Assassination “A Fateful Air Crash”

“On 17 August 1988, General Zia, accompanied by a host of senior officers of the Pakistan Army, including the CJCS, Akhtar Abdur Rahman, as well as the US ambassador in Islamabad, Arnold Raphel and the defense attaché, Brigadier General Herbert M. Wassom—descended on a desolate bit of desert between Multan and Bahawalpur called the Tamewali firing range. They had been invited to observe the tank trials of the latest American battle tank, the M1/A1 Abrams. The US was pressing hard for Pakistan to acquire this tank, a deal which would have tied Pakistan to the US spare parts pipeline for years to come.

Zia’s aircraft was another US product: the redoubtable and seemingly indestructible C-130 Hercules, a cargo plane that had become a worthy successor to the  DC-3 of Second World War fame and beyond. First introduced to the US Air Force inventory in 1956 as the C-130A, an upgraded version—the C-130B—came into service in 1959 and the last plane in that series was delivered in 1963. Zia would often use the C-130B, designated Pak One, with another C-130B designated Pak Two as a standby. It was equipped with a roll-on VIP capsule that provided a comfortable; air conditioned ride and some soundproofing.

17 August was a clear and sunny day in Bahawalpur when Zia and his party arrived at the airport at 3.30 pm. Zia, as was his wont, invited other senior officers who had come to see the trials to jump into his aircraft. A number of them, including the CGS Afzaal, who was due to take a PIA flight from Multan to Islamabad later that day, took him up on his offer. So did Major General Muhammad Hussain Awan, who commanded the 23 Division in Jhelum. The only one who did not choose to ride with Zia was Beg, who had his own plane standing near the president’s C-130, but who was to admit later that had the president asked him one more time he would have jumped in. Beg was the last to shake Zia’s hand before the latter climbed into his plane.

Pakistan Air Force C-130B, serial # 62-3494 from the PAF’s 35th Air Transport Wing, based in Chaklala, rumbled off from runway 26 at 3.46 pm carrying Zia, Rahman, Ambassador Raphel, General Wassom and twenty seven others. Visibility was 5 miles, good. The weather was clear and the outside temperature was a toasty but dry 37 degrees centigrade. There was a light south-westerly breeze. Nothing unusual to see or report. A small Cessna had earlier completed a precautionary flight over the airport to ensure that there was no untoward activity or any lurking anti-aircraft weapons in sight. The other aircraft took off shortly and headed in their own directions. Zia’s plane turned onto its course for Islamabad—out of sight of the air controllers at Bahawalpur, one of whom called Wing Commander Mash’hood Hassan, the pilot of Zia’s plane, to confirm his position. Back came the reply: Pak One, Stand by. Those were the last words from Pak One.

Then based on eye witness accounts, in the clinical language of the subsequent official report: “The aircraft was observed to be very low over the Sutlej River and varying about the pitch axis in an up and down motion. Some motion was also noted in yaw and roll. The pitching continued to worsen, according to witnesses, until a steep dive, steep climb, and near vertical dive resulted in the aircraft impacting the ground at approximately 3.51 pm. The impact (angle) with the ground was estimated to be approximately 60-65 degrees.*

*Government of Pakistan accident investigation report prepared by the Pakistan Air Force Board of Inquiry, headed by Air Commodore Abbas H. Mirza, and including PAF’s Air Commodore Muzammil Saeed, Group Captain Zaheer H. Zaidi, and Wing Commander Sabahat Ali Mufti, and the US Air Force Technical and Advisory Team headed by Colonel Daniel E. Sowada, and including Lt. Col. Bruce Blocher, Major William Rouse, Captain Stuart Takahara, Captain Dennis Simonson and Captain William Callahan. Text contained in message from Ambassador Robert Oakley in Islamabad to Department of State.

The crash site was barely 7.5 nautical miles from Bahawalpur airport. There were no survivors. All that was left was a mystery as to how and why the crash occurred. Within those five fateful minutes, Zia and his top military leadership had been eliminated and an era in Pakistan’s history came to an end.


