AIR COMMODORE MITTY MASUD; AS I KNEW HIM



By Usman Sadiq

 

Mitty Masud or Air Commodore (pronounced more affectionately as aircumdore) was larger than life and I really don’t know where to start. The reason I am writing about him is that I would like to share an aspect of his post PAF life which perhaps very few would have experienced and shared with him. To us young aspiring civilian pilots he was the ultimate instructor. For those of us who had more a passion for flying than just our CPL it was a matter of honor, pride & a bit of glamour to be able to fly with him. One couldn’t just fly with him…one had to be taken in by him. I used the good offices of my mother’s chacha and a very good friend of his Air Commodore (Retd) Mir Riffat Mehmood to put in a word for me.

What follows is not to make him look like a hard man. On the contrary he was a true man, down to earth and confident to the end that people thought he was arrogant. Those of us who were his students doted on him but dare not ever be overly friendly. The things that are mentioned are just some of the things I remember and there were lighter moments too. It is with great respect for him that I write this. One must remember that we were about eighteen or nineteen and it is the age when one feels invincible and the things that one remembers are the ones which discipline you and sort of restrain you. There are 3 men that I attribute to what I am today. Mitty Sahab is one of them.

I was very excited to meet him that day at the Rawalpindi Flying Club (RFC) and after a very brief introduction his opening line was, “Look do you really want to learn flying? If you are not sure don’t waste your parent’s money and my time. I consider aviators supermen. Do you think you are one? In time I can make a monkey fly an aircraft but the only difference is going to be in an emergency the monkey won’t be able to do anything but hopefully you will, so pay very close attention to procedure and especially emergency procedures.” The effect of that conversation was sobering and all the glamour went out of the window. 25 years hence I can still rattle of the emergency procedures like a parrot.

We had to be ready for his sortie at 0700 hours regardless of the weather. His instructions were simple & explicit. “Be here for a 0700 take off. Have the aircraft out at 0645 hours. Start up at 0650 run up till 0700 and if I am not there till 0705 switch off the engine and go home for the day.” In all my flying training days with him it happened just once. We could set our watches by him. 0655 and his sky blue VW would be visible roaring down from the E gate. Once in a while he came on his son’s motorcycle too and I have an incident for that one which I have kept for the closing.

Those of us who had motorcycles knew what it was like to come from Peshawar Road or Islamabad in a winter dawn on a good day and driving rain on bad one. Normally there would be two of us coming in the morning just incase one of us failed to show up on time. God Bless Chaudhry Mazhar and Raja Rauf who would admonish us for being late in a language better understood by all and then some!

I remember one particular winter day when my bike wouldn’t start and I used public transport to come to RFC. I was about a 100 meters from the hanger when the Air Commodore whizzed past but not before a stare down. Needless to say that I lost my scheduled sortie but all was not lost. I was told to wait at the taxi track. The exercise for the day was short field landings with random engine failures thrown in. He passed by every few minutes. My turn came in the end after 2 hours and no doubt the wait was my dressing down for the day. I was never late again!

Flying with him in summers was not as demanding as flying with him in Islamabad winters. There was a strict code that he would only take 3 students at any time and he always took early morning sorties. Each sortie normally lasted one hour and he expected his next student to be waiting along the taxi way (not the hanger mind you) so that he didn’t have to waste 10 minutes in turning around. We had to be there 15 minutes before his ETA. Once in a while the sortie ended early and the student’s sullen expression said it all. Coming back to the winter part, we all wore thick jackets in that cold but he would make us take off our jackets before we sat in the aircraft and made us fly in our sweaters only. His reason? We had come to learn flying and not sit in a drawing room. The warmer you are the less alert you will be therefore we always had our fresh air vents open no matter what altitude we were at. According to him if we didn’t feel the sweat on our backs by the time we landed we had wasted the day, our parent’s money and his time. We had our own version to the sweat being felt in other places!

There were amusing moments too like the one when somebody at the Airport Security Force made a mistake about the entry points in his entry pass. It mentioned that he could come through the E gate but his car could only go through the S gate if I remember correctly. There was all hell to pay that day and he was pushing them to explain what formula would make him and his car reach the RFC together from different gates. Once it was over and he was in the hanger he had a good laugh about it himself.

