium-haul Vickers Viscount was pressed into service to support the war effort. On the ground, personnel from the PIA Engineering Department helped the PAF in repairing its aircrafts.

A PIA Boeing 720-040B taxiing for take-off from Tejgaon Airport, Dhaka. The PIA's fleet of Boeings provided a lifeline to the Pakistan Army during 1971

However, PIA’s finest hour was in the months leading up to the 1971 War. When the law-and-order situation in East Pakistan deteriorated in March, a meeting of a Senior Review Group was held in Washington, which was presided by Kissinger and attended by Richard Helms the Director of CIA and others from the National Security Council (NSC) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The minutes recorded:

The judgement of all of us is that with the number of troops available to Yahya (a total of 20,000, with 12,000 combat troops) and a hostile East Pakistan population of 75 million, the result would be a bloodbath with no hope of West Pakistan reestablishing control over East Pakistan”.

The meeting did not take into account the capability of Pakistan’s airline and its air force to conduct a strategic airlift to the eastern wing. This was in spite of the fact that PIA had already demonstrated its capability to lift troops. Near the end of February, PIA Boeings had transported 1,400 soldiers of two battalions from Karachi to Dhaka in three days.

PIA Fokker (AP-ALX) that crashed on the night of the 12th of December off the Makran Coast while conducting a maritime reconnaissance sortie, killing its crew

On the 25th of March, the Pakistan High Command launched an operation dubbed “THE GREAT FLY-IN”. It involved lifting two infantry divisions without their transport and heavy weapons as well as a large number of second-line troops of the Civil Armed Forces. To regulate the airlift into Dhaka, the Pakistan Air Force took over the administration of the Tejgaon Airport. 75 percent of the PIA fleet, consisting of seven Boeing 707s and 4 Boeing 720s, were utilized and the lift was supplemented by five Hercules C-130B/E aircraft out of the nine that were in service with the transport squadron of the PAF. The maximum seating capacity of the Boeing 720s was 165 but the airline removed all the seats and the troops sat on the floor. This nearly doubled the capacity and each flight lifted nearly two companies of infantry – but only with their personal weapons. However, it was a long flight since India had banned overflights since January and all Pakistani aircraft had to detour via Colombo. Heavy weapons like the 106mm recoilless rifles and mortars as well as their ammunition were transported in the C-130s, which also had a seating capacity of 95 soldiers each.

The airlift was conducted in two phases. In the first phase – which was the larger one of the two and began on the 25th of March – the headquarters of two infantry divisions and five brigades, along with 12 infantry batallions and one commando battalion were moved to East Pakistan in under two weeks. The Indian air controls must have reported this heavy flow of air traffic from Karachi to Dhaka but the Indian Government was powerless to interfere. The arrival of over two infantry divisions within two weeks was a vital factor in sustaining the operations of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan.
Orient Airways launched Operation GILGIT AIRLIFT in 1948. English, Polish, Australian and American pilots were the daredevils who flew the DC-3s into the valleys – at times wearing oxygen masks

There was another meeting of a Senior Review Group in Washington on the 19th of April, again presided over by Kissinger, and its conclusions were very different to the forecast made in the previous meeting. The minutes stated:

“There are 20,000 to 40,000 West Pakistan troops - possibly more. It is only a matter of time before they control all the population centers. The Bengali forces aren’t resisting; they’re just melting away.”

Terminal Building of Tejgaon Airport, Dhaka - which received all the airlift sorties of PIA and PAF from Karachi in March-April 1971

The second phase of the airlift was carried out from the 24th of April onwards and lasted nine days. During this phase, three more infantry battalions, two heavy mortar batteries, two wings each of East Pakistan Civil Armed Force and West Pakistan Rangers, and a number of wings of the Frontier Scouts, were re-positioned.

In the history of civil aviation, there is no other example of troops on so large a scale being airlifted by a commercial airline. Reportedly, “THE GREAT FLY-IN” was included in the syllabus at the United States Air Force (USAF) Academy at Colorado Springs as an example of how civilian airliners could be used by the military during a conflict. Once the airlift got underway, PIA Fokker F-27s based in East Pakistan ferried the troops onwards to various sectors. Two C-130B aircraft of the PAF were also stationed in Dhaka to link the areas under Pakistani control and ferry fuel from Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Prior to the 1971 war, PIA had drafted a War Plan for the safe positioning of its aircraft. Each aircraft was assigned a destination with a team comprising of pilots, engineers and mechanics headed by a Captain. The PIA fleet of Boeings were ferried to Ceylon and parked at the Colombo airport but sorties were being flown to Urumqi in China to collect arms and ammunition. Unfortunately, a Boeing 707-340C (AP-AVZ) that had been inducted only a year ago crashed on the 15th of December while landing in Urumqi. The aircraft slid off the runway, which was covered in snow, and was damaged beyond repair.

Dakotas of the Orient Airways flew relief supplies to Gilgit and Skardu during the Kashmir conflict of 1947-49

There were five Fokkers based at Rawalpindi which were ferried to Zahedan in Iran.

