Adieu Brig Mokhtar: Airman, sailor, soldier & balloonist | By Sultan M Hali

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Adieu Brig Mokhtar: Airman, sailor, soldier & balloonist

THE father of Pakistan’s Army Aviation and pioneering balloonist, Brigadier Mukhtar Karim, who had the unique distinction of also having served in the Royal Indian Air Force and Royal Indian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RINVR) as an officer, met his Maker on January 16, 2023.

His funeral at H-8 Graveyard in Islamabad was attended by his admirers, friends, relatives and officers and men from the various Corps he had served.

During the solemn burial ceremony, before the Dua (prayer) led by the religious teacher, a young officer from the Army Aviation read out excerpts from his memoir.

In brief, Brigadier Mokhtar Karim was educated at the Prince of Wales’s Royal Indian Military College, DehraDun, from August 1937 to May 1943.

He joined the 22nd GD Pilot’s Course of Royal Indian Air Force as a Flight Cadet in August 1943 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in April 1944.

Thereafter,he quit the RIAF and joined the Royal Indian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RINVR) in early 1945 at Bombay as a Midshipman but was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant after six months.

He demobilized after WWII and joined the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun in August 1946 as a Gentleman Cadet where he held senior appointments including Battalion Senior Under Officer of Auchinleck Battalion and was a strong contender to receive the Sword of Honour but he had to migrate to Pakistan before the passing out parade.

He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Pakistan Army in October 1947.His was indeed a unique career as he held commission in all three services.

He joined Artillery and Air OP and later spearheaded the creation of Army Aviation. After his retirement in 1977, he served in senior positions with Fauji Foundation.

In 1988, at the age of 65, he joined the Adventure Foundation Pakistan; got his Balloon Flying License from the UK and pioneered Hot Air Ballooning in Pakistan.

His last flight was in April 2010 at Khanpur Lake at the age of 87. This article is not an obituary so numerous details of Brigadier Mokhtar’s illustrious career and exciting life may be omitted.

It is a recollection of my personal contact with the departed soul. I first met Brigadier Mokhtar Karim at the residence of my maternal uncle Brigadier Manazir, who was then in POF Wah, while I was a Flight Cadet at PAF Academy Risalpur, now named after Brigadier Mokhtar Karim’s close friend Air Marshal Asghar Khan.

It is a coincidence that not only did Air Marshal Asghar Khan and Brigadier Mokhtar Karim share their alma mater Royal Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehra Dun but while the former is regarded as the “Father of Pakistan Air Force”, the latter is remembered as the “Father of Pakistan Army Aviation. ”

Coincidentally, we had a common heritage. His father and my maternal grandfather were posted at Hazaribagh in India.

He narrated that as a child he had gone with his father and my grandfather to witness the landing of an aircraft in Hazaribagh for the first time on a grassy field.

The daring British pilot performed some thrilling aerobatics before landing and won the hearts of the spectators.

We kept meeting at various social events and he would amuse us youngsters with tales of his fascinating experiences, the adventures he had been involved in and thrilling moments he had faced.

As Brigadier Mokhtar Karim’s mortal remains were being lowered in his grave, my mind was wandering to another funeral we both had attended on February 1st 1997 at St.

Paul’s Church, Rawalpindi—the funeral of Mr. Hugh Catchpole—a remarkable personality. Catchpole was a British educationist and philanthropist, who had taught at RIMC, becoming its Principal in 1948.

In 1952, he was invited by his former students to establish Cadet College Hasanabdal and became its Founder Principal.

He assumed the mantle of Principal of PAF Public School Sargodha in 1958 till his retirement in 1967.

He had chosen to settle in Pakistan and continued teaching at Abbottabad Public School till his demise.

He had sponsored scores of students from humble backgrounds to enable them to continue their studies in better educational institutions.

The church funeral ceremony was unique, since there were only two Christians: the pastor who was leading the memorial service and the remains of Mr. Catchpole.

The rest of us, his students were Muslims including Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, who were former Air Chiefs, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, former Commander in Chief of Pakistan Army, Lieutenant General Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan, Major General Nawabzada Sher Ali Khan of Pataudi and Brigadier Mokhtar Karim.

Air Chief Marshal Abbas Khattak, the serving Air Chief, who had been Mr. Catchpole’s student at Cadet College Hasanabdal was also present along with a large number of bureaucrats and civilians, who had been Mr. Catchpole’s students.

Every institution in Pakistan, where he had taught, was represented by its Principal and a batch of students in school uniform to pay reverence to the departed soul.

This scribe was then serving as the Director Public Relations of PAF and my team had captured the whole ceremony on video—the clips of which were aired on TV—while my article titled “To Sir with Love” on the life of Mr.Catchpole was published in various dailies.

Brigadier Mokhtar visited my office a couple of days later and proposed that we produce a documentary on the life of our beloved teacher.

Two students of Mr.Catchpole, Brigadier Mokhtar Karim and myself put our heads down to write the script, which was narrated by the Brigadier in his rich bass tenor, while my media team edited the visuals for the documentary.

It was also titled: ‘To Sir with Love’, reminiscent of the 1967 Sydney Poitier movie. The documentary was aired on TV while Brigadier Mokhtar Karim presented its copies to Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, his fellow Rimcollians (alumni of RIMC).

At the Rimcollians’ reunion celebrated at RIMC in March 1997, ‘Catchpole Guest House’, built from funds donated by Mr Hugh Catchpole was inaugurated.

Among the 1200 Rimcollians, there were 20 from Pakistan, which included Lieutenant General Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan, former service chiefs Air Marshal M Asghar Khan, Lieutenant General Gul Hassan Khan and Brigadier Mokhtar Karim.

Air Marshal Asghar Khan had the documentary ‘To Sir with Love’ aired on the occasion. The next day, I got an excited call from Brigadier Mokhtar Karim informing me that the documentary was an instant hit at the reunion.

He conveyed Air Marshal Asghar’s message that I should immediately prepare one hundred copies of the documentary and send it for distribution among Rimcollians.

I duly complied. Few people are aware that his life partner Saida Bano, renowned artist and horticulturist had designed the flying badge of Army Aviation, which still continues to adorn the chest of Army aviators.

Looking back now, twenty-five years later, I believe it is high time that a documentary is produced on the life and achievements of Brigadier Mokhtar Karim, pioneering Airman, Sailor, Soldier and Balloonist, who dedicated his life to Pakistan and brought it international fame.

—The writer is a Retired Group Captain of PAF, who has written several books on China.