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Citius, Altius

Some recollections of the author’s aerial frolics in the quest to go faster, higher.    Mach Busting The sight and sound of the ro...

February 6, 2018

Reliving the Past - Veterans Fly the F-16

A call from the Vice Chief of Air Staff asking me if I wanted to fly the F-16 got an immediate positive response, notwithstanding the fact that I had last flown the F-16 three decades ago. The stated objective was for a few retired veterans to assess the capabilities of the much modified fighter, as well as its young pilots, from a ‘then and now’ perspective – a sort of evaluation by independent auditors.  It seemed like a great idea coming from the Chief of Air Staff, and was certainly ‘out-of-the-box.’ 
Four of us veterans (an Air Marshal, two Air Vice Marshals, and me, an Air Commodore) were flown to an F-16 Base in a special executive jet.  Soon after a smart welcome on arrival, we were huddled into the auditorium for a crisp mission briefing by the Squadron Commander of No 9 Squadron, Wg Cdr Yasir Shafiq.  The brief was rich in techno-jargon and fancy terms we had never heard before while flying the no-frills Block-15 version.  It was quite apparent that the tactics and employment methods had transformed significantly after the Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) on the F-16s. We were to be introduced to Beyond Visual Range (BVR) intercepts, as well as Stand-off Laser Guided Bombing (dummy attacks) with the help of the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. Some flying time was also reserved for us to throw around the aircraft, and assess for ourselves the workings of our aging sinew and muscle.

Some time was spent struggling into our old flying coveralls that we had brought along, though the anti-G suits and helmets were new, as our old ones were either unserviceable, or could not fit over our none-too-slender appendages. When we were all garbed up, we felt an inexplicable transformation that made us feel like the coolest hot rods, no matter that we were all well-established sexagenarians.  

Cockpit procedures and strapping up seemed routine, except for the almost arthritic inability to twist around and select the oxygen switch at the extreme rear of the right hand panel. Taxiing out in pairs, we lined up and did the engine run up checks. With the Squadron Commander in the lead, the first F-16 rolled for take-off, with us as No 2 following 10 seconds later.  Thoroughly excited as the five stages of the afterburner cut in an unbroken sequence, I was slammed against the seat as the aircraft roared away, with Sqn Ldr Sami at the controls in the front seat. As a special favour, the Squadron Commander had allowed us a rocket trajectory take-off, perhaps recalling my penchant for such astronautics from previous years. Exhilaration knew no bounds as we zoomed up to our exercise altitude, and split up to start an interception. 
Instead of the single Radar Electro-Optical scope of the older version, the MLU aircraft has two Multi-Function Displays that can show radar and navigation-map data. The display was hard to interpret without proper ground schooling, as it had all kinds of target data available. Radar information from AWACs, ground radars and other formation members can be shared through data link, providing the pilot with a complete three-dimensional all-around coverage or the ‘God’s eye view.’ Situational awareness of pilots has never been better, but requires exceptional abilities to interpret the plethora of symbols and numbers usefully. Those skills were evident as Sami gave me a running commentary of the target (leader’s aircraft), as we ran through the intercept geometry. Used to shooting aircraft in visual ranges, I was amazed to learn that the fight was over not long after the aircraft appeared on the radar scope!  It had been ‘knocked’ out by a simulated BVR missile far beyond the eyes could see. The fire control computer was constantly providing information on the shrinking and expanding ‘dynamic launch zone’ as the target tried to out-turn the missile, which of course, was a futile effort.  If somehow, an enemy aircraft were to sneak into visual ranges, the radar-coupled helmet-mounted sight would require the pilot to just look at the target and press the missile launch button.  Instead of having to manoeuvre the aircraft like old times, one ‘dirty look’ by the pilot can do the needful.  The 20 mm Vulcan cannon remains a backup weapon and can discharge a fusillade at a ripping rate of 100 rounds per second.  I was doubly convinced that coming out alive after a hostile encounter with the MLU F-16 would be a miracle, so this is a beast best avoided by any adversary.

Demonstration of a dummy attack against a ground target with the Sniper electro-optical pod was the next item on the agenda. The Sniper pod allows aircrews to detect, identify and engage targets outside the range of most enemy air defences. It also allows engagements beyond jet noise range for counter-insurgency operations.

The pod incorporates a high definition Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) seeker, as well as visible-light HDTV, laser spot tracker, laser marker, video data link, and a digital data recorder. The pod’s FLIR allows observation and tracking through smoke and haze, and in low light or no light conditions. The CCD camera supports the same operations in visible light for most daylight conditions.
It being a hazy day, FLIR mode was selected, and a target was identified and immediately tracked. Zooming in from far-off ranges helped resolve the target down to fine details that were unimaginable with the older ATLIS pod, that we had flown in the eighties. More importantly, the standoff range from the target has improved considerably, and targeting can be done safely from further off. The video of the target can be shared by formation members or army ground liaison staff in real time through data link. Sensor fusion is the key to this lethal game, and this could not have been more evident during the slick attack sequence we went through.
Time came for throwing the aircraft around, so the leader of the formation announced some mild tail chase. Not ready for the sudden onset of Gs, I strained my neck, which is a not an uncommon problem afflicting those who have stayed away from the F-16 for a while. The flight controls are driven by the same old right hand electric joystick, but the functions of the buttons on the stick (and throttle) have increased manifold. The facility and confidence with which Sami was handling the aircraft and its sensors was a marvel, and bespoke of his experience on the type that was past the 1,500 hours mark.
Landings were uneventful, and we taxied back to the aircraft shelters with ground crew eager to welcome us back after a unique experience. Soon afterwards, media teams emerged with their video cameras and mikes for short interviews regarding our experience. Here is what the veterans had to say:
Air Marshal Qazi Javed: “Fantastic! After 25 years, when you sit in an F-16, it is absolutely fantastic. The number of sensors these aircraft have is unbelievable; the situation awareness they provide is out of this world. I wish in our times, we had one-tenth of what we saw today. I wish the PAF good luck. Everyone is doing a fantastic job.”
Air Vice Marshal Hamid Khawaja: “It was a great experience. I returned after 20 years, which is a long time. The things I have seen today are very encouraging. The aircraft that I flew today has been modified so much – so much gadgetry – it makes you very happy to see that. I was very glad to see the pilots who are very comfortable with the aircraft. The level of experience of the younger pilots is very good too.”
Air Vice Marshal Faaiz Amir: “It reinforces my belief in the quality of today’s air force … more so the quality of pilots, although there is great improvement in the equipment as well. I was very pleased to see the competency of the pilots during the air-to-air exercise that we flew today. The technicians too are maintaining a very high standard of maintenance, and the aircraft are in very good shape. Godspeed to the Pakistan Air Force.”
Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail: “I was flying the F-16 after 30 years, and the last I flew any fighter was in 2004. It was a wonderful experience and I really enjoyed it. This aircraft is absolutely different from what we flew three decades ago. It is a completely changed aircraft, full of avionics, full of gadgetry. However, the best part I liked was the professionalism of the pilots. Everyone is very dedicated. I think everything has transformed. It is a very powerful punch-packed air force. I am very impressed.”

