Wing Commander Nisar Nabi has airlifted personnel and taken over sized-cargo to places only the C-130 Hercules can get into. But not even 6,000 flying hours and experience had prepared him for his next mission – a photo session 7,000 feet high.
“It is difficult if you have not flown in formation before. It’s even harder when you have to fly roughly two car lengths apart from the other aircraft that is one fourth of the size of the mighty Hercules,” Wing Commander Nisar Nabi, who is Officer Commanding of No 6 ATS Sqn PAF, said thinking about the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) show-2018.
It’s all hands on deck. The plane and everyone on board performing at peak capacity, Nisar Nabi makes constant adjustments, trying to avoid turbulence created by the tiny sky-van, a propeller plane with world class aviation photographers on board. The C-130 has to draw close but not too close. Wearing harnesses and parachutes for extra safety, cameramen lean out of the sky-van, clamouring to capture the intricacy of the hand painted tattoos on the tail and nose tip of the Hercules.
Several tense minutes pass as the two planes dance in synchrony. These moments are more demanding than the eight hours flight from Turkey to the rendezvous point with the sky-van at Fairford, England. A minute late and the PAF would have been thrown back in queue of some 200 other aircraft waiting for their photo shoot or miss it completely.
Nisar Nabi prevents the mega Hercules from being thrown off course by the air currents. His eyes are focused on the dual propeller aircraft carrying the photographers. He later stated that flying the Hercules at its slowest speed to match the top speed of the sky-van would have been less challenging had the formatting aircraft been the same.
“Whether it was moving equipment or delivering troops to combat zones, the C-130 was designed for war. It is a huge plane with a 132 feet wing span. A 30° turn is as sharp as an F-16 rolling 90 degree. Fly less than 120 knots speed, the plane becomes heavy on the controls, unresponsive and this behemoth can stall,” Nisar Nabi explained.
Some twenty feet apart, he holds the position for 15 minutes. After the photographers had had their fill, the PAF crew broke off with a sharp 45° turn. Gently, the crew eases the C-130 on the misty runway of Royal Air Force Base Fairford. They join some 250 aircraft that had landed to compete in RIAT show.
Thousands of enthusiasts gather at RIAT, light-headed with excitement and awe, to see hundreds of iconic aircraft glisten in the afternoon sun. Crews from all over the world beam and crowds are bedazzled by the colours of the tattooed aero-planes. Looking back on the day and how the PAF C-130 performed in the RAF air tattoo show, one wonders if any of the spectators would have been able to imagine what all had gone into that brilliant execution.
In 2006, Pakistan participated in RIAT for the first time, when the Air Tattoo’s theme was Rapid Global Effect. The team was led by Wg Cdr Haseeb Gul, the then OC of No 6 Air Transport Support (ATS) Sqn. As a gesture of appreciation for allied countries and their air forces in their aid in dealing with the earthquake disaster of 2005, PAF covered its Hercules C-130 with beautifully painted murals of the humanitarian efforts undertaken after the earthquake. The display and crew were well-received and the team won multiple awards. These awards included winning the Concours d’ Elegance competition, the Page Aerospace Trophy as well as the BAE Systems’ Trophy for winning the Spirit of the Meet competition. The crew was also presented with an engraved bowl for the Best Livery of the year’s air show. The aircraft tail No 144 (which is the civil version of C-130 Hercules with a nomenclature of L38-2B) of No 6 ATS Sqn remained the centre of attraction for the aviation enthusiasts at Fairford. It was the only vintage aircraft still in service that has not given up the will to fly.
After 2006, PAF did not participate in RIAT for a over decade due to its operational commitments back home. However, in 2016, PAF took part in RIAT with a theme of ‘Inspiring Innovations’. For this year also, PAF decided to send its vintage, one of its kind civilian version aircraft bearing tail No 144 with its tail painted in the theme of ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’ (Pakistan’s successful COIN ops). Once again the aircraft and its charming crew under the command of Wg Cdr Taimur Hussain of No 6 Sqn stole the show at Fairford. A large crowd stormed the aircraft to see its colourful livery. This year, the squadron did something new to attract enthusiasts of all ages. The crew opened the doors of their Hercules for a tour of tours. The entire cargo compartment of the Hercules was transformed into a tableau of history, culture and experience. Portraits and framed photographs showcased the history of Pakistan and the PAF. Songs and documentaries depicting diverse Pakistani cultures ran on multiple LCD screens. Adding depth to this scene was the unique experience curated by PAF crew offering the visitors with Pakistan’s world renowned mangoes.
