Real life drama in air

Real life drama in air1

Remembering 12th October 1999

By Capt. Tariq Baloch

October, 1999 Capt. Sarwat of Pakistan International Airlines airbus-300, an old buddy and I had gone to Colombo, Sirilanka for Airlanka Golf classic tournament. On the 10th October, after returning from the 18th hole (towards the finish of the game) that I saw General Pervaiz Musharraf  (Chief of Joint staff and Chief of the army staff) teeing- off with the Bangladeshi COAS for a friendly match. Gen Musharraf had gone to Colombo to represent Pakistan on the 50th anniversary of SiriLankan armed forces. On the 12th October we were to return back to Pakistan and our flight route was Colombo-Male (Maldives) Karachi.

The flight time between Male and Karachi was almost three and a half hours. Capt. Sarwat was Commander of the flight PK/805 and I was traveling as a passenger in the club class but being the cockpit crew of PIA I could visit the cockpit with the consent of the Capt. of the flight. The First officer of the flight was Mr. Shami {who was on his first clearance check flight to Sirilanka} and the flight engineer Mr. Amir.

Gen Pervaiz Musharraf boarded the plane with his wife and two of his personal staff officers. Gen. Pervaiz and his wife were seated in the front extreme right hand side seats and the PSOs occupied the last two seats in the same row. There were a total of 198 persons aboard that flight out of which almost 50 were children from the American school with six foreign teachers.

The flight to Male was bumpy due to rain and clouds. At Male, which was a transit stop, Gen. Pervaiz, his wife and the PSOs disembarked to see the strange looking island which had nothing but just a runway strip. At Male, Capt. Sarwat after getting the weather information of Karachi and Nawab shah decided to refuel the aircraft keeping Nawab shah airfield as an alternative (Nawab shah airfield is almost 110 nautical miles north east of Karachi).

It meant that the aircraft could reach Karachi and in contingency could divert to Nawab shah airfield and keep flying in air for another 45 minutes before landing at Nawab shah which is normally the fuel policy of various airlines throughout the world.

The departure from Male was uneventful. The airplane started cruising at 29000 feet, I was sitting in the cockpit jump seat and occasionally would stand up to stretch up and walk in the cabin. During the flight, the air guards and the cabin crew requested Gen Pervaiz Musharraf for individual and group photographs. Capt. Sarwat also came to the club class from the cockpit to greet the VIP.

After two and half hours of flight and now cruising at 33000 feet, we established contact with Karachi air traffic controller. Karachi radio controller started asking as to how much fuel was on board? What was our alternate airfield? And how many passengers were on board?  I was standing behind the flight Engineer seat and listening to the whole conversation through the cockpit speakers. On hearing this I did point out to Capt. Sarwat “Isn’t it strange for Karachi to be asking this?” to which he nodded “yes”.

It was a clear night and probably the third of moon but we could later on see Karachi very clearly from around 40 miles. The initial approach given to us was direct Marvi (shortest route) but after a while Karachi changed the clearance via Nansi (the longer route) and gave us decent clearance to 10,000 ft.

As the airplane reached almost within 60 miles, the Karachi tower said “PK /805 you are not cleared to land at Karachi”. “Can we proceed to Nawabshah?” Capt Sarwat asked after pondering for a little while as to what must be going on down below. “Nawabshah is also closed” came the reply. “But Nawabshah is our alternate!” immediately Capt Sarwat forcefully questioned from the ATC.

Karachi ATC said “you will land at your own risk, you cannot land in Pakistan. All airfields are closed”. “We do not have fuel for any other field!” Capt. Sarwat vehemently questioned once again but there was complete silence from the ATC. The Karachi ATC was questioned thrice but it was all in vain—- there was no answer. During the ATC conversation it seemed quiet obvious that someone behind the controller was passing the instruction because more than three or more persons could be heard in the background of the reception.

KLM flight crews which must be somewhere in air and listening to this conversation also shouted in its typical accent, ‘Karachi why don’t you give the reason to the PK?’  While the commotion was on, Capt Sarwat assumed that perhaps it may be due to the VIP sitting aboard.  Sarwat knowing my air force background asked me and the other crew “partner what do you think, should I tell the general about this?” I butted and immediately said why not, let’s get whatever help we can!”

Capt. called the purser and asked him to inform the personal staff officers of the General. Both the PSOs were informed and they came rushing into the cockpit. After listening to the Capt. they went to inform the General. Meanwhile Capt. Sarwat asked the flight engineer as to how much fuel was left, and if we could make it to Muscat. “No way, we have only five and a half tons of fuel left at this 10,000 feet altitude” he calculated. Meanwhile General Musharraf had entered the cockpit.

During the discussion between the flight crew members, two other alternate airfields for diversion were considered. Chahbahar in Iran and Ahmedabad in India. After a little discussion with the flight engineer regarding remaining fuel and new airfield and night landing facility, Chahbahar was not considered as an alternate airfield. “Do we have the approach and landing information on Ahmedabad? Please open and consult Jeppeson (the flight crew bible} immediately” Sarwat asked the co-pilot.

General Musharraf was listening to the conversation and he commandingly asserted “We will not go to India”, to which Capt. Sarwat said “okay General as you say.” Now the General said that he wanted to talk to the Corps Commander Karachi, immediately. After a while the PSO gave the mobile telephones to the flight engineer and wrote the telephone number of the Corps Commander, Karachi.

The flight engineer Amir tried many times to dial the telephone but there was no dial tone. In this hurry and in presence of the General, the flight engineer mishandled his flash light and broke its glass. Now the flight engineer Amir said we are not getting the connection through and it seems as if the telephone lines have been cut. The General then asked as to why we couldn’t speak on the long range radio- the high frequency. The flight engineer tried to establish contact through company high frequency phone patch but it was all quiet, and no answer was received.

