First SOLO Check Mission: T6 G Harvard: PAF Academy Risalpur, 1972.

The first solo mission in any pilot’s life is one event that he never forgets. Ask any pilot. PAF Academy Risalpur ‘s primary and secondary training aircraft in the  late 50s to the mid 70s was a World War 11 fighter trainer called the T6G. We called it Harvard and another name for it was the Texan. They used to say if did your training on a Harvard then other fighter aircraft were a piece of cake.

It seems the designer of the aircraft had only one thing in mind i.e. to keep the student and his instructor on their toes all the time. It was supposed to be a high performance trainer not meant for joy rides. It was not, supposed to take a student out and give him a good time. It was also known as ‘Pagri Uchchal” in the local parlance, as I shall explain later. The student had to get better every day otherwise suspension from flying. We had to learn and feel every nuance of this mean and unpredictable machine.

And for our flying instructors- all I can say about them is “They were the Olympian gods.”  Most were veterans of 1971 war. They had been sent back to the Arena (Academy) to train the future gladiators, the Air Warriors of Pakistan. If the instructors were the Olympians than the Officer Commanding Wing was Zeus-the King of sky and fate.

 

The Harvard was terrible in ground handling. When you sat in its cavernous cockpit, you could not see in front because of a huge 600 horse power radial engine and its cowling blocking one’s frontal view. The poor instructor sat even lower at the back, almost blind when on ground. When you pressed the starter, the engine   would make a whine followed by Chug,Chug,chug…puff…puf..bangbang and burrrrrrrrrrrrrr  for a while before   spurting into life  bellowing black and white smoke over the cockpit.  During this bone shaking start, all the checks and procedures that one had so laboriously learnt by heart in the cool of one’s room simply vanished into thin air. The mind went blank.

When you wanted to taxi out towards the runway, you had to move forward like a sidewinder snake. Right 30 degrees to look at the taxiway centre line, left 60 degrees to again clear the area in front, making Ss on the track. 10 -12 aircraft would be zigzagging along the No1 Taxi track to Runway 27. It was just the beginning of a grand spectacle, albeit a very well choreographed and a disciplined one.  If you were not too careful you could chop and eat into the tail of the aircraft in front, alternately someone in the rear could do the same to you. Unlike most aircraft one sees today, the Harvard had a tail wheel to steer the aircraft on ground.

 Before the beginning of the runway there was a huge platform called the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) where all the T6s would park side to side unlike the airliners waiting their turns to take-off from civilian airports. After performing their checks, they would be permitted to enter the runway one –by- one because of this frontal visibility problem. Generally ,a new student was asked to line up on the centre line, but what do you do if you can not see the centre line .Estimate and when you do not see the line you are on it, was the brief. Seeing is believing, was not true for once.

My first instructor was Fl Lt Nafees. A. Najmi. With full confidence I can vouch that if anyone ever wants to meet “An officer and a Gentleman”, he is the one. His dress, his bearing, his polished mannerism, his professionalism, his briefings, command over his language was a source of great inspiration to all of us. After seeing so many Hollywood films we have associated a certain image of a fighter pilot- a gung-ho, swashbuckling persona.  He was none of it. He was more like a “Zen Warrior”. He was truly “nafees”

After a rather exasperating mission of circuits and landings, he was debriefing me on my take-offs. He, very seriously suggested, that the Air Force should change the design of the runway for me to be able to take –off without difficulty. So when he saw my puzzled expression, he explained that since I liked to take off in a zig-zag manner therefore the runway should also be constructed in a zig –zag manner. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Most Ab-intio students have a problem of really understanding the nature and mechanics of the final turn and lining up with the runway.  He explained the relationship between speed, glide slope, power and effect of wind in so many different ways that I never had a problem during the landing phase. This was a major problem for most students. I thought nothing of it. Oh, the impetuousness of youth.

Besides the students, there was a sort of competition amongst the instructors as to whose student would go “SOLO” first. By the 12th or the 13th mission, I thought I was ready to go. But I dared not express my view. In the 15th mission every time I made a touch down (A Three Pointer), I would hear my instructor applaud me by saying words like “good landing” and beautiful landing”. I was over the moon hearing all this praise.

Mentally I was now ready to fly “Solo”. All students have to fly a check mission with a senior designated instructor to be cleared for the “First Solo Flight”. I was scheduled with the Officer Commanding of the Harvard Wing, Wing Commander Rais. A. Rafi. I was a bit uneasy to be flying a check mission with Zeus himself, a decorated veteran of two wars. Besides other attributes, he was very distinguished in his looks- he was blond.