In the days immediately after the crash, hectic activity took place to decide, among other things, where Zia was to be buried. (His COS, General Refaqat was asked by President Ishaq to select a spot and he suggested the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad) There was also a demand for an investigation from the public and from within the army. Beg had promised that there would be one. But there was no evidence of the army conducting a detailed investigation on its own. Instead, the US offered to help: a joint team of the Pakistan Air Force and the US Air Force was authorised by Air Marshall Hakimullah to

  • Inquire into the circumstances under which Hercules C-2130 aircraft S # 62-3494 crashed on 17 August 1988;
  • Assess the extent and cause of the damage;
  • Apportion blame, if any;
  • Make recommendations to avoid recurrence of similar nature.

Lacking an ambassador on the spot, and recognizing the need for one immediately in this sensitive period and super sensitive slot, the US acted with alacrity. Robert Oakely, who had been serving at the White House in the NSC and had been involved in South Asian affairs, was asked to pack two suitcases and told: “Well, you go. Be the new ambassador.” And so he left. “Initially, we, like Pakistan, thought that there was something suspicious there. So we looked everything as best we could internally and externally. And all of our intelligence assets were put to look for what might be behind this because we feared that this is part of a bigger attack upon Pakistan, just as most Pakistanis thought it was too,” Oakley recalls. In fact, Secretary of State George P. Schultz assured the Pakistani president and the army chief, (according to Oakley) that “all of our intelligence assets are focused upon the threat to Pakistan. And if we find out anything, we’ll let you know.” But he added that: “We found nothing, which was a pleasant surprise.” When asked about the role of FBI, he appeared to have suffered from a memory lapse after all these years. About the “long arm law” that allowed the FBI to investigate deaths overseas of American citizens, Oakley said: “At that stage it didn’t exist.” In fact the law was in force at that time. The 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act authorized the FBI to investigate international terrorism cases where Americans were taken hostage. A 1986 Omnibus Diplomatic Security Anti terrorism Act broadened the FBI’s extra-territorial responsibilities to include terrorist incidents in which an American is assaulted or murdered. The US charge d’affairs in Islamabad, Beth Jones, recalls accurately that the FBI law did exist and that in her view the FBI needed to be involved. She also recalls that Oakley agreed with that. But Oakley’s recollection is that the FBI was initially asked and “they said no.” Jones is very specific about how the US side handled the matter. She states that the first CENTCOM commander, Marine General George B. Crist, said that since a military officer had been killed, it was the military’s jurisdiction and not that of the FBI. Jones recalls that later on the FBI were called in and they sent their agent in charge of the Athens office, but by then it was too late. General Crist, now retired in Florida, does not recall details of what transpired at that time except that Richard L. Armitage (Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security) may have been involved in that decision. According to Crist, Armitage was apparently making decisions from the Pentagon on this matter at that time. Armitage recalls that “there was a lot of confusion” about the investigation. There were also allegations swirling about the involvement of the Afghan secret police, Khad. He believes that the Pakistanis wanted to handle the investigation themselves.

Reports also emerged about the frequent failures of this type of aircraft, leading to crashes. The Pakistanis, according to Armitage wanted to take the lead and the US conceded. He did recall speaking with the FBI and testifying before a House committee to that effect. The close collaboration between the US and Pakistan militaries, which remained a cornerstone of the US-Pakistan relationship may well have helped snuff out the detailed examination of the evidence at that time.  There were concerns on both sides about the precarious situation in Pakistan. Oakley recalls that the US “sent warnings to everybody, which is the way the United States acted at that stage certainly. Be careful! Don’t try to take advantage of the situation in Pakistan because the United States is looking after it.”

In his view: From our (the US’s) point of view, there were two extremely important things. One was to find out all we could possibly find out about who and what was behind it. And the second one was to make sure that the confidence between the United States and the President and the Chief of the Army Staff and others was not upset. I think, actually, from that point of view it came out pretty well because of the way we conducted the investigation and the fact that, for once, we were able to keep it from going public until after the investigation was completed, despite the screams from Washington saying, “You hide things from us.”

