The training of aircrew has always remained the hallmark of PAF, thanks to its prestigious training institutes. It is this rigorous training and skill which led a crew of transport wing to ferry a defected Afghan air force AN-26 aircraft, which they had never flown before, that too under grave threat from the enemy. This untold tale will inspire our readers for a long time to come.
It was a pleasant and relieving sight. Two Mirage aircraft flying above us in zig zag patterns, providing aerial protection against any possible Russian attack. We were aware that the patrolling Russian fighters were waiting for us to get airborne. Their target was their own aircraft, AN-26 that defected to Miranshah.
It was a regular day in the squadron. I was relaxing in the crew room. Someone informed me that my officer commanding (OC) Wg Cdr Ghafoor, was planning to fly an Afghan AN-26 aircraft that had defected to Miranshah airport. This Russian Antonov-26, a twin-engine turbo prop light multi-purpose transport aircraft, was on a routine flight from Kabul to Kandahar. However, instead of continuing to its destination, it entered Pakistani airspace and landed at a disused airfield of Miranshah.
Back then, I was a co-pilot on the F-27 Fokker Friendship aircraft in No 12 VIP Squadron. Being young and perpetually on the lookout for thrill, I considered myself suitable for this mission and went straight to OC’s office. I saw him sitting with senior navigator Sqn Ldr Zulfiqar with planning maps spread on his table. After saluting them I said, “Sir, if you need a co-pilot for this mission, I am available.”
They both looked up to me and Wg Cdr Ghafoor said, “Do you know what sort of mission is this, it’s extremely dangerous and could turn out to be fatal. The Russians would try and shoot down this plane as soon we get airborne from Miranshah. So, you better think before you volunteer for this”.
Upon my insistence, they agreed to let me fly with them as co-pilot. Next morning, I reported with my night kit and we were flown to Miranshah on Beechcraft by Sqn Ldr Khalid and Flt Lt Naeem. At Miranshah we were greeted by Pak Army officers. We wanted to visit the aircraft to make ourselves familiar with it but was advised not to, due to the firing going on from across the border. The aircraft had been camouflaged by covering it with tree branches.
We were taken to officers, mess of an Army unit and there we met the pilots of the defected aircraft. They were kept in a locked room. We found out that the Afghan captain of the aircraft had already dispatched his family to Pakistan and then defected the aircraft to seek asylum. His co-pilot was furious with his decision and was continuously fighting with him. He had legitimate reasons to be angry. He could have sent his family to Pakistan, as well, if the captain had informed him of his plan in advance.
It was 23 September, 1984 and we planned our departure early in the morning before dawn. However, it was delayed due to some operational issues. After getting ready we asked the army guys to take the Afghan captain to the aircraft to help us in checklist procedures. He was told that he was going with us to a city in Pakistan and would assist in flying. He was extremely happy to know that and went with us enthusiastically. On the other hand the co pilot was even more irked on this development. We were safely escorted to the aircraft. After taking our seats we asked the Afghan captain to help us start the engines. He happily did what ever we asked him. After we were ready for taxi out and take off, he was told that he would not be flying with us. He got extremely upset and annoyed and had to be forcefully removed from the aircraft by army personnel. On his way out, he flipped a switch on the flight engineer panel which we did not notice.
It was a bright sunny day and the hills of Miranshah looked fascinating. After take off, we were flying on easterly heading, in the valley at very low level. This was done to avoid becoming a target of Russian fighters patrolling the border and waiting for us to be visible. There was a strong fear and it was expected that we could be shot down by Russian missiles. The sight of PAF Mirage fighters above us flying in zig zag pattern to match our speed and to protect us from any enemy misadventure was heartening and moral boosting.
Wg Cdr Ghafoor had flown the same type while on a deputation to Iraq. He was handling it confidently and in an extremely relaxed manner. Sqn Ldr Zulfiqar was accurately navigating through the hilly terrain towards our planned destination and I was enjoying the thrill while handling the radio communications and pressurization system. I contacted Mianwali tower after entering their training area and the air traffic controller inquired about our destination. I very proudly refused and said, “unable to disclose due to operational reasons”.
We headed towards PAF Base Murid and Wg Cdr Ghafoor landed the plane with ease and in a highly professional manner. While taxiing towards Tarmac we noticed some part of aircraft touching the ground surface. The ramp of the aircraft had open-up upon touch down and was dragging on the surface. This happened due to a selection of the switch by the Afghan captain while leaving the aircraft. Otherwise a very dangerous mission ended safely owing to the professionalism of my Captain Wg Cdr Ghafoor (late), Navigator Sqn Ldr Zulfiqar (late), Flight Engineer WO Shabbir (late) and of course the deterrence and protection provided by the fighter squadron of the PAF.
The Beechcraft with same crew was there to fly us back home.