 On the day of reckoning, he asked me what all I was going to show to him. I rattled out, a well rehearsed mission profile to which he agreed. The first part of the mission went like a breeze. I came into the circuit to make a few TOUCH & GOs. On my first landing: Good on glide slope..Crossing the threshold… flare out.. perfect…level-off..Sink..Check..Sink..Check. I held my breath. A squeak and a three pointer TOUCHDOWN right on the centerline. And before I could exhale in relief or start moving my throttle up for the go-round, all hell broke loose. To this day, I have not been able to figure out as to what happened at that instance. The aircraft swerved viciously to the right leaving the runway at angle of 30 – 35 degrees. Oh shit…Instinctively, I kicked in the left rudder to stop it from skidding further till it started running straight but still at the same angle to the runway. We were now running on what we called the “Kutcha” strip. It is the surface all along the runway,   reasonably leveled but an unpaved one. The propeller was blowing dust and dried grass all over the aircraft but I could see the end of Kutcha and a fence coming up.  Surly we will either end up in a ditch nosed over or go cart wheeling into the sugar cane fields further ahead. Even the opening up the full throttle and unleashing the power of the 600 Horse Power of the Pratt & Whitney engine was not going to get me out of this jam. I was late, it was too late. I put the stick fully back into my stomach, slid my feet up the rudder paddles and sat on the brakes with all my might. The aircraft shuddered and bounced a bit but eventually came to stop slightly short of the edge of the Kutcha.

 Prrrrrrrrrrrr,,, the engine idling as if nothing had happened. From the rear cockpit, silence on the intercom and after a pause I heard a growl from Zeus “Hold the brakes tight, I am getting out of the aircraft”. A few shakes and I see him on the left side parachute et all, visor down peering below the aircraft, inspecting the aircraft for damage by going around it. I   fully expected him to give me a cut throat signal to switch off the engine, but no, he climbed back. “Let’s go back to the tarmac” was the only instruction I got from him. With a shaking and wavering voice I asked the mobile control to cross the runway and headed back. This was a ride of about 5 to 6 minutes and during that total silence on the intercom, no incrimination, no lecturing. It was the longest 5 minutes of my young life.

 

My dreams were shattered. From the age of twelve I had been hoping of becoming a pilot in the PAF. Three of my distant cousins had tried earlier. One medically unfit, the other suspended from T-37s and the last couldn’t stop vomiting for the 10 hrs or so that he had flown. Now I must follow suit. It was the end of a six year long journey from the PAF feeder schools to PAF Academy.  From 1965 to 1972 …Gone… puff… buried in the dust of the Kutcha strip. All of my comrades were to be left behind in the PAF, to go for the moon but I, Flight Cadet Pervez Akhtar Khan, was to become only a footnote in the records of PAF as “Suspended from flying”.

 I could visualize the disappointment of my family, especially my mother’s face when I would tell her that I had been suspended, that I couldn’t make it. In those days it wasn’t unusual for 40% of the students to be suspended from flying. Getting the coveted flying badge in the PAF is not something normal. It is a great privilege and one had to earn it the hard way.

Those minutes, chugging along the taxi track to the tarmac, were like an eternity.

As I was switching off, I looked at the bewildered face of the crew chief. He was noticing all the dirt, grime and grass cuttings stuck in the underbelly wondering as to what the hell had happened. When we came out of the aircraft, the OC Wing started to walk towards the Engineering Desk with his parachute still on his back. Not normal procedure. He should be going to the parachute bay to deposit his chute but then it was not a normal day. I was following meekly behind him. He still had the swagger of young man. When the Engineering Wing people saw him approach, the chatter stopped. They had heard of the incidence on the runway. The senior man came forward with a typical sub- continental posture showing reverence and respect by rolling his shoulder forward and bending slightly from the hip. OC Wing of his stature, and a war hero normally did not come calling on his desk. He asked them to check the aircraft thoroughly for damage as it had swung into the Kutcha. Took off his chute, looked at me and said “ Go ,freshen up. We launch again in half an hour” and took off for his office nearby. I stood there confused and full of dread. I thought he is completing the formality of burying me by going through the motions – a mere ritual to log the full hour. I ran to the tea bar to have a glass of water and a cup of heavily sweetened tea in three minutes flat. I was very thirsty.

