A brush with death

f-27

 

  • Pk 636: RWP-PEW; 1420-1500 
  • Pk 635: PEW-PEW;  1520-1620
  • Pk 635; PEW-LHE; 2045-2245

Time is in  GMT. 

  • RWP = Rawalpindi
  • PEW = Peshawar
  • LHE = Lahore

I started my airline flying career on Sept 15, 1969 as a First Officer on Fokker F-27 Friendship (Reg. AP-ALN), a 44-seater twin engine turbo-propeller aircraft at Rawalpindi*, the Northern Areas Base of Pakistan International Airlines. The others were Lahore, Karachi and Dacca.

*Rawalpindi also serves Islamabad

Northern Pakistan is a scenic, beautiful but an inhospitable mountainous terrain with airfields at Gilgit, Skardu and Chitral. Weather remains a concern for departures in the mornings and there were many cancellations because of the approach valley being blocked by clouds. The airplane couldn’t fly above the mountains. We had daily flights to Peshawar and what is narrated below, happened on one of the flights out of Peshawar for Rawalpindi on June 12, 1970.

It was evening, when we took off  from Peshawar on flight Pk 635 for Rawalpindi, but diverted back to Peshawar because of bad enroute weather. Captain Zahid Hussain, offered his evening prayer under the wing of the Fokker. We took to the air again for Rawalpindi after checking the weather, and about forty miles from destination, we were informed by the company flight operations office on the VHF channel, that we wouldn’t be able to make it there because of heavy thunderstorms around the airfield, six octas of charlie bravo clouds reported (cumulonimbus )*, and were advised to go to Lahore. Cherat Approach, the Air Traffic Control goes off the air at 7 PM, and radio contact after takeoff from Peshawar was with Chaklala Tower (Rawalpindi).

* Sky is divided into eight parts (octas). 6 octas means 6 parts of the sky are covered by this type of cloud, cumulonimbus (thunderstorm cloud).

The captain, with an eye on the weather radar, was flying and maneuvering the aircraft to climb over the clouds which were also rising at the same time. It was night with showers of heavy rain, hail, pelting the windshield along with heavy static in our ears and arcing on the windshield known as St Elmo’s fire. I had lost track of the VOR radial (electronic track direction) we were flying on, for we had drifted past the station identification signal and the aircraft’s altitude had reached 22000 feet. Heavy turbulence, flashes of lightning, and thunder continued, so much so that the passengers grew very uncomfortable, and the air hostess came to the cockpit, and said,

“should we start praying”?

I tried to calm her down by saying that one could pray at any time, and then by the grace of God, we were picked up by the Air Force radar station at Sakesar, near Sargodha. We were given our position relative to Sargodha, and the captain asked me to plot the track to Lahore on the map, which I still remember was 114 degrees magnetic. So a forty four minutes flight turned into a two hour nightmare when we finally made it to Lahore with low fuel booster pumps lights on. It was a harrowing experience for me and my whole body ached the next day because of it.

Incidentally one of the flight attendants on board that day, not the girl, died a month later on August 6 in an air crash of a similar company airplane just after getting airborne from Rawalpindi  in a thunderstorm (Night Coach to Lahore). Everybody perished including my roommate, First Officer Javaid Talat Quraishi. I went at about ten o’clock in the morning to the accident site (at Rawat). They were picking up the body parts and the village rustics were joking and kicking some male sexual organs.

I had operated the same flight, Pk 625 (night coach) to Lahore the previous night and the captain whom we called, ‘captain on skd’ (schedule) because he never delayed a departure,

had departed late by one hour on the return sector, Pk 624 to Rawalpindi, because of en-route Charlie bravo activity; thunderstorms encountered on way to Lahore earlier.

FOKKER F27 FRIENDSHIP: The F27, a medium-range turbo-prop transport first flew on Nov 24, 1955 and went into service in 1958. It was produced by Fokker in Holland and Fairchild in the US. A familiar sight on airline routes around the world for thirty years; it was conceived initially as a possible replacement for the venerable Douglas DC-3 and was purchased by 168 customers in 63 countries. Production ended in 1986 and during its era, more aircraft types was manufactured than any other European airline. This high-wing aircraft was noisy and was said to shake like a cement mixer, but it provided affordable and efficient service and despite early reservations about its safety, the F27 has proved to be one of the safest aircraft in its class.

f-27-northern-area

Fokker Friendship at Gilgit Airport

 Specifications F27 Mk 300 Friendship

Type Combi, passenger / cargo transport with forward side loading cargo door
Power plant Two 1, 910 hp Rolls-Royce Dart Mk 528
Range 1, 249 miles
Service ceiling 29, 600 ft

Weights

Empty 22, 612 lb
MTOGW 39, 044 lb
Accommodation Two pilots, flight attendant and 40 passengers (standard), or 52 in high density load

Dimensions

Span 95’ 2”
Length 77’ 1”
Height 27’ 7”
Wing area 754 sq. ft.

 

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