Few Snapshots from our Aviation History

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Few Snapshots from our Aviation History, Dr. Ali Jan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Monday, August 31 2009 (http://www.khyber.org)

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Few Snapshots from our Aviation History

Dr. Ali Jan

Publishing Date: Monday, August 31 2009

Aerodrome at Dakka Airport (1919)

On 17 December 1903, Wilbur Wright became the first man in history to fly an aeroplane in North Carolina in the US. On this day, exactly a century ago, he was able to fly his machine contraption a few feet above ground for only some hundred yards. Thus started a race towards the skies that would launch man on the moon six decades later.

Although the early flying enthusiasts were mainly the Americans, French, Germans, Dutch and the Englishmen, it is said that the first Indian, or perhaps Asian, to procure airplanes was the then young Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh who had a keen interest in aviation. The Maharaja sent his Chief Engineer to Europe for an on-the-spot study and then ordered three aeroplanes including a Bleriot monoplane and Farman biplanes, which arrived in the Punjab in December 1910.

A Handley Page V/1500 can be regarded as the first practical strategic bomber. Although it was specifically designed to mount long-distance attacks on Germans during the WW1 from bases inside Europe, its later supply and production decreased owing to the falls in demand as the Great War drew to a close. In spite of this, of the initial four planes that were rolled out from the factory one was used to record two historic events that concern our region and are worth recalling on the occasion of the centenary of the maiden flight.

On 13 December 1918 the bomber, powered by four Rolls-Royce engines, flown by Sqn Ldr A C S Maclaren, Lt R Halley with Brig Gen N D K McEwan made its first ever 'through-flight' from England to India. Taking off from Britain the aircraft flew via Rome, Malta, Cairo, Baghdad and finally to Karachi, which it reached on 30th December.

Another momentous mission was now in store for the large V/1500. Within six months of its arrival in the subcontinent in May 1919, King Amanullah of Afghanistan had declared war on the British India and the Afghans seized a large tract of land near the historic Khyber Pass. The battles and skirmishes that ensued are remembered in history as the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919.

BE2C Biplanes in Dakka Airfield

Confronted by a bitter adversary in the mountainous and difficult terrain of Dakka - Khyber Pass, the British ordered 5 squadrons of RAF into action against the Afghan hill-tribes. A makeshift airfield was laid out near Dakka village. The 1st Yorkshires Green Howards assisted in providing the hanger and other facilities on the ground. The squadrons comprised of BE2C biplanes, Bristol F2B's, DeHaviland DH9A's and DeHaviland DH-bombers that were specially flown in to carry out raids on the tribes. This was the first recorded aerial bombardment campaign over Afghanistan in history.

One flying officer wrote: "Their (Afghans) rifle fire...was uncomfortably like that of a machine-gun, and almost as effective." After days of relentless attacks on the tribes, and with little success in breaking the Afghan spirit, the famed V/1500 was called into action and ordered to bomb the royal Palace in Kabul. On 24 May 1919, a lone plane flown by Captain Robert "Jock" Halley appeared on the Kabul sky. After circling for a while it hovered above the royal palace and dropped its entire ammunition load that consisted of four large sized bombs. Although the bombing itself did little physical damage but it had a great psychological impact on the citizens - the women of the royal harem rushed on to the streets in terror - and in a few days King Amanullah had called a truce. Hence, one could draw a useful parable in the decisiveness of airpower even 82 years before the American air strikes that helped in ousting the Taliban began.

Hurricane IIB's on Miranshah Airfield (1943)

Lack of documentary evidence supports the view that not much limitations or controls on aerial bombing were in force at the time. The early air policing operations and bombing of towns and cities (including Jalalabad and Kabul etc) was undertaken without there having been much discussion. The idea was simply to get the tribesmen to come to terms. The historic V/1500 bombing raid over Kabul does not seem to have been sanctioned by the central command or the government and may have been a desperate undertaking by the RAF acting independently.

About the full potential of the aeroplane, one pilot who had participated in campaigns against the Mahsud tribes in 1920 was of the opinion that the use of aircraft had "not been all that it might have." (RAF Staff College's annual journal) There was no concept yet of using aircraft as ambulances to fly out the wounded even though one of the pilots suggested it was very practicable. This was obviously a time of experimentation, testing and trial of the air force and its entire capabilities.