September 23, 2017

Super Mushshak - A Nifty Trainer Comes of Age

Development of MFI-15 Safari
Björn Andreasson, a Swedish aeronautical engineer working for Convair USA, designed his home-built BA-7 in 1958, incorporating the distinctive shoulder-mounted wing with a forward sweep. Returning to Sweden in 1960, Andreasson joined Malmö Flygindustri where he designed an improved version of BA-7 that went into production as the MFI-9 Junior, along with its German license-built clone, the Bölkow 208. Improvements included a larger cockpit, and a more powerful Continental O-200 flat-four, air cooled piston engine delivering 75 kW (100 HP).
When Malmö Flygindustri decided to build a senior version of the Junior, Andreasson was at hand to oversee the project.  The MFI-15 Safari was an all-metal aerobatic trainer and utility aircraft, with a more powerful piston engine.  It featured shoulder-mounted wings having a 5° forward sweep, fixed tricycle landing gear, and side-by-side seating for two, with dual stick type controls. An additional passenger could also be housed in a spacious baggage compartment.  The prototype flew in July 1969.  A more powerful Avco Lycoming IO-360-A1B6, four-cylinder, air-cooled piston engine became the standard power plant for the production version from 1971 onwards.

A tail-wheel version of the MFI-15 was also conceived, whereby, the regular tricycle configuration could be converted into a tail-dragger in a couple of hours, as attachment points were provided for either type of gear. This version also had provision for quick-refit, high-lift slotted flaps instead of plain flaps, for STOL performance. During flight trials, it was discovered that when using these high-lift flaps at full down (38°) for a short landing, the downwash from the main wing caused tail plane buffet.
The tail plane was, therefore, shifted up, out of the downwash. An added benefit of the T-tail configuration was that the tail plane stayed clear of debris kicked up by the prop wash during rough field operations. Contrary to expectations, however, the Army version with tail wheel and high-lift flaps was not chosen  by any customer.

Unusual Aerodynamics
In theory, shoulder-mounted wings – or more properly, eye-level mounted wings – allow the pilot to see above and below the wings, quite unlike the fully high or low mounted ones, which block the upper or lower views. In practice, the problem with shoulder-mounted wings is that the when the centre of gravity and centre of aerodynamic pressure are properly balanced for positive longitudinal stability, the wing spar ends up running through the cockpit in light aircraft. This would not happen in high or low mounted wings, as the wing spar would be well clear, above or below the cockpit.
A solution to this problem of shoulder-mounted wings was found in the forward swept configuration, where the wing root is attached to the fuselage sufficiently aft – so that the wing spar is clear of the cockpit – yet retaining the desired longitudinal stability. The result of this shoulder-mounted configuration is unrestricted vertical visibility. For similar reasons of visibility and longitudinal balance, several gliders have a slight forward swept design.
Some tweaking of the forward swept wing design was required on the MFI-15, because the wing root was attached against the fuselage in such a position that the pilot had to crane his neck forward to see along the wing leading edge (or the ‘3-9 line’).  A simple solution to the problem was an angled indent at the wing root that cleared up the obstruction.  
To improve handling at high angles of attack, small fixed slats at the wing root were incorporated to allow high-energy air to swish through the slot to the upper surface of the wing, and smoothening out the airflow by reattaching the separated boundary layer.  Higher angles of attack can thus be achieved, which help exploit the coefficient of lift (CL) to the maximum, without any adverse behaviour setting in.  In effect, these fixed slats work in ways similar to leading edge root extensions (LERX) on modern fighters, which generate high-energy vortices over the wings. The vortices smoothen out the airflow over the wing surface, well past the normal stall point at which the airflow would otherwise break up, thus sustaining lift at slow speeds and during high-g manoeuvring.

Speed and Range
The MFI-15 never made big claims about speed and range, having to strike a compromise between the requirements of an aerobatics trainer and a utility aircraft. An aerobatic aircraft stressed to +6, -3 g cannot have a high aspect ratio due to demands of structural integrity. The wingspan is thus small in relation to the wing area.  Such a design militates against a utility aircraft, which entails high aspect ratios for better lifting efficiency and less drag – in other words, faster speeds and longer ranges.  The fixed landing gear does not help matters either, though in ab initio flying training, as well as ground operation from rough fields, the simplicity of fixed gear, its sturdiness, and ease of maintenance are quite desirable. The penalty paid in terms of drag was, thus, unavoidable but acceptable, considering the role of the aircraft.  All said, the excellent handling characteristics and panoramic visibility made the MFI-15 popular amongst the civilian air enthusiasts in Europe, who bought a large number of these aircraft.

