This is not patriotism talking; the Sherdils know that they are the world beating air force fighter pilots. How do they fly so close and perform manoeuvres with such precision? It is part training and the rest is enormous trust in each other. Flying beautifully and gracefully, and moving like one wing, Sherdils bowl over audiences every time they make their arrowhead formation entrances.
With the call, “Pull up…Pull up…Pull up…Now,” begins an aerial performance that has won the hearts of millions across the globe. It has left even more wondering how they execute manoeuvres from the first loop to the last death-defying bomb burst. It is no idle boast that the Sherdils, the aerobatics display team of the Pakistan Air Force, are world renowned.
The team comprises a selected group of instructor pilots from the Advanced Jet Training Squadron of PAF Academy Asghar Khan in Risalpur. Their whole lives are built around flying. The best of the best have choreographed performances in air shows around the world.
The idea of formation aerobatics team was carved into reality by an Academy instructor, Sqn Ldr Bahar-Ul-Haq, who was on an exchange tour of RAF College Cranwell Aerobatics Team in 1970’s. It was then decided to put up a brief show on graduation parades at the academy to demonstrate outstanding skills of academy instructors. After several months of practice, Wg Cdr Imtiaz A Bhatti, led a team of four instructor pilots in T-37 aircraft aka ‘Tweety Birds’, and put up an impressive show, flying wing tip to wing tip, twisting and turning over the skies of the PAF Academy on 17th August, 1972. For over two years, these daredevils performed with the call-sign of its formation leader. It was bestowed the befitting name – The Sherdils – on 19th September, 1974. The team continued to perform up until December 1991, when sanctions were imposed on the sale of military equipment to Pakistan. It took five years for the sanctions to be lifted and the Sherdils could blaze into the skies once again.
Tweety-Bird served Sherdils for nearly 37 years. During this period, it performed on various national occasions such as Academy Graduation Parades, for visiting heads-of-states, Pakistan Day and Defence Day celebrations. In the late 90s, PAF Academy had inducted the modern K-8P aircraft for jet training; in parallel to old T-37s. With the turn of the century, the idea emerged to trade T-37 with K-8P for the Sherdils’ team. After extensive studies on power-margin and throttle in-puts available to the formatting flyers as well as better performance capabilities of K-8 jet as an aerobatic platform, the change-over from the old T-37 to K-8 was a logical choice. On 18th November, 2009, the first ever 4-ship K-8 pulled up for a loop in diamond formation to the thrill of the audience with Sqn Ldr Amir Misbah as leader.
From Four to Nine Ship
On 27th March, 2004, a new milestone was achieved when Wg Cdr Tariq Chaudhary, led six aircraft into formation aerobatics instead of four for the first time. The present Sherdil Formation Aerobatics team comprises of nine aircraft, which is being led by Wg Cdr Mohammad Irfan Pattal. The run-ins are executed by all nine out of which three peel-off and the remaining six-ship formation perform the aerobatics sequence.
The Sherdils’ Sequence
Moving in prescribed pieces of air space, the 6-ship adjusts for a wing over towards the left side. Just as the audience is catching its breath, two Sherdil pilots appear at high speeds over the site. Throttles pushed into the corner, they cross each other at an accumulated speed of 1,000 km/h above a euphoric crowd. They fly on to perform a high-G turn known as a Carousel, while in the backdrop, keeping tight formation, the 6-ship have completed a parallel loop over the site. When the primary formation makes an exit with a high-G turn to the right side, a Sherdil pilot who had earlier broken off makes an abrupt entrance from the rear at 600 km/h and implements what is known as the ‘Tail-slide’. This is complemented by the 6-ship formation that once again enters the scene and carries out the Barrel Roll manoeuvre. As the Barrel Roll is done, Sherdil 8 and 9 enter the fray and dash into the course at 500 feet high. They perform ‘Shaheen-Break’ in the middle of the air show site. The aerobatics concludes with the final act, the moment audiences sit on the edge of their chairs for. The 6-ship formation enters the arena one last time and pull up to perform possibly the most gutsy move of the show, the Bomb Burst Loop.
Led by Wg Cdr Ali Zaidi, formatting Sherdil twisted and turned over Thal Range for the Fire Power Demonstration on 6th May, 2010, before an excited audience. From 16th to 21st November, 2010, the Sherdils were tasked to perform at the Zhuhai Air Show, China 2,300 nautical miles (NM) away. The aerobatic formation was led by Sqn Ldr Khalid Matin.