Against this background, the joint air force team undertook its inquiry of the crash, focusing primarily on the technical aspects. Their findings were unequivocal and unanimous, although the US tried to put a different spin on the results, trying to establish that a technical malfunction may have caused the crash. They examined the possibility of weather, fuel contamination, an external missile attack, an internal fire or explosion, equipment malfunction, and structural failure in flight before coming to the conclusion that none of these had been a factor that caused the airplane to evidence the dolphin-like movement known as “Phugoid”, where the “dead-stick control” of the aircraft pulls the plane up automatically each time it goes into an uncontrolled dive. This yo-yo motion was reported by eye witnesses on the ground.

The team hypothesized that the control problems leading to the crash could have been caused by either “a mechanical or hydraulic fault in the aircraft systems,” or was “induced by the pilots either voluntarily or involuntarily.” Their investigation and tests at the Lockheed simulation centre ruled out the first. “The only other cause left was sabotage. This could have been affected in one of four ways

  1. By deliberate or mechanical interference with the flight control centre,
  2. Physical interference with the controls in the cockpit,
  3. Incapacitation of the pilots at the controls—either singly or simultaneously as a result of a criminal act, or
  4. By the use of explosive devices to achieve either of the first three.

Available evidence ruled out the first, but an experienced hand could have contaminated the elevator boost package—a remote possibility, but one that the team could not rule out. Although lacking a cockpit voice recorder, the possibility of physical interference with the controls could not be ruled out either but the team thought that it was improbable given that there are more than two persons in the cockpit whom an intruding hijacker would have to overpower in the short span of some two minutes before the impact. As for the final possibility, incapacitating the flight crew, the board felt that it was possible. The likely methodology used to incapacitate the pilots could be gleaned from the declassified summary of the report of the Board of Enquiry that was officially released to the press in Pakistan a couple of months after the accident.

Detailed articles appeared a few years later in a local weekly.*

*Takbeer, Karachi, issues of 20 August 1992 and 19 August 1993. The likely source may have been Group Captain Zaidi, who is reported to have confided to associates that the crash had been caused by “our own people” and then covered up. The Takbeer report also stated that the aft cargo door had disappeared, and along with it the evidence of an explosion inside the aircraft or from outside (if there was a simultaneous rocket fired on the aeroplane).

 The story of the investigations conducted by the board in Pakistan, which pointed to sabotage as a cause of the crash of the ill-fated plane, unfolds as follows. One of the most experienced members of the joint team, Group Captain Zaheer Zaidi, and his colleagues collected the first batch of samples from the crash site and delivered them, within thirty hours of the accident, for analysis at the Electron Microscope Laboratory (EM Lab) of PINSTECH, Islamabad.*

*Khan A. Shoaib, PAEC who headed the research at that end.

