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PAF s' Specials
"Bluebird-166 is Hijacked"

by Air Cdre (Retd) Kaiser Tufail

“Why only a Sitara-i-Jur’at? The boy deserves nothing less than a Nishan-i-Haider,” retorted President Yahya Khan as PAF’s C-in-C, Air Marshal A Rahim Khan informed him of the hijacking incident that had taken place hours before.[1] The Air Chief, who was hosting the President at lunch in Peshawar on 20 Aug, 1971, had recommended the lesser award, but was pleased to know that the PAF was being honoured with its first Nishan-i-Haider.[2] The same day, announcement of the highest gallantry award was made. In deference to the hallowed nature of the award, the Board of Inquiry into the aircraft accident was suspended and, eventually scrapped without finalisation. The final moments of the flight of the hijacked T-33 have, therefore, been open to more than one interpretation over the years. This write-up looks at some officially recorded vital bits of evidence (indicated in bold-face text), to reconstruct what really happened.

In the aftermath of the military crackdown that started in East Pakistan on 25 March 1971, the Bengali pilots in the PAF were grounded for fear of an adverse reaction. As the situation became more complex and war clouds started gathering, it was felt prudent to withdraw the flying clothing and equipment of Bengali aircrew, with hijacking of aircraft being precisely one of the fears.

The Bengali pilots at PAF Base Masroor (Karachi), sensed the surveillance cover of Intelligence Units and agreed not to meet collectively. It was decided that a charade of friendly relations with the Base personnel would be maintained, and any kind of protest avoided to the utmost. In the meantime, short, meaningful meetings would be conducted in the course of normal activities. The consensus on hijacking an aircraft to India emerged in no time, with the underlying thought being that the incident would call world attention to the cause of Bangladesh freedom movement. It was also agreed that the backlash of the hijacking would be borne with fortitude by the remaining Bengalis.[3]

At first, the Bengalis mulled hijacking one or more F-86 Sabres, but the mere presence of a Bengali pilot on the tarmac would have been viewed with suspicion. Besides, starting up a jet aircraft without help from ground crew and support equipment was a difficult proposition. How about sneaking into an already started one – a two-seater being flown by a single pilot? The idea sounded enticing, because gullible students going for their solo missions in the T-33 at No 2 Squadron seemed easy prey. Students would surely obey any instructor’s command from outside, especially if it had something to do with aircraft safety. A visual signal for a fuel or hydraulic leak, a flat tyre, even a finger pointed generally at the aircraft would get an immediate response from the student. Chances were that the student could be sufficiently alarmed through hand signals about some external malfunction with the aircraft, and he would stop to know more about the problem.

Flt Lt Matiur-Rehman had been an instructor in No 2 Squadron till he and his Bengali colleagues were grounded soon after the start of the counter insurgency operation in March. He was, however, given charge of the Ground Safety Officer with a mandate to check malpractices in aircraft maintenance and operations, thus authorising him to move around on the flight lines and tarmacs. Given his affability and, his wife’s friendliness with neighbourhood ladies, Matiur-Rehman was considered the least likely of the Bengalis to arouse suspicion. He fitted the plot perfectly. Apprehensions about his wife and two daughters’ safety were allayed by his Bengali colleagues when it was decided that the family would be moved, with prior coordination, to the Indian Consulate in Karachi, before the Hijack Day.[4]

Relaxing in the squadron crew room, Minhas ordered his Mess breakfast to be heated. He could take his time to eat comfortably as he was not scheduled to fly that day. Students already scheduled were busy checking their mission details, so as to prepare the briefing boards and get the pre-mission briefing from their instructors. One of them noted the scheduling officer adding Minhas’ name on the scheduling board for a ‘Solo Consolidation’ mission.[5] The change in scheduling, which was not unusual, was conveyed to Minhas who was waiting for his breakfast in the Squadron tea bar. He jumped up, half-excited, half-prepared and proceeded to get the mission details. He got the mission briefing from his instructor, Flt Lt Hasan Akhtar, and quickly garbed up into his flying gear. Breakfast had to wait, but Minhas hastily gobbled up a couple of gulaab jamans, the pilots’ favourite high-energy snack, as he headed to the flight lines to make good his 1130 hrs take-off time. “That was the last we saw of him, eating on his way out,” recalls his course-mate and close friend, retired Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat.

