OPINION

DALBANDIN & CHAGHAI
- MEMORIES OF AN EARLIER VISIT

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Group Capt SULTAN M HALI visited the area of Pakistan's nuclear blasts as far back as 22 years ago. His recollections make fascinating reading

May 28th, 1998 has become an important day for Pakistan. As the news of Pakistan's successful nuclear tests was flashed by media throughout the world, two names gained prominence: Chaghai Mountain and the airstrip of Dalbandin. As the nation became euphoric over this historic event, I was taken back in time to recall an earlier visit to these historical places. Dalbandin of today is a far cry from what it was when duty and fate first brought me to this airstrip in 1976. Located 30 kms south of the Chaghai Mountain, nestled among the sand dunes, Dalbandin presented a forlorn picture. I had no realization that one day this forsaken and forgotten strip would attract international attention. That fateful day on 11th December, 1976, a Canadian pilot and I landed on this strip for a recce visit. We were to set camp at Dalbandin for six months. I had been attached to the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) to fly with Canadian set of aircrew, commissioned to conduct aeromagnetic survey of Sindh and Balochistan on an Aero Commander B-500 aircraft under the aegis of the Colombo Plan.

Work had already commenced in September, 1976, and one of my colleagues had been attached with the team for two months. When I joined them at Sukkur, the survey of Southern Balochistan was already complete. On landing at Sukkur, I was told that my accommodation would be at the Inter Pak Inn. My colleague, whom I was replacing, was in a hurry to depart. I urged him to stay a little longer and brief me on the project. He briefed me but he wouldn't stay an hour extra. I had been told in the Squadron that I was being sent on a paid holiday. What a 'holiday' it turned out! The project entailed flying a mosaic pattern of tracks about 25 kms long and half a kilometer apart and only 300 meters above ground level. Each sortie would be about eight hours a day with no Sundays or holidays. Maximum error allowed was 15 meters each side of the track. Any mission with an error had to be re-flown. The aircraft was fitted with an underbelly camera and a magnetometer attached to the tail. The camera would be turned on once we reached the area to be surveyed and the magnetometer would tick away recording the magnetic anomalies of the ground below. Later, the results of the camera print and magnetic recording would be interpreted through computers to prepare maps depicting the presence of minerals, their concentration and depth below the surface. During the mission the pilot concentrated on maintaining the accuracy of the tract made good, while a mag/camera operator would be switching the equipment on and taking care of the miles of graph sheets recording the magnetic readings. My job was to navigate to and back from the designated area of survey and to ensure they did not over-fly any sensitive area and keep the camera off while flying in the vicinity of such installations. Maintaining the tracks of the mosaic was hard work for the pilot and he remained totally absorbed while it would become terribly boring for me. the close proximity of the tracks would make it appear that the scenery was static specially because we were generally flying over desert or rocky terrain with little or no variations. To make matters worse, since we were flying only 300 metres above the ground, after about 10 a.m, turbulence would start and keep getting worse. As I had little else to do while flying, except watching the cockpit instruments inside or view the same scenery outside, I used to start feeling sick and by the time we landed, I would have a splitting headache. To avoid turbulence, we used to get airborne at six every morning. It now dawned on me why my colleague had been in a hurry to depart from Sukkur. He did me one favour though, on his return to the Squadron, he recommended that the task required at least two PAF officers. Thus after a couple of weeks, another officer joined me but the routine was such that we would only meet at dinner time.

Sukkur is a very big city and moments of leisure, though few and far between, could be spent visiting the city or taking walks along the Rohri Canal. The Canadians were very serious about their work and although they had only one aircraft technician with them, yet we never lost a single day's flying because of technical problems.

