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Across the Karakorams…

March 15, 2016

 (This is a 40 years old story …a journey to China in early 70s)
 Across the Karakorams

   
   
After the 65 War, free supply of military hardware from US to Pakistan stopped. China offered to provide the military hardware free or at almost no cost. It was decided to accept the offer and meet the deficiency with more update equipment from France. Early in the 70s, we went to China to ferry the Chinese Mig 19 or F-6 fighters. It was the China of history books with Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution in full swing. Every Chinese wore a gray Mao suit and carried Mao’s Red Book. Beyond the Karakoram Ranges, at less than two hours flight, there existed a completely different world, the ancient civilization that called itself of the Middle Kingdom or the centre of the world.
As our C-130 transport touched down at Hotan (called Hotian) airfield in Xinjiang province of Eastern China and aircraft doors opened, ice cold wind below in. There had been a recent snowfall and everything was covered with a sheet of snow. The temperature was many degrees below zero. Our Chinese hosts moved forward to receive us. It was amusing to see their cars engines were covered with quilts as a protection from cold. Mr. Nu (pronounced as Yu), our would be guide, moved forward, smiled and said, “Now the friends will sit in the cars and come to the guest house.” From now on, we were to be always addressed as ‘friends’. Friends will have dinner at 9 PM. Friends will do this and friends will do that. Dutifully, the friends sat in the cars.  
The caravan moved through the winding countryside road with little traffic. Mainly an agricultural area, the traffic was light and comprised carts pulled by donkeys or horses; and small three-wheeler tractors pulling trolleys, the cycles and old men carrying sacks on their backs. Everyone stopped to gaze at us in amazement. The children giggled in amusement as we drove by. China lived in a grand isolation. Little did we realize that this China would completely transform itself in the next 50 years – economically, socially and culturally.
This Eastern region of China was inhabited by the Turkic origin Muslims commonly known as Uighurs. Some of us, who had been to exchange posting to Turkey, could converse with them in Turkish. But Chinese preferred no direct contact between us and the locals. They kept us busy with their own schedules, dinners and stage dramas. The stage dramas mostly depicted the struggle of peasants against landlords. Workers with red flags moved back and forth in unison singing patriotic songs. There was a communist party representative in every Government department and commune. In the evenings, Chinese sat together and criticized their own mistakes of the day. The West (particularly the Americans) were called the Imperialists and the Russians were called the Revisionists because they had deviated from principles of Communism. The Party and the State provided them with all their needs. For now, they had to contend with just a rice bowl and soup. Later Deng Xiaoping was to come to introduce private ownership that was to catapult China into an unprecedented prosperity. Deng’s theory was that `it did matter whether it was a black or a white cat as long as it catches mice’.
Regardless of what China was about to go through, our hosts went out of their way to look after us. They put us up in the State `Guest House’ and we were served 12-course meals. Initial courses were of pure Chinese origin and and our favourites like the Tikkas & Kababs came at the end. A local drink,“Mot Aai’’, was so hard that it had to be kept in an earthenware because it reacted with normal glass. Chinese Tea was a perpetual companion on our side tables. The usual bottoms up “Cheers’’ was replaced with the Chinese “Kombay’’.  
The Mig 19 or F-6 (NATO code name Farmer) was an unusual aircraft when compared to its Western counterparts. It had big dials and switches. The speed was in kilometers and not in nautical miles that we were used to. Similarly, the altimeter was in meters instead of feet; and this disturbed our general mental perception of height. The brakes worked on pneumatics (air) pressure and not on the usual hydraulics and were applied through a hand handle. To indicate a specific Emergency with Radio failure, one could fire Flares of different colours from aircraft. Its guns fired big 30MM rounds. The aircraft had a throat mike instead of the usual mouth mike.
We were scheduled to fly an air test and then return. But bad weather held us up. We actually did not mind this spell of bad weather at all. Friends would go when the weather became all right, Mr. Nu told us. Mr. Nu was an experienced pilot but with typical Chinese humility, he always said, “I am here to learn from friends.” To change from the monotony of Chinese food daily with no rice for so many days, I volunteered to cook “Pulao’’ in the kitchen. The Chief cook assisted me in doing so. After it had been cooked, I asked him whether they had any such dish in China. “Yes’’, he replied and then added “It is called Pulao’’. So our very own Pulao came from this part of the world. Subsequently, Pulao became a regular feature in our menu.
As the bad weather spell lingered, our Chinese hosts became more open and relaxed. Now we could manage to peep into their inner thoughts when left alone with someone. Our interpreter spoke ‘Slees’ Urdu. When he spoke, it sounded as if he was reading a textbook. We found out that the ultimate dream of an average Chinese was to purchase a cycle, a transistor and a watch. To us, every Chinese looked the same. They told us that all Pakistanis also looked alike and they could not differentiate between us.