 By the morning of 19 August preliminary evidence indicating foul play had been obtained in the form of surface deposits on the inner side of the edges of a huge hole in the aft cargo door. These deposits contained high concentrations of unusual elements antimony (35%), phosphorous (34%), as well as other suspect elements. The fuselage does not contain these elements which are essential components of detonators. Subsequent examination of samples from other areas of the plane revealed significant amount of the unusual elements on the surface of a section of the cargo hold floor as well as on the area behind the pilot’s seat in the cockpit. To confirm or refute the suggestion that the accident could have been due to mechanical malfunction resulting from a faulty hydraulic pump, and to exclude some of the other possibilities, the pumps, filters, etc., from the plane were analyzed at the EM Lab. No problem was detected with the pump pistons and nothing abnormal was discovered with the particles usually found in used hydraulic fluid or on the filters. The likelihood of mechanical failure was thus ruled out. Samples of tests conducted of various explosives at Pakistan Ordnance Factory were also analyzed in the EM Lab. Relative concentrations of various elements in these tests and its comparison with that in samples from the plane enabled the identification of detonators possibly used on board. Burnt mango peel and mango seeds found some distance from the crash site had also been provided for analysis. A surface deposit with potassium content up to 84% was found on the mango seeds while antimony up to 65% was found on both sides of the mango peel. It was known that two crates of mangoes had been loaded aboard the aircraft as a gift for the president. The final conclusion of the Board of Enquiry was that low intensity detonations from explosives hidden in the mango crates could have been used to release a gas that rendered the passengers and the pilots unconscious resulting in the crash of the plane. The actual method to incapacitate the flight crew could have ranged from the “very simple to the ultra sophisticated.” The simple techniques would have left physical traces that they did not find. Hence the board pointed to the possibility that some “specialist organization well-versed in carrying out such tasks and possessing all the means and abilities for its execution” was behind this event. Detecting such an act of sabotage is very difficult. But the board came to the conclusion that . . . a chemical agent may well have been used to cause incapacitation of the flight deck crew. The chemical agent could have been packaged in innocuous containers such as beverage tins, gift parcels, aerosol cans, thermos flasks etc and smuggled on board without arousing suspicion,. The activation of these gases during flight, manually, remotely or automatically would result in the insidious incapacitating of the flight deck crew.”

 The board was unable to pinpoint the type of chemicals used and their exact application. Since no autopsies were performed, they could not pursue this approach. They did point to the presence of “high levels of potassium on a mango seed and antimony and chlorine on the mango peel.” The cockpit supporting rod also had high levels of phosphorous and antimony, and the aft cargo door area had high levels of phosphorous, antimony and sulphur. Further the alcohol, tobacco and firearms (ATF) laboratory report states that traces of PETN, (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) which is a high secondary explosive were found on the butt end of the emergency escape hatch rope near the aft cargo door. Although the ATF discounted a high explosion, the presence of PETN “is unusual”, especially in the presence of the other chemicals such as antimony and phosphorous. A strong possibility arose that someone could have caused an explosion to release a gas that would have incapacitated the crew rapidly. One form of such gas is VX, a nerve agent that is normally in liquid form but becomes a gas when exposed to oxygen. It is ten times more toxic than Sarin (another nerve gas), and kills almost immediately if just a drop comes into contact with a person’s skin or is inhaled. It basically seals the central nervous system, causing convulsions, paralysis and death. If an agent like had been used, it would have resulted in the instantaneous freezing of the pilots and other crew members with their hands locked on the controls, causing the yo-yo movement of the C-130 that was observed by witnesses on the ground.

Another method of incapacitating the crew would involve painting the surfaces of the controls inside the cockpit with a psycho-active drug similar to the drug Ecstasy sold on the US narcotics market, an action that would take no more than a minute or two, and could have easily be done during the stopover in Bahawalpur, when there was much activity in and around the aircraft. Workmen had serviced the VVIP capsule, repaired a cargo door, and otherwise been in the aircraft. According to the Defense and Foreign Affairs Weekly, “a top level chemical warfare expert . . . revealed to the Weekly that the chemicals which apparently caused the crash of the Lockheed C-130 in which then President Zia-ul-Haq was killed were related to the type of chemicals which officials from the West German firm, Imhausen, have been charged with selling illegally in the United States . . . The drug, 3-methyl-tentanyl, was probably placed on the controls and headsets used by the crew. 3 methyl-fentanyl, which is 3000 times more powerful than heroin, was probably put on the controls and headsets in a dose sufficiently diluted to allow an elapse of time before fully disorienting the aircrew. The drug permeates the skin.” Imhausen had been charged with setting up a pharmaceutical plant in Libya but the report in the Weekly said that “the Libyan plant had the capacity to make such designer drugs as MDMA (Ecstasy), but there was no evidence to suggest that the drugs used to assassinate President Zia came from that facility.”