The other airplanes flying in Karachi vicinity were instructed by the Karachi ATC to divert because Karachi airport was closed. An aircraft of Pakistan Air Force which was inbound to Karachi from Islamabad was instructed by the Karachi air traffic controller to land at Nawab shah, immediately. But the PAF Captain was not willing to accept this order and asserted that the PAF flight would go back to Islamabad. While the argument between the PAF aircraft and Karachi ATC were going on the Capt. Sarwat changed the radio frequency.

However on, my personal query letter on, I found out that it was a Boeing 737 VIP aircraft, which was on routine maintenance trip to Karachi but was forced to land at Nawab shah airfield. The police at Nawab shah, with some special instructions, was in fact waiting for the two engine jet aircraft. Since it is difficult for a common man to distinguish between a Boeing 737 and an airbus A-300, therefore, Nawab shah police cordoned off the aircraft after parking.

But as the doors were to open, came the Pakistani Army soldier and shouted at the police to buzz off otherwise they would be shot at. Police got dispersed and now the Army took over the charge of the aircraft. Door opened and entered the army officer into the aircraft. To their dismay, they found the wife and children of the PAF Capt. sitting inside, “where is the General?” inquired the army officer. “Who general?” asked the crew? PAF crew told them that they were going to Karachi from Islamabad. “But we were told that you are coming from Colombo” said the officer.

In the air at the very same time, the first officer of the aircraft saw two blips on traffic collision avoidance system and shouted “we are being intercepted; probably there are two fighter aircraft”. The conversation in the cockpit of our plane had become tense and was blended with other actions in the cockpit, which had become rather twice and demanding. I noticed that at no point any of the crew or the VIP loosing their cool.

The general insisted more than twice that we land at Karachi. He also inquired as to why we couldn’t land at the air force runways at Karachi. But probably due to the fighter aircraft and no knowledge as to what was happening below on ground, with no runway lights landing at PAF Airfields was considered as the last option. If we could not land at Karachi or at Nawab shah due to runway blockade with tractors and bulldozers etc then Shahrah-e-Faisal or Masroor was the last option anyways.

At this point Capt. Sarwat changed to PIA company radio channel. Sarwat was inquired about the remaining fuel. Someone at the company channel directed PK805 to proceed and land at Nawab shah, then refuel the airplane with 30 tones of fuel and once again get airborne and wait for further instructions.

After a few minutes, the Karachi ATC cleared PK805 to divert to Nawab shah. Capt. Sarwat then had a sigh of relief and said “let’s go to Nawab shah”. The airbus climbed like a missile to 20,000 feet in no time since there was hardly any fuel left in the aircraft and it was rather light. At about 60 miles north of Karachi PK805 was redirected to come and land at Karachi by the Karachi ATC. A quick turnabout and decent was initiated. Someone from the ATC asked about the General that he wanted to speak to the General. Capt. Sarwat gave his microphone to the General and said, “Sir please speaks”.

“This is Pervaiz, who is there?” the General inquired very assertively. “I am Gen. Iftikhar sir, your retirement was announced two hours before but we have the control, please land at Karachi’ “Where is the Corps Commander?” The General questioned. “He is in the next room waiting for you” was the reply.

Both the PSOs were listening and the younger PSO (Major) shouted,” Sir, ask him the name of his dog.’  Probably he wanted to be sure in recognizing the GOC, but he General who had kept his cool all along said confidently, “he is my man, don’t worry!” (Later on this officer on ground happened to be a friend of mine who told me that General Musharraf had given him two puppies and that’s how the PSO wanted to correlate his identity).

Meanwhile he plane was reaching for its final approach. Suddenly the low fuel warning light of right wing fuel tank came on with an audio chime. The cockpit was dead silent and everyone was waiting to feel the touch down as soon as possible. We had waited almost one hour and ten minutes in the air. The remaining fuel of 1.2 ton in the wing tanks, if reliable, was only available for approximately ten minutes of flight time. At twelve miles short of landing, the left wing fuel tank warning light also appeared with chime.

After touch down PK 805 was asked to park at the remote area (bay 66) and was informed that no other person than the VIP will come out of the aircraft. After the engine shut down, the military soldiers who were almost two hundred cordoned-off the aircraft. The General was peeping from the cockpit window and seemed relaxed. Before disembarking from the aircraft the General shook hand with all of us and said, “thank you, don’t worry he is my man.” And he immediately passed his very first order through his PSO, “tell them I don’t want anyone to leave the country.” The General, his wife while trying to control her tears, and the two PSOs disembarked from the plane and were greeted by the Corps Commander and the GOC with some super salutes from the soldiers.

They all went inside a building for a short conference, who took almost 15 mins after which the whole contingent drove away at a very high speed. PK805 was not allowed to start the engines perhaps because of the security and almost no remaining fuel thus towed to the international arrival side (bay23). During the whole episode, I was the quietest and the closest observer in the cockpit and was thoroughly impressed to watch total professionalism from Capt. Sarwat and his crew.

Not to mention the way General carried himself, who remained confident and totally composed through the whole episode. That night the Pakistan Army took over the control of Pakistan. The civilian government was deposed and the prime minister was arrested. The Supreme Court authenticated the Army take over and granted three years governance to General Musharraf. The then deposed prime minister left Pakistan in the middle of a night on personal request of the Saudi government to General Musharraf and is still living in exile in Saudi Arabia.

This real life drama written by Capt. Tariq who is a pilot and was on the same plane as General Musharraf when he took off from Sri Lanka on Oct 12. The plane almost crashed – thanks to the evil mind of Nawaz Sharif. This is an old article written in 2001, but still tells an interesting story.

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