Air Marshal Asghar Khan – The Night Flyer
Ayaz Khan Jadoon
I am here to pay tribute to a legend, a hero who is ascribed as “Night flyer”. To begin, let me ask you,
Have you ever pondered over the “Golden era” of Pakistani Aviation Industry?
Who made Pakistan Air force, a fighting dragon in Air to Air battle?
Did you ever for a moment focus upon the Pakistani Former Air Chief Air Marshal Asghar Khan legacy?
Did you ever assess the reasons which imbued Pakistan International airline to become one of the world’s top Airlines in the 1960’s?
A man of principles whose unbendable commitment to serve the Air force still salutes him in the flying heroes of Defense Day.
Yes, I am taking about the one & only, AIR MARSHAL ASGHAR KHAN.
Before I begin, I must tell you that the entire life tenure of Asghar Khan can be segregated into three broad categories; Pre Partition, Post Partition, and Post Retirement.
Now first of all, Pre-Partition Era
- Mohammad Asghar Khan was born in Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir in British Indian Empire on 17 January 1921. His father was Brigadier Rahmatullah Khan, a Pashtun officer of the Jammu and Kashmir State Forces, who was from Tirah, FATA, settled in Kashmir at that time. His mother’s name was Ghulam Fatima. The family on creation of Pakistan migrated to Abbottabad at the time of partition. Asghar Khan and all his brothers, except his youngest brother, joined the armed forces of Pakistan.
- Asghar Khan was brought up at Srinagar. He hailed from a family which endured difficulties of military life as his father was in the Maharaja’s army. Thus, the bond with armed forces certainly ran in his arteries. He began his career from the Wales Royal Military College, Dehra Dun in 1933 and joined the Indian Military Academy in 1939. He passed out obtaining his commission on 20th December, 1940. For a few months, he was posted as Second Lieutenant to Royal Deccan Horse. Later, he attended a Flying Training School at Walton, in Lahore, followed by three months at the Elementary Flying Training School at Begumpet in Hyderabad; there, he learned to fly the Tiger Moth, a small di-plane trainer. After Begumpet he went to Ambala, to fly the Hawker Audax ,also a bi-plane, which was the lead aircraft in the Royal Air Force at that time.
Participation in World War II
- He would have dearly loved to become a combat pilot but at the time, the size of Indian Air Force was frozen, and no new inductions were contemplated. As soon as the avenue opened up, he obtained his transfer to Air force. Thereafter, he got commission in No.3 squadron of British Royal Air Force which was in Peshawar at that time. The dovecots of Hindu dominants went up in flutters. Surprisingly, the war against insurgents in Miran Shah was being fought by British Indian Army. Thus, as a superior fighter, Squadron leader Asghar khan led the air strikes to hold back miscreants in Waziristan thus, facilitating the ground troops. After two years of a successful battle at Peshawar, Kohat and Miranshah, he was posted to No.9 Squadron of Indian Air Force, which was at that time in the Arakan, in Burma. The World War 2 had initiated its final phase, the Japanese Army’s thrust towards India had been checked but it was still active in Burma.
- The Japanese Air Force had ceased to be a threat in this dynamism though its Army still posed a problem. No.9 Squadron at that time was Commanded by Squadron Leader Adams of the Royal Air Force and was divided into two flights. One was an Indian Flight under Asghar Khan’s Command and the other Canadian, commanded by Flight Lieutenant Gerry Marr of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Squadron was based at various airfields, south of Chittagong on the Arakan coast and later at Akyab, Burma. No.9 Squadron continued its role in support of the Army by bombing and strafing Japanese ground positions till the end of the War in 1945. Asghar Khan is commemorated to be one of the most dynamic fighter pilots in World War 2 among the other Indians which is a unique award.
- In 1944, Asghar Khan assumed the command of No.9 Squadron & commanded the aerial missions of No. 9 Squadron in Burma. He took active participation in Burma Campaign of 1944–1945, directing and commanding aerial operations against the Imperial Japan. No.9 Squadron was then moved to Ranchi, India, where it was equipped with Spitfire Aircraft, a more modern combat fighter at that time, and after some time in Ranchi, it was moved to Gurgaon, near Delhi (India). After a few months there, owing to his professionalism in combat games, Asghar Khan was posted as Chief Flying Instructor at the Advance Flying Training School at Ambala, India.
