From the pen of the Founding Editor of ‘The Miracle.
‘The Last Salute’ Excerpt from the book
I t is an interesting anecdote of lost and found experienced by my course mate then Flight Cadet Shahid Mahmud, popularly known as ‘Chira’(a male sparrow) because of his love for flying. He was scheduled to fly a solo night navigation mission on the T-37 aircraft. When he came out of the squadron on his way to the flight lines towards the aircraft, he saw Flight cadet Ejaz Minhas, popularly known as the ‘Black Sheep’ of the course, running around the block- his instructor scolding him from behind. Minhas had flown the earlier mission, which took off at dusk – and got lost. Radar guided him back. Now his instructor was making sure he never loses the sight of Risalpur by having him run around the Squadron building. Thinking himself a hot rod pilot, Shahid, in his mind added the joy by comparing the thump of Black sheep’s boots to the sound of a goat on double march. Minhas was called ‘Black Sheep’ because, on a few occasions of our junior days, he had reported late to the assemblies called by the seniors. It resulted in extra punishment for the entire course. These popular names were also termed as ‘Service names’ and were liberally used with lasting love and temporary insult for each other. However, every one took it in high spirit. Frankly speaking, I had earned service name ‘Nakka,’ for my big nose. How can one get lost with all the available navigational aids and by staying in visual contact of that familiar area? Shahid, after the briefing, had further studied the map and noted all the rivers, canals and tributaries which might shimmer on that moonlit night to steer theh course i in theh i intendedd d di direction.i He took a mental note of all the towns whose flickering lights would assure him to the correctness of route. Brimming with confidence, he shrugged off all apprehensions and headed to the tarmac. “The flight path is familiar. So what if it is night time, Piece of cake!”He thought to himself as he climbed into the cockpit after carrying out the pre flight checks around the aircraft. A lecture once given by the flight surgeon about psychology of disorientation came to his mind. “You will not trust your instruments even if the compass needle is pointing home.” It was hard to believe though. If you are lost, why would you not trust your instruments? He later realized that in his case, the Flight Surgeon sure was spot on. After getting airborne, he climbed out to Mardan and noticed the lights below dimming fast due to hanging dust in the air. After climbing to the assigned altitude, he set course towards southeast for the first leg. He nailed the two navigation points in about fifty minutes and made it back to Mardan. “It was after all, a piece of cake.” He congratulated himself. After the descent, he leveled off at two thousand feet and reported position to the tower. Next up was to look for Risalpur and head home. “But where is Risalpur? Sure it is only nine miles, but where in the world is it tonight?” He could not spot the Risalpur beacon. Now he had the rude realization that the fat lady had not sung and mission was not over after arriving over Mardan. Risalpur’s beacon flashes the Morse code signature “RS” – who could forget dit-da-dit, dit-dit-dit. But that night he was not seeing the beacon. Sure he was over Mardan. He had some sense which way was north because he could see the vertical outlines of Malakand hills. He estimated a direction and headed in. The darn place was just 9 miles south and he did not see it. He turned back to soon find himself over Mardan again. “Naiza 857, report position”, he heard the Risalpur control tower calling him. “Descending overhead Mardan,” he lied. Tower did not question that he had already reported Mardan a while back. “There is no way in the world I am going to be embarrassed and let Black Sheep’s punishment befall on me.” He reminded himself. On top of that, he will be the laughing stock of the course, if not the academy, after having completed the mission but not been able to get back to Risalpur- just nine miles out. He had already tuned his instruments to Risalpur and they were pointing in the direction he had just been. “I must have tuned them wrong,” he thought because he had just flown in that direction. Now somewhat of panic set in. He headed east and soon noticed the gleaming Tarbela Dam. “How stupid I am to come in this direction”, he frowned at himself. Soon he was again over Mardan and still could not make out where Risalpur was. “Naiza 857, report position,” called the Control Tower. He repeated, “Descending over Mardan.” Whosoever was on duty that night must not have noticed that he had been “descending” over Mardan for a while and still hadn’t “hit the ground?” Next he turned north and as expected soon came upon hilltops of Malakand. He turned around and was back over Mardan. He called an emergency meeting of all his intellectual faculties. There was no danger to his life or the aircraft he was flying. There was still plenty of fuel. But it was the matter of honor and blemishing of his unblemished perfor- mance during all his navigation missions. The added incentive was the sight of Black Sheep’s languid running around the block, a fate that he had to avoid. Since, in his mind, aircraft instruments were pointing in a wrong direction, and that he had visited Tarbela twice, Malakand once, perhaps Nowshehra as well, where the hell was he with reference to Risalpur – Mardan underneath notwithstanding. He was sure how his course mates would respond to his love for staying overhead Mardan. The reason he could not see Risalpur was because of its invisible beacon. He should have spotted it when at ten thousand feet, not when he was at two thousand and somehow it wasn’t visible. Then it hit him. What about the Peshawar beacon? It transmits PS. He fixed his position with the distant Malakand hills and Mardan, knowing that he was flying east to west. “Peshawar must be at my 11 O’clock.” He looked hard and found the faint Peshawar beacon. Now that he had three points, he knew where Risalpur should be and looked that way. He doesn’t know if the dust over Rislapur had lifted, or settled, but after a long hard stare, he spotted the Risalpur beacon. Just then, this time in rather stern tone, the tower demanded for his position. “Heading base,” he replied with confidence back in his voice. Soon he was on the ground. When he arrived back at the Squadron, Black Sheep had been dismissed. Those who flew the same mission simply headed back to the transport. Not a soul knew what had transpired with him over Mardan. Shahid left the Air Force as a Pilot Officer after flying the C1-30 aircraft. He lives in Maryland with his family. Minhas went on to become a successful flight navigator, deputed to Saudi Arabia as an instructor ending his career as a Group Captain. Minhas lives in Sargodha and is now actively involved in politics of Pakistan- quite a distance from languid running around the block that night!
From Left---: Ejaz and Shahid