MFI-15 as a Military Trainer
The first military customer of the MFI-15 was the Republic of Sierra Leone Air Force, which purchased two aircraft in 1973 for training pilots of its fledgling air arm. The aircraft were sold off five years later, as the air force never really took-off.
The Royal Norwegian Air Force purchased 18 MFI-15 in 1981, with a later order of 5 MFI-17 as attrition replacements.  These continue to provide primary pilot training at the Flight Training School in Bardufoss, located well north of the Arctic Circle.
In 1968, the Royal Swedish Air Force had started a search for replacement of its SAAB Safir trainer, while the Swedish Army also wanted a replacement of its Super Cubs.  At that time the MFI-15 was still in the development stage. Despite the fact that non-aligned Sweden had always depended on its own industry for all military equipment, it had to choose from what was available at that time: the spruced up and renamed MFI-9B Mil-Trainer, Scottish Aviation Bulldog and SIAI-Marchetti SF-260.  In the event, the decision went in favour of the Bulldog; unfortunately, the MFI-15 was just a little late on the scene.
MFI-17 Supporter / Mushshak
Eyeing the military potential of the aircraft, Malmö Flygindustri developed a lightly armed COIN-capable version, the MFI-17 Supporter, which first flew in July 1972.  It differed from the Safari only in having strengthened wing spars for six underwing stations that could carry machine gun or rocket pods. The idea was spawned by the successful use of MFI-9 Junior by a few intrepid soldiers of fortune, in support of Biafra’s fight for secession from Nigeria. Led by the dashing Swedish Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen, a flamboyantly named squadron, the ‘Biafra Babies’, was raised with five MFI-9 armed with underwing Matra SNEB 68 mm rockets.  Two Swedes and two Biafrans made up the aircrew.  Starting on 22 May 1969, the squadron conducted a series of spectacular strikes on Nigerian airfields that seemed right out of a low-budget thriller. Caught by complete surprise, several Nigerian Air Force MiG-17 and three Il-28 bombers were destroyed in the raids. With the ability of light aircraft to conduct meaningful operations clearly demonstrated – albeit by mercenaries – Malmö Flygindustri set about marketing its diminutive MFI-17 as a multi-role platform for military users.
Pakistan Air Force, which had been using the aging T-6G Harvard as primary trainers since its inception in 1947, decided to replace them with something more modern, and less daunting for ab initio pilots.  In 1973, SAAB-Scania (Malmö Flygindustri’s parent company) offered to demonstrate the capabilities of its new product. The offer was most opportune for the PAF, as well as Pak Army which was also looking for a replacement of its aging Cessna L-19.  An MFI-17 (SE-XCF) , along with SAAB technical staff, was airlifted from Sturup, Sweden, in a DC-6 cargo plane, and flown to Rawalpindi in November 1973. A series of flight trials were conducted at PAF Academy, Risalpur and the Army Aviation Base at Dhamial. The trials were rounded off with a thrilling ground attack demonstration by the company test pilot Ove Dahlén at the Nowshera Artillery Firing Range, where Bantam rockets were accurately fired at a wagon rolled on to a railway track segment.  Though satisfied with the aircraft’s flight performance, the PAF and Pak Army Aviation showed no  interest in the trainer’s puny ground attack capability that could have fallen foul of Swedish neutrality laws.  Pakistan’s interest in another Swedish jet trainer and ground attack aircraft, the SAAB 105G, had recently come to naught as it fell in the category of ‘lethal weaponry’ whose sale was prohibited to countries that had an ongoing conflict.
PAF signed the first contract for purchase of MFI-17 from SAAB-Scania in June 1974. Several successive contracts followed, each tailored for progressive transfer of technology. The first batch of 15 ‘ready-to-fly’ aircraft was to be followed by assembly of 10 semi-knocked down kits (SKD), and subsequent assembly of 82 complete knock down (CKD) kits, the whole program spread over eight years.
The first of the ‘ready-to-fly’ aircraft (74-501, temporarily under civil registration SE-FIH) was actually ferried across in an epic 8-day journey from Sweden to Pakistan, involving over 40 refuelling stops. The aircraft was flown by Malmö Flygindustri’s pilot Sven-Erik Larsson, with a handy mechanic, Ingvar Larsson, by his side to fix any maintenance problems enroute. The aircraft landed in Rawalpindi on 16 August, 1974. The remaining 14 aircraft were airlifted over the next twelve months in four sorties of PAF C-130 and a chartered Transmeridian CL-44.
Pakistan's first locally manufactured aircraft seen against
the backdrop of Minar-e-Pakistan and Badshahi Mosque
in Lahore. [Painting by Rehan Siraj]
Delivery of 10 semi-knocked down (SKD) kits started in 1976, these being assembled in a maintenance hangar at PAF Academy, Risalpur.  From early 1977 to late 1983, 82 complete knocked down (CKD) kits were assembled at Risalpur, with the aircraft being renamed ‘Mushshak’ (‘Proficient’ in Urdu).  When Malmö Flygindustri ceased logistics support in 1982, Pakistan signed a deal with SAAB-Scania for licensed manufacture to meet the increasing demand of what was found to be a very useful multi-purpose aircraft.  Production of the aircraft started at the newly established Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF) within the sprawling Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra, northern Pakistan. Pakistan's first-ever locally manufactured aircraft (Mushshak 83-5117) rolled out in September 1983. Between 1983 and 1997, AMF built 180 Mushshak aircraft from raw materials.  
Besides Pakistan Air Force, as many as 174 Mushshaks were procured by Pakistan Army Aviation for air support operations, including forward air controlling, artillery spotting and field liaison duties.
25 PAC-manufactured Mushshaks were sold to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force in 1990. One Super Mushshak was purchased by Iran in 1997, possibly to use it as a sample for modification of previously purchased Mushshaks; however, there is no confirmation about any such upgrades.
Six Mushshaks were gifted to the Syrian Arab Air Force by the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It may be recalled that Pakistan’s relations with Syria were at a high during the premiership of her father, and the country was considered a close Arab ally.
The Royal Danish Air Force did not have to look far when it chose the MFI-17 as its primary trainer in 1976. Of the 32 MFI-17s (designated T-17 by RDAF) that were ordered from SAAB, 23 went to the air force, while nine went to the Danish Army Air Service for artillery spotting and liaison duties. When the latter service was disbanded in 2003, all assets were transferred to the air force.  Primary flying training continues to be imparted on the T-17 at the Flying School in Air Base Karup.
Zambian Air Force was the next SAAB customer, with deliveries of 20 MFI-17 aircraft starting in 1977. The ZAF used the aircraft for primary training of its pilots for over three decades.  The surviving aircraft were known to be suffering from serious maintenance problems, and were eventually grounded.

Super Mushshak
The PAF was not too happy about the slow rate of climb of the Mushshak in hot summer temperatures, as students were left with less time aloft to perform their air exercises.   This was quite in contrast to the 1973 flight trials, which had been held in the cold November weather, something that had been smartly planned by SAAB, but somehow not seen through by the PAF. Pakistan Army Aviation, used to the STOL capability of the earlier L-19s, was also not impressed with the Mushshak’s take-off performance, especially from unprepared airfields in forward areas. Cruise speed was also a feature that required enhancement.
The need for performance improvements was felt as far back as 1985, when AMF, SAAB-Scania and Teledyne Continental Motors teamed up to retrofit the Mushshak with a more powerful engine. The Continental IO-360 six-cylinder turbo-charged engine, delivering 210 horsepower, was chosen for the ‘Shahbaz’ (‘Royal Falcon’ in Persian), as the modified aircraft was to be known. Work continued for the next two years, incurring an expenditure of US$ 2 million, but the results were far from satisfactory.  The failure of the project was largely due to design changes in the basic aircraft that negatively affected stability and balance.
With pilots still unhappy about the performance of the weak 200 horsepower engine, the power plant retrofit project was revived in 1995.  A strict stipulation not to meddle with the basic design of the aircraft was laid out from the outset. The Lycoming IO-540-V4A5 six-cylinder engine delivering 260 horsepower was selected. The already available maintenance facilities and compatibility of a large number of spare parts, were important considerations for choosing the Lycoming engine.
Installation of the engine entailed a new engine mount that was designed and tested by AMF to verify its load limits.  The slightly increased size of the new engine and minor changes in its shape also entailed a new cowling that was designed and fabricated locally. The choice of a suitable propeller for the new engine mainly centred on the issue of a two or three-blade type.  Both types were tested, but the differences in performance were marginal, so AMF followed a more economical course and stayed with the Hartzell two-blade, variable pitch, constant speed propeller.
Besides the engine, additional modifications to the aircraft included a powerful air conditioning system, electrical trimmers, and re-wiring for some new electrically powered instruments.
The aircraft flew its first test flight with the Lycoming IO-540-V4A5 engine on 15 August 1996, a mere eight months after the start of the project. The heavier engine and air conditioning system required placement of ballast in the aft fuselage to maintain the centre of gravity. The aerobatic category, along with spin capability, was thus retained in accordance with US FAR 23.3 regulations. The aircraft showed significant performance improvement in all three desired areas viz, take-off distance, rate of climb and cruise speed.  The most welcome of all modifications was the air conditioning system, as aircrew had been operating in scorching weather with summer temperatures routinely exceeding 45°C in many parts of Pakistan.
With all modification parameters met, and a marked improvement in performance, it was considered befitting to rename the aircraft. While various names were under consideration, a team of journalists visiting Pakistan Aeronautical Complex learnt about the newly modified Mushshak. Next day, newspapers reported some exciting stories about Pakistan’s ‘Super Mushshak’, a name that has stuck ever since.
PAF started upgrading its Mushshaks in 2001, and in the next five years, all its training fleet was modified to the Super Mushshak standard. Three Super Mushshak aircraft have also been procured by the Army for training of their instructors at PAF’s Flying Instructors’ School in Risalpur.

