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"A cross section of Pakistan's Army Aviation"
Qasim Army Aviation base - a cross section of Pakistan's Army Aviation
Written by & courtesy of Eddy de Kruijff and Fred Willemsen
Pakistan has experienced difficult times since September 11th, 2001. Militarily, India to the east, has remained to be Pakistan's traditional foe with armed forces numerically superior to Pakistan's. Moreover, for the past year the Afghan border to the west has had to be guarded more vigilantly than before because of the War on Terrorism. Politically, the hold on power by General Musharraf was extended by another five years after a referendum on April 30th. The General, who has had to walk on a political tightrope since September 11th, has so far managed to allay fears of Islamic militant trouble spreading to Pakistan and simultaneously has given vocal and practical support to US and Coalition anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan using Pakistani airspace and bases.
It was in this light that the Pakistani army presented its air base near Rawalpindi to the prying and roving eyes of these reporters. Bordering the urban areas of Rawalpindi to the south-"The base was well outside the town when it was built", says Major Farooq Virk-is called Qasim Army Aviation Base, but used to be known as Dhamial Camp, which is the general geographical area. With a 6700-foot runway it can handle a wide variety of aircraft and, of course, helicopters.
Whereas at many western air bases one can find only one or two types of aircraft, at Qasim there are six types of fixed-wing aircraft and six types of helicopters from a wide variety of sources: France, Russia, China, the US and Pakistan itself. Qasim is one of the most important army aviation bases providing maintenance for key elements of aviation elements of the army.
Situated close to the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, Qasim houses VVIP Flight facilities equipped with a Cessna Citation V, a Beech (now Raytheon) King Air 200 and three Puma helicopters. The Citation is for the sole use of the President who, for security reasons, often uses the nearby air force base at Chaklala, which shares runways with Islamabad's international airport. The Citation is equipped with five radar-warning receivers: two at the tail, two alongside the nose and another astride the nose. Passive defence is in the shape of flares; two dispensers are fitted below the engines.
No.13 army aviation squadron provides fixed-wing transport with four Chinese-built Y-12s. The Y-12 can seat 17 passengers and is so rugged that according to one of its pilots "….it can land virtually anywhere. It's astonishing that not many more are sold." No. 13 squadron also operates a pair of Aero Commanders (one series 690C and one series 840) used for high-altitude mapping. The squadron also operates a number of Mushshaks, for a variety of purposes such as liaison, continuation flying, artillery spotting and forward air control.
A Cessna 421C for liaison completes No. 13 squadron's inventory.
Also present at Qasim is a squadron of Puma helicopters. These helicopters represent some of the oldest Pumas around: as early as 1976 was delivery started of 32 SA330Ls, less than half of which equip No. 21 army aviation squadron at Qasim. Most of the other Pumas can be found at Multan and some at Shahra-e-Faisal. The Puma is used as an assault and medium-lift platform. Workshop 503 at Qasim provides maintenance for all of the army's Pumas.
The same workshop is also responsible for the flying state of the army's dozen Mi-17VM helicopters. The Mi-17 was delivered from May 1996 from the factory in Astrakhan. Contrary to what is commonly believed the Mi-17 does not replace or supplement the Mi-8 in the Pakistan army as the latter already went out of service in 1986. Qasim houses No. 27 army aviation squadron Kingbirds, which flies half a dozen Mi-17s. No. 4 army aviation squadron Gallants based at Quetta operates the other half.
Most rookie army pilots receive their initial flying training at the Army Aviation School at Qasim. During a period of 44 weeks they fly 200 hours on the Mushshak, the Pakistani licence-built SAAB MFI-17B Supporter, after which they are streamed into fixed-wing or rotary classes.
One of the proudest squadrons on base, No. 8 army aviation squadron, also operates a small number of Mushshaks as well as a single Alouette III for liaison. "This is the most decorated unit in Pakistani army aviation", says the unit's C/O, Major Parveez. The type that has yielded the unit so many decorations and citations is the Lama. The light but powerful Lama, which can be compared to a spartan Alouette III, allows No. 8 squadron to operate in the marginal mountainous conditions of the Kashmir, where the Pakistani army faces the Indian army on the highest military positions found worldwide. Major Parveez: "The Lama is the highest-flying helicopter in the world. It has the distinction of having flown up to 28,000 feet. Normally we don't get that high. Still, we do fly some 1,500 hours per year in mountainous conditions. We even have two officers who have flown over 1,000 hours at over 6,000 metres. After all, the highest Pakistani defensive position is at 6,000 metres."
Many daring rescues have been made of mountaineers at very high altitude, but also the flights in the support of the garrison along the disputed Kashmir border have not been without danger. This yielded the unit three of the highest distinction given in peacetime, the Sitara-e-Jurat, comparable to the Military Cross. But the squadron also had to mourn some deaths, like on 1 August 1992 when a Lama crew perished in white-out conditions on the Siachen Glacier. Another crew died when Indian forces shot down a Lama on 31 October 1995. They were given the distinction posthumously. Major Parveez: "Most citations and distinctions were won by crew flying the Lama. Of the 15 distinctions won by 8 squadron just two were won by Alouette crews."
New Lama pilots should have at least 500 hours under their belts. They are initially cleared to fly in mountainous conditions up to 2,000 metres. Accompanied by a more experienced pilot he (there are no female pilots) is then trained to fly up to 3,000 metres and so on. Skardu, in the foothills of K2, the second-highest mountain on this planet, is a forward air base for No. 8 squadron Lamas.
Many questions were answered during our visit to Qasim, some questions-like numbers delivered, disposition of aircraft-remained unanswered. The Pakistan army knows it is at a crossroads again with potential for unrest at two fronts, but at the same time possibilities for increased recognition from much of the world.