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October 3, 2012

"Bluebird-166 is Hijacked"

 
"Why only a Sitara-i-Jur’at?  The boy deserves nothing less than a  Nishan-i-Haider,” retorted President Yahya Khan as PAF’s C-in-C, Air Marshal A Rahim Khan informed him of the hijacking incident that had taken place hours before.[1]  The Air Chief, who was hosting the President at lunch in Peshawar on 20 Aug, 1971, had recommended the lesser award, but was pleased to know that the PAF was being honoured with its first Nishan-i-Haider.[2]  The same day, announcement of the highest gallantry award was made.  In deference to the hallowed nature of the award, the Board of Inquiry into the aircraft accident was suspended and, eventually scrapped without finalisation.  The final moments of the flight of the hijacked T-33 have, therefore, been open to more than one interpretation over the years.  This write-up looks at some officially recorded vital bits of evidence (indicated in bold-face text), to reconstruct what really happened.
 
In the aftermath of the military crackdown that started in East Pakistan on 25 March 1971, the Bengali pilots in the PAF were grounded for fear of an adverse reaction.  As the situation became more complex and war clouds started gathering, it was felt prudent to withdraw the flying clothing and equipment of Bengali aircrew, with hijacking of aircraft being precisely one of the fears.
 
The Bengali pilots at PAF Base Masroor (Karachi), sensed the surveillance cover of Intelligence Units and agreed not to meet collectively.  It was decided that a charade of friendly relations with the Base personnel would be maintained, and any kind of protest avoided to the utmost.  In the meantime, short, meaningful meetings would be conducted in the course of normal activities.  The consensus on hijacking an aircraft to India emerged in no time, with the underlying thought being that the incident would call world attention to the cause of Bangladesh freedom movement.  It was also agreed that the backlash of the hijacking would be borne with fortitude by the remaining Bengalis.[3]
 
At first, the Bengalis mulled hijacking one or more F-86 Sabres, but the mere presence of a Bengali pilot on the tarmac would have been viewed with suspicion.  Besides, starting up a jet aircraft without help from ground crew and support equipment was a difficult proposition.  How about sneaking into an already started one – a two-seater being flown by a single pilot?  The idea sounded enticing, because gullible students going for their solo missions in the T-33 at No 2 Squadron seemed easy prey.  Students would surely obey any instructor’s command from outside, especially if it had something to do with aircraft safety.  A visual signal for a fuel or hydraulic leak, a flat tyre, even a finger pointed generally at the aircraft would get an immediate response from the student.  Chances were that the student could be sufficiently alarmed through hand signals about some external malfunction with the aircraft, and he would stop to find out more about the problem.
 
Flt Lt Matiur-Rehman had been an instructor in No 2 Squadron till he and his Bengali colleagues were grounded soon after the start of the counter insurgency operation in March. He was, however, given charge of the Ground Safety Officer with a mandate to check malpractices in aircraft maintenance and operations, thus authorising him to move around on the flight lines and tarmacs in an official transport.  Given his affability and, his wife’s friendliness with neighbourhood ladies, Matiur-Rehman was considered the least likely of the Bengalis to arouse suspicion.  He fitted the plot perfectly.  Apprehensions about the safety of his wife and two daughters were allayed by his Bengali colleagues when it was decided that the family would be moved, with prior coordination, to the Indian Consulate in Karachi, before the Hijack Day.[4]
 
Relaxing in the squadron crew room, Minhas ordered his Mess breakfast to be heated.  He could take his time to eat comfortably as he was not scheduled to fly that day, the visibility being poor for solo flying by students. Those scheduled for dual flying were busy checking their mission details, so as to prepare the briefing boards and get the pre-mission briefing from their instructors. One of them noted the scheduling officer adding Minhas’ name on the scheduling board for a ‘Solo Consolidation’ mission.[5]  The change in scheduling took place as the visibility had improved and students were cleared to fly solo.  This was conveyed to Minhas who was waiting for his breakfast in the Squadron tea bar.  He jumped up, half-excited, half-prepared and proceeded to get the mission details. After being briefed by his instructor Flt Lt Hasan Akhtar, Minhas quickly gathered his flying gear.  Breakfast had to wait, but Minhas hastily gobbled up a couple of gulaab jamans, the pilots’ favourite high-energy snack. He also shared a few swigs of a cold drink with his course-mate Plt Off Tariq Qureshi, before he headed to the flight lines to make good his 1130 hrs take-off time.  “That was the last we saw of him, munching snacks on his way out,” recalls Qureshi. Preliminaries and start-up was uneventful as the T-33, with the call sign ‘Bluebird-166,’ taxied out of the main tarmac.
 