Going by the trend of overseas customers preferring a glass cockpit (Garmin 950 or Dynon Skyview suite), PAF also decided to install a Dynon suite on its Super Mushshaks. The good thing about this display is that it can be customised to show only the basic information, so that ab initio trainees are not overloaded with superfluous data. PAF Academy has found this scheme useful, and today’s video games-savvy students have been found to have no difficulty in adapting to the digital displays.
 Export Customers of Super Mushshak
In the rather restricted category of fully aerobatic piston engine trainers, with fixed tricycle landing gear, and side-by-side seating, there was hardly any competition for the Super Mushshak. Aircraft with these features are ideal as ab initio trainers, and at the turn of the century, one of the few aircraft that fitted this category was the German Grob G115.  The highly successful Italian origin SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 was also a capable aircraft, but had a retractable undercarriage, and was costlier than the Super Mushshak.  Being a niche product, and quite affordable, the Super Mushshak was able to capture a sizeable market in the Middle East.
The Royal Air Force of Oman became the first overseas customer of the Super Mushshak with the purchase of five aircraft in 2003. Three of its Mushshaks that were on the inventory since 1993 were also upgraded to the new Super Mushshak standard.
The Royal Saudi Air Force showed interest in the Super Mushshak as a replacement of its Cessna 172, which was being used for screening and elementary training at King Faisal Air Academy. After a series of aerial trials, a contract for the sale of 20 aircraft, along with after-sales support, was signed in 2004.
Qatar Emiri Air Force was next to order eight Super Mushshak in 2016. Deliveries are underway at the time of this writing. These aircraft would be used for screening and elementary training at the QEAF Air Academy.
The Super Mushshak marked its presence in Africa with Nigerian Air Force ordering ten aircraft in 2016. Deliveries of these aircraft are expected to be completed by end 2017.
The largest order of 52 Super Mushshaks was placed by the Turkish Air Force in 2016.  It is planned that all flying training in the armed forces would take place at a single facility, thus the large order.
The most recent customer is the Azerbaijani Air and Air Defence Force, which signed a contract for purchase of ten Super Mushshaks in July 2017.
Going by the spate of recent orders of Super Mushshak, it seems that AMF would be in lucrative business for many years. Studies are underway to further improve performance through some design changes; these could possibly include extended wingtips for higher aspect ratio, as well as a tapering cylindrical aft fuselage for drag reduction. The Super Mushshak surely has some life ahead, and it is quite likely that it will complete fifty years of service in the PAF, alongside its jet trainer counterpart, the T-37, which has already done so.                         

- Details regarding number of aircraft assembled and produced, as well as those exported to other countries, provided by Aircraft Manufacturing Factory, PAC Kamra, Pakistan.
- Cutaway illustration courtesy 'Swedish Hocus Pocus', by Monty B Groves in American Aircraft Modeler, Dec 1974.
- Water colour painting of Pakistan's first locally manufactured Mushshak 83-5117 by renown aviation artist Rehan Siraj.

June 22, 2015

Cartwheeling in the Skies

“Okay, you have the controls. Recover!” called my instructor on the intercom radio.
The attitude indicator showed all grey, with a small circle in the centre – an astronaut would see such a picture on that instrument at the time of rocket launch.  Sitting ‘under the hood’ in the rear seat of an FT-5, such an unusual attitude could be taken for an instrument error. I immediately cross checked with the airspeed indicator which showed the needle flickering around zero knots.
“Sir, it seems like a double instrument failure,” I informed the instructor.
“[Expletive deleted]"! I have the controls. Just a touch of rudder and it will fall to its side. You can come out of the hood now,” he calmly instructed me.
“You see, this was a stall turn. If I had not applied some rudder, the aeroplane would have snapped into a hammer stall. That can be uncomfortable, you know; it can kick up a dust storm in the cockpit,” he explained.
As we climbed to higher altitude, my instructor asked me if I was feeling okay, for he wanted to practice a few more of those stall turns. That he was going to fly on my mission time was just fine with me, for instrument flying can seldom be an exciting exercise for a student pilot.
The instructor climbed to 20,000 ft, then put the aircraft in a shallow dive and sped up quite a bit.  Next, he pulled up the aircraft to absolutely vertical and allowed the speed to bleed off, as I dreadfully watched the extreme aerobatics in silence, except for heavy breathing in the intercom. As the airspeed indicator started to wind down, the instructor kept nudging the stick forward in gentle jerks to ensure that the aircraft did not fall on its back. When the speed was zero, he pressed the right rudder pedal just a little and the aircraft cartwheeled and then swung down vertically. “Easy baby, easy,” he talked to himself.
 After graduation and the award of wings at PAF Academy Risalpur in 1975, half our batch had ended up for further training at the newly set up No 1 Fighter Conversion Unit at Mianwali, where the FT-5 had just been introduced as an advanced jet trainer. A sensible Chinese dual-seat development of the MiG-17, the FT-5 was just the right trainer to consolidate basic jet flying at faster speeds, with some air combat manoeuvres thrown in for good measure.
The straight-winged T-33, which was starting to get phased out, could do the job just as well, but unlike the faster and more manoeuvrable FT-5, students could not be introduced to the basics of fighter combat very proficiently. T-33 graduates had to master this latter phase in yet another course on the F-86s. The sweep-back of the FT-5 wings showed us the way forward, so to speak, for we were expecting to be full-fledged fighter pilots earlier than our T-33 counterparts.
Life was a lot relaxed at Mianwali, mostly because the instructors were not too demanding of the students as the pilots’ operating manual did not yet exist, the checklist was just a small leaflet, and SOPs were still being worked out. The instructors too found the conditions fairly laid-back;  they took their cue from the Base Commander – King Cobra, they called him – who was fond of putting the F-6 (MiG-19) through a thunderous low level aerobatics routine over the base to announce his arrival after a happy bachelor's out-station weekend.  Under such conditions, if stall turns could keep the instructors happy, so be it. 
Towards the end of the course, we were allocated some extra hours to consolidate the flying course.  The sooner I learnt that a couple of solo sorties were also to be flown, a thought descended upon my mind: a stall turn!  It had been amply demonstrated by one of the coolest instructors we had, and if I could pull off one, I’d be the ultimate hero at least in my own eyes. 
On D-Day (4 Aug 1976), there was a festive air for reasons known only to me.  Take-off and departure was uneventful. Climbing to 20,000-ft, I did some warm-up manoeuvres. As the aircraft became a little lighter, with some fuel having been consumed, I did some vital checks, including tightening of the harnesses and reviewing the ejection procedure in my mind, just in case.  I let the aircraft into a dive to 15,000-ft, and then rapidly pulled it up vertically till the aircraft apexed to about 22,000-ft.  With the speed washing off, the heartbeat started to rise. It was time for the cartwheel.
 A touch of rudder did the trick, and the aircraft gyrated clumsily, turning into a whirligig. Goodness, I was in a spin! This is not what I had been ready for, as swept wing aircraft have a nasty reputation with regard to spin recovery. By the time I had gulped the lump in my throat, I was corkscrewing downwards in a stalled state, which is what a spin is, technically speaking.  Self-preservation instincts mercifully overpowered the rush of panic, and  led me to attempt a spin recovery, hitherto untried in the Unit as far as I knew.  The initial stabilisation steps of ‘throttle idle, stick back, rudder neutral,’ were taken to restrain the aircraft from entering into a maddening accelerated spin. This was followed by application of rudder opposite to the direction of spin, and then pausing for three seconds (actually muttering the aviators' timeless mantra: ‘one thousand-one…one thousand-two…one thousand-three’), after which the corkscrewing was supposed to stop.  Finally, the stick was slammed forward to unstall the aircraft.  
To my horror, the aircraft continued to spin obstinately. The aircraft had done about three turns, but luckily, not too much altitude had been lost.  At  about 16,000-ft, I had enough time to do a quick appraisal of what might have gone wrong. Had I made matters worse by applying rudder to the same side as I was spinning? Had I gone wrong in my count of three seconds, and not allowed the rudder to become fully effective? Had I relaxed the stick prematurely, only to accelerate the spin? Whatever was the reason, I had 6,000-ft more to go, before a decision to eject out of a spinning aircraft had to be taken.  (So steep is the rate of descent in a spin, that an ejection is mandatory by 10,000-ft above ground for timely opening of the parachute.) Cold sweat, heavy breathing, and an almost audible heart beat had a confusing effect, for the ground started to appear like a vast graveyard spiralling towards me. I had to act fast if I was to get out of this self-inflicted plight. 
For a split second, it occurred to me that I had practised succcessful spin recoveries during training on the T-37 many times, with an exactly similar recovery procedure.  Unless the procedure for the FT-5 was flawed, I saw no reason why it should not recover. Assuming that I had botched the recovery, I gave myself one more chance. Taking a deep breath, I started all over again, very careful with the checks.  Just as my count of three finished, the aircraft stopped spinning, and as I shoved the stick forward, it started to pick up lift and quickly regained normal flight.  The dust storm kicked up in the cockpit took a while to settle down, though.  Immensely relieved for having come out of the near-disaster, I was at least sure that spin recovery on the swept-wing FT-5 was a piece of cake – no matter that I almost choked on it, at first!
Back in the Unit, some of my course-mates noted my countenance with some suspicion. Though I had no intention of broadcasting my inglorious feat, I thought of cautioning them just in case they tried any such heroics. So on vows of secrecy, I let them in on what I had gone through.  In the event, the secret was well kept, the lesson was well learnt, and most importantly, we all agreed that the key to getting out of any twist is not to panic.