- At the end of World War II, Asghar Khan got selected at the Royal Air Force Staff College at Bracknell, UK where he completed his staff course. Later, Asghar Khan joined the Joint Services Defense College where he gained B.Sc. in Military Ethics. He conducted his post-graduate research and studies from Imperial Defense College, UK and was awarded M.Sc. in Military Administration. Upon his return, Asghar Khan was most-senior officer in the Royal Indian Air Force. Asghar Khan was also the first Royal Indian Air Force officer to fly a jet fighter aircraft, a Gloster Meteor, while doing a Fighter Leader’s course in UK in 1946.
Moving to Pakistan & Career with Pakistan Air Force
- On 7 June 1947, Asghar Khan joined the sub-committee led by Air Vice Marshal Allan Perry-Keene of Royal Air Force to distribute the defense assets of undivided India between the proposed State of Pakistan. After the independence on 14 August 1947, Asghar Khan moved to newly established country Pakistan and, Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan promoted Asghar Khan to the rank of Wing-Commander and appointed him the first commandant of the Pakistan Air Force Academy at Risalpur. His contributions led to indigenous discoveries by the Pakistani Air force like missiles, flares as well as concurrently, highlighting upon the training of GD Pilots.
- Pakistani Pilots training manual was also conceived by Asghar Khan, and later on expanded to include modern warfare to annihilate the Indian Air Force’s superiority. Furthermore, this realm of his tenure can be known as the post partition phase where he evolved an invincible Air Force which was deemed to succeed in the coming years. In his command of Risalpur, work was carried upon the new-fangled warfare tactics, and overhaul of F-86 Sabres coming from the US Air Force. He had also the honor of receiving the father of the nation Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah on his maiden visit to Royal Pakistan Air Force Training School, Risalpur in April, 1948.
- He was among the most senior officers of the Pakistan Air Force and in 1949, Asghar Khan became the first Officer Commanding of No. 1 Stryker Group based in Peshawar Air Force Base. Director General Air operations is an imperative appointment in any Air force, and Asghar khan was particularly, selected as Directorate-General of the Air Operations (DGAO) in 1950. During the seven years as DGAO till his promotion, he evolved a culture of model discussions, regular combat practices through maps and bringing up a potent elucidation to any complex strategy.
- In 1955, Asghar Khan was appointed as the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in Air Headquarters, directing the Air Administration and Personnel Department at the Air Headquarters. As Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Asghar Khan established the major units and infrastructure including the Fighter Leaders School (now Combat Commander’s School), the Air Staff College and the College of Aeronautical Engineering at the Pakistan Air Force Academy. As Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Asghar Khan also instituted the Inspectorate directorate for the Air Force and initiated the tradition of regular air staff presentations.
Commander in Chief
- After the retirement of Air vice-marshal (AVM) Arthur McDonald, Prime Minister Hussain Suhravardy approved the appointment of Asghar Khan as the Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Air Force. On 23 July 1957, Prime Minister Suhrawardy promoted AVM Asghar Khan to three-star rank i.e Air Marshal, making him the first native Air Force Commander-in-Chief, just at the age of 36, also the youngest to-date. He catapulted PAF from a rudimentary Air Force to one of the best in the world through extensive modernization and professionalization, within just 18 months of becoming the youngest commander-in-chief of the PAF.
- As the Commander-in-Chief, Air Marshal Asghar Khan transformed PAF into a modern air force with the induction of new jet fighters, bombers, trainers, transport aircraft and helicopters. During his command, PAF inducted a wide spectrum of aircraft which included state-of-the-art F-86 Sabres, T-33 Jet trainers, T-37 Tweety Birds, B-57 bombers, formidable F-104 Star Fighters, and ubiquitous C-130 Hercules aircraft. He also introduced fighter training programs and combat courses to train fighter pilots in modern air warfare. Combat squadron numbers were raised from 4 to 9 and were equipped with the state of the art aircrafts. The F-104 was the one of the latest multi role combat aircraft at that time which was inducted through efforts of Air Marshal Asghar Khan. Moreover, he played a major role to amalgamate 4, and 9 squadron into the first Tactical Attack 14th squadron. Mirages were operated as naval-Air coordination aircraft to deter any enemy approaching from Arabian Sea. Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s contributions are uncountable since he established three bases at Samungli, Peshawar and all powerful Sargodha (now Musaf Air Base). Pakistan Air Force also deployed huge radar stations at Sakesar and Badin during the sametime for eavesdropping.