Time at Sukkur passed rather quickly despite the monotony of the work. The Canadians were quite comfortable at the Inter Pak Inn and I had little or no inkling of the difficult days ahead. As mentioned in the earlier paragraphs, on 11 December, after completing our survey of the day, we decided to carry out a recce of Dalbandin Airport as this was to be our abode for the next couple of months. We located the airstrip from an altitude but as we made the approach for landing, the strip disappeared! Its outlines were visible only from a height but as we came lower, the sand dunes and sand collected on top of the runway obscured it from our view. We climbed up again, re-located the airfield, set visual references and attempted to land again. It was difficult to find a clear patch to put the aircraft down but we managed to do so. After landing, it was clear that we could not take off again without clearing the sand from the runway. There was no ATC, no airfield staff, just some curious onlookers and children. The status of Dalbandin was in true sense a disused airfield. Since we had come unannounced the GSP had not positioned any transport either. We walked to the Dalbandin town and asked if any one had a tractor which we could borrow. To our dismay, we were told that the town did not have a single tractor but friendly inhabitants of Dalbandin loaned us the next best thing, two bullocks and a wooden plank. We tied the wooden plank behind the bullocks and tried to clear the sand dunes. By now quite a crowd had gathered to watch these crazy men in their flying machine. We had to work fast to take off before sunset since none of us was prepared to spend a night at Dalbandin, at least not yet.

Preparations to move to Dalbandin were made and GSP was requested to have the airfield cleared as far as possible and make adequate preparations for boarding and lodging of the Canadians and myself. Meanwhile, my PAF companion had departed after only four weeks. His replacement also left before we set out for Dalbandin because he had to go on a foreign trip. It was now left for me to continue the vigil alone. We decided to move to Quetta first, operate a few days from there and go to Dalbandin when it was fit for operations and the rest of the team and ground equipment had been positioned there.

On 20th December 1976, we finally reached Dalbandin. GSP had acquired a PWD rest house for our stay. They Canadians had the larger portion of it. Two rooms were reserved for visiting GSP officials while I had a room to myself. The rest house was of pre-partition vintage and in quite a dilapidated condition. There was no Mess. GSP loaned me the facility of a cook while another cook was placed at the disposal of the Canadians but his services were declined by them and they decided to live off canned food. In my case, I had to provide provisions to the cook or pay him to purchase them. Provisions were in short supply. Fresh vegetables were fresh only on Wednesdays because that was when the Quetta-Zahidan weekly train passed. Meat was to be had only on Fridays when an old animal, either a camel or ox was slaughtered and sold to customers on first come first served basis. Local water was brackish and unfit for drinking. Fresh drinking water was available only when the Quetta-Zahidan train passed that way. However, on request, GSP also started getting drinking water in bowsers on weekly basis from Quetta.

Dust storms were frequent and delays would occur in getting airborne. The Canadians started getting edgy and restless. Tempers would flare up at minor matters. I discovered that out of the two pilots, one was a British Canadian while the other was French. Similarly, the rest of the technical crew was also of different ethnic backgrounds and their traditional animosity and rivalry now became apparent under these adverse circumstances. I was forced to assume the inadvertent role of peace-maker, too. It was quite a task to keep the warring factions apart since the French Canadian pilot had been in a number of brawls earlier: had a deep scar on his face and carried a hunting knife which he would pull out at the slightest provocation. The Canadians were critical of everything; the spiders and lizards, the scorpion and occasional snakes. I humoured them that they must appreciate the local wild life. To their frequent grumbling and complaint of sand everywhere, my reply would be that they should be thankful that we were living on the world's largest sea-beach; the sea was only 800 kms away. I would add that the sea was once just close by but one day it got so lonely that the tide went out and never came back. I knew that my wry humour wouldn't work for long so to keep them occupied, we had a clay badminton and tennis court prepared along with a volleyball court. The Canadians now had something to do in their spare time and their squabbles decreased. The elite of the town which included the local school headmaster, the assistant bank manager (the branch wasn't large enough to justify a full fledged manager), Assistant Commissioner Chaghai, who would visit Dalbandin frequently and the Railway Station Master approached me to join the so-called sports club. On the principle of the more the merrier, I permitted them and slowly a social life began to develop at Dalbandin.

