The Defence Adviser drives me to the PAF Academy at Risalpur - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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The Defence Adviser drives me to the PAF Academy at Risalpur

On the day after my arrival in Pakistan, Group Captain Johns and his wife, with his own personal Pakistani driver, took me to Risalpur in his official car. It was a fascinating drive along the route of the Grand Trunk Road which, a hundred years earlier, had been the main highway across the Indian sub-continent from Chittagong, in what is now Bangladesh, to the Afghanistan border a few miles beyond the head of the Khyber Pass, a distance of some 2,500 kms. We travelled in a car with diplomatic plates and the Defence Adviser's pennant flying on the bonnet, so we were obliged to make a lengthy diversion around the town of Wah where there was an important arms factory protected by a military restricted area prohibited to all foreigners including diplomats. In subsequent months I sometimes travelled to Rawalpindi alone by public transport and, on one never to be repeated occasion, by local train; on those occasions I was able to pass through Wah without any problem.

About an hour after leaving Islamabad we arrived at Attock, formerly known as Campbellpur, where a famous twin-level road and railway bridge crossed the mighty Indus River, whose icy Himalayan waters still had to flow more than 1,600 kms before they eventually reached the Arabian Sea at Karachi. The railway was on the upper level of the bridge and everything else, vehicles, bullock carts, bicycles and pedestrians, on the lower level. There was much military activity at both ends of the bridge which marked the boundary between the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. By virtue of the diplomatic plates and pennant on the front of the car, the security forces waved us through in front of the huge queues waiting for security checks.

Shortly after entering the NWFP we stopped in a clearing off to one side of the Grand Trunk Road for some refreshments that Mrs Johns had brought with her. Group Captain Johns took this obviously pre-planned opportunity to give me various words of advice, out of earshot of his driver, while we strolled around the clearing like conspirators. He told me that I would find the layout and organisation of the base at Risalpur very similar to that I had become accustomed to in the RAF, which was not surprising because from 1910 the British had an airstrip there. During the First World War, 31 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps had operated from Risalpur. The Pakistanis, the group captain said, had learned much from the RAF but they did not like this to be constantly pointed out to them. He also advised me to avoid using phrases such as, "That's not the way the RAF do it." What he was really saying was that the Pakistanis were very proud of their air force and did not wish to be constantly compared to the RAF, or for that matter to any other air force. Quite right too.

Just before we got back into the car, Group Captain Johns asked me what I had been writing in my note book on the earlier part of the journey. I showed him that I had been copying, from road signs, the Urdu script for Attock, Peshawar, Nowshera and other towns and I showed him, proudly, how I could already write them from memory.

"That's very good, Tony," he said with a grin. "Now see if you can do it the way the Pakistanis do it - writing from right to left."

Above: This was the bridge over the Kabul River at Nowshera - looking towards the North. The quality is poor because Agfacolor transparency processing at the time was not of the same quality as it became in later years. I discovered, after the film was returned from processing, that photography of any bridges was forbidden and I never did take any more. I did not publish this image on my website until about 2005 by which time a new bridge had, I am told, replaced ths one.

Soon we reached the large town of Nowshera where we turned due north and almost immediately crossed the fast-flowing Kabul River over a very rickety pontoon bridge which swayed alarmingly as we passed over. The Kabul River, as its name suggests, starts in Afghanistan, flows eastwards towards Pakistan, then down the Khyber Pass (literally parallelling the road for most of the descent (see image below) and finally joins the Indus at Attock. We continued another few miles northwards, with the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains facing us, and reached the Risalpur cantonment, about 1,000 feet above sea level. Eventually we drew up at the Academy Commandant’s residence where I was introduced to Group Captain O’Brien, his wife and his mother-in-law.

Above: The fast-flowing Kabul river in the lower reaches of the Khyber, flowing towards the Peshawar Plain (top). Note the Khyber Pass road on the left.
Group Captain O’Brien, a practising Roman Catholic, was of mixed British-Indian ethnicity and, I think, the most senior non-Muslim officer in the Pakistan Air Force at the time. Group Captain Johns and the Commandant were old friends from pre-Partition days. They had first met at the RAF Central Flying School in 1946-7 when O’Brien, who had been trained by the RAF, claimed he was the first foreign officer to be awarded an RAF A1 QFI category.

There were two flying squadrons at Risalpur: one was for Pakistani students and the other for foreign students. The Commandant told me that several foreign nations paid the Pakistan Government to provide all-through jet training for their students (possibly copying what the RAF was boasting of doing at that time). There were not enough of the twin-jet Cessna T37s at the Academy for all students to be trained on them and so the Pakistanis were trained to Wings standard on the Harvard T6G and their crew room and facilities were quite a long way away from those used by the foreign students. For those who don't know these things, the T6G was an elderly piston-engine aircraft. I was very disappointed when the Commandant told me that I could not be appointed to the T6G squadron which trained the Pakistani students. Although the Academy was willing, indeed was keen, to train me to instruct on the T6G, the RAF in UK had, apparently, refused to allow it - possibly because I had precious few piston hours and no experience of teaching students to fly piston-engine aircraft. I felt sorry for the Pakistani students who did not have the opportunity to train on the jet aircraft but it would have been not politic for me to comment on that at the time.

Eventually we were joined in the Commandant's residence by Malouk, who was to be my personal servant. Malouk escorted me to my quarters in the Officers' Mess and helped me unpack the few belongings I had brought with me from UK. He proudly produced a sheaf of letters of recommendation from former British officers he had 'served'; the oldest one I saw was dated 1934, the year before I was born. I then went across to the Officers' Mess to introduce myself but there was no-one there: it was a lonely, deserted place because virtually all the Academy officers were on end of term leave. I must admit, at that moment I began to wonder what I had let myself in for by volunteering to serve in Pakistan.

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