March 13, 2013

Lower Topa Diaries

A recollection of the first term or the ‘boot camp’ phase of cadets' training, written on the 40th anniversary of enlistment of 60th GD (P) Course in the PAF.
19 March 1973.   Having reported at PAF Base Lower Topa in the Murree Hills a day late due to a family commitment, I was relieved to know that the fury of the storm that had been unleashed on the new arrivals of 60th GD (P) Course, had subsided.  My ‘welcome’ somehow got waived off as the rest of the course had been ragged so savagely the previous night, that the seniors thought it prudent to let everyone rest, lest the Sick Quarters filled up beyond the limited capacity.  
Another agreeable development was that I, along with another course-mate Inamullah, was put up in a room along with two seniors of 51st Non-GD Course, a make-shift arrangement which providentially turned permanent and, provided a benevolent cover from the prowling seniors.  We both made good friends and, were able to learn the ropes much faster than the rest.  I had been seasoned to the bones at Cadet College Hasanabdal, where dodging and malingering had been practiced to perfection, along with the usual studies and sports, spread over an exciting five years.  Inam had already been a capable radar technician in the PAF and knew how to avoid imminent threats from all quarters.  Coupled with unwitting help from our room-mates and, given our backgrounds, we were the smartest on the street, as it were.
The rest of our course was huddled up in several dormitories, each packed to capacity with about a dozen cadets.  The pin drop silence in the dorms after lights-out was broken by heart-rending sobs, so we learnt.  In our own room, one of the seniors by the name of Sial would break into a guttural aria while half asleep, which went: “I like drilllllllll.”  That is when we discovered that he had been roughed up out of his senses by the senior-most cadets of 59th GD (P), and it also confirmed our apprehension that we had a long way to go up the multi-tiered seniority ladder.
We got an early lesson in flowery military lingo when one of our course-mates who had picked up a slight limp due to the previous night’s ragging, was shouted at by the seniors for ‘limping like a hag’; it got us wondering how a case of orthopaedics could be linked to the oldest profession with such facility!  Unknown to us in the first few days was this fellow’s somewhat self-conscious habit of covering his lips with his hand when laughing – complete with the little finger tipped up – which had been noted by a sharp-eyed senior, thus the epithet.  
While it would take a few more days to break us mentally, we made a quick and clean break from our physical selves after our first haircuts.  The barbers administered the infamous ‘zero cut’ at the rate of about three minutes per head, on the average.  Those with moustaches had to submit to a screeching clean shave, and the worst hit were the couple of Pathan cadets who would have given anything for preserving their man-pride. One last look at the mirror revealed that our eyebrows now looked frighteningly hairy on our bald-as-a-coot visages.  Shuffling over heaps of shorn black locks in the barber shop, we rushed for a quick bath, to be in time for an ‘assembly’ for haircut inspection.
“You want to be fighter pilots? Have you seen your bloody heads? You will not be allowed to disgrace the flying helmets,” someone shouted. Amidst loud laughter, the seniors reminded us that we were not even fit to be chaabri-walas (hawkers). “Ayuk, show them the ‘Indian’ position,” shouted Hasan Rizvi, the handsome and smart Wing Under Officer.  Our curiously named course-mate, Ayuk Elburz, had come from PAF College Sargodha, and was familiar with some of the prevalent punishments.  He fell out of the flight for a demo, went down for what seemed like push-ups and rested his head on the pavement while folding his hands behind his back. We watched in horror as his widespread toes and his freshly shorn head were all that supported his stout frame.  “Open order march and get to Indian,” came the loud and clear orders to the rest of us.  A shuffle of boots was the last that was heard, before all 43 of us fell to the ground in the weirdly prostrate posture.  Rizvi was supervising the assembly with such a fluent flow of invectives that everyone in attendance was in utter awe.  “You better learn to be men, you shameless sissies … this is just the beginning,” he shrieked at us, going almost hoarse. 
Just to be sure that the road gravel did not dig into our foreheads, Rizvi decided to give us a short break.  In a finely delivered speech rich in hair-raising profanities, he told us to behave ourselves and not to repeat what had been done, or he would punish us like never before – he would simply rip us apart!  While each one of us was wondering what the lapse might have been, Rizvi broke up the course into the two squadrons and handed us over to the respective appointment holders, “to continue rubbing them till the morning.”  With an air of absolute authority, he climbed up the steps and stood on the balcony in front of his room, arms folded, watching the show with a strangely gratifying sneer.  Rizvi could have won an Oscar doing the Gestapo tormentor.
Just as we were re-forming for the second session of the ‘learning-to-be-men’ exercise, we picked up an eerie shadow emerging from behind a tree in the cold night.  Soon it transformed into a junior officer wearing a trench coat and a peaked cap.  A nearby senior cautioned his course-mate Sergeant Ali Haider about the arrival, by whispering, “chachu hai, chachu”.  Our flight was brought to attention and a salute presented by Ali Haider, who was now supervising the assembly.  “You can continue,” allowed the officer.  To our shock, the officer looked on as Ali Haider broke into the usual harangue of behaving ourselves, failing which, “this is how you will be treated.  Open order march.”  Fantastic!  We were being punished for an infringement that could possibly occur in the future.  Ali Haider, who looked every inch a sadist, could be utterly expressionless while at work.  He told us, almost politely, to start running on the spot, approaching each one of us with a whispered advice to raise the knees high up to the level of his nose, or else.  It was a marvel that his impassive demeanour could elicit such an enthusiastic response from the exhausted cadets at this late hour.  He seemed to be in no hurry and calmly got to work, as some of his not so confident course-mates loitering about also chipped in with a curse or two.  After about half an hour of punishment, the officer watching the proceedings called Ali.  We prayed to Almighty that it would be over for the night.  Ali Haider walked back and announced that he was taking a light view of our misbehaviour, but told us that it would require scores of such sessions to get us fully back to our senses.  “Assemble again at the same spot tomorrow, immediately after dinner …. and Asif, I would like to see you frog jumping back to your room.  You clot, I will wipe that smile off your face for ever,” he shouted. Asif, a hardened Alamgirian, who could not help but maintain a good-humoured expression in the worst of circumstances, was seen to have an attitude that Ali Haider could not stand.  Sadly, Asif suffered much retribution at the hands of this senior throughout the first term.
On the second day of our arrival, we were allotted our service numbers.  I had been allotted Pak No 93371 which gave me a unique identity and, was assigned to No 1 Squadron, one of the two ground training squadrons in the Cadets’ Wing which looked after all aspects of General Service Training.  It was made clear to us that nominally we may be Flight Cadets, but for all legal purposes, our status was that of an Airman Second Class (AC-II), the lowest of all ranks and, that we should not harbour notions of being anywhere near to being an officer. 
Soon after issue of numbers, the preliminary issue of ‘Clothing and Necessaries for Cadets’ started.  The items included an assortment of shirts, trousers, jackets, socks and shoes for the most part, but there were gloves, epaulettes, badges, bow ties and, a tin ‘cabin trunk’ to pack all of the stuff into.  Out of our government allocation of Rs 2,800/- each, we had spent Rs 1,600/- on a total of 64 items, with the balance saved up for some sparkling new issues if we made it to our graduation parade, some distant day.  The costliest item was an elegant ‘Made in England’ raincoat worth Rs 256/-, and the cheapest one was a pair of suspenders for Rs 3/-.  We were lucky not to have been intercepted while lugging our trunks back to our rooms, or the seniors would have certainly tested our running abilities while ‘fully kitted.’