Preliminaries and start-up was uneventful as the T-33, with the call sign ‘Bluebird-166,’ taxied out of the main tarmac. Lurking on the north-eastern taxi-track that led out of the main tarmac was Matiur-Rehman, pacing near his white Opel Kadet car. The sides of the taxi-track had thick growth of bushes, which concealed his position both from the ATC tower as well as the tarmac. As the aircraft approached, he was able to stop it on some pretext, as expected. Seeing the instructor gesturing, Minhas must have thought that some urgent instruction was to be conveyed. After all, his mission had been scheduled as an after-thought, and something might have gone amiss in the haste. He expected Matiur-Rehman to plug in his headset and talk to him on the aircraft inter-com. Not encumbered by his flying gear (parachute, anti-G suit, life jacket and helmet), Matiur-Rehman easily stepped on to the wing and slipped into the rear cockpit through the open canopy.[6]

Comically squatting on a seat without a parachute (which also doubled as a seat cushion), Matiur-Rehman was in an awkward position to properly control the aircraft himself.[7] To compel the student to follow his instructions would have required the threat of use of lethal force; else, the student could have turned back, or just switched-off the aircraft. A replica pistol recovered later from the wreckage explains Minhas’ predicament.[8]

At 1128 hrs, ATC Tower received Minhas’ call: “Bluebird-166 is hijacked!” In the rough-and-tumble that followed, the T-33 got airborne from Runway 27 (heading 270°), at 1130 hrs. The aircraft turned left, (a non-standard turn out of traffic) and started steering 120°. It was seen to be descending down to low level and, in no time, disappeared from view. Two more frantic calls, “Bluebird-166 is hijacked,” were the last that were heard from the T-33.

Deciding that the most unusual incident would consume precious time to explain to the air defence Sector Operations Centre (SOC), a quick-witted Flt Lt Asim Rasheed, the duty ATC officer, called up the Air Defence Alert (ADA) hut. “A T-33 is being hijacked. Scramble!” ordered Asim. Wg Cdr Shaikh Saleem, OC of No 19 Squadron, who had just arrived in the ADA hut after inspecting the flight lines, immediately rushed to the nearby F-86s along with his wingman, Flt Lt Kamran Qureshi. Kamran, the sprightlier of the two, got airborne first, with the leader following closely; the pair was airborne within the stipulated time. The SOC had, however, no clue about the T-33’s position as it had ducked down to the tree tops and was not visible on radar. In any case, about eight minutes had already elapsed since the T-33’s take-off, and the scrambled pair of F-86s would not have been able to catch up before the border, even at full speed. Some more critical time was also wasted when the F-86 pair was mistakenly vectored onto a B-57 recovering from Nawabshah after a routine mission.[9]

After a while, another pair of F-86s led by Flt Lt Abdul Wahab with Flt Lt Khalid Mahmood as his wingman, was scrambled. Wahab, who had been watching the unusual departure of the T-33 from outside the pilots’ standby hut, recalled later, “We knew something was wrong, we had seen the aircraft taxiing dangerously fast. After we got airborne, there was a lot of confusion. Nonetheless, we gave fake calls on ‘Guard’ channel that the F-86s were behind the T-33 and, it would be shot down if it did not turn back. However, with no real prospects of scaring Matiur-Rehman with warning bursts from the F-86’s guns, the only option that remained was to order Minhas to eject. A flurry of radio calls then started, asking Bluebird-166 to eject. There was no response, but the calls continued for several minutes, being repeatedly transmitted by the F-86s, as well as the SOC.”[10]


Crash site is roughly in centre of picture

The situation remained confused and it was apprehended that the hijack might have been successful. The prevailing uncertainty was cleared up in the afternoon, when a phone call was received from Shah Bandar that a plane had crashed nearby and the aircrew had not survived. The Base search and rescue helicopter was launched immediately and it was able to locate the wreckage at a distance of 64 nautical miles from Masroor, on a heading of 130°. The tail of the T-33 showing its number 56-1622 could be seen sticking out in water-logged, soft muddy terrain at the mouth of Indus River, just 32 nautical miles short of the border. Estimated time of the crash was 1143 hrs.

