The past, it is said, is another country; seems more apt though in some cases than others. The country I intend taking my readers to is the fledgling Naval aviation base of MEHRAN of the late seventies.
It all started when I arrived at the base, sometime in the summer of 1978, on a routine naval mission: to return the kit items I had been issued more than an year back during my Risalpur days. While at MEHRAN, Lt Mahmood A Khan’s offer to accompany him on a helo sortie was too tempting to resist. Since it was taking a little longer than anticipated to materialize, I decided to pop in to the BSO’s office with the kit items in tow. As luck would have it, the Supply Officer was away at the time. Just as he lumbered in, a good 40 odd minutes later, I was distracted by Lt Mahmood’s profile framed against the office window, excitedly gesticulating for me to join him. I, in turn, pointed to the kit items lying on the table in front of me and showed the open fingers of one hand, signifying a delay of 5 minutes. “Drop everything” he seemed to say, “we’re already late”.
I recall waiting for some time in an open, though shady, piece of land, a little distance away from the airstrip, where we were soon joined by Lt Ehsan, a dashing officer whose poise and élan defies description. While Lt Mahmood was logging us in for the next sortie, I overheard Lt Ehsan setting up an appointment on phone for his wife to pick him up after an hour.
Having flown previously in a Cessna and a Mushak, a sortie on a helicopter was quite a novelty. So when asked whether I would like to stick around for another one hour sortie, I instantly agreed. Just then I remembered that I had some unfinished business at hand and wouldn’t be able to return the kit items that day, as the next sortie would take us beyond the secure time, which most officers of those days had a healthy respect for.
Lt Ehsan was supposed to have been replaced by Lt Nazir Gondal for the coming sortie, but seeing that I was disembarking, he asked Lt Mahmood to accompany his ‘friend’, which was me. Very chivalrous of him, I thought, seeing that his own wife must have been waiting for him by now near the tarmac. Moments later, the helicopter took off again, with Lt Nazir as the co-pilot.
Just as I was returning the kit items to the Supply Officer, a deafening explosion was heard, which still reverberates in the inner crevices of my mind. The two Alouettes in air at the time had apparently crashed into each other at low altitude. By the time I reached the site in the vicinity of the airstrip, all that was visible was a charred airframe and scattered debris.
It was a monumental tragedy by any standard for a branch of the service that was struggling to get off the ground. It goes to it’s credit that it picked itself up from the rubble and moved on, it’s youthful exuberance unshaken. Later day tragedies also revealed that the tradition of ‘looking after it’s own’ remained alive and kicking.
My heart instantly reached out to those who didn’t survive and the grieving families they left behind. A personal sense of aggrievement pervaded my senses, having overheard Lt Ehsan setting up an appointment with his wife, which fate had not destined him to keep. Lt Nazir Gondal, who was a term mate as well as a college mate, was a recently married man, whose mischievous eyes and sparkling wit had won him many admirers over the years.
The idea behind penning down these lines is not to re-open old wounds but to honour the memories of those who laid down their lives to create what naval aviation is today: a vibrant, pulsating reality, proudly holding it’s own. It has been as troubling for me to recall this episode as it had been indeed to witness. I leave it to the discerning readers to discover the “what if” factors embedded within the multiple layers of the narrative.
Note: This article was published in the ‘Navy News’ in it’s edition of December 2010.