I re-visit the Pakistan Air Force Academy and meet some old friends - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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I re-visit the Pakistan Air Force Academy and meet some old friends

The Red Arrows performed to great acclaim at the Dubai Air Show in November 1997 and then moved on to Pakistan. I had been particularly keen to return to Pakistan so that I could see how things had changed since my exchange tour there in 1969-70 and I made certain this time that I passed through immigration - unlike my arrival in 1969! I flew out to Islamabad several days in advance of the Team to help the Defence Adviser at the British High Commission organise the displays at Risalpur and in the capital itself.

The Hawks and the support Hercules were parked on the VIP apron on the Pakistan Air Force Chaklala area of Islamabad International Airport. I couldn't recognise the airport from the days of my exchange tour in 1969/70 because it had changed so much but the adjacent Margalla Hills were just as beautiful as I had remembered them. In 1969 Islamabad had been a very new capital and the international airport did not exist. The most significant feature of the new airport was that there was no parallel taxi track; all aircraft had to back track after landing until they reached an access taxiway about halfway along the 9,000ft runway.

Above: This was the formal exchange of gifts at PAF Academy Risalpur; Commandant CFS at the rostrum
On the morning of 24 November 1997 the Team was programmed to fly a display at the Pakistan Air Force Academy at Risalpur in the North West Frontier Province, about 100 miles west of Islamabad. This was a particularly nostalgic trip for me. I met some old friends - and I do mean old! The Commandant of the RAF Central Flying School, Air Commodore Gavin Mackay, his ADC, Flying Officer Vania Pearson, his Senior Staff Officer Wing Commander Dick Johnston, the Red Arrows Team Manager Squadron Leader Mike Williams, the Team’s video man SAC Colin Searle and I, all travelled to Risalpur in a Pakistan Air Force Y12, a Chinese-built, twin-engine passenger aircraft.

Unfortunately the visibility at Risalpur was very poor, as little as two kilometres looking into sun. That was a great shame because the entire population of the Academy, cadets, staff and families, had turned out to watch and they were all dressed in their best uniforms and finery. It was obvious that a great deal of hard work had been put in to make the public viewing area look attractive. Simon Meade led the Red Arrows over the crowd, arriving exactly on time naturally, and pulled up into the traditional Diamond Nine looping arrival. The Hawks disappeared from sight at the top of the loop - not because of cloud but simply because of the poor visibility. After three or four tentative manoeuvres, with the Hawks visible only as they passed in front of the crowd, it was obvious that it would have been dangerous to continue, not least because of the very high ground a few miles to the north of the airfield, and so, regrettably, the rest of the show had to be cancelled and the Hawks returned to Islamabad.

Above: The Commandant of the PAF Academy and I having a little discussion in their equivalent of the RAF Central Flying School College.
The Commandant of Risalpur very kindly then conducted me on a tour of my old haunts around the airfield. I had hoped to meet up with a fellow instructor of mine who had just retired as Chief of the Pakistan Air Force but unfortunately he was in his village west of Peshawar and could not be present. I did get a nice letter from him though explaining why he could not meet me at Risalpur.

The afternoon display at a public park in central Islamabad was, not to put too fine a point on it, spectacular. The President of Pakistan, all the Chiefs of Staff and their subordinates, virtually the entire Diplomatic Corps, and a public crowd estimated to be in the region of half a million, turned out to watch a display celebrating the 50th Anniversary of both the country and the Air Force. The display line of about 3,000 metres had been meticulously marked out in two unique ways: every 75 metres along its entire length, three-foot high poles topped by red markers had been hammered into the ground and, to give even more visibility, a metre-wide ditch had been excavated by hand along the whole length. There was obviously no shortage of manual labour. Never had a Red Arrows display line been so comprehensively marked out!

The show opened with two F6 jets, Chinese-built MiG19s, trailing the Pakistan National Flag at the end of long lines and closely followed by 21 Swedish-designed but Pakistani-built Mushak piston training aircraft flying an immaculate figure 50 formation. It could not have been easy keeping 21 elementary piston-engine aircraft in perfect position for such a complicated formation. One of the pilots was Flight Lieutenant John Dearden, the current RAF exchange officer with the Pakistan Air Force. Then followed displays by a part-time team of four Cessna T37s and four Mirages, and a solo display by the Pakistani ace F-16 pilot who ended his very impressive performance with a vertical climb and 11 vertical aileron rolls before gently and gracefully allowing his aircraft to fall off the top. It was then time for the Red Arrows and I know the Pakistan Air Force will not mind me saying that this was what everyone was really waiting for. The display went perfectly until a few minutes into the second half when Gary Waterfall, Red 3, suffered a fairly dramatic bird strike which badly damaged the nose of the aircraft and front section of the engine. At that time the formation was just outside gliding range of the international airport but, fortunately, Gary’s engine kept going and he landed quite safely. The airport had been closed to all non-display traffic for the duration of the display for just such an eventuality. Gary, of course, had not seen the birds approaching but Red 1 had.

"I had no time to avoid them or warn the other pilots," said Simon afterwards. The display, which was received ecstatically by the huge crowd, continued to its conclusion with the remaining eight aircraft.

From Pakistan the Team moved on to India en route to Langkawi in Malaysia but sadly, a display scheduled for Hindan Air Force base on the outskirts of Delhi had to be cancelled due to very poor visibility. That was particularly unfortunate because 1997 was, of course, also the 50th Anniversary of the foundation of India and the Indian Air Force and we did not want to create any disharmony between the two countries. The Team put matters right two years later when the Red Arrows again passed through the sub-continent on the way to the Far East.

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