A recollection of the first term or the ‘boot camp’ phase of cadets' training, written on the 40th anniversary of enlistment of 60th GD (P) Course in the PAF.
19 March 1973. Having reported at PAF Base Lower Topa in the Murree Hills a day late due to a family commitment, I was relieved to know that the fury of the storm that had been unleashed on the new arrivals of 60th GD (P) Course, had subsided. My ‘welcome’ somehow got waived off as the rest of the course had been ragged so savagely the previous night, that the seniors thought it prudent to let everyone rest, lest the Sick Quarters filled up beyond the limited capacity.
Another agreeable development was that I, along with another course-mate Inamullah, was put up in a room along with two seniors of 51st Non-GD Course, a make-shift arrangement which providentially turned permanent and, provided a benevolent cover from the prowling seniors. We both made good friends and, were able to learn the ropes much faster than the rest. I had been seasoned to the bones at Cadet College Hasanabdal, where dodging and malingering had been practiced to perfection, along with the usual studies and sports, spread over an exciting five years. Inam had already been a capable radar technician in the PAF and knew how to avoid imminent threats from all quarters. Coupled with unwitting help from our room-mates and, given our backgrounds, we were the smartest on the street, as it were.
The rest of our course was huddled up in several dormitories, each packed to capacity with about a dozen cadets. The pin drop silence in the dorms after lights-out was broken by heart-rending sobs, so we learnt. In our own room, one of the seniors by the name of Sial would break into a guttural aria while half asleep, which went: “I like drilllllllll.” That is when we discovered that he had been roughed up out of his senses by the senior-most cadets of 59th GD (P), and it also confirmed our apprehension that we had a long way to go up the multi-tiered seniority ladder.
We got an early lesson in flowery military lingo when one of our course-mates who had picked up a slight limp due to the previous night’s ragging, was shouted at by the seniors for ‘limping like a hag’; it got us wondering how a case of orthopaedics could be linked to the oldest profession with such facility! Unknown to us in the first few days was this fellow’s somewhat self-conscious habit of covering his lips with his hand when laughing – complete with the little finger tipped up – which had been noted by a sharp-eyed senior, thus the epithet.
While it would take a few more days to break us mentally, we made a quick and clean break from our physical selves after our first haircuts. The barbers administered the infamous ‘zero cut’ at the rate of about three minutes per head, on the average. Those with moustaches had to submit to a screeching clean shave, and the worst hit were the couple of Pathan cadets who would have given anything for preserving their man-pride. One last look at the mirror revealed that our eyebrows now looked frighteningly hairy on our bald-as-a-coot visages. Shuffling over heaps of shorn black locks in the barber shop, we rushed for a quick bath, to be in time for an ‘assembly’ for haircut inspection.
“You want to be fighter pilots? Have you seen your bloody heads? You will not be allowed to disgrace the flying helmets,” someone shouted. Amidst loud laughter, the seniors reminded us that we were not even fit to be chaabri-walas (hawkers). “Ayuk, show them the ‘Indian’ position,” shouted Hasan Rizvi, the handsome and smart Wing Under Officer. Our curiously named course-mate, Ayuk Elburz, had come from PAF College Sargodha, and was familiar with some of the prevalent punishments. He fell out of the flight for a demo, went down for what seemed like push-ups and rested his head on the pavement while folding his hands behind his back. We watched in horror as his widespread toes and his freshly shorn head were all that supported his stout frame. “Open order march and get to Indian,” came the loud and clear orders to the rest of us. A shuffle of boots was the last that was heard, before all 43 of us fell to the ground in the weirdly prostrate posture. Rizvi was supervising the assembly with such a fluent flow of invectives that everyone in attendance was in utter awe. “You better learn to be men, you shameless sissies … this is just the beginning,” he shrieked at us, going almost hoarse.
Just to be sure that the road gravel did not dig into our foreheads, Rizvi decided to give us a short break. In a finely delivered speech rich in hair-raising profanities, he told us to behave ourselves and not to repeat what had been done, or he would punish us like never before – he would simply rip us apart! While each one of us was wondering what the lapse might have been, Rizvi broke up the course into the two squadrons and handed us over to the respective appointment holders, “to continue rubbing them till the morning.” With an air of absolute authority, he climbed up the steps and stood on the balcony in front of his room, arms folded, watching the show with a strangely gratifying sneer. Rizvi could have won an Oscar doing the Gestapo tormentor.
