Flight of the Falcon : A Fighter Pilot's Story
By Asif Javed, MD
Williamsport , PA
It was Nov 1979. Pakistan was in the iron grip of martial law; country’s twice elected PM had been executed and all opposition had been crushed by brute force. General Zia-ul-Haq came to address the elite of Pakistan Military at the National War College, Rawalpindi.
While he spoke to "his constituency", the audience listened in silence. The wily dictator alluded to the difficult times at home and abroad and then made his point: “The armed forces will have to continue managing the country indefinitely until a nucleus of God-fearing good Muslims enter politics”.
His address over -- having reneged yet again on his promise to hold elections -- Zia was ready to leave when Air Commodore Sajad Haider stood up and asked for permission to speak. When allowed, SH made a statement for the ages; his words visibly shook Zia and had the audience — it included senior members of the cabinet -- spellbound.
In his statement, dashing and flamboyant SH -- twice decorated ace of PAF in 1965 as well as 1971-- questioned Zia's intentions and sincerity, criticized the intelligence agencies for their role in the fall of civilian governments and brought up the sensitive issue of people’s contempt for the uniform. For this extraordinary act of defiance, this outstanding officer paid the ultimate price: instead of a well-deserved promotion, he was prematurely retired. This may be one of the very few examples in the history of our nation that truth was spoken bluntly with complete disregard for the consequences. SH therefore, can rightfully claim to have performed the supreme jihad.
The fighter pilot par excellence who has been hailed as “one of the gallant few who saved Pakistan in 1965” (by no less an authority than Air Marshal Asghar Khan) and “the real and forever hero of the 1965 air war” by an Indian aviation expert, has recently come out with his autobiography that looks at behind-the-scene stories of the wars of 1965 and 1971, but this book also has plenty of information for those who are fed up with the “murder of history” in Pakistan. He is forthright, candid and has hardly spared any one. One may disagree with his opinion here and there but his credentials are strong and his patriotism is beyond any doubt.
In his memoir, SH takes the reader along on the incredible journey of his life that seems like an Indiana Jones movie. SH who traces his ancestry to rulers of Khwarzamian empire, was born in Quetta, where his father, a physician, was posted; he went through FC College Lahore, PAF Academy Risalpur and postings in Karachi, Dacca, Sargodha, Peshawar and Washington DC as air attache’ in the Pakistan Embassy. As fate would have it, having fought in two wars and having earned high praise for his daring and leadership, he found himself in solitary confinement in the infamous Attock conspiracy case in 1972.
Exonerated of all charges eventually but scarred, he tried to move on with his life and career only to find a vindictive AM Zafar Ch in his way. Zafar Ch’s dismissal brought only a temporary relief in his ordeal since the Shah of Iran came calling soon, asking for his dismissal on some very flimsy ground. ZA Bhutto was sympathetic to SH but after his overthrow, came Zia and then the episode mentioned earlier that ended SH’s promising career.
While SH’s air force career had its ups and downs, his family life reads like a real roller coaster ride. He went through three unsuccessful marriages and a very passionate love affair with a Hispanic lady whom he calls “the eternal love of my life”. Living in retirement in Islamabad now, he has done us a huge favor by bringing out many facts previously known to a select few only. In the process, he has set the record straight and laid to rest many a myth.
SH painstakingly produces numbers and figures to prove that contrary to the popular perception, PAF performed quite well in 1971 and clearly outdid its performance of 1965. He also analyzes the missions flown and goes over the heroic deeds of many of his colleagues, some of who were martyred. Sarfraz Raffiqui was shot down over enemy territory. SH laments that no attempt was made by the authorities to get our hero’s dead body back to Pakistan. MM Alam’s claim of shooting down five Indian Hunters is dismissed (the likely kill was probably two); and yet, the author is generous in his praise for him and calls Alam ”the undisputed ace of PAF”.
There are many villains in this story but no one has received more criticism than Field Marshal Ayub Khan. SH has gone way back to trace the military record of Ayub from the Second WW and has produced evidence that Ayub was “insecure, intellectually mediocre, with limited military knowledge, a failure as CO in Burma in Second WW’ when he was relieved of command by Gen Reese. Ayub chose Yahya as his successor despite being fully aware of Yahya’s moral depravity. SH uses scathing remarks for Yahya and concludes that “the war of 1971 was lost at the strategic level owing to the cowardice, incompetence and moral turpitude of Yahya and his cabal”.
Tikka Khan was over-rated, mediocre and — having risen through the ranks -- never forgot to humble himself in front of all his seniors. Gen Niazi’s dirty jokes, orgy and debauchery find place too as does Air Marshal Zafar Ch’s witch-hunting and Air Commodore Khakan Abbasi’s corruption.
Among Sajad Haider’s heroes, is late Air Marshal Rahim Khan. The author calls his former boss “a superb leader, gallant, true son of the soil, upright and a thorough gentleman”. He discusses Rahim’s role in bringing ZA Bhutto to power, his unfortunate dismissal and post-retirement difficulties. Rahim’s death abroad in poverty and oblivion wrenches one’s heart. Asghar Khan’s role in laying a very solid foundation of PAF is acknowledged as also that of Nur Khan’s.
As far operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam, the author feels that the abrupt change of command (Yahya brought in place of Akhtar Malik) at a crucial moment when Akhtar Malik was ready to capture Akhnur, was a fatal mistake; and he goes further and finds sinister motives by Ayub behind this most unfortunate military blunder.
SH goes into the circumstances leading to Yahya Khan’s overthrow: the credit is given to two outstanding army officers, Brig FB Ali and Col Alim Afridi who were serving at Mangla in 1971. They threatened to march on to the presidency with tanks if Yahya did not abdicate. A shaken Yahya, having been made aware of the mutiny at hand, reluctantly agreed. Now, how many of us ever know and care to remember these two heroes? Late Khalid Hasan, I recall, had interviewed Brig Ali in Toronto a few years ago. Wherever he may be, he and his fellow officers deserve our gratitude’ their resolve to remove the tyrant should not go unrecognized.
The author has mixed feelings about ZA Bhutto; he admires Bhutto’s intellect, charisma and leadership qualities but calls him a poor judge of character, having replaced professionally competent and exceedingly sincere officers like AM Rahim Khan with vindictive Zafar Ch and Gen Gul Hasan with mediocre Tikka and later meek Zia-ul-Haq. As for Benazir, “She fell pray to graft, kickbacks and plunder. I was tormented by her demeanor because she had a large inheritance…….I felt devastated by her greed and arrogance”.
In the epilogue, Sajad Haider deplores our culture: “It discourages the spirit of inquiry and brands reprobate villains as heroes. Our emotions far surpass rationale, logic and the hard truth; we only believe hearsay”. George Orwell said that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. By Orwell’s criterion, Sajad Haider may perhaps be considered one too.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org