In the meantime Matiur-Rehman, who had earlier checked the students' flying schedule during a brief visit to the squadron, sped off in his private Opel Kadett car to the north-eastern taxi track that led out of the main tarmac. The sides of the taxi-track had thick growth of bushes, which concealed his position both from the ATC tower as well as the tarmac. As the aircraft approached, he was able to stop it on some pretext, as expected.  Seeing the instructor gesturing, Minhas must have thought that some urgent instruction was to be conveyed. After all, his mission had been scheduled as an after-thought, and something might have gone amiss in the haste.  He expected Matiur-Rehman to plug in his headset and talk to him on the aircraft inter-com.  Not encumbered by his flying gear (parachute, anti-G suit, life jacket and helmet), Matiur-Rehman easily stepped on to the wing and slipped into the rear cockpit through the open canopy.[6]
 
Squatting on a seat without a parachute (which also doubled as a seat cushion), Matiur-Rehman was in an awkward position to properly control the aircraft himself.[7] To compel the student to follow his instructions would have required the threat of use of lethal force; else, the student could have turned back, or just switched-off the aircraft.  A replica pistol recovered later from the wreckage explains Minhas’ predicament.[8]
 
At 1128 hrs, ATC Tower received Minhas’ call: “Bluebird-166 is hijacked!  In the rough-and-tumble that followed, the T-33 got airborne from Runway 27 (heading 270°), at 1130 hrs.  The aircraft turned left, (a non-standard turn out of traffic) and started steering 120°.  It was seen to be descending down to low level and, in no time, disappeared from view.  Two more frantic calls, “166 is hijacked,” were the last that were heard from the T-33.
 
Not sure if he had heard it right, Flt Lt Asim Rasheed, the duty ATC officer understood what was going on only when the aircraft did an abnormal turn out of traffic and ducked down very low. Asim called up the Sector Operations Sector (SOC) to inform about the unusual incident; however, when the Sector Commander started asking for details, a quick-witted Asim dropped the phone to save precious time and called up the Air Defence Alert (ADA) hut.  “A T-33 is being hijacked. Scramble!” he ordered. Wg Cdr Shaikh Saleem, OC of No 19 Squadron, who had just arrived in the ADA hut after inspecting the flight lines, immediately rushed to the nearby F-86s along with his wingman, Flt Lt Kamran Qureshi.  Kamran, the sprightlier of the two, got airborne first, with the leader following closely; the pair was airborne within the stipulated time. The SOC had, however, no clue about the T-33’s position as it had descended to the tree tops and was not visible on radar.  In any case, about eight minutes had already elapsed since the T-33’s  take-off, and the scrambled pair of F-86s would not have been able to catch up before the border, even at full speed.  Some more critical time was also wasted when the F-86 pair was mistakenly vectored onto a B-57 recovering from Nawabshah after a routine mission.[9]
 
After a while, another pair of F-86s led by Flt Lt Abdul Wahab with Flt Lt Khalid Mahmood as his wingman, was scrambled. Wahab, who had been watching the unusual departure of the T-33 from outside the pilots’ standby hut, recalled later, “We knew something was wrong, we had seen the aircraft taxiing dangerously fast. After we got airborne, there was a lot of confusion. Nonetheless, we gave fake calls on ‘Guard’ channel that the F-86s were behind the T-33 and, it would be shot down if it did not turn back. However, with no real prospects of scaring Matiur-Rehman with warning bursts from the F-86’s guns, the only option that remained was to order Minhas to eject.  A flurry of radio calls then started, asking Bluebird-166 to eject.  There was no response, but the calls continued for several minutes, being repeatedly transmitted by the F-86s, as well as the SOC.”[10]
 