After allotment of our kits, we were photographed individually, as well as in squadron groups.  Most of the glum faces had uncertainty writ large on them, as if awaiting a punishment reprieve for a crime they had not committed.  Those squadron group photographs are now the most nostalgic possessions, with the youthful faces seemingly staring through the haze of four decades, though in reality some departed a bit early in Life, while those remaining are getting gnarled by Time as they wait on! 
In the afternoon we were again assembled, this time for issue of ‘service names’ by the senior cadets who turned out in large numbers, led by the witty and amusing Zulqarnain from 59th GD (P) Course.  Some of our gullible course-mates actually thought that it was something official till they were assailed with crude and lewd names, worthy of scoundrels and rogues.  There was no question of complaining as it was all considered part of manly training.  The enemy could do worse if we ever fell in their hands, we were told, so name-calling had to be taken in stride. We later learnt that it was PAF’s age-old tradition and many a senior officer of star rank continued to humour the service, though with more respectable nicks like bijju, chitta, jhoota, ghorra, kaalia, khota, khushki, maashki, mochi, mota, tunda, etc.
While it was the prerogative of the seniors to give service names, the nicks assigned by course-mates were much more realistic and enduring.  It so happened that Rauf, one of our course-mates, found himself declared medically fit and placed in the ultimate Category A1B-A3B by the Central Medical Board, despite having one leg shorter than the other.  The doctors of yesteryears did not feel the need to make the candidates walk a few paces and, preferred some groping and probing to see if the limbs, etc, were in working order.  It is a greater wonder that Rauf got through his complete Academy training by secretly stuffing one of his shoes with padding.   The suspicions of his  dorm-mates were, however, aroused in the first few days when he wore the ordinary unpadded slippers; he was aptly named Kaido, after the lame and bad-humoured uncle of Heer-Ranjha fame.  It was very entertaining to call him by that name, for Rauf was not only short in one leg, he was short in temper too!
One day, the whole course was given the undignified punishment of murgha, in which one is supposed to contort himself into what looks like a repentant hen-pecked rooster.  Ali Shah, a course-mate of ours who was a gaddi nasheen and a proud scion of a saintly order in his hometown, could not take this slight and squeaked to the authorities.  The matter was taken seriously, and the offending seniors were warned by the Cadets’ Wing officers.  Shah jee immediately launched a charm offensive on the irate seniors, to ward off any suspicion.  The course as a whole took the flak, however, without knowing who had actually complained.  It only came to be known much later, why Shah jee had suddenly turned servile and was so eager to please the seniors.
A rather odd demand made of us by the seniors was to carry a list of their names and service numbers in our pockets at all times – besides the mandatory handkerchief.  If the seniors could not find anything wrong with our marching, dress or haircut, they would ask for the names list and invariably find fault with an odd spelling or the number.  The list would then be torn to shreds and we were told to prepare a new one within a short time.  A particularly fussy senior of 59th GD (P), by the name of Ghazi, was most heartless in tearing up the meticulously prepared lists.  This wasteful activity continued for a couple of weeks, till the seniors were sure that we knew the correct spellings of names, as well as the proper appointments of the seniors. 
In the first few days, we were inoculated, just in case one of us was carrying an infectious disease brought along from some far flung area of the country.  Word soon spread that the vaccination was actually a shot for temporarily immobilising some of our bodily functions, so that all our youthful energies could remain focused on training.  Preposterous as the rumour was, some of the more naïve cadets got worried if the effects turned out to be permanent!  It later transpired that this, like many other mischievous ones, was an old story that had been doing the rounds at the Academy for ages.  Atta (or Aattu), a perennially relegated senior and a bit of a joker, was later discovered to be the source of several similar rumours that would surface every once in a while.
Instructions from officers as well as the senior cadets kept on flowing at a baffling rate.  We were told that till such time we learnt to march properly, we had to run everywhere, except to and from the mosque.  Marching would be taught in drill periods and, would be followed by a critically important saluting test after six weeks.  Passing the test would also confer the much longed for privilege of wearing the proper service uniform, rather than the grey jersey, flannel trousers and bulbous-toed ammunition boots that we were temporarily dressed in.  Only those who passed the test would be allowed to ‘book-out’ on weekends to Murree, or cities beyond.  It was earnestly hoped that our hair would have also have grown a few millimetres more to confer some respectability while loitering in the bazaars.  Our bottlebrush hairstyle was, however, quite in contrast to the hippy-like flowing manes and long sideburns sported by civilians, as was the rage in the early seventies.
Within the premises of the Base, we had to pay our compliments to the seniors by shouting out, ‘Assalaam-o-alaikum sir’ at ‘Strength 5,’ which was considered the highest noise a human voice box could generate.  For officers, we had to ensure that the decibel level was much more controlled while paying our respects.  The compliments process had to be so timed that it lasted a total of five paces and, the ‘sir’ part was to be blurted out when exactly opposite the subject; the head had to turn in the direction of His Majesty so that the eyes made respectful contact, and the arms had to be ‘locked’ by the sides lest their flailing appeared like some obscene gesture.  It was thought that if one could master things like the tricky salutation manoeuvre, he had all the makings of a fighter pilot.
More instructions followed regarding our expected conduct in the Mess.  Meals had to be finished within a few minutes but with complete table etiquette.  In the dining hall, we first-termers could sit only on ‘quarter chair’, meaning that just the sit-bones and the wooden frame edge could make contact.  Trouble awaited anyone who tried to comfort his whole derrière on a full seat. Meals were often disrupted by the appointment holders to make unpleasant announcements like a punishment assembly, for some lapse or omission.  The worst announcement, however, pertained to running the mile for the Physical Efficiency & Running Test, soon after lunch.  The test was never announced in advance, to preclude the possibility of anyone reporting sick in the morning. 
Balancing ourselves on the road while wearing the heavily hob-nailed and horse-shoed ammo boots, was quite an act.  The infamous ‘Cape of Good Hope’, a dangerous hairpin bend with a very steep gradient, was particularly favoured by the seniors for making us frog jump for a knee-shattering distance of 50-odd metres.  Bellowing and hurling curses at us, they would take immense pleasure in seeing us slip and land on our bottoms, if we were lucky enough not to flip and roll down unstoppably, that is!  Our course-mate Sufi often toppled over, recovering badly bruised each time; unhappily, he had a centre of gravity issue that inhibited gainful use of his physique.  After ‘rounding the Cape’, those of us who could still manage to be up on their feet would straggle past a wall, to be confronted by a supremely ironic message painted on it: “The spirit which knows not to submit, which retires from no danger, is the soul of a soldier”.
From the third day on, we were scheduled for Morning Jerks, a pre-sunrise activity that was no more than the standard PT, but having a funny name to it.  A couple of rounds in the sports stadium, followed by some vigorous physical exercises for half an hour is how we were ‘jerked’ into the new day.  The activity always culminated in a loud cheer, ‘Haider!’ complete with a schoolboy clap over the heads.  The shout often gave the naughtier cadets an opportunity to vent out their frustrations, with some choice broadside fired at the authorities under cover of ‘Haider.’
Parade was a completely new activity for the majority who had a raw civilian background.  Our General Service Training Officer, Flt Lt Sabir, was a hard-nosed and stern task master, with a gruff and croaky voice well suited to his job.  He would start the drill period by making our flight run around the stadium for at least a mile, an activity that became standard for as long as we were in the first term.  While he ran alongside, he loved to curse and yell at the tail-enders, promising to kick their fat behinds.  After the preliminaries that were known as a ‘light’ warm-up, he would hand us over to the drill staff that would get to work teaching various drill movements.  Sergeants Mushtaq and Safdar and, Corporals Sultan and Mahmood, were some of the smartest and most dedicated drill staff that we had seen in the PAF.  They could be stern while ordering us about, but gave all the respect due to cadets.
