The air forgives no mistake

Wali Mohammad Raja

I had just completed my ab-initio training at Camp Gary, San Marcos Texas and Fort Rucker Alabama in 1958 and had become a full-fledged army aviator after all. It was a wonderful feeling to have earned the “wings”. I joined my new unit with great pride and anticipation. Like any aviator, I also had the craze for logging as many flying hours as I could. One day, on a local station holiday, the unit required volunteer pilots to fly to Peshawar on a mission. There is a good old saying that one should never volunteer in the army. But the desire to gain flying experience and to see new areas made me go for the sortie.

On the morning of 27 September 1958, two of us took off. It was nice day for flying. There were a few scattered clouds en-route. At Peshawar, I flew the Commander Artillery on a low reconnaissance mission for about two hours. We reconnoitred manoeuvre areas and routes for the forthcoming divisional exercise. It was nearly 12 o’ clock when the flying became rough and bumpy, owing to turbulent air at low altitude. I completed the mission and made a nice three point landing on a road-side strip which impressed my passenger. The Commander seemed to have enjoyed the ride, and patted me on the back.

I had hardly finished my cup of tea and was about to plan our return flight to the base, to be in time for lunch, when I was told to fly the CO of an artillery unit over the area where his regiment was deployed. I was low in fuel in both the tanks, so I decided to take eight gallons in the port tank as I was to fly for about fifteen minutes only. The Colonel, as usual, wanted to check the camouflage and concealment of his regimental area. I made a pass over the unit. The CO was so pleased with the high standard of the camouflage of his unit that he wanted me to drop a message to this effect. I located the regimental command post on the ground and selected a site nearby for a message drop. One has to come in low and slow for this type of mission. Having dropped the message, I pulled up to gain height but just then the engine packed up. I pushed the nose down at once to maintain gliding speed. We were heading towards a hill feature. Collision with that feature would be fatal, I reckoned, and started making a left turn in order to make for a better field.

I was only about 300 feet above the ground, which meant only 36 seconds in terms of time, before coming to ground. Quickly, I carried out emergency cockpit checks. In order to complete the turn, I raised the nose a bit and made a steep turn. The aircraft flicked, with the result that the left wing took the first impact and then the nose hit the ground. My colleague flying another aircraft, came to the scene of accident and gave a “Mayday” (SOS) call on the air saying, “Sydney 48, Crashed”. All this happened quickly and both my passenger and I were trapped in the cockpit. At first the pain was unbearable, but nature came to our rescue and administered its anesthetic in its own admirable way and we lapsed into unconsciousness.

The aircraft caught fire and there was a great danger of an explosion. Luckily the crash had occurred in the vicinity of the unit of the CO. The unit personnel displayed a remarkable courage and love for their CO. At considerable personal risk, using picks and shovels, they broke open the engine and put the fire out by throwing loose earth on it. After the top “perspex” of the cockpit had been broken, we were pulled out of the aircraft and rushed to the hospital. Thus our lives were saved. The Adjutant of the unit had shown a great presence of mind in organizing our speedy rescue; for this, he was awarded the Tamgha-i-Basalat.

I was evacuated to a hospital in Peshawar and finally when I came out of comma it was a miracle. I beheld my surroundings on regaining consciousness and saw a nurse arranging some flowers in the room. I winced out of nervousness and tried to go back to sleep. She came to me understandingly and consoled me. Gradually the light started to dawn on me and I realized what had happened. The nurse cheered me up by reading aloud from Omar Khayam:- “The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it’. I felt better. The realization that few have survived a similar crash, and that both my passenger and I had were alive, injected in me an overwhelming sense of relief.

After a series of operations to reconstruct my face I was given the option to fly to see if I had the same level of skills and confidence. When I took to the sky I at once felt as if I was at home. I learnt that though air forgave no mistakes it welcomed the skill and courage of a keen aviator.
—The writer was one of the pioneers of Pakistan Army Aviation Corps in the fifties.