Crash site is roughly in centre of picture
The situation remained confused and it was apprehended that the hijack might have been successful.  The prevailing uncertainty was cleared up in the afternoon, when a phone call was received from Shah Bandar that a plane had crashed nearby and the aircrew had not survived.  The Base search and rescue helicopter was launched immediately and it was able to locate the wreckage at a distance of 64 nautical miles from Masroor, on a heading of 130°.  The tail of the T-33 showing its number 56-1622 could be seen sticking out in water-logged, soft muddy terrain at the mouth of Indus River, just 32 nautical miles short of the border. Estimated time of the crash was 1143 hrs.
 
Minhas’ body was found still strapped in the seat, 100 yards ahead of the wreckage, while Matiur-Rehman’s body was found clear of the seat, lying further ahead.  Both ejection seats had been thrown clear of the aircraft on impact and, there seemed no sign of ejection. The location of Matiur-Rehman’s body away from the ejection seat indicates that he was not strapped up, having being unable to free the stowed harnesses after he had hurriedly stormed into the cockpit.[11]  
 
Investigators were baffled when the canopy was found to have a prominent scrape mark of the tailplane, while the tailplane was correspondingly dented by the canopy.  Normally, during ejection sequence or jettison of canopy alone, the canopy would have been rocketed up and, would have cleared the tail by a wide margin (this being the very purpose of the rocket thruster).  Now it seemed that the canopy had merely inched up into the airflow and had been blown into the tailplane.  Could Minhas have actuated the canopy opening lever to throw the unstrapped rear seat occupant overboard, and then safely recover the aircraft?[12] A proper procedure, though, would have been to use the canopy jettison lever which would have rocketed the canopy well clear of the tailplane. In the heat of the moment, it seems that Minhas did what came naturally to him.[13]
 
The massive canopy hitting the elevator would have deflected it downwards, causing a sudden nose-down attitude at a precariously low height.  Minhas would have then yanked back on the controls to prevent the aircraft from going into the ground.  The sudden and violent pitch-up – which was confirmed by eyewitnesses – resulted in the aircraft stalling out.  This is partially corroborated by the wreckage report of aircraft flaps found in the down position, implying a desperate need for vital lift to prevent stalling.  The rather flat attitude in which the aircraft fell, as well as the compact spread of the wreckage, also confirms the stalled condition of the aircraft.
 
Confronted with a very complex situation requiring quick thinking and steel nerves, Minhas was eventually able to counter Matiur-Rehman’s cunning design.  Despite having the option of ejecting safely, and in the course of action also tossing out the hijacker who did not have a parachute, Minhas ostensibly tried to save the aircraft. Sadly, the unusual attempt at opening the canopy had resulted in a chain of uncontrollable events that eventually caused the crash. Nonetheless, Minhas did manage to prevent the aircraft from being hijacked to an enemy country, laying down his life in the process.  He was destined to become the youngest star on Pakistan’s firmament of valiant heroes.  May Allah bless his soul and may his Nishan-i-Haider be an inspiration for the future defenders of Pakistan.






