FAREWELL TO A MAN OF STEEL
He was the second Pakistani Chief of the country’s air force but Second to None, just as the legacy of the Father of the Nation had ordained for the air force which AM Nur Khan led. Excellence was never an option for him; it was an instinct and he proved it as he took Pakistan International Airline (PIA) to the galaxy of the best airlines in the world later returning to the PAF in July 1965 to take over from the father of the air force AM Asghar Khan to lead PAF with stunning success into the 1965 war, which he always exhorted as a senseless war perpetrated by unprofessional men at the helm. I knew him from the time he commanded the base at Mauripur (Masroor) and led a fly past of 100 F-86 Fighter aircraft on the occasion of 23rd March in the mid-fifties, but he did it with flair. Nur Khan wanted every single fighter on the PAF strength to take to the air. It was not a just a Herculean task but a near impossible one. But he had the gumption to motivate the men in blue to achieve the impossible and millions in Karachi proudly bore witness to the spectacle of Nur Khan brilliantly leading the charge, just before he left to take command of PIA.
His achievements as the MD (Managing Director) PIA were not limited to the airline alone. His penchant for sports was a history making epic in itself. He elevated the national status of Squash and Hockey from mediocre to world champions. Pakistan emerged in the world of sports as Champions from a Third World to challenge the mighty First World. Beyond catapulting the sports in Pakistan and the hitherto rudimentary PIA to such heights, his individual courage was tested when a Fokker Friendship was hijacked by a bunch of terrorists and landed at Lahore. When all negotiations failed, AM Nur Khan flew to Lahore and decided to take charge of the imbroglio. To everyone’s bewilderment and admiration he entered the small cabin and physically overpowered the assailant; just as the goon fired his gun, wounding the Air Marshal.
The day he took over the PAF in July, 1965 brought an unexpected revelation much to the chagrin of both AM Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, that neither had been taken into confidence by President Ayub Khan or General Musa and that thousands of Mujahideen including Pakistan Army commandos had been launched to annex Kashmir. He shot off to GHQ to confront General Musa - the Army Chief and asked why the PAF had been kept in the dark. Musa procrastinated and told him that the President did not want to escalate the limited operation and the PAF had to stay out. Nur Khan had anxious moments knowing that the ill-conceived action would inevitably conflagrate. What would he say to the nation if the Indian Air Force were to pre-empt and ground the PAF in a relentless air operation? The rest is history. But for his alacrity and strategic perception, the PAF would have been devastated by a numerically preponderant Indian Air Force. Nur Khan ordered the PAF on Red-Alert on 1st Sept. as the Army Operation Gibraltar came to a grinding halt and the Indians began a massive assault against Pakistan. In those ominous moments Nur Khan was deeply concerned about the survival of the Mujahideen Force operating in the Kashmir valley with no hope for supply reinforcements. Against the illogical expectations of the leaders suffering trepidation from an all out Indian invasion, Nur Khan ordered C-130 flights in the valley after consulting with 12 Division command in control of Kashmir misadventure. He boarded the first C-130 mission past Mid-night in inclement weather with a rudimentary radar, in total darkness and headed for the treacherous valley. When Group Captain Zahid Butt overshot the Drop Zone, situated between high peaks on either side he decided to abandon the perilous mission. Nur Khan peering over his shoulder asked him to make another attempt. This time the supplies were dropped on the target. Such was the audacity of a man in command of the air force. The news propelled the morale of the PAF to incredible heights. Its performance in the 1965 war is history written in glorious splendour.
I had the honor to fly with him as an escort fighter during many missions he flew with my squadron based at Peshawar, the home of air force headquarters. He would arrive straight from his residence to our squadron, get in his flying gear, order a coffee and hamburger, just like any young fighter pilot and off we went to the firing range at Jamrud. Everyday he returned with incredible scores which the very best pilots in complete form could hardly achieve. When I would tell him that he was going too low in the attacks and was dangerous, he would reply, “that is how you would need to attack the enemy in war.” But the war was not on, yet he was irrepressible and like a fiery fighter pilot would wait for the “Hit count” and rocket results. One day when I had to abort due to aircraft malfunction, my flight commander escorted him to the range. When he returned, he had already been informed by the range officer about the number hits he had scored on the target. As he stood on the wing of the Sabre Jet he smiled at me and said, “Now you beat that BLOODY score, Haider”. He had scored 100 % hits on the target. He had beaten my score - a record hitherto unbroken by the finest to the best of my knowledge. That was my mentor, our Commander-in-Chief, a man who considered nothing impossible and proved it with his professional excellence, integrity and intrepidness. His is a legacy few air forces in the world could boast to have inherited.
Farewell, my chief, I know you hated it when I wrote in my book that you were a maverick, but you know that I meant you were incomparable and lightening fast at the draw. You liked that. Pakistan’s history would place you at the highest pedestal of military leadership where few have preceded you. May your heroic and noble soul rest in heavenly peace.