I accidentally become an illegal immigrant - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I accidentally become an illegal immigrant

I left Cranwell in the middle of July 1969 and three weeks later I started a 12-month unaccompanied tour as a flying instructor at the Pakistan Air Force Academy at Risalpur in the North West Frontier Province. (The NWFP is nowadays known as Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa but I'll continue to refer to it as the North West Frontier Province because that's how I knew it.) Before setting off for Pakistan I had to go to London for a briefing at Adastral House. There I met my predecessor, Peter Gooding, who had just completed his time in Pakistan - in fact he had only that morning landed back in UK and was not too pleased at having to come and meet me instead of going straight home.

I flew out to RAF Muharraq in Bahrain on a routine RAF trooping flight from Brize Norton on 29 July 1969, continued a couple of days later to RAF Sharjah on an Argosy and thence on an Andover of 84 Squadron which was on a scheduled training flight to Rawalpindi. At both Muharraq and Sharjah I met friends who had been my fellow students at 3 FTS Leeming: Paul Lee Preston (208 Squadron) at Muharraq and Matt Miller (78 Squadron) at Sharjah. Those were the days when everywhere you stopped 'East of Suez' you were likely bump into someone you knew.

The Andover, captained by Flight Lieutenant Graham Laurie, stopped at Karachi airport for about 40 minutes to refuel before the final 700 mile leg northwards to the civilian airport at Rawalpindi, 1,688ft (508m) above sea level. Because the Andover was on a regular flight with diplomatic clearance, the crew were not required to pass through airport Customs and Immigration at Karachi. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have declared myself to the Pakistani immigration folk but neither I nor the aircraft crew thought about it at the time. I thus became an illegal immigrant to Pakistan and that was to have repercussions a few months later.

The last hour of the flight from Karachi was in darkness so the foothills of the Himalayas were not visible as we approached our destination. Although I didn't see them that first night, the beautiful green Margalla Hills, dominate Rawalpindi's north-western limits; the highest peak 5,466ft (1,666m) above sea level is almost always snow-covered in winter. I was astonished to hear on the aircraft radio that the air temperature at Rawalpindi Airport (nowadays known as Benazir Bhutto International Airport, code ISB) was 44°C (111°F) even at 8pm local time. It was beautifully cool in the air-conditioned Andover as we taxied in but once the door was opened on the parking apron it felt as though we were climbing down into a furnace. Within seconds the shirt I was wearing was soaked with sweat.

The aircraft crew and I were met at PAF Chaklala, the Pakistan Air Force enclave within the airport, by a small delegation from the British High Commission headed by the Defence Adviser, Group Captain G B Johns, DSO, DFC, AFC, RAF. The aircrew were quickly taken off to a hotel; Group Captain Johns drove me himself in his splendid, air-conditioned official car to his residence in nearby Islamabad. I quickly learned that British Commonwealth countries have High Commissions while other countries have Embassies. High Commissions have military advisers and Embassies have military attachés. Group Captain Johns was both Defence and Air Adviser; the British Naval Adviser lived and worked all on his own down at Karachi, which was where the nearest sea was.

Islamabad, the new capital city of Pakistan being created nine miles from Rawalpindi which had been the temporary capital having taken over from Karachi in around 1959, was still a vast construction site. Group Captain Johns' residence was a brand-new house located amongst a small number of other diplomats' residences. There was a separate flat attached to the house maintained by a full-time very efficient chowkidar; Group Captain Johns told me that was to be my weekend refuge whenever I needed it during my tour of duty.

As a military officer on exchange duty with the PAF, I wore standard RAF tropical uniform throughout my tour, but I did not have diplomatic status. In spite of that I was told that I was allowed to import a very small amount of duty free goods from time to time via the so-called diplomatic bag. The Air Adviser's secretary, RAF Sergeant Ron Butler-Davis, told me that anything I obtained through 'the Bag' was strictly for my own personal use and was never to be handed on to anyone else. I was, therefore, surprised to be told on a small number of weekend occasions during the early part of my tour, to carry bottles of Chivas Regal whisky from Islamabad to my base at Risalpur where I was to hand it to a waiting courier for onward delivery to the President of Pakistan. Quite why His Excellency the President, Chief Martial Law Administrator and Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan had to resort to this devious way of obtaining his preferred tipple I did not understand, nor was I about to ask.

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