Just as we were re-forming for the second session of the ‘learning-to-be-men’ exercise, we picked up an eerie shadow emerging from behind a tree in the cold night. Soon it transformed into a junior officer wearing a trench coat and a peaked cap. A nearby senior cautioned his course-mate Sergeant Ali Haider about the arrival, by whispering, “chachu hai, chachu”. Our flight was brought to attention and a salute presented by Ali Haider, who was now supervising the assembly. “You can continue,” allowed the officer. To our shock, the officer looked on as Ali Haider broke into the usual harangue of behaving ourselves, failing which, “this is how you will be treated. Open order march.” Fantastic! We were being punished for an infringement that could possibly occur in the future. Ali Haider, who looked every inch a sadist, could be utterly expressionless while at work. He told us, almost politely, to start running on the spot, approaching each one of us with a whispered advice to raise the knees high up to the level of his nose, or else. It was a marvel that his impassive demeanour could elicit such an enthusiastic response from the exhausted cadets at this late hour. He seemed to be in no hurry and calmly got to work, as some of his not so confident course-mates loitering about also chipped in with a curse or two. After about half an hour of punishment, the officer watching the proceedings called Ali. We prayed to Almighty that it would be over for the night. Ali Haider walked back and announced that he was taking a light view of our misbehaviour, but told us that it would require scores of such sessions to get us fully back to our senses. “Assemble again at the same spot tomorrow, immediately after dinner …. and Asif, I would like to see you frog jumping back to your room. You clot, I will wipe that smile off your face for ever,” he shouted. Asif, a hardened Alamgirian, who could not help but maintain a good-humoured expression in the worst of circumstances, was seen to have an attitude that Ali Haider could not stand. Sadly, Asif suffered much retribution at the hands of this senior throughout the first term.
On the second day of our arrival, we were allotted our service numbers. I had been allotted Pak No 93371 which gave me a unique identity and, was assigned to No 1 Squadron, one of the two ground training squadrons in the Cadets’ Wing which looked after all aspects of General Service Training. It was made clear to us that nominally we may be Flight Cadets, but for all legal purposes, our status was that of an Airman Second Class (AC-II), the lowest of all ranks and, that we should not harbour notions of being anywhere near to being an officer.
Soon after issue of numbers, the preliminary issue of ‘Clothing and Necessaries for Cadets’ started. The items included an assortment of shirts, trousers, jackets, socks and shoes for the most part, but there were gloves, epaulettes, badges, bow ties and, a tin ‘cabin trunk’ to pack all of the stuff into. Out of our government allocation of Rs 2,800/- each, we had spent Rs 1,600/- on a total of 64 items, with the balance saved up for some sparkling new issues if we made it to our graduation parade, some distant day. The costliest item was an elegant ‘Made in
raincoat worth Rs 256/-, and the cheapest one was a pair of suspenders for Rs 3/-. We were lucky not to have been intercepted
while lugging our trunks back to our rooms, or the seniors would have certainly
tested our running abilities while ‘fully kitted.’ England
After allotment of our kits, we were photographed individually, as well as in squadron groups. Most of the glum faces had uncertainty writ large on them, as if awaiting a punishment reprieve for a crime they had not committed. Those squadron group photographs are now the most nostalgic possessions, with the youthful faces seemingly staring through the haze of four decades, though in reality some departed a bit early in Life, while those remaining are getting gnarled by Time as they wait on!
In the afternoon we were again assembled, this time for issue of ‘service names’ by the senior cadets who turned out in large numbers, led by the witty and amusing Zulqarnain from 59th GD (P) Course. Some of our gullible course-mates actually thought that it was something official till they were assailed with crude and lewd names, worthy of scoundrels and rogues. There was no question of complaining as it was all considered part of manly training. The enemy could do worse if we ever fell in their hands, we were told, so name-calling had to be taken in stride. We later learnt that it was PAF’s age-old tradition and many a senior officer of star rank continued to humour the service, though with more respectable nicks like bijju, chitta, jhoota, ghorra, kaalia, khota, khushki, maashki, mochi, mota, tunda, etc.
While it was the prerogative of the seniors to give service names, the nicks assigned by course-mates were much more realistic and enduring. It so happened that Rauf, one of our course-mates, found himself declared medically fit and placed in the ultimate Category A1B-A3B by the Central Medical Board, despite having one leg shorter than the other. The doctors of yesteryears did not feel the need to make the candidates walk a few paces and, preferred some groping and probing to see if the limbs, etc, were in working order. It is a greater wonder that Rauf got through his complete Academy training by secretly stuffing one of his shoes with padding. The suspicions of his dorm-mates were, however, aroused in the first few days when he wore the ordinary unpadded slippers; he was aptly named Kaido, after the lame and bad-humoured uncle of Heer-Ranjha fame. It was very entertaining to call him by that name, for Rauf was not only short in one leg, he was short in temper too!