It was no surprise that the joint Pak-US air force team came to the simple conclusion that the most probable cause of the accident was a “criminal act or sabotage perpetuated in the aircraft leading to the crash of the aircraft.” What was surprising, however, was the subsequent effort of both the Pakistan government and the US government to prevent any detailed examination of the evidence or of persons associated with the aircraft, its security, or of possible motives behind the crash. The US CENTCOM and State Department prevented the FBI from coming into the picture but did not appear to investigate the deaths of its own ambassador and general. The fear may have been that of finding incriminating evidence which would implicate a country in the region or even one of the superpowers of the time. A strong footnote to this whole episode was the accusation by the US ambassador to India, John Gunther Dean, a respected foreign service veteran: “Dean thought that plot to rid the world of General Zia bore the hallmarks of Israel, or specifically the Israeli intelligence agency, “Mossad.” Dean came back to Washington and tried to push his theory. He was instead declared mentally incompetent, lost his medical and security clearances, and ended up resigning from the Foreign Service at the age of 62. He was then forbidden from going back to India, sent to his home in Switzerland for six weeks, and only then was he allowed to go to pack his belongings in New Delhi. Even today from his home in Paris, Dean still persists in his suspicions.

An intriguing possibility exists of the Mossad or even the CIA launching a false flag operation to kill Zia, using Pakistani collaborators (the insiders that General Beg alluded to) as witting or unwitting agents. When they ended up killing the US ambassador and a general, there was no other way for the US except to seal the investigation. Even today, as Barbara Crossette (formerly of The New York Times) informed me, the US National Archives has not declassified some 250 pages related to the crash. Why?

The range of suspects was wide. But nothing much was done to pursue them methodically. The matter was handed over to a senior policeman, F.K. Bandial, rather than the ISI or MI to pursue. A judicial inquiry commission was also set up and produced no results. No one appears to have wanted to upset the status quo. When General Zia’s son sought to get the inquiry opened up, he received a letter from Bandial offering to send someone to interview him. Ijazul Haq did not respond to that request. The sons of General Akhtar Abdur Rahman tried pursuing the matter also, but reportedly were dissuaded from doing by their US contacts. The US behaviour was strange in that it tried to present the crash as a mechanical failure of the aircraft to the press, and to paint the joint team’s findings as those of the government of Pakistan alone.

Many questions still remained. Why did the three member judicial commission headed by the Supreme Court Justice Shafi-ur-Rehman, constituted in 1992 by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to probe further into the issue not reach a conclusion? Was it due to the in-camera testimony of Group Captain Zaidi who may have expressed his suspicions and apprehensions? 

The commission was also told by witnesses of a 3 x 2 meter oval hole in the aft cargo door that indicated that the plane may have been hit by a missile; this was not further pursued as no corroborating evidence was found on the outer surface of the hole by the EM Lab. The commission instructed one of the explosives experts to physically examine the door and report if it was possible to discern that the plane was hit by a missile or it crashed because of an explosion within; the cargo door, weighing 2,200 kg was not found among the debris of the plane so securely stored in Multan.

 Why were half-hearted and innocuous efforts made to delay the provision of results of analysis by the EM Lab to the board members? Why was Group Captain Zaheer Zaidi relegated to the position of base commander of the minuscule PAF base Lower Topa immediately after the enquiry, then sent on deputation to the navy and finally retired in 1991?”

Above text by courtesy: Excerpts from “Crossed Swords by Shuja Nawaz OUP London UK 2008