Inside the cockpit the atmosphere was always very professional and he would take over the flight controls after about 20 minutes to give us a breather for a couple of minutes or so. However we would look forward to the end of the sortie so that we could talk to him about real flying.

Apart from having a passion for flying I was also interested in the history of aviation especially the Second World War, its aviators & aircraft. We would talk about them if there was time. It was on his insistence that I made the effort to meet two of the most famous air aces of WWII, Adolf Galland of the Luftwaffe & Douglas Bader; the legless ace of the RAF during a visit to Europe &UK.

Douglas Bader was famous for his exploits in the air and on the ground but there was one manoeuvre he had been unsuccessful with; performing a perfect formation loop with 12 aircraft, line abreast. When I met this great ace I mentioned that the PAF had done it with 16 Sabres in Diamond formation which is far more difficult to which he replied yes and he knew of the formation leader who did it. It is difficult to explain the high I had when I told him that the same gentleman is my instructor. Bader wanted to know more about him and asked me to introduce him to Mitty Masud when he passed through Pakistan next. Bader was flying for Shell and used Karachi as a stopover for their flights to Borneo. He used to billet at the Sindh Club. Unfortunately that was not to happen. Bader left Shell soon after and never came this way again.

The strange part is, I could never muster enough courage during my training days to tell Mitty Sahab the details of the meeting with Bader and how Bader knew of him and that I had been asked to arrange a meeting between the two. It was a year after I had finished flying that I managed to tell him and that too in a letter. Why? Because he was just that sort of a man. Call it awe or respect; you could talk to him about anything under the sun but you couldn’t praise him or say anything to him that would make him stand above the rest. Hence I thought if I mentioned the Bader episode he would term it as ‘buttering’ or chamcha geeri; so to speak.

Post flying I kept in touch with him and when he was writing The Story of the PAF we often discussed the book and its content. When it was done he came to take delivery of the first printing in Lahore and left a copy of it for me with my father in law; Brig Bashir Ahmad, also a fan of his. The book is extremely well detailed and a lot of effort must have gone into it. Mitty Sahab does not appear to have taken credit for it anywhere.  I recall writing to the then Air Chief about it and got a reply from him saying that Mitty Sahab had himself not wanted to take credit for this. I don’t want to use the word modest for him because it isn’t the right word. I wish I could describe what I mean.

My father was in the army and for most part during my training for the CPL and later for the AFI rating he was stationed in Abbottabad. I would go there on some weekends. Mitty Sahab’s house was very close to ours on a hill on Hill Road behind the old British cemetery.  It was without doubt one of the most beautiful houses there. It had a green roof with angled windows which he had brought all the way from Germany and an attic; very alpine, plus a fantastic view of Thandiani across the valley. A couple of times I took the liberty to invite myself and we sat on the veranda and chatted for a long time. He always thought F.S. Hussain or FS as he called him was undoubtedly one of the best pilots PAF ever had.

Once in the late 80s; perhaps 1986, I got a call from him to attend his birthday party in Abbottabad. For some reason he had gotten a notion that this was his last birthday so he thought he might as well call all his friends and have a real party. I couldn’t make it as a very dear friend was getting married the same day and we had to travel to Nowshera and back. I regret not being able to make it to the party to this day. I am glad to report that his notion was quite misplaced by almost two decades!

In closing I would like to narrate the incident that so changed the way that I thought about leadership. One very wet and cold January morning 3 of us were huddled together around the one electric heater in the hanger trying to get the cold out of our bodies after our respective bike rides. Cloud ceiling was high enough for VFR and with intermittent drizzle & rain and we doubted if all three of us would be able to complete our sorties. ATC had warned us of the closing weather.

This is before the air commodore’s expected arrival at 0645. The aircraft was about to be taken out for the run up when in came Mitty Sahab on a motorbike. Still sitting on the bike at the mouth of the hanger he announced that he will not be flying that day as he had a cold and fever. There is silence in the hanger. A lesson in leadership has just been taught. When we said he should have told us on the phone and needn’t have come here himself in this rain. The answer was what Mitty Sahab was all about. He said, “If you chaps can come here on a day like this on your bikes it is only fair that I come here myself to tell you that there will be no flying.” With that he just turned his bike around and disappeared in the drizzle…