The crew introduced another activity in 2016, to bring out the fun and excitement and give children the best time of their lives. To achieve this mission, the airmen of the PAF Hercules, strapped children into para-trooping gear and dropped open the cargo door. The jubilant participants jumped safely landed onto an airbag below and parents captured those precious moments with cameras and video devices. The ‘Mock Para-trooping’ was a lesson of courage and a thrill of a lifetime for the children, all the while giving the crew a moral boost in return. By the end of the day, the PAF was awarded with trophy of ‘Concours d’ Elegance’ for the immaculate presentation of C-130 Hercules and its crew.
PAF joined RIAT in 2017 again, with the tilted theme ‘21st Century Partnerships’. This time the honour of participation was given to No 21 Sqn (another Air Transport Sqn based at Karachi). The Hercules, Tail No 153, wore the inspiring caption ‘Peace Together’ and a dove to go with the theme of the competition, ‘21st Century Partnerships’. That year, Squadron Commander, Wg Cdr Ali Ansar, of 21 Sqn, with a team of selected few, flew to Fairford. The year 2017, was no different. Adding to this appeal were the merchandise on display and the giveaways. Visitors waited in a mile-long queue to get their ‘Remove Before Flight’ key chains, PAF stick-on patches, printed mugs and much more. Also, the crew welcomed their guests on board in traditional Pakistani dresses.
In 2018, the PAF accepted the invitation to participate in RIAT in late May. Squadron Commander of No 6 ATS Sqn, Wg Cdr Nisar Nabi, had less than two months to prepare his crew and ready his aircraft.
The first challenge was to prepare for the air show in less than two months’ and the other was to prepare for the theme for that year: “100 Years of the RAF”. It was also a coincidence that the very same year, No 6 ATS Sqn celebrated its 75th anniversary, making it one of the oldest squadrons. Keeping in mind the two similar historical events of both the air forces, and after putting in substantial time and effort, the vision began to take form.
It was decided to merge the two important events into one symbolic theme. This was done brilliantly by juxtaposing the union jack insignia and the Pakistan flag on the tail of the Hercules, along with airplanes, which remained in service with the squadron starting from 1942. For the first time, the nose of the Hercules was also tattooed with Pakistani flag and squadron emblem onto the sides of the fuselage.
For four days at RIAT, enthusiasts would line up and wait to climb into the Pakistan Air Force Hercules, eager to catch a glimpse from the inside. Hard work paid off when PAF won the runners up trophy in the Concours d’ Elegance competition.
In 2019, the theme for RIAT was ‘Air & Space: Inspiring the next generation air force’. The theme gave an opportunity to PAF to project its contributions, made over the years, in the field of space, research & technology and indigenization. The tail of the Hercules was tattooed with PAF’s aspiring future vision: ‘The Project AZM’.
This year, the airmen transformed the cargo compartment of the Hercules into an art gallery, with an exhibition by acclaimed aviation artist Gp Capt Syed Masood Hussaini (Retd). Visitors were tickled to have the artist amidst them and liked his vintage clean artistic style with which he preserved PAF warbirds on canvas. They admired the wonderful use of colour, detail and creativity, to create an excitement for flight.
Every year, PAF is one of the few teams at the aerial extravaganza that allows visitors to climb aboard their plane for a rare and multi-sensory experience. For children as well as those who are obsessed with flying machines, the atmosphere conveys in some measure the spirit of those who serve in the air force.
At RIAT, the PAF only takes part in the static show category, and is one of the foremost attractions. Year after year, event-goers particularly swarm to the PAF display. Something significant entails while brushing shoulders with some of the aviation elites in Pakistan Air Force. Visitors learn about other things too. They take away a 360° holistic experience, dedication and passion of the men who serve their nation with pride, valour, and commitment. It’s an immersive experience engaging the visitors on every level through sights and sounds, and conversations with men who live and breathe air force. In one instance, a boy approached the crew to share a heart-warming anecdote with them. The previous year, his father had taken a photo with the C-130, but because he was too unwell to attend this year, he had sent his son with a photo from the previous show to convey his admiration for the aircraft and the PAF air crew. Their warm disposition and friendly demeanour leave a lasting impression on many and probably even make them feel like they can sprout wings and fly.