[1] Quoted by Brig A R Siddiqui in his book, East Pakistan – The End Game, Oxford, 2005, page 162.  Siddiqui was present at the lunch in his capacity as Press Advisor to the President and Director,  Inter-Services Public Relations.
[2] Nishan-i-Haider (Emblem of Haider) tops the four classes of military gallantry awards in the Order of Jur’at (Valour).  ‘Haider’ is an epithet of the gallant Muslim Caliph Ali. The next three classes of the Order are: Hilal-i-Jur'at (Crescent of Valour), Sitara-i-Jur'at (Star of Valour) and Tamgha-i-Jur'at (Medal of Valour).
[3] These details, along with some other pertaining to Bengalis, were revealed by one of the Bengali pilots to this author, during his visit to Pakistan in 2003. The Bengali pilot prefers to remain unidentified.
[4] Flt Lt Matiur-Rehman’s wife and children were clandestinely moved to the Indian Consulate on the night of 19 August.  After the crash next day, her location was discovered and she was retrieved by security personnel, to attend to her husband’s last rites at Masroor Base, where he was buried.
[5] This was Minhas’ second solo mission on the T-33.
[6] In the T-33, taxiing was done with the canopy open.
[7] During solo missions, a parachute was not installed in the empty rear seat. Without the parachute, the seat pan was too low for a sitting pilot to have all-around visibility. According to Tariq Qureshi, the mobile officer supervising take-offs and landings on the fateful day could not see the rear seat occupant at all, and thought that the aircraft was being flown solo.
[8] The possibility of the use of chloroform or some other chemical to immobilise Minhas is based on circumstantial evidence, as a few cotton swabs and a bottle of methylated spirit were said to have been recovered from Matiur-Rehman’s jeep (according to Minhas’ course-mate Tariq Qureshi). It is, however, somewhat far-fetched to imagine Matiur-Rehman overpowering Minhas, removing his mask and choking him with the spirit-soaked swabs during precious moments when he had to rapidly slip into the cockpit. In any case, since Matiur-Rehman knew that he was going to be improperly seated, he would have ensured a fully functional front seat pilot to fly the aircraft rather than an incapacitated one.
[9] Information in this paragraph has been obtained from the late Air Cdre Shaikh Saleem’s unpublished notes.
[10] Information in this paragraph is based on narration by Flt Lt Abdul Wahab (Retd).
[11] During solo flight, the rear seat harnesses are locked and tightly stowed so that these do not flail and entangle with the control stick.
[12] There is no evidence of an ejection attempt by Minhas.
[13] There exists the possibility that the pilots forgot to lock the canopy at the take-off point and, it got dislodged later in flight. It may be pointed out, however, that as the speed built up, increasing negative pressure on top of the canopy would have caused it to dislodge just after take-off, rather than 12-13 minutes later. This has generally been the pattern in cases of canopy loss in the PAF, where the pilots forgot to lock the canopies.

 
Some Explanatory Pictures:
 
The difficulty of flying without a parachute can be appreciated
from this T-33 ejection seat picture on the left, compared to one
which is properly rigged with a seat-type parachute on the right.
This picture shows the vulnerability
of the front T-33 pilot to a pistol shot
fired from the rear cockpit. Though
no shot was fired, the mere threat of
shooting may have tempered Minhas'
actions from take-off onwards.

 















No firewall separates the front and rear cockpits. Also note that
without the seat parachute, the pilot would be sunk low and his
eyes would be at the level of the canopy sill, being unable to
see all around.


















Picture Sources:
 
- Picture of crash site by author, 2004.
- Satellite picture of Masroor tarmac from Google Earth®.
- Pictures of Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas and Nishan-i-Haider decoration from Defenders of Pakistan, Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, Lahore, 1988.
- 'Some Explanatory Pictures' from  www.airteamimages.com, www.ejectionsite.com and www.noseartguy.net
 

12 comments:

Shahid Saeed said...

Thanks a lot for such a detailed account.

I recall that Air Cdr Sajjad Haider's memoirs mentioning the canopy unlocked theory. He also suggested that Flt Lt Mati was sucked out of his seat due to air pressure and that was why his body was recovered at a distance behind Minhas' body - and that the incident of him being sucked out destabilized the aircraft and sent it into a nosedive.

Your explanation is much more convincing and explains why the canopy unlocked accounts are unlikely.

Achilles said...

Impressive and a great read as usual Sir !! Hats Off

Hamid said...

Another very good reconstruction. I wonder whether Rashid heard the calls on Guard asking him to Eject. And if he did, why did he not eject? Perhaps we shall never know. I remember Rashid from his Academy days. The perfect gentleman. May he rest in peace.

Faisal Riaz said...

Thank you for unfolding these details in a systematic way. He was destined to become a star. As a matter of fact, he stood up to what he had written in his diary which reads:

This world is but a stopping place
And life but a short span,
So why not through time race
And accomplish whatever we can;
So that generations to come
Will remember us as great ones.

We cannot but forever live
And we have to die but once,
So why not to our country give
The life which we so easily can.

= Rashid Minhas =

maliktauqeer said...