Minhas’ body was found still strapped in the seat, 100 yards ahead of the wreckage, while Matiur-Rehman’s body was found clear of the seat, lying further ahead. Both ejection seats had been thrown clear of the aircraft on impact and, there seemed no sign of ejection. The location of Matiur-Rehman’s body away from the ejection seat indicates that he was not strapped up, having being unable to free the stowed harnesses after he had hurriedly stormed into the cockpit.[11]

Investigators were baffled when the canopy was found to have a prominent scrape mark of the tailplane, while the tailplane was correspondingly dented by the canopy. Normally, during ejection sequence or jettison of canopy alone, the canopy would have been rocketed up and, would have cleared the tail by a wide margin (this being the very purpose of the rocket thruster). Now it seemed that the canopy had merely inched up into the airflow and had been blown into the tailplane. Could Minhas have actuated the canopy opening lever to throw the unstrapped rear seat occupant overboard, and then safely recover the aircraft?[12] A proper procedure, though, would have been to use the canopy jettison lever which would have rocketed the canopy well clear of the tailplane. In the heat of the moment, it seems that Minhas did what came naturally to him.[13]

The massive canopy hitting the elevator would have deflected it downwards, causing a sudden nose-down attitude at a precariously low height. Minhas would have then yanked back on the controls to prevent the aircraft from going into the ground. The sudden and violent pitch-up – which was confirmed by eyewitnesses – resulted in the aircraft stalling out. This is partially corroborated by the wreckage report of aircraft flaps found in the down position, implying a desperate need for vital lift to prevent stalling. The rather flat attitude in which the aircraft fell, as well as the compact spread of the wreckage, also confirms the stalled condition of the aircraft.

Minhas’ attempt to prevent the hijack while also trying to somehow save the aircraft, had unfolded a series of uncontrollable events that eventually resulted in the crash. Confronted with a very complex situation requiring quick thinking and steel nerves, Minhas was eventually able to counter Matiur-Rehman’s cunning design. He managed to prevent the aircraft from being hijacked to an enemy country, laying down his life in the process. He was destined to become the youngest star on Pakistan’s firmament of valiant heroes. May Allah bless his soul and may his Nishan-i-Haider be an inspiration for the future defenders of Pakistan.

----------------

[1] Quoted by Brig A R Siddiqui in his book, East Pakistan – The End Game, Oxford, 2005, page 162. Siddiqui was present at the lunch in his capacity as Press Advisor to the President and Director, Inter-Services Public Relations.
[2] Nishan-i-Haider (Emblem of Haider) tops the four classes of military gallantry awards in the Order of Jur’at (Valour). ‘Haider’ is an epithet of the gallant Muslim Caliph Ali. The next three classes of the Order are: Hilal-i-Jur'at (Crescent of Valour), Sitara-i-Jur'at (Star of Valour) and Tamgha-i-Jur'at (Medal of Valour).
[3] These details, along with some other pertaining to Bengalis, were revealed by one of the Bengali pilots to this author, during his visit to Pakistan in 2003. The Bengali pilot prefers to remain unidentified.
[4] Flt Lt Matiur-Rehman’s wife and children were clandestinely moved to the Indian Consulate on the night of 19 August. After the crash next day, her location was discovered and she was retrieved by security personnel, to attend to her husband’s last rites at Masroor Base, where he was buried.
[5] This was Minhas’ second solo mission on the T-33.
[6] In the T-33, taxiing was done with the canopy open.
[7] During solo missions, a parachute was not installed in the empty rear seat. Without the parachute, the seat pan was too low for a sitting pilot to have all-around visibility.
[8] The use of chloroform or some blunt object to immobilise Minhas, as some stories have it, is a figment of imagination and is not backed up by any evidence, whatsoever.
[9] Information in this paragraph has been obtained from the late Air Cdre Shaikh Saleem’s unpublished notes.
[10] Information in this paragraph is based on narration by Flt Lt Abdul Wahab (Retd).
[11] During solo flight, the rear seat harnesses are locked and tightly stowed so that these do not flail and entangle with the control stick.
[12] There is no evidence of an ejection attempt by Minhas and the ejection arming handles on the seat were found unactuated.
[13] There exists the possibility that the pilots forgot to lock the canopy at the take-off point and, it got dislodged later in flight. It may be pointed out, however, that as the speed built up, increasing negative pressure on top of the canopy would have caused it to dislodge just after take-off, rather than 12-13 minutes later. This has generally been the pattern in cases of canopy loss in the PAF, where the pilots forgot to lock the canopies.

 
 
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