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PAF Base Masroor

Karachi, Pakistan

August 20, 1971

11:20 hrs

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Sprawling just outside the western suburbs of Karachi, lies Pakistan’s largest air force base, the PAF Base Masroor, named after a former base commander, Air Commodore Masroor Hussain who died in May 1967, when a vulture hit the windscreen of his B-57 Canberra as it was lining up for its final approach for landing at the Mauripur Air Force base. The sudden shattering of the glass and the resulting gaping hole in it’s nose, rendered the large bomber aerodynamically unstable. Masroor was hit by a battering ram-like blast of air, the shock of which killed him instantly. Just feet from the asphalt, the B-57 hit the tarmac at 150 knots and exploded.

Although it had been an accident and there was no valor involved, the Mauripur base was renamed PAF Base Masroor. The PAF website proclaims that the deceased officer ‘received shahadat (**martyrdom**)’. I guess that the very act of joining the military qualifies one as performing a task that is above and beyond an ordinary citizen’s call of duty.

But let’s not begrudge Pakistan it’s heroes. This was 1967 – a period of grave tensions between Pakistan and India – typically a time when nations look for excuses to create martyrs. Hey, 1944 onwards till the last moment before he killed himself, Hitler was distributing Knight’s Crosses with Oak Leaves like nickels and dimes, literally grabbing Wehrmacht men off the streets and slapping medals on them.

Over the years, Masroor has hosted multiple squadrons of Mirage-3s and 5s, B-57 Canberras, T-33 Trainers and C-130 Hercules and today it is home for the JF-17, a multi-role fighter developed with the help of China’s the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Like most Chinese products, the JF-17 is a rip-off of the PAF’s aging F-16s.

But I digress. I was going to tell you what happened on a scorching day at the PAF Masroor at the height of the Bangladesh War in August, 1971, when my thoughts got waylaid…..

An hour before noon, rookie Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas, 20, had begun taxiing his T-33 toward the runway, getting ready to take off on a solo training sortie, when a Bengali instructor pilot, Flt.Lt. Matiur Rahman, signalled him to stop and then climbed into the rear instructor’s seat. In those days, there were many military offers of Bangladeshi origin stationed in West Pakistan and Rahman was one of them.

Minhas wanted to practice treetop level flight, a specially hazardous maneuver even in the relatively slower T-33, but essential in combat situations.

The jet took off westward into the wind, but made a steep banking turn and headed east, climbing swiftly to 15000 ft in minutes, where it remained until the plush green of the Indus River estuary and the Keti Bunder Wildlife Sanctuary hove into view. The jet dived and began skimming so low it looked as if the fuselage would brush against the top branches. In less than a minute they would be over the wetlands of the widening estuary and from there it would be just five minutes to the Indian border.

Of course, they had no plans of crossing over. This was a training flight and besides, the T-33 was unarmed, except for a lone 20mm canon that just happened to be disassembled, under maintenance. Minhas would soon be climbing and banking west back to base.

The jet did climb but then it began behaving funnily, like as if the pilot was not in his senses. The situation became clear when, half way into the turn, Minhas radioed base that he was being hijacked. Turns out that the instructor pilot, Rahman, had been waiting for a chance to defect along with an aircraft and fly to India where he would join his compatriots in the war that was then raging in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The controls of a twin-seater trainer aircraft are somewhat like those in the dual control cars that we have for auto driver training, which enable the instructor to exert control when the trainee makes an error. Rahman was using his set of controls to steer the aircraft east toward the Indian border, while Minhas struggled to wrest control from Rahman and turn the jet toward Karachi.

Unfortunately the two pilots hadn’t noticed the airspeed plummet, due to all the pitching and yawing caused by the fight over the controls. Within minutes, the T-33 stalled and dropped from the sky like a stone. While Minhas perished, strapped in his seat, Rahman was discovered some distance away, maybe because Minhas had ejected the canopy in prep for a bailout and Rahman’s seat belt had come undone.

Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas was posthumously awarded Pakistan’s top military honour, the ‘Nishan-E-Haider’. At just 20, he remains the youngest and the only member of the Pakistan Air Force to win the award. Bangladesh didn’t want to be left behind in all the ‘shahadat’ frenzy either. Rahman was honoured with their highest military award, the ‘Bir Sreshtho’.

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Around 40 kms east of the Islamic terrorism hot spot, Peshawar, lies an unprepossessing little town named Kamra in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The town could have even been called a hick town had it not been for the fact that it is also ground zero for Pakistan’s military aviation industry. It is where the Avionics Production Factory, Aircraft Rebuild Factory, Aircraft Manufacturing Factory and Mirage Rebuild Factory are all located.

Also located at Kamra is the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and this is where the name ‘Minhas’ once again popped up and this time embedded itself inside the collective consciousness of anti-terror task forces of the western world.

I would like to tell you all about what happened but I have a short attention span and besides its sunny, I have the day off and want to go kayaking. But please, do watch this space. I’m about to break a story that’s never been told before…..

(to be continued..)