When Christmas came, my Canadian friends told me that they would fly even on Christmas Day. To celebrate Christmas dinner, they asked for my help in procuring provisions from Karachi. I readily agreed since it would be a welcome break for me. At Karachi, with their usual provisions, they also asked me to help them buy two turkeys for Christmas dinner. As luck would have it, we couldn't find any turkeys but decided to make do with guinea fowls instead.

A day before Christmas, the British Canadian pilot was joined by his wife. Although she was in her early fifties, yet all the Canadians welcomed a member of the fairer sex in their midst. Christmas dinner was roast guinea fowl and a few other delicacies. Music was set up and soon they were all dancing. A new trouble now cropped up. Everyone wanted to dance with the only lady present. The French Canadian pilot, when rebuffed his turn to dance with the Lady, pulled out his hunting knife as usual and the situation would have turned nasty if I hadn't intervened. The party broke up and peace returned to our camp only when the visiting lady departed for home.

Dalbandin airstrip fascinated me very much. This airfield had been constructed in 1935. Initially, its role was to serve as a satellite of Samungli Air Base at Quetta. During the Second World War, it was made operationally ready by RAF to meet a possible Russian invasion through Iran. Each time we landed there, I was attracted by a group of broken down Nissan huts located near the airfield.

One day I decided to explore them. As I went closer, I was saddened to see their dilapidated state. I was day-dreaming of the hustle bustle and activity of the RAF Wapitis and Hurricane aircraft which were once housed here. How air and ground crew must have busied themselves in their daily chores? Suddenly I was rudely shaken from my thoughts by a snarling shout. A big burly old Baluch stood barring my way. He scared me out of my wits and wanted to know why I was trespassing. Gathering my composure, I inquired about the ownership of the property. I received a pleasant surprise when he told me that it belonged to Pakistan Air Force. I assured him that I too, was an officer of the Pakistan Air Force and wouldn't steal anything —anyway there wasn't anything worth taking even for a souvenir.

At this he turned mellow and informed me that his name was Bulgak and he had been performing duties of a Chaukidar since the Second World War. This made the whole scene even more fascinating. On subsequent visits, in his broken Urdu he would narrate enthralling tales of the past. One day he shyly informed me that he used to receive his pay from PAF Base Samungli but for the last few months he had received no pay and if I would help him have it restored. I promised to inquire into it on my next visit to Quetta.

Dalbandin of today is in stark contrast to what I left it in 1977. After the Airport was taken over by CAA in 1985, it received a well-deserved face lift. It is now equipped with modern navigational aids, air traffic control facilities, passenger terminals and more important, a paved runway.

One day while flying, I heard RT calls of a passing PAF C-130. The first since our arrival at Dalbandin. I was so excited to hear the voice of my long lost comrades that I asked them to change over to a manual frequency for a chit-chat. To my horror, the voice of the Captain which greeted me happened to be our Squadron Commander. After exchanging curt pleasantries, he changed over. Soon after this episode, I was recalled to the Squadron.

The project wasn't over yet but I was replaced by another officer who stayed on for the remaining two months. As the project wound up, one day I received a call in the Squadron Crew Room. The telephone exchange informed me that it was a foreigner. On his return trip to Canada, the British Canadian pilot decided to route through Islamabad just to say hello to me. The situation was quite different now since under normal circumstances, an officer cannot communicate with a foreigner. I took special permission from our Base Commander. Since my Canadian friend was staying for a few hours only, I hosted him for lunch at a local restaurant. That was my last contact with the Canadians but each time an official announcement is made about the discovery of any mineral in Balochistan or Sindh, I have a bit of personal satisfaction. Perhaps I contributed to this find.

Everytime we used to fly past Chaghai Mountain, it filled me with a premonition that one day it would be famous. But it was a mistaken premonition. Because of the black colour of the mountain and the excited ticking of the Magnetometer, I had assumed that the mountain was full of iron ore and its fame would come as a mineral source. Destiny had reserved a totally different role for it. My premonition wasn't misplaced. Treasures much more precious than the iron ore made themselves visible from the depths of Chaghai Mountain.

May 28th 1998's photographic images of Chaghai Mountain's turning golden and then white during the nuclear explosion symbolise our finest hour.

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