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PAF s' Chief of the Air Staffs

Air Vice Marshal A W B McDonald, RAF

When Air Vice Marshal A W B McDonald assumed command of the RPAF in mid-1955, he knew that the era of British influence in the Pakistani armed forces was rapidly drawing to a close. Negotiations with the US government regarding the term and conditions and the quantum of American military aid to Pakistan were in their final stages, and short to mid-term plans for the RPAF had already been drawn up by the Air Headquarters in considerable details. To that extent, it must have been somewhat frustrating for McDonald to be holding a command which could have little or no substantive influence on the future course of the RPAF.

Air Vice Marshal McDonald joined the GD branch of the Royal Air Force in 1925. According to the prevailing system, he was awarded a permanent commission only after he had acquired a second specialization of his choice, which was the field of engineering. Subsequently, the pattern of his posting alternated between the two specialties of flying and engineering, with the former being almost entirely on fighters.

After a five years tour of fighters he spent another five on engineering assignments including one at Singapore. Back on fighters in 1936 his unit No 32 Squadron was assigned the task of working out a system of ground controlled interceptions in anticipation of the availability of the first radars which were then in the offing in 1937. The OC of the only existing RAF radar installation invited his squadron to try their hand at a radar interception on an airliner which happened to be on his scope at the time. 32 Squadron were delighted to be able to splash (intercept and destroy) the target and liked to believe that that interception was the world’s first radar controlled interception.

After a staff course and two interim postings McDonald was given command of a night fighter station, RAF Duxford, in 1941. The Germans had recently started a very profitable type of operation, the ‘intruder’ concept, in which they sent Junkers light bombers to mix in with a stream of returning RAF night fighters and shot up some of them during their landing rolls within the highly visible flare path. Like some other units elsewhere in England, McDonald’s station also devised a shaded flare path which was visible only from the final approach.

In 1942, McDonald was assigned as Air Defence Commander in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and a year later was posted to Air Headquarters, New Delhi as in charge of technical training of Indian airmen who were then being recruited in large numbers to enable a rapid expansion of the RIAF. By the end of his assignment in December 44, he had completed the training of 18,000 out of a target of 20,000 given to him. Back in Europe in 1945 he took over No 106 Photo Reconnaissance Group flying Spitfires and Mosquitos to carry out photo recce of German surface communications for use of all three services. His next assignment was commandant, RAF Staff College and, some time later, an Imperial Defence College course. His last posting before proceeding to Pakistan was as Director General of Manning at the Air Ministry in London. He was then 50 years old.

With his fighter-oriented flying background as well as the earlier three-years orientation on the subcontinent, he was well placed to continue where Cannon had left off but his initiative was inhibited by the impending dual change in the RPAF from the British to the American system and from British to Pakistani command. Despite this handicap he was able to implement some new measures which represented substantive advances in the PAF’s development eg the establishment of a junior command and staff school (JC & SS) as well as a fully fledged Transport Conversion Unit (TCU). His most far reaching contribution was in the vexing sphere of career planning where achieving the right balance between service requirements and individual well being has always been, and will always be, a very tricky business. McDonald arranged for an in-depth study by an expert from the Air Ministry in London and implemented an entire package governing terms and conditions, types of commission, rates of promotion and so on. With minor modifications from time to time that package endures till today.

For the rest it can only be said that Air Marshal McDonald presided most graciously and impartially over the PAF’s wholesale switchover from British aircraft, radars, doctrines and systems to those of the USAF, and that his farewell gift to the air force was a smooth transfer of command to the first Pakistani C-in-C.

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