Driven by the consumption to be the world’s best airmen, the manoeuvres executed by the Sherdils rattle even the pros. These sequences are variations of the manoeuvres that every airman learns during his training as a fighter pilot. Their moves are undertakings with no room for errors. Flying just 500 feet above ground, the sequence starts with the first run-in of the 9-ship formation at over 600 km/h. As the team enters the arena, the leader gives a ‘Pull-up’ call that audiences hear in real-time thrice before the front 6-ship formation pulls up for a complete loop and the rear 3-ship formation performs a lateral bomb burst manoeuvre.
Sherdils participated in the Pakistan Day fly-past over the Presidency, Islamabad, in a 7-ship formation on 23rd March, 2014, led by Wg Cdr Asim Zia. Subsequently, international audiences witnessed the formation aerobatics on Pakistan Day Parades in the years 2015 and 2016. On 6th September, 2015, Sherdils participated in the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the 1965 war. The 9-ship formation, led by Wg Cdr Amjad Mehmood, awed the audience gathered at F-9 Park, Islamabad.
On 7th December 2015, Sherdils performed on the occasion of Fire Power Demonstration – 2015, at PAF Air to Ground Firing Range Sonmiani, led by Sqn Ldr Hammad Khurshid. The Sherdils performed flawlessly, in the backdrop of the Arabian Sea, to the delight of national and international dignitaries.
In March 2016, Sherdils flew in their highly responsive K-8 at short notice to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to participate in the culmination ceremony of Exercise Raad-Al-Shamaal. The team led by Sqn Ldr Taimur Nawaz Khan, performed for a gathering of monarchs, political leaders and top military commanders.
Over a span of 47 year, Sherdils have performed on graduation parades, air shows, visits of foreign dignitaries, Defence Day and Pakistan Day parades etc. They have demonstrated with Turkish Air Force F-16 on 7th September, 1997, and with the Red Arrows on 24th November, 1997, in Islamabad. They have had the honour of flying aerobatics on the 100 years of Flight Celebrations held at Al Ain Air show on 14th December, 2003, Dubai air show in 2007, Fire Power Demo 2010- 16-19, on the 70th Independence Day, Karachi and also IDEAS 2018, in Karachi.
Becoming a Sherdil
Being a Sherdil is no easy task. They possess experience, knowledge and finesse to maintain their thrust to be world’s best flyers. It entails what the Sherdils’ crew term as ‘Wits of a warrior and Guts of a Gladiator.’ Candidates must have an impeccable record and at least a thousand flying hours to their name. They must meet stringent criteria before they are inducted. Practicing routines take total dedication of their time.
The training commences in well-planned steps. It is initiated with the basic level of two-ship formation and then moves on to four-ship, six-ship and, finally, to nine-ship formation flying. These training sessions are all conducted at higher altitudes. As the pilots become adept, the altitude is decreased gradually to as low as 500 feet above ground.
In order to keep the aerobatics skill alive for Basic Flying Training (BFT) instructor pilots, T-37 formation aerobatics team was revived in October, 2018.
Supplementing the existing Sherdil team, the ‘Bravehearts’ provide flexibility at selected occasions during formation aerobatics. The Bravehearts comprise four T-37 aircraft, which perform initial run in, pull up for loop, barrel roll, clover leaf and linear bomb burst loop. Integration of Bravehearts in Sherdils’ display profile was well appreciated at PAF as well as the national level. However, to further add colour and variety to overall display, a few manoeuvres were added in previous profile, this year. The ‘Twister’ manoeuvre was added in sequence instead of parallel-loop and steep-turn. The previously inducted ‘carousel’ (circle of no-joy) manoeuvre was replaced with the more dynamic and appealing 5-6G 360° turn and level inverted pass.
Whether it is the tightness of the graceful diamond roll providing an amazing angle to photograph or the ballet-like precision of the bomb burst, what the Sherdils do is wondrously beautiful. Keep in mind that behind the beauty of each move, the Sherdils are executing perfected combat flying skills. Call it dedication, skill, team work, attention to detail, they all fit. That is why any PAF pilot will tell you, it is a proud privilege to be a ‘Sherdil’.