When we had passed the saluting test after six weeks, and wore the uniform for the first time, we were immediately assembled by the senior appointment holders for what was assumed to be a laudatory discourse.  We were, instead, reminded of our new status with these vintage lines that seemed to have greeted many a newly-uniformed course in the past: “You stupid juniors, you should remember that you are a disgrace to the uniform.  Your single rank stripe is thinner than a hair; nobody is going to notice whether you are a chachu or a cadet …. Bark out, yes sir.” The hills and vales reverberated with, “yes sir”!  
After the saluting test was over, we were introduced to rifle drill with the Lee Enfield .303 rifle of WW-I vintage.  The parade usually started with several warm-up rounds of running around the parade square, while the 12-lb rifle was held straight above the head with both hands.  Flt Lt Sabir was always at hand, giving the stragglers an extra dose while the rest of the class caught its breadth during a short break.  This pattern of parade lasted throughout our first term.  Two of our course-mates, Ashiq and Usman, who belonged to the hilly Potohar area, were matchless in any activity that had to do with legs or lungs.  Flt Lt Sabir would ensure that these two always led the flight while running, as he saw them to be the true benchmarks of a cadet’s endurance and stamina; this was much to the dismay of the majority, whose bio-systems were used to the plains of Punjab or Sind and, would start burping and frothing at the mouth after the first round or two. 
Wearing the uniform after passing the saluting test also qualified us to perform guard duties at various ‘beats’ at night, between 2200-2400 hrs.  This activity entailed drawing rifles from the armoury, but without any rounds, as it was only meant to give us practice for a real contingency, some day.  Any movement within the premises of the Cadets’ Mess and the Education Block after 2200 hrs had to be checked with a huge scream, “Halt, who goes there?”  If the intruder was unable to properly identify himself (by throwing down his ID card on the ground from a distance, which was then checked by torchlight), he was to be ordered to raise his hands and, be ‘led from behind’ to the guard room for further treatment.  While such an extreme situation never arose, it was common to hear loud interrogations at night, with the ‘intruders’ usually being officers of the Cadets’ Wing on their supervisory rounds.  It was quite a bit of fun to greet the officers we already knew, with full-throated shouts hurled most authoritatively.  My favourite beat was near the Education Block which afforded a beautiful view of a glittering Islamabad 40-kms away, where my parents lived then.
Book-out on a weekend was the most longed-for event after the saluting test.  Although it had been just six weeks, but the treatment meted out to us had so skewed our concepts of time and space that we had virtually turned into zombies.  After checking out of the cadets’ guard room for our first local book-out, it took us a while to realise that we were still humans and the transformation that had taken place was, mercifully, reversible.  It was late spring and weekend crowds had converged on to Murree.  Dressed in our best blue blazers and grey flannels, everyone pranced about on the Mall in twos and always in step, as required of us.  We were raring to give away our identity as Air Force cadets to anyone who hadn’t noticed our haircut or the badge on the blazer pocket.  A favourite hang-out spot for cadets was Lintott’s Café and our first salary (Rs 220/- per month) was put to good use sampling the delicious peach melba ice cream and coffee, that the joint was famous for.  Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s enduring duet, Summer Wine, blared from the speakers and we agreed that for first term cadets, there was no better way to pass the time! 
Sundays also saw the cadets dressed up in one of several uniforms, posing for Mr Chishty, a visiting photographer from Murree, who seemed to have been granted sole rights by the Base to undertake this unofficial activity.  Parents back home were awed at seeing pictures of their smart sons in battle dresses, walking-outs, ceremonials and, even in the boorish dungarees used in field exercises, thanks to Chishty.  We had, however, to be careful not to invoke the ire of the seniors who were seldom amused at seeing us pose so heroically, even in private moments at the Cadets’ Mess.
Studies had picked up after the first couple of weeks.  The syllabus included some mundane subjects like English, Urdu, Islamiyat and Maths, the latter one being a torment for cadets like Asif who had an Arts background and me, who had been on the  Pre-Medical track before joining.  Other subjects like Military Geography, Military History, General Service Knowledge and Character-Building & Leadership, were clearly in line with the first stage of our professional development.  Aviation-related subjects had been left out for later studies at Risalpur; however, a queer and completely out of place subject that we were introduced to, was metal-working.  An NCO instructed us in the properties of aircraft alloys, riveting techniques, soldering, machining, etc.  More of a hobby class, the study period was a light-hearted one, and it was time to relax and even catch up on some sleep.  Our course-mate Shafiq, resourceful as he ever was, would arrange for pastries from a nearby canteen, earning him the nickname of ‘caterer’.  Once the snacks were smuggled into the class, those who had ordered them would huddle up for a clandestine munching spree.  Shafiq would, in the meantime, make sure that the expenditure incurred was recovered to the last paisa.
Some of the education instructors who left a lasting impression on us due to their professional knowledge and friendly attitude, included Wg Cdr Shajar Hussain (Director of Studies), along with Flt Lts Pervez Niazi, Zia-ur-Rehman, Zaki-ud-din and Aijaz-ul-haq.  Quite uncharacteristic for a very solemn and dignified-looking officer, Wg Cdr Shajar would have us in peals with a bawdy joke or two whenever he would visit the Cadets’ Mess for some function.  Flt Lt Niazi was quite popular with the cadets as he was considered the ‘GDP-type’, a catchall term implying a happy-go-lucky person, in Air Force jargon.  I had the unique honour of being taught by Flt Lt Niazi who was himself an Abdalian, and also by his father, who had earlier been my teacher at the Cadet College.
The eight odd hours in the Education Block were considered a great relief because the instructors were very polite, there were no punishments, and everything seemed so peaceful.  We would dread pack-up time, because it marked the opening of the Gates of Hell for the next eight hours.  Only lights out at 2200 hrs would bring respite; we would then try to drown out our sorrows with an assortment of the sacred and the profane.  Prayers to Allah would be uttered for easing the tough training regimen, alongside murmuring of some vicious insults to the seniors who had punished us during the day. 
After lights out, it was also time for some other clandestine operations.  Some fellows who had brought eatables like halwas and panjeeris from their homes, would sneakily start nibbling on them like rats; the unexpected almond or peanut would, however, get crunched under the teeth giving away their little secrets.  Another activity involved some rheumatic individuals, who would bring out their hidden pharmacopoeia of balms and oils to massage their creaking joints, in a furtive home remedy effort. 
All ‘non-service issue’ eatables and medicines had to be stashed away carefully, as inspection of the rooms and layout of the cupboards could take place without notice.  Rahat Mujeeb, a plucky little senior of 59th GD (P) Course, who also held the modest appointment of a Leading Flight Cadet, was quite finicky about these inspections.  Tooth paste, shaving cream, hair tonic, etc, had to be of a good brand and combs and tooth brushes had to give a new look or else, these items would be tossed out of the window for being ‘unofficer-like’ stuff.  
During inspections and assemblies, we were constantly reminded of ‘OLQ’ that we had to possess in heaps.  Officer-Like Quality was an undefined and open-ended attribute; luckily, however, with the lower end of the quality scale characterised by a batman or chachu, it was fairly clear how much more we had to rise to reach the exalted class of an officer.