 Finally, the bad weather lifted or became good enough to go. We proceeded to the airfield. The weather was hazy and the sky was overcast with white clouds. The ground was covered with snow. Our formation’s call-sign was ‘Pakistan Charlies’ and our Formation comprised Dar, Shahid, Imtiaz and myself. We started up, taxied out and lined up on the runway. Like a new car, aircraft not only smelled new but also gave the feel of new with crisp controls. The engines accelerated smoothly with a clear sound. Everything worked according to the book.
 We took off one by one, joined up in battle formation and headed for Pakistan. Soon after take off, we entered clouds. Carrying out the ‘Snake Departure’, in which two aircraft, in close formation, are followed behind by the other two, doing the same moves like the wriggling of a snake. We finally broke through the clouds at 35,000 feet. As we came out of the clouds on top, there was a bright sunshine with blue sky. We were flying over an unending layer of white clouds with ground fully obscured. No ground features were visible for navigation nor were any ground navigational aids available in this area of no man’s land. There was jus a wilderness where three great hill ranges converged towards Karakoram; Hindu Kush and Pamirs from the West and Himalayas from the East. The only way to navigate was to maintain the correct heading; and correlate our ground position with known peaks that protruded out of clouds. Facilities like the GPS had not been invented then. And neither did Chinese Fighters have luxuries like Inertial Navigation Systems.
 Four of us were serenely gliding over the Karakorams and there was a deafening silence. As is customary with military aircraft, we were practicing radio silence. For a fighter aircraft to fly level for anything more than 5 minutes is unusual; and a flight like this could either be a luxury or absolute boredom, depending on one’s frame of mind. All four of us were flying quietly and perhaps deeply immersed in our thoughts. The world seemed far away and far below. I was leisurely maintaining my battle formation position, looking around and admiring nature. Everything seemed to fit just right in its place. There was a pin drop silence barring the constant drone of the engines and an eerie stillness in air. Being alone in aircraft, over this no-man’s land, only added to the loneliness.  
And then it happened. As I looked inside the cockpit, I got a rude shock. My fuel gauge was reading only 1800 liters. There had been a sudden fuel leak. China was left far behind and my destination in Pakistan was still far away. I was in the middle of nowhere hanging at 35000 feet, above clouds, over Karakorams with fuel draining out. If I was to eject from the aircraft, I was destined to spend the rest of my life over the Karakoram peaks, not a very cheerful prospect with only a jacket. What could be done. I checked inside; all my switches were normal. It was certainly an unusual occurrence. I could not go back; I had to press on forward. The fuel gauge was still continuing to drop. I worked out my future course of action. The best course was to maintain altitude, for as long as possible, because the jet engines consume less fuel at high altitudes. And then, if I managed to reach near an airfield, I would carry out a maximum rate descent with throttles idle. However, this could only be possible if the rate of fuel leak reduced; and I got some tail wind. There were some Ifs and Buts. 
 I looked at Dar’s aircraft. He was our formation leader; and seemed to be enjoying the ride. There was not much that he could do; or anyone else for that matter. With an almost sadistic pleasure, child in me naughtily suggested that why not spoil his day as well. I called out, “Charlie leader. Charlie four has only 1800 liters on the gauge. I have a fuel leak.” There was a long pause. Then Dar called out, “What did you say. 1800 liters.” I said, “Affirmative.” Again there was a long pause. Finally, Dar came up, sounding worried, and said, “Charlie Four. Keep the throttles steady. Keep monitoring fuel. You will land first and make a straight in approach.” I said, “Roger.”
 That was that. But I could sense that now the formation was fully awake; and an air of tension floated in the air. I kept monitoring the fuel gauge and, as the luck would have it, the rate of leak reduced. The radar soon picked us up and guided us towards the nearest airfield. The weather was fine and that meant that I could make a visual straight approach towards the airfield. As I spotted the airfield, my fuel gauge indicated only 600 liters and I was still 20 miles away. I had to land the first time. There was no margin for any error. We all went into ‘Train formation’; and the others positioned themselves behind me 1000 feet in line astern. I called ‘Finals’, lowered my wheels; and landed. I had only 200 liters of fuel on the gauge when the aircraft touched down. 
 I heaved a big sigh of relief; and then suddenly, all the confidence returned.
   I switched off and explained the problem to the ground engineers. When we headed back towards our homes, there was a brief discussion on subject and then all was forgotten. A close miss in a pilot’s life gets only that much of time …….. It was just another day.
( Mig-19 Fighters have now been retired from Air Force. Some were gifted to Bangladesh )
 

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