One day, the whole course was given the undignified punishment of murgha, in which one is supposed to contort himself into what looks like a repentant hen-pecked rooster. Ali Shah, a course-mate of ours who was a gaddi nasheen and a proud scion of a saintly order in his hometown, could not take this slight and squeaked to the authorities. The matter was taken seriously, and the offending seniors were warned by the Cadets’ Wing officers. Shah jee immediately launched a charm offensive on the irate seniors, to ward off any suspicion. The course as a whole took the flak, however, without knowing who had actually complained. It only came to be known much later, why Shah jee had suddenly turned servile and was so eager to please the seniors.
A rather odd demand made of us by the seniors was to carry a list of their names and service numbers in our pockets at all times – besides the mandatory handkerchief. If the seniors could not find anything wrong with our marching, dress or haircut, they would ask for the names list and invariably find fault with an odd spelling or the number. The list would then be torn to shreds and we were told to prepare a new one within a short time. A particularly fussy senior of 59th GD (P), by the name of Ghazi, was most heartless in tearing up the meticulously prepared lists. This wasteful activity continued for a couple of weeks, till the seniors were sure that we knew the correct spellings of names, as well as the proper appointments of the seniors.
In the first few days, we were inoculated, just in case one of us was carrying an infectious disease brought along from some far flung area of the country. Word soon spread that the vaccination was actually a shot for temporarily immobilising some of our bodily functions, so that all our youthful energies could remain focused on training. Preposterous as the rumour was, some of the more naïve cadets got worried if the effects turned out to be permanent! It later transpired that this, like many other mischievous ones, was an old story that had been doing the rounds at the Academy for ages. Atta (or Aattu), a perennially relegated senior and a bit of a joker, was later discovered to be the source of several similar rumours that would surface every once in a while.
Instructions from officers as well as the senior cadets kept on flowing at a baffling rate. We were told that till such time we learnt to march properly, we had to run everywhere, except to and from the mosque. Marching would be taught in drill periods and, would be followed by a critically important saluting test after six weeks. Passing the test would also confer the much longed for privilege of wearing the proper service uniform, rather than the grey jersey, flannel trousers and bulbous-toed ammunition boots that we were temporarily dressed in. Only those who passed the test would be allowed to ‘book-out’ on weekends to Murree, or cities beyond. It was earnestly hoped that our hair would have also have grown a few millimetres more to confer some respectability while loitering in the bazaars. Our bottlebrush hairstyle was, however, quite in contrast to the hippy-like flowing manes and long sideburns sported by civilians, as was the rage in the early seventies.
Within the premises of the Base, we had to pay our compliments to the seniors by shouting out, ‘Assalaam-o-alaikum sir’ at ‘Strength 5,’ which was considered the highest noise a human voice box could generate. For officers, we had to ensure that the decibel level was much more controlled while paying our respects. The compliments process had to be so timed that it lasted a total of five paces and, the ‘sir’ part was to be blurted out when exactly opposite the subject; the head had to turn in the direction of His Majesty so that the eyes made respectful contact, and the arms had to be ‘locked’ by the sides lest their flailing appeared like some obscene gesture. It was thought that if one could master things like the tricky salutation manoeuvre, he had all the makings of a fighter pilot.
More instructions followed regarding our expected conduct in the Mess. Meals had to be finished within a few minutes but with complete table etiquette. In the dining hall, we first-termers could sit only on ‘quarter chair’, meaning that just the sit-bones and the wooden frame edge could make contact. Trouble awaited anyone who tried to comfort his whole derrière on a full seat. Meals were often disrupted by the appointment holders to make unpleasant announcements like a punishment assembly, for some lapse or omission. The worst announcement, however, pertained to running the mile for the Physical Efficiency & Running Test, soon after lunch. The test was never announced in advance, to preclude the possibility of anyone reporting sick in the morning.
Balancing ourselves on the road while wearing the heavily hob-nailed and horse-shoed ammo boots, was quite an act. The infamous ‘
Good Hope’, a dangerous hairpin bend with a very steep gradient, was
particularly favoured by the seniors for making us frog jump for a
knee-shattering distance of 50-odd metres.