After a passage of nine long months in the first term, we learnt to our delight and satisfaction that our seniors from 59th GD (P) Course were moving to the Academy at Risalpur, for aviation studies and flying training. Soon, we found ourselves lording over the Cadets’ Mess as their replacement. A second stripe on our epaulettes confirmed our lofty status, as much as it justified our new-found swagger. The liberty that went with being seniors became truly evocative when two new courses arrived, and found that their lives were at our complete mercy.  

Soon after our promotion to the second term, some of us were conferred with cadet appointments, which essentially gave us the privilege of commanding flights, squadrons and the wing, while on parade. The Wing Under Officer (self) and Under Officers (Shahid Dad and Ayuk Elburz) wore the ceremonial swords on parade, cutting rather dashing figures, while everyone else hauled the .303 rifles. The appointment holders also had single-room accommodation, could visit the otherwise out-of-bounds Cadets’ Wing HQ to get instructions from the officers, and had special powers of punishment.

Normally, promotion to the second term of cadet training had to wait till successful completion of the week-long ‘Leadership Camp’. This gruelling day and night activity entailed living in cramped conditions, and going through an exhausting daily regimen consisting of long route marches while fully kitted with haversacks and rifles. It was a test of physical and mental endurance, as much as courage and resolve.  Completion of the exercise was considered as the culmination of the toughest part of a cadet’s training, and certified his fitness to shoulder leadership responsibilities. In our case, the exercise got delayed till the weather cooled off a bit in late September, though we had already been promoted – conditionally, we were told, with threat of relegation if anyone ‘chickened out’ in the exercise.

The disused Fatehjang airfield, 50-km west of Islamabad, was the venue of our camping exercise.  Rows of four-person tents were pitched alongside the short runway, with the mess kitchen set up nearby.  Field toilets offered some privacy, but the respiratory and olfactory mechanisms were quickly knocked out during the short stay inside. Bathing facility was non-existent, so the whole week’s encrusted sweat and grime had to be endured. I, however, managed a luxury bath every night before going to bed, for I had spied the hot water hamaams for washing the dishes a short distance from the kitchen.  Every night, I would sneak out to swipe a bucket of hot water, and hide in the bushes for a refreshing bath, complete with fragrant soap and rich shampoo.  I had good reason to start every day with a wide smile!

Our course-mate Shafiq had collected money from our camping group, with a promise to arrange for Ovaltine-spiked milk as a regular nightcap. After two nights of supply, the purported milkman was said to have suddenly vanished. We were then compensated with cheap toffees placed under the pillows by our thoughtful caterer.

The camp ended with an interesting daytime ‘camouflage and concealment’ exercise in which two teams had to alternately hide, and be searched by the other. The terrain offered few places to hunker down as vegetation was sparse, with tall grass and a few shallow ditches offering the only choices for concealment. The duration of fifteen minutes was seen as too long a period for remaining hidden, as all members of our opposing team were spotted in half that time. When our team’s turn came to hide (signalled by firing of a red Very flare cartridge), the cadets slipped into the tall grass or hid behind the few odd bushes.  Almost all were spotted within a few minutes, and a roll call was taken. One person was unaccounted for, and another search was started by our opposing team. Forming up in line abreast, they scoured the area end to end, but still no result. The officers too joined in, fearing for the worst as tense minutes passed by.

While searching for our opponents earlier, I had come across a puddle of filthy water which could have been right out of a toxic sewer, except for a few bull frogs splashing around in the greenish-black slurry.  Tall grass all around gave the puddle an appearance of a perilous marsh, best avoided.  I instantly decided that I was going to creep into the little pond when my turn came. I was also sure that the opposing team would give this sewer a wide berth, as the sight and smell was most offensive to anyone but the coarsest commando. 

Hiding my rifle in the nearby reeds, I calmly slid into the puddle with just my nose and eyes sticking out. Each time I heard the voices of the searchers, I would take a deep breath and submerge for over a minute or so, gradually resurfacing after their estimated departure.  The exercise was repeated three or four times, and every time it worked like a charm. By now, I had adapted to the submerged slimy life forms around me, but was still eagerly looking skywards for the green Very flare to fire, signalling an end to the exercise. Suddenly, I overheard someone muttering about a prize for the devil who could take a plunge in ‘that gutter.’ As a brief conference ensued a few yards away, I held my breath and very gently dipped down a few inches again. When I surfaced, the voices were gone, and a bright green flare cracked the blue sky with a smoky trail. I jubilantly emerged from the puddle dripping with gooey sludge, as scores of  searchers converged towards me in total awe. Our team had won by superior guile, but that was the name of the game. As a special favour, the officers allowed me a hot water bath on return to the campsite – a needless act of kindness, I thought to myself wryly!

One winter morning when it snowed heavily, a few of us found it opportune to make a snowman out of the heaps of snow in the Cadets’ Mess.  In no time, an anatomically complete snowman stood guarding the ante-room, inside which we were idling about to observe the mortified reactions of passersby.  The Base Adjutant, Flt Lt K B Anjum, who was accompanying some guests happened to walk by, much to our glee. His amused looks turned horror-stricken in no time as he sized up the snowman, and kicked it furiously. A booming thud followed, which could well have been a cloudburst in the stormy weather. In the event, it turned out to be the clamour caused by Khalid’s shoe crashing into the large steel dustbin, around which the snowman had been constructed. Much embarrassed at what his guests had been exposed to, he limped away mumbling curses at the naughty cadets.

It would be four more terms spread over the next two years at PAF Academy Risalpur, before we were found qualitatively worthy of wearing the pinstripes of a Pilot Officer.
Note: Between 1968 and 1979, cadets' initial training was conducted at PAF Base Lower Topa, followed by flying training at PAF Academy Risalpur. After 1979, all training was consolidated at the Academy in Risalpur.