My friend Carlo Cristofori informs me that two other aviation-related episodes of note occurred in the following years: One, during the Afghan civil war in 1929, the RAF organized the mass evacuation by air of some 500-odd foreign nationals from Kabul to Peshawar. This is believed to have been the first mass airlift in history, and was the subject of a book by Anne Baker: "Wings over Kabul: The First Airlift". (London, 1975) Second, when civil war broke out in Afghanistan at that time, the famous desert explorer and Arab guerrilla leader, Col. T.E. Lawrence, known as "Lawrence of Arabia", who had changed his name to T.E. Shaw and disappeared from public view by becoming an anonymous RAF private, was actually stationed at the RAF base in Miranshah, NWFP. This became known to the press and a scandal broke out as he was accused of being covertly responsible for the uprising against King Amanullah of Afghanistan, so he had to be transferred back to Britain with some precipitation.

Although the environment of the North-Western Frontier was generally considered "inhospitable for flying" and major limitations were often cited as "ferocious dust storms, air turbulence and inability to reach desired heights in the high mountains". Nevertheless, in later years the RAF was extensively engaged in internal security flights and also used airpower to support ground troops in quenching rebellious uprisings in several parts of the Frontier from time to time. Moreover, the airstrips of Peshawar, Risalpur, Kohat, Bannu, Miranshah etc were used regularly for flying reconnaissance, resupply and training missions.

Some of the elderly villagers from the British Raj days remember RAF aeroplanes landing unexpectedly in their midst, for instance one of whom I met recounted how the bi-planes often used to land in open flat spaces such as the fields around Bloomfield Road (now Garrison park area in Shami Road) in Peshawar. He recollected that when he was a child he would run towards any plane landing near his village in Hasan Garai and watched in awe at the sight of the 'perange' (European) stepping out.

The V-1500

Finally, before I conclude this piece about our own milestones in aviation history, let me turn my focus from the Frontier region and narrate an interesting account about the first Indian pilots to fly solo from England to India. The following piece was sent by an acquaintance of mine that conveys a strong sense of nostalgia and may give some idea to the reader about the pioneering spirit of early aviators:

Another important landmark in India's tryst with aviation was when, in November 1929, the Aga Khan offered, through the Royal Aero Club, a special prize of £500 "It must be a solo flight completed within six weeks from the date of starting. The Prize will remain open for one year from January 1930". Three contestants entered. They were an enthusiastic JRD Tata (who later founded Tata Airlines, forerunner of Air India and was to become a pillar of the Tata Group). Man Mohan Singh, a civil engineer graduating from Bristol who had learnt to fly in England, and a young Aspy Merwan Engineer (later to be Chief of the Indian Air Force). Flying in single engined, light aeroplanes with simple instruments and without radio aids, the three adventurous young men set out on their long journey with faith and hope. Man Mohan Singh took off from Croydon airport, south of London, in a Gypsy Moth which he called "Miss India", and Aspy Engineer followed the same route while JRD Tata, also in a Gypsy Moth, started his journey in the reverse direction. After Croydon, Man Mohan Singh flew on to Lympne, Le Bourget (Paris), Dijon, Marseilles, Rome , Naples Catania, Tripoli and Sirle. From Gaza, he flew eastwards to India, with young Aspy Engineer trailing a day behind. Man Mohan Singh finally landed at Drigh Road, Karachi on 12 May, 1930, thus winning the historic air race. Aspy Engineer landed the next day and although he was second, owing to a technicality, was eventually declared the winner which Singh accepted heartily. Even though Aspy was awarded the Aga Khan prize, Man Mohan Singh was richly honoured by the Parsi community at Bombay for his magnanimous gesture.

By Dr. Ali Jan

The writer is a member of Sarhad Conservation Network - SCN; an advocacy group concerned with the environment, culture and heritage of NWFP)


  1. V/1500 used in the historic raid over Kabul - 1919
  2. Makeshift aerodrome at Dakka - Khyber Pass 1919
  3. BE2C bi-planes with Khyber hills in background - 1919
  4. Hurricane IIB's on Miranshah airfield - 1943


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Few Snapshots from our Aviation History, Dr. Ali Jan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Monday, August 31 2009 (http://www.khyber.org)