Bellowing and hurling curses at us, they would take immense pleasure in
seeing us slip and land on our bottoms, if we were lucky enough not to flip and
roll down unstoppably, that is! Our
course-mate Sufi often toppled over, recovering badly bruised each time; unhappily,
he had a centre of gravity issue that inhibited gainful use of his
physique. After ‘rounding the Cape’,
those of us who could still manage to be up on their feet would straggle past a
wall, to be confronted by a supremely ironic message painted on it: “The spirit
which knows not to submit, which retires from no danger, is the soul of a
From the third day on, we were scheduled for Morning Jerks, a pre-sunrise activity that was no more than the standard PT, but having a funny name to it. A couple of rounds in the sports stadium, followed by some vigorous physical exercises for half an hour is how we were ‘jerked’ into the new day. The activity always culminated in a loud cheer, ‘Haider!’ complete with a schoolboy clap over the heads. The shout often gave the naughtier cadets an opportunity to vent out their frustrations, with some choice broadside fired at the authorities under cover of ‘Haider.’
Parade was a completely new activity for the majority who had a raw civilian background. Our General Service Training Officer, Flt Lt Sabir, was a hard-nosed and stern task master, with a gruff and croaky voice well suited to his job. He would start the drill period by making our flight run around the stadium for at least a mile, an activity that became standard for as long as we were in the first term. While he ran alongside, he loved to curse and yell at the tail-enders, promising to kick their fat behinds. After the preliminaries that were known as a ‘light’ warm-up, he would hand us over to the drill staff that would get to work teaching various drill movements. Sergeants Mushtaq and Safdar and, Corporals Sultan and Mahmood, were some of the smartest and most dedicated drill staff that we had seen in the PAF. They could be stern while ordering us about, but gave all the respect due to cadets.
When we had passed the saluting test after six weeks, and wore the uniform for the first time, we were immediately assembled by the senior appointment holders for what was assumed to be a laudatory discourse. We were, instead, reminded of our new status with these vintage lines that seemed to have greeted many a newly-uniformed course in the past: “You stupid juniors, you should remember that you are a disgrace to the uniform. Your single rank stripe is thinner than a hair; nobody is going to notice whether you are a chachu or a cadet …. Bark out, yes sir.” The hills and vales reverberated with, “yes sir”!
After the saluting test was over, we were introduced to rifle drill with the Lee Enfield .303 rifle of WW-I vintage. The parade usually started with several warm-up rounds of running around the parade square, while the 12-lb rifle was held straight above the head with both hands. Flt Lt Sabir was always at hand, giving the stragglers an extra dose while the rest of the class caught its breadth during a short break. This pattern of parade lasted throughout our first term. Two of our course-mates, Ashiq and Usman, who belonged to the hilly Potohar area, were matchless in any activity that had to do with legs or lungs. Flt Lt Sabir would ensure that these two always led the flight while running, as he saw them to be the true benchmarks of a cadet’s endurance and stamina; this was much to the dismay of the majority, whose bio-systems were used to the plains of Punjab or Sind and, would start burping and frothing at the mouth after the first round or two.
Wearing the uniform after passing the saluting test also qualified us to perform guard duties at various ‘beats’ at night, between 2200-2400 hrs. This activity entailed drawing rifles from the armoury, but without any rounds, as it was only meant to give us practice for a real contingency, some day. Any movement within the premises of the Cadets’ Mess and the Education Block after 2200 hrs had to be checked with a huge scream, “Halt, who goes there?” If the intruder was unable to properly identify himself (by throwing down his ID card on the ground from a distance, which was then checked by torchlight), he was to be ordered to raise his hands and, be ‘led from behind’ to the guard room for further treatment. While such an extreme situation never arose, it was common to hear loud interrogations at night, with the ‘intruders’ usually being officers of the Cadets’ Wing on their supervisory rounds. It was quite a bit of fun to greet the officers we already knew, with full-throated shouts hurled most authoritatively. My favourite beat was near the Education Block which afforded a beautiful view of a glittering
40-kms away, where my parents lived then. Islamabad
Book-out on a weekend was the most longed-for event after the saluting test. Although it had been just six weeks, but the treatment meted out to us had so skewed our concepts of time and space that we had virtually turned into zombies. After checking out of the cadets’ guard room for our first local book-out, it took us a while to realise that we were still humans and the transformation that had taken place was, mercifully, reversible. It was late spring and weekend crowds had converged on to Murree. Dressed in our best blue blazers and grey flannels, everyone pranced about on the Mall in twos and always in step, as required of us. We were raring to give away our identity as Air Force cadets to anyone who hadn’t noticed our haircut or the badge on the blazer pocket. A favourite hang-out spot for cadets was Lintott’s Café and our first salary (Rs 220/- per month) was put to good use sampling the delicious peach melba ice cream and coffee, that the joint was famous for. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s enduring duet, Summer Wine, blared from the speakers and we agreed that for first term cadets, there was no better way to pass the time!