By the time he came back to the flight lines, I had done the pre-flight, his parachute on the wing and me waiting for him in the cockpit. As soon as he connected the intercom, he told me “Same mission but just stay in the circuit.”

By the time I reached the ORP most of the first mission was landing back and the circuit was getting empty. I started tentatively. First circuit and landing: normal. 2nd circuit and landing: normal. 3rd circuit, a good no flap landing. With each circuit and landing, I was getting confident and, my calls to the mobile control getting more assured. As the circuit was empty, he would pull a close and ask me to land in all sorts of configurations. Around the 7th or 8th landing, he kicked the rudder to one side and the aircraft started to veer away from the center line. I was late and this time he gave me a verbal lashing “ Control karo is baigharat ko”. I controlled this purposely induced swing and made the aircraft go straight.   When finally the 2nd mission of the morning was arriving at the ORP, we had already managed to cover all normal and emergency procedures and much more. Finally, he asked me to make a full stop landing (the last landing)- a total of 18 touch downs.

He went away to his office and me to the refuge of our changing room awaiting my fate. No summon for a debriefing. I imagined he was filling up my after mission report in red ink. As most of my course mates were in the air, I sat alone going over the events of the morning. I realized that I had endangered the life of a senior officer of the PAF. As a minimum and  embarrassingly, we could have been seeing the ATC building hanging upside down from our straps or worst, killed, if the aircraft had cart wheeled. Anything could have happened. Anything!

 My instructor was out flying with his other student. Soon enough the 2nd mission guys started trickling in, first the instructors followed by the students. Everyone looked at me with sympathy and pity in their eyes.  I felt like crying.

My instructor went to the OC Wing’s office, stayed with him for a while and when he came out he told our senior man to get all instructors and students in the briefing room as the OC wished   to address all pilots. There wasn’t room enough so some instructors stood by the door. Poor I, sat crestfallen in a corner. I knew what was coming.

As he came in, the whole lot snapped to attention. “Please sit down” as he approached the rostrum. He turned around to scan the room for someone and his eye stopped on me and he smiled.  A flutter in my stomach and a very tiny glimmer of hope flickered in my breast.

He starts”Gentlemen, this morning I was flying with Akhtar and we swung the aircraft. (We… No sir. Not you, It was I.)  It was as vicious as a T6 can be   during landing. There was nothing I could do about it but Akhtar did a very good job of controlling it. His decision to go on the brakes was the only option left under the circumstances.” Looking at me he said “ Well done, Akhtar”. I could have jumped up and kissed him but he went on to explain at length the idiosyncrasies of the Harvard during landing. Words like gyroscopic effect and gusts of wind etc etc flew past me. The briefing room became unusually misty. At the end he said “ Ye Jahaz kabhi bhi  aur kisi ki bhi pagri uchchal sakta hai”- a lesson of humility for every one of us in that room.

Looking at my instructor, he said “Send him solo first thing in the morning as he has had enough for one day”.

This incident happened 41 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. Most of my flying career in the PAF, I was an instructor. I have selected, trained and motivated at least two generations of PAF pilots. I must have sent at least a hundred “First SOLOs” on all types but I never forgot the lessons of humility and compassion learnt from the stalwarts like NAJMI and RAFI.

Wg Cdr  Rafi could easily have said “Enough” or ask my instructor to give me a few more missions before another ‘Solo Check” with another check pilot. Instead he chose to go up with me again, to check me out if I was really a bad pilot or was it   the bite of the Harvard. He did not shirk from his responsibility; he faced it squarely and with great equanimity and grace. Whatever action I took was instinctive as no amount of briefing could have prepared me for something like that. For him, the mission was not over till he ensured that I had got all my confidence back.

I call this leadership, putting your life on the line- Leading by example and from the front.

Post Script.

Wg Cdre Rais  A Rafi, retired as Air Commodore after a bright and distinguished career and has left us with a lot fond memories of him. He died three years ago. God Bless him.

His son –in- law, a brilliant pilot, an Aero space Engineer, a sword of honour winner crashed with Air Chief in Kohat.  God Bless him.

Air Vice Marshal Nafees A Najmi is still around and I pray for his long life and wellbeing. His son, like his father, is a top notch commander of an elite PAF squadron.

All of you, my instructors, who read this post, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

All of you, my students who read this post “Don’t let me down, you… you..you drumheads.” I love you.

And thank you PAF for making my dream come true.Image

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