Air Marshal Asghar Khan — as I knew him

  • In honour of the great man

Asghar Khan was a politician, peace activist, historian, and the 5th Commander in Chief of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the first Pakistani to command this prestigious institution. After independence, Asghar Khan opted to join PAF. While commanding the Flying Training School at Risalpur, he had the unique distinction of hosting the founder of Pakistan. In April 1948, at Risalpur, a young Asghar Khan had listened to the words of the Quaid with awe and reverence:

“There is no doubt that a country without a strong air force is at the mercy of any aggressor. Pakistan must build up her air force as quickly as possible. It must be an efficient air force, second to none, and must take its right place with the army and the navy in securing Pakistan’s defense.”

In 1957, at the young age of 36, Asghar Khan became the youngest to date and the first Pakistani Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of PAF. He now had the distinctive opportunity to lend credence to the Quaid’s prophetic words. As C-in-C from 1957-65, the venerable Asghar Khan molded PAF in tempered steel and through his outstanding attributes of leadership; transformed it from a fledgling status with WWII aircraft into a fine fighting force, which had the capacity to rise to the occasion when the test came and got the better of an adversary five times its size in 1965, 1971 and continues to do so in every trial and tribulation the nation faces.

Asghar Khan is remembered as an air chief who stuck to the criteria of merit and qualification for every promotion and appointment. He did not refrain from ruffling a few feathers, even if he had to supersede officers for lack of merit.

Asghar Khan is remembered as an air chief who stuck to the criteria of merit and qualification for every promotion and appointment. He did not refrain from ruffling a few feathers, even if he had to supersede officers for lack of merit

Under his able leadership the PAF created a world record as early as 2 February, 1958, by performing the 16 aircraft loop on the US supplied Sabre jets, which catapulted the fledgling air force into a highly professional and operational fighting machine.

The next feat was equally daring, when on 27 October, 1964, during an air display at Peshawar, at which Omar Dani C-in-C of the Indonesian Air Force was the chief guest, the first ever formation aerobatics on the heavy and unwieldy B-57 Bombers was performed.

On 5th April 1965, the Indian army set out to capture the disputed Rann of Kutch territory while launching three infantry brigades. The Pakistan army took the precaution of moving into an area between Chad Bet and Biar Bet, to prevent the Indian forces from attempting the complete military occupation of Rann. Besides ensuring operational preparedness of the PAF, Air Marshal Asghar Khan played a master stroke in keeping the skirmishes limited and also saving Pakistani ground forces from interdiction by IAF since compared to India, Pakistan hardly had any air base in the vicinity. Asghar Khan, who had attended Military College, Dehradun, with his Indian counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh and knew him personally, called him on the hotline. He advised Arjun Singh that it would be prudent to agree to keep both air forces away from the local conflict of Rann because, if the IAF attacked the Pakistan army in the Rann of Kutch areas, the PAF would feel free to retaliate anywhere and in any manner it saw fit, and this could lead to an immediate escalation of the local conflict beyond predictable dimensions.

Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh heeded to the implied threat because he was fully cognizant of the firm and resolute demeanor of Asghar Khan and the IAF did indeed stay away from the Rann of Kutch battle areas and this proved advantageous to Pakistan army’s military duel with Indian army.

My first glimpse of Asghar Khan came in 1965, when as C-in-C, he came to inspect PAF Public School Sargodha, where I was a student. I still remember that despite the fact that he was the air chief, he was walking one step behind our Principal Mr Hugh Catchpole, who had been his teacher at the Royal Indian Military College Dehradun.

The lesson that your teacher is to be respected, no matter which position you may be elevated to, was instilled in our tender minds that day.

An eyewitness account of an incident, which speaks volumes for Asghar Khan’s strength of character, was narrated to me by AVM Masood Khan S.J. an exceptional air transport pilot. The air chief had requested that in one of the routine missions of any transport aircraft proceeding to Karachi; his wife may be allotted a seat. On the appointed day and time, Asghar Khan, who came to see his wife off, was aghast and furious to see that the regular troop seats of the aircraft had been removed and VIP seats installed in their place to make Begum Asghar Khan more comfortable. The air chief blew his top and immediately ordered the VIP seats to be removed. What a far cry from today’s breed of VIPs.

I kept meeting the Air Marshal after his retirement on reunions and he always had a kind word for us youngsters. I was invited to his house in Abbottabad for lunch, where he narrated an extraordinary story. When in 1947, he opted for joining PAF; he was occupying a house in New Delhi near Palam air base. The same house was allotted to Wing Commander Suri of IAF, who came to inspect the house he would be occupying and asked Asghar Khan how he was travelling to Pakistan? When Asghar Khan replied that he had booked seats for himself and his family by train, the Indian officer strongly advised against it stating that Hindu and Sikh marauders were attacking trains to Pakistan. He instead got seats for Asghar Khan and his family on the Dakota which was taking the Quaid to Karachi. Asghar Khan narrates that not a single passenger on the train he had booked his seats, made it alive to Pakistan.

He opted for retirement on 23 July 1965, when he realised that he had not even been informed nor consulted before the launch of Operation Gibraltar. It is to Pakistan’s credit that the baton was passed to another outstanding leader, Nur Khan.

After retiring from PAF, Asghar Khan became chairman of civil aviation, tourism and managing director of PIA. To acquaint himself with the working of civil airline and problem of air crews, he got converted into a captain of Boeing aircraft after formally acquiring a license and appearing in the requisite tests and occasionally flew as such. The national carrier benefited immensely from his sterling leadership qualities. During his tenure, PIA achieved the lowest aircraft accident rate and highest net profit of Pakistan, and was a formidable competitor in the world airline business. His tenure as chairman is often remembered as the “Golden Age of PIA.” Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, while serving as PIA chiefs, had selflessly transformed all of PIA’s profits into setting up simulator training centers at Karachi and acquiring real estate assets like the Roosevelt Hotel in USA and numerous other cities of the world, from which PIA still accrues revenues but most of it is now misappropriated.

In 1970, Asghar Khan founded a secular political party, the Tehreek-e-Istaqlal. Because of adherence to principles and strong convictions, he never won elections but earned the respect of the nation. His party has been a nursery for high profile political figures in whom he tried to instill decency and honesty. His son Omar Asghar Khan, a dedicated politician, was brutally murdered but the air marshal bore the loss with dignity. His legendary lawsuits against corruption irked many a modern day leader but he stuck to his principles.

The courtesy extended to me personally can never be forgotten. He would guide me in my writing, participate willingly in my talk shows and even grace events or send messages and gifts on occasions like the launch of my books or the weddings of my children.

He finally met his maker on 5th January 2018. PAF befittingly organised a state funeral while a formation of four K-8 trainer and four T-37 aircraft from PAF Academy, now named after him, presented a fly past in the honour of the great leader. The aircraft flew the famous ‘Missing Airman’ Formation, which is an aerial salute indicating the departure of fallen air warrior for the eternal abode. May the soul of the father of Pakistan air force rest in peace. Ameen.

Sultan M Hali

The author is a retired Group Captain and author of the book Defence & Diplomacy. Currently he is a columnist, analyst and TV talk show host.



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