He should have ejected rather than saving the aircraft, by doing so, the rear seat ejects first;followed by front seat, since had no parachute, he would have been killed and Rashid-as he had parachute-ejected safely. But just a 19 year old, he did what he had in his mind-May he be rest in peace...

Atif said...

Sir, I have never worked under your command in any capacity, but heard alot about you, may be some day i have the honour to visit you. I always remained confused that why did'nt Rashid minhas ejected and why he was awarded with Nishan-e-Haider. But your article has cleared all my confusions, and being an aviator myself i can understand the reasoning given by u.Thanx alot Sir. May Allah bless u with a healthy long life and we may continue read your articles.

Saad said...

A very well written and informative piece.May God bless the brave soul of Rashid Minhas.
I'm not an aviator and i've a question.It is mentioned that supposedly the aircraft got stalled in the end ,at low altitude.
The pilot Rashid Minhas was flying it with out a canopy.Also the seat wasn't having a parachute.So at that moment when the aircraft got stalled ,if he had attempted the ejection was there a probability that he might have saved his life?

With all due respect for the gentleman and my regards for you.
Saad.

Rashid Cheema said...

Very informative article.

Imran Rizvi said...

Sir, I guess the best option to avert the hijacking for Rashid Minhas Shaheed was to have ejected. Had he ejected, the rear occupant would certainly have been killed as (Rashid knew)there was no parachute in the rear seat. In Tee Birds, whosoever of two ejects, the rear occupant goes first then the front. The aircraft would have crashed (hijacking to India averted) and Rashid Minhas would have been alive today. So that is the question, why he did not do that, specially so once he had realized the nefarious designs of Matiur Rehman. This will always remain a mystery. Even if the canopy had unlocked (or not locked at all), Rashid still had the option of ejecting. Besides the stalling out theory also had the chance of ejecting out of the aircraft. Why didn't he exercise that?

Aboobaker said...

THANKS FOR THE DETAIL INFORMATION SALUTE TO SHAHEED RASHID MINHAS WE ARE PROUD OF HIM AND ARE CONFIDENT THAT NO ONE CAN HARM US AS LONG AS WE HAVE LIKE RASHID MINHAS PAKISTAN ZINDABAD

Imran Rizvi said...

Again, in my personal opinion, regardless of the announcement of the award of the medal, a full scale inquiry should have been carried out. Why was it stopped and shelved? What apprehensions did the Commanders or PAF had about it? Sir Kaiser, were you able to talk or interview any of the so many Instructor Pilots of 2 Sqn at that time. Many are alive even today. What do they have to say about it? Those who knew him, the aircraft and prevailing situation at that time in 2 Sqn could certainly have commented better. The article is well written and is quite logical. But my question remains, why did he have to go down with the aircraft. Why didn't he even attempt it?

Rizwan Fazal said...

Wonderful article sir, very informative and elaborate. Sir Kaiser I have had the good fortune of talking to late Cecil saab about this incident who I believe was one of the inquiry officers for this incident and according to him the canopy coming off holds prudence due not being locked properly or some attempt to either escape or render the hijacker incapacitated. As Mati ur Rehman was not strapped in, Cecil saab believed that he was sucked out of the aircraft and the resultant down force on the control column, whether due Rashids conscious effort to go into the ground or as the last input in a tug of war between him and Mati, the aircraft impacted the ground with fatal results. The fact that a T-33 going full bore low level in the fear of chasing fighters would take quite a zoom climb to a good altitude before stalling out and even if at that point no remedial action was taken about the pitch up, it would hardly result in a "Flat" attitude crash that the investigation reveals. The ensuing impact would have had all the hallmarks of a nose down crash given the height that the aircraft would have achieved in a zoom climb. Cecil saab also mentioned the fact Matis body was "Sandblasted" as if he had been rolling on the ground after impact for quite some time again indicating that he probably left the aircraft earlier than Rashid who probably embraced Shahadat on impact while suffering injuries as he impacted through the instrument panel and the front frame of the wind shield. What ever happened sir, a Salute to the Shaheed Hero and his valiant effort to save the aircraft and the honor of the country as the likes of him are few far between. Thanks sir Kaiser for a lovely narrative.