C130 Losses in  Pakistan

  1. August 18, 1965:C-130B 12648 of the Pakistan Air Force was written off after it veered off runway on landing.
  2. July 15, 1966:C-130B 24142 of  Pakistan Air Force (6 Squadron) crashed into mountain in Pakistan. All ten aboard killed.
  3. April 30, 1968:L-100 64145 of the Pakistan Air Force crashed when wing broke in turbulence near Chaklala, Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
  4. July 8, 1969:C-130B 24390 of Pakistan Air Force burned out during refuelling at Islamabad – as of October 1986, hull was on dump at Islamabad.
  5. March 4, 1970:C-130B 24389 of the Pakistan Air Force, (6 Squadron), written off.
  6. February 1, 1979:C-130B 23488 of the Pakistan Air Force jumped chocks during night engine test run, collided with 10687 and was written-off.
  7. February 1, 1979 :C-130E 10687 of the Pakistan Air Force hit by 23488 when it jumped chocks during night engine test run, written-off. Hull at Lahore, June 1981.
  8. August 17, 1988 :C-130H 23494 of the Pakistan Air Force crashed shortly after takeoff from Bahawalpur. All on board were killed including the President of Pakistan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the US ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Lewis Raphel, US General Herbert M. Wassom, and 17 top ranking Pakistan Army personnel.
  9. September 10, 1998:Five crewmen (2 pilots and 3 FEs) were killed and four more were injured when a Pakistan Air Force C-130 went out of control after a brake fire and hit a parked C-130 at the PAF Chaklala base. Both aircraft were written off.

Guide to Hercules construction numbers

The two prototype YC-130s, AF Serial Numbers 53-3396 and 53-3397, were built at the Burbank, California plant, and were given c/ns 1001 and 1002. Production Hercules have all been built at the Lockheed-Marietta, Georgia plant, and began their c/ns at 3001 (USAF 53-3129, still extant at the Air Force Armament Museum). The first prototype, c/n 1001, was disassembled at Warner Robins AFB in October 1960. The second prototype, c/n 1002, was salvaged at Indianapolis, Indiana in April 1962. (Lars Olausson, Lockheed Hercules Production List, 1954–2008, April 2007, page 2.) There have been a small number of c/ns assigned to airframes on order that were not built for various reasons.

Also, C-130A model production ended at c/n 3231, and a new series for the B-model began at C/n 3501, the only time a large block was skipped for an upgraded airframe.

Some 2,500 hulls have been built or are on order. USMC KC-130J BuNo 167111, c/n 5580, delivered December 2006 to VMGR-352, is the 2,300th Hercules. As of 2011, constructor numbers have been projected for anticipated orders through c/n 5800, with projected delivery in 2015 (Olausson, Production List, March 2011).

Role Military transport aircraft
National origin United States
Manufacturer Lockheed
Lockheed Martin
First flight 23 August 1954
Status In service
Primary users United States Air Force
United States Marine Corps
Royal Air Force
Royal Canadian Air Force
Produced 1954–present
Number built Over 2,500 as of 2015
Unit cost C-130E $11.9 million
C-130H $30.1 million
Variants AC-130 Spectre/Spooky
Lockheed DC-130
Lockheed EC-130
Lockheed HC-130
Lockheed Martin KC-130
Lockheed LC-130
Lockheed MC-130
Lockheed WC-130
Lockheed L-100 Hercules
Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules

In the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, as a desperate measure the No. 6 Transport Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force modified its entire small fleet of C-130Bs for use as heavy bombers, capable of carrying up to 20,000 lb (9,072 kg) of bombs on pallets. These improvised bombers were used to hit Indian targets such as bridges, heavy artillery positions, tank formations and troop concentrations. Some C-130s even flew with anti-aircraft guns fitted on their ramp, apparently shooting down some 17 aircraft and damaging 16 others.




General characteristics


  • Maximum speed:320 knots (366 mph, 592 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,060 m)
  • Cruise speed:292 kts (336 mph, 540 km/h)
  • Range:2,050 nmi (2,360 mi, 3,800 km)
  • Service ceiling:33,000 ft (10,060 m) empty; 23,000 ft (7,077 m) with 42,000 pounds (19,090 kilograms) payload
  • Rate of climb:1,830 ft/min (9.3 m/s)
  • Takeoff distance:3,586 ft (1,093 m) at 155,000 lb (70,300 kg) max gross weight; 1,400 ft (427 m) at 80,000 lb (36,300 kg) gross weight.

Specification drawing courtesy by Jetijones – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


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