I escort a visiting group from the RAF CFS up the Khyber Pass - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I escort a visiting group from the RAF CFS up the Khyber Pass

Three members of the RAF's Central Flying School Examining Wing visited the Pakistan Air Force Academy in January 1970 at the invitation of the Pakistan Ministry of Defence. The Academy Commandant decided he would renew his CFS A1 category during the CFS visit. The A1 category denotes that the holder is an exceptional pilot and instructor with exceptional knowledge of all the associated technical subjects. I thought it was very brave of Air Commodore O'Brien to submit himself to this examination because failure would have been embarrassing. There was absolutely no necessity for him to take the flying and ground tests, other than personal pride and satisfaction. He knew, as do all RAF flying instructors, that CFS does not give, or renew, flying instructional categories unless they are thoroughly deserved. He passed with, as they say, flying colours.

One day, when the CFS visitors had a free day I, together with two Pakistan Air Force officers, escorted them on a trip in a military minibus up the Khyber Pass as far as the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Torkham. For each of my several trips into the North West Frontier Province my companions were always from North West Frontier tribes and so spoke the local language Pushto (often written as Pashto). The traditional code of honour of the NWFP has always, apparently, guaranteed free and unhindered passage to friendly 'foreigners' - as long as they don't step off the international highway onto the surrounding land. From time to time as we climbed the narrow twisting road one or other of our PAF escorts drew our attention to something glinting in the sun on a distant peak or outcrop of rocks. "We're being watched all the way", one of them said with a grin. "There are no hiding places."

Above: This pic was taken near the top of the Khyber Pass by one of my Pakistani escorts - pointing my camera directly into sun! That was me on the right peering very carefully over a precipice.
The CFS visit took place during the Holy Month of Ramadan which was a bit of bad planning on someone's part. Muslim instructors and students could obtain a dispensation allowing them to eat and drink on flying days but it was a personal decision. Most of the students did elect to suspend their fast and continue flying but they were under a religious obligation to make up an equivalent number of fasting days as soon as possible after the end of Ramadan.

Before flying with a student during Ramadan, or sending him on a solo flight, an instructor was required to accompany the student to the canteen and watch while he drank liquid and consumed some food. I had made a voluntary vow that during Ramadan I would not eat or drink in daylight hours except on those days when I was required to fly on duty; my fellow QFIs were quite impressed with my decision. On those days I found the lack of water was far more demanding than the lack of food during the daylight hours. Eventually the Commandant told me that I had made my point and he ordered me to resume my normal duties.

Above: Those are two of the CFS officers 'leaving' Pakistan to walk to the border crossing 200m further on.
Before setting out on our trip with the CFS visitors, I had carefully briefed them that they must not be seen eating or drinking anywhere in public during daylight hours. When we reached the Afghan border, our Pakistani driver parked the minibus behind an outcrop of rocks about 200 metres from the border post; he then withdrew to say his midday prayers. One of the PAF officers told the CFS visitors that it would be permissible for them to have their refreshments as long as they stayed out of sight of the road behind the rocky outcrop. I wanted to take some photographs of the border post and so I went off on my own while the CFS officers settled down amongst the rocks for their picnic.

The border guards (above) were very happy to pose for my photographs and I was even allowed to walk a few yards across the border so that I could say that I had been to Afghanistan. Imagine my dismay when I returned to the minibus to find the CFS officers were surrounded by a small crowd of boys aged about 5 to 10 years old. Goodness knows where they had come from! Even worse, I realised the boys were sampling the beer (out of cans) and enjoying the ham sandwiches that the British High Commission had, unwisely, provided for the RAF's picnic lunch. I shooed the boys away quickly using my limited stock of Urdu/Pashtu phrases that I'd picked up from my servant Malouk and others. The older boys had wide grins on their faces; they were old enough to know about fasting but I doubt if they knew they were eating pig meat and drinking alcohol. After remonstrating with the CFS officers for potentially creating an international incident, I shouted for our Pakistani companions. When they returned, I explained what had happened. They were very understanding. Apparently, children of that age were not required to fast; nevertheless, I imagine their fathers would have been very angry had they known what their offspring had been eating and drinking.

Above: This was the view on the way back down from the summit of the Khyber Pass. Note that the fast-flowing Kabul River has now joined up with the Khyber road for the last few miles to Peshawar which is just around the corner at the top of this image.
As soon as the sun had gone down during the long drive back to Risalpur, we stopped at a roadside stall and were invited to join the villagers for Iftar, the meal Muslims eat to mark the end of a day's fasting. We had some delicious food and drink with the villagers who were curious to know who we, the Europeans, were. No money changed hands - it was Muslim hospitality.

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