Ejaz Haq, who was one of the junior Captains on Fokkers, was piloting a scheduled flight from Karachi to Rawalpindi on the 3rd of December but on landing en route in Multan, he was ordered to unload his passengers and divert to Zahedan. Another Fokker at Multan also followed him, while the rest arrived from Rawalpindi.

According to Ejaz Haq,

“During the war, these Fokkers operated several sorties on different missions. The main mission was running supply runs. The Iranian Air Force would ferry crated supplies to Zahedan during the day and then we would ferry them to various airfields in Pakistan during the night. [...] We would take off from Zahedan at dusk to be in Pakistani airspace at night. Since all civilian navigation aids had been switched off, we navigated all the way by deduced reckoning i.e. simply all by calculation. There was blackout in the country and thus no lights to identify points on the ground. We were instructed to fly as low as possible once east of the Indus and figuring out exactly where to descend from safety altitude became crucial. On landing, while the supplies were quickly off loaded, the aircraft were refueled and we were out of Pakistani airspace by dawn. It goes to the credit of all the pilots based in Zahedan that all flights were completed safely.”
In the history of civil aviation, there is no other example of troops on so large a scale being airlifted by a commercial airline. Reportedly, “THE GREAT FLY-IN” was included in the syllabus at the United States Air Force (USAF) Academy at Colorado Springs as an example of how civilian airliners could be used by the military

The Fokkers at Zahedan had a secondary mission of patrolling the Pakistan coast for any intruders from the Indian Navy. According to Ejaz Haq,

“Some bright spark in the Air Priority Board thought that the weather radar in the Fokker F-27 would be useful in spotting hostile ships for the Navy.”

From the first day of the war, maritime reconnaissance over the Arabian Sea was also conducted by Fokkers and civil aviation aircraft based in Karachi. With no prior experience in this role, the pilots were literally at sea but on the very first day of the war, at about 6:00 pm, a Fokker from Karachi flying along the Kathiawar coast sighted a flotilla of six Indian warships and two merchant ships. However, the Pakistani submarines deployed in the area received the information too late to engage the Indina flotilla.

PIA Lockheed L-1049C Super Constellation with a 25-ton cargo capacity transported ammunition from Iran and Turkey during the 1965 Indo-Pak war

Unfortunately, in spite of flying 8-10 sorties per day, the aircraft could not detect the two attacks on Karachi harbour that were launched by Indian ships and missile boats on the nights of 4-5 and 8-9 December. Three days later, on the night of 12-13 December, a PIA Fokker (AP-ALX) was sent to locate the attackers but sadly it crashed off the Makran Coast – killing its crew of three. In all probability, the fatigued pilots were disoriented in a pitch-dark night and the aircraft descended into the Ras Malan Hills off the coast. The PIA crew included Captain Mubashir Hameed, First Officer Syed Khalid Javaid and Navigator B D Cheema. This aircraft was the only casualty of the 59 maritime reconnaissance sorties by PIA aircraft and 68 by aircraft of the civil aviation that were flown during the war.

At the start of the war, PIA had two Twin Otters at Dhaka Airport which were concealed under trees since there were no pens large enough to protect them. The Indians carried out a series of raids to destroy the airfield at Dhaka Airport and on the afternoon of the 4th of December, a Twin Otter was destroyed by an Indian MiG-21FL. Just before the runway in Dhaka finally became unserviceable for flying operations, the Fokkers based there were flown out on the night of the 7th of December to Kunming in southern China. The surviving Twin Otter managed to take off on the 8th of December for Myanmar. It was a risky flight because the slow and unarmed aircraft could have been intercepted by the Indian Air Force (IAF) which now ruled the skies over East Pakistan. It carried the Sabre pilots of the No.14 PAF Squadron and was flown by Pervez Iqbal Chaudhry, a 23-year-old first officer. After retiring from PIA, he joined Airblue and was the captain of the unfortunate A321 Airbus that crashed into the Margalla Hills near Islamabad in 2009.

After the ceasefire, the PIA fleet that had been scattered abroad gradually returned to Pakistan. Probably the most hazardous flight was of the Fokkers at Kunming. They were flown the long way around China to Hotan situated at the southernmost edge of the Taklamakan Desert, just north of the Himalayas. From there they were to be flown over the mountains to Chaklala but the Dhaka-based crews were not qualified to fly in Pakistan’s Northern Areas and pilots were flown from Chaklala to Hotan to bring the aircraft home. Ejaz Haq was one of the pilots selected to complete the mission and he recollects that because the aircraft were too heavily loaded, it was impossible to fly them over the mountains. Therefore, they had to wait for a totally clear day to navigate a long route over the Khunjerab Pass, then all the way through the Hunza valley and on down the Indus valley to Chaklala.

I am grateful to my lifelong friend Ejaz Haq for allowing me to quote from his article “A PIA Pilots Recollections of the Pakistan-India War of 1971”  and for vetting my article. I have also consulted the article “Air Support at Sea – 1971 War” by Kaiser Tufail.