- During Air Marshal Asghar Khan command of Pakistan Air Force, he not only expanded Air Force in terms of aircrafts but also took initiatives to modernize and expand the air force facilities, installations and equipment. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra owes to Asghar Khan. He supervised this laborious task, and gave an arena for Aircraft manufacturing. At present, Side winger Missiles of F-7, JF-17, Mirage, and the F-16 Block C/D Aircrafts are all locally prepared at the same Aeronautical Complex. The renowned Combat schools such as Fighter Leaders School and PAF Staff College were over arched by him. He also directed the inspectors and also brought the culture of Air Staff Presentations during various courses.
- A balanced paradigm was developed by Asghar Khan as he firmly believed of academics as an essential ingredient of a pilot. His juniors noted that the Air Marshal would go out of his way to elicit a range of opinions before taking a decision, but once that decision was made by him, he would not tolerate any ifs and buts about its implementations. As for approving the appointments and selection process, Asghar Khan made no secret of his willingness to supersede the senior officers if that became unavoidable in ensuring that the best qualified officers are selected to fill in the key appointments, particularly in the combat units. Autocratic decisions were taken by him but he always stood by his word without flinching off his implementation strategies.
- During his long tenure, Air Marshal Asghar Khan deserves the credit of bringing PAF to one of the most modern Aviation at that time.
Supremacy of our Air force was corroborated by the fierce destruction of Indian Fighters in 1965 over Lahore, Sialkot, and other Sectors. On an eve of Eid-ul-Fitr in 1965, just before the War, an Indian spy bomber violated Pakistan’s air frontiers. The early air defence system, created as per Asghar Khan’s policy, responded with incredible alacrity. A young flight officer brought the bomber down at 40,000 feet, way above the fighter’s operational capability. Both the Indian pilot and the navigator were taken into custody. Under Asghar Khan’s stewardship, the PAF created a world military aviation record in formation aerobatics with 16 aircrafts performing a loop in front of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan. Even pilots like MM ALAM, Sissal Chaudhry, and Qais Hussain got training in reign of AM Asghar Khan and demonstrated spectacular air combat which owned International recognition.
- Asghar Khan was offered extension by General Ayub but out rightly denounced, as, he firmly believed servility in service, and wanted seniority to prevail. Since attitude of desire for extensions of service proves damaging for a fighting service thus, he contently retired in 1965, at age of 43 just months before the war. Trained, readied and motivated by Asghar Khan, officers of all ranks performed beyond expectations. This was also the indomitable spirit with which the PAF fought the 1965 war. He was the only military commander who foresaw the forebodings and prepared the PAF to face the juggernaut.
Presiding Pakistan International Airlines (PIA)
- After leaving air force, Asghar Khan was employed at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of national flag carriers, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). There, Asghar Khan learned to fly the commercial airline and obtained a Commercial pilot license after passing the exam from Federal Aviation Administration of United States. Asghar Khan introduced new uniforms for the air hostesses and stewards which earned words of admiration at domestic and international airports. His work during those times made PIA a profitable organization. For instance, PIA earned a net record profit of Rs. 55 Million as well as opened new routes thus, generating revenue. A whole jet fleet induced into PIA under Asghar Khan tenure is still in operation at present.
During his tenure, PIA achieved lowest aircraft accident rate and highest net profit of Pakistan, and was a formidable competitor in the world airline business. His tenure as president is often reminded as the “golden age of PIA”. Despite urging of the government to extend his tenure, Asghar Khan took retirement and left Ministry of Defense in order to start his political career in 1968.
- A soldier turned politician Asghar Khan was the first Muslim Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Air Force. A strict disciplinarian, a man of words, Asghar Khan made PAF to live up to Jinnah’s famous exhortation: “PAF to be second to none.” This was the basis of Asghar Khan’s vision for the PAF. His doctrine translated into a well-honed operational strategy and high training standards, which permeated our minds, and propelled us towards professional excellence.
An outstanding pilot, he was the first Indian (before Partition) to fly a fighter jet with the Royal Indian Air Force and was also the first native to head the PAF when he replaced the British Arthur McDonald after partition. He became one of the greatest chiefs of Pakistani Air force for all times.
- Air Marshal Asghar Khan has been decorated with the awards of ‘Hilal-i-Pakistan’ and ‘Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam.’
In recognition of his selfless services to the nation, PAF Academy, Risalpur has been named after Air Marshal Asghar Khan in 2017.