Sundays also saw the cadets dressed up in one of several uniforms, posing for Mr Chishty, a visiting photographer from Murree, who seemed to have been granted sole rights by the Base to undertake this unofficial activity. Parents back home were awed at seeing pictures of their smart sons in battle dresses, walking-outs, ceremonials and, even in the boorish dungarees used in field exercises, thanks to Chishty. We had, however, to be careful not to invoke the ire of the seniors who were seldom amused at seeing us pose so heroically, even in private moments at the Cadets’ Mess.
Studies had picked up after the first couple of weeks. The syllabus included some mundane subjects like English, Urdu, Islamiyat and Maths, the latter one being a torment for cadets like Asif who had an Arts background and me, who had been on the Pre-Medical track before joining. Other subjects like Military Geography, Military History, General Service Knowledge and Character-Building & Leadership, were clearly in line with the first stage of our professional development. Aviation-related subjects had been left out for later studies at Risalpur; however, a queer and completely out of place subject that we were introduced to, was metal-working. An NCO instructed us in the properties of aircraft alloys, riveting techniques, soldering, machining, etc. More of a hobby class, the study period was a light-hearted one, and it was time to relax and even catch up on some sleep. Our course-mate Shafiq, resourceful as he ever was, would arrange for pastries from a nearby canteen, earning him the nickname of ‘caterer’. Once the snacks were smuggled into the class, those who had ordered them would huddle up for a clandestine munching spree. Shafiq would, in the meantime, make sure that the expenditure incurred was recovered to the last paisa.
Some of the education instructors who left a lasting impression on us due to their professional knowledge and friendly attitude, included Wg Cdr Shajar Hussain (Director of Studies), along with Flt Lts Pervez Niazi, Zia-ur-Rehman, Zaki-ud-din and Aijaz-ul-haq. Quite uncharacteristic for a very solemn and dignified-looking officer, Wg Cdr Shajar would have us in peals with a bawdy joke or two whenever he would visit the Cadets’ Mess for some function. Flt Lt Niazi was quite popular with the cadets as he was considered the ‘GDP-type’, a catchall term implying a happy-go-lucky person, in Air Force jargon. I had the unique honour of being taught by Flt Lt Niazi who was himself an Abdalian, and also by his father, who had earlier been my teacher at the
The eight odd hours in the Education Block were considered a great relief because the instructors were very polite, there were no punishments, and everything seemed so peaceful. We would dread pack-up time, because it marked the opening of the Gates of Hell for the next eight hours. Only lights out at 2200 hrs would bring respite; we would then try to drown out our sorrows with an assortment of the sacred and the profane. Prayers to Allah would be uttered for easing the tough training regimen, alongside murmuring of some vicious insults to the seniors who had punished us during the day.
After lights out, it was also time for some other clandestine operations. Some fellows who had brought eatables like halwas and panjeeris from their homes, would sneakily start nibbling on them like rats; the unexpected almond or peanut would, however, get crunched under the teeth giving away their little secrets. Another activity involved some rheumatic individuals, who would bring out their hidden pharmacopoeia of balms and oils to massage their creaking joints, in a furtive home remedy effort.
All ‘non-service issue’ eatables and medicines had to be stashed away carefully, as inspection of the rooms and layout of the cupboards could take place without notice. Rahat Mujeeb, a plucky little senior of 59th GD (P) Course, who also held the modest appointment of a Leading Flight Cadet, was quite finicky about these inspections. Tooth paste, shaving cream, hair tonic, etc, had to be of a good brand and combs and tooth brushes had to give a new look or else, these items would be tossed out of the window for being ‘unofficer-like’ stuff.
During inspections and assemblies, we were constantly reminded of ‘OLQ’ that we had to possess in heaps. Officer-Like Quality was an undefined and open-ended attribute; luckily, however, with the lower end of the quality scale characterised by a batman or chachu, it was fairly clear how much more we had to rise to reach the exalted class of an officer.
It would be four more terms spread over the next two years, before we were found qualitatively worthy of wearing the pinstripes of a Pilot Officer.
It would be four more terms spread over the next two years, before we were found qualitatively worthy of wearing the pinstripes of a Pilot Officer.
Note: Between 1968 and 1979, cadets' initial training was conducted at PAF Base Lower Topa, followed by flying training at PAF Academy Risalpur. After 1979, all training was consolidated at the Academy in Risalpur.