Friday, 30 October 2009

The Snow Will Melt

This is the story of PIA's crashed airplane, a Fokker Friendship turbo-prop aircraft (AP-BBF), that 'came down' on August 25, 1989. The wreckage has not been found as of this writing.

When I wrote a poem in 1989 titled, The Snow Will Melt, little did I know that Benazir Bhutto would one day read and comment on it in writing.

With Benazir removed from the political landscape by the coordinated efforts of the destructive forces within and outside this country, the poem only serves as an eerie reminder of my chance meeting with her. Indeed, the Bhuttos are the Kennedys of Pakistan. Their deaths, much like their lives, will remain shrouded in mystery and speculation.

Few—not counting the battalions of jawans at the funeral—were sorrowful in 1988 when the C-130 of a military dictator crashed in Bahawalpur. Those who perished with that uniformed ‘light of truth’ left behind silent sons who chose not to reveal the ‘hidden hand’ behind the episode; they chose instead to become federal ministers.

An early warning for Bilgrami

In sharp contrast to the above-mentioned ‘accident’, a year later, the entire nation genuinely mourned when a PIA Fokker airplane vanished into the mountains of northern Pakistan. Along with all the passengers, pilots that I knew well also died: Bilgrami (Billy) and Zubair Shamshad (Dabbu).

Death has many faces and sometimes it clearly warns individuals ahead of time. Ahsan Aftab Bilgrami was warned on 4 February 1986 as he operated as a First Officer of PK-300, flying a Boeing 747-200 (AP-AYW) airplane from Karachi to Islamabad. Captain Siraj was at the controls; all three crew members forgot to extend the landing gear and ended up belly-landing on the runway. Luckily the passenger evacuation took place smoothly and no one was hurt. Oddly, while Capt. Siraj immediately tendered his resignation, Bilgrami was untouched and instead ended up as a captain flying Fokker aircraft.  

Death was not in a mood to spare Bilgrami this time. His airplane crashed o\in the morning but woe to the bureaucratic hurdles, it was not until the late afternoon that search and rescue operations commence

At 07:40 the crew radioed that their ETA (expected time of arrival) over way-point Bravo was 07:59 and overhead Islamabad at 08:32. This was the last transmission received from the crew.

By the evening, there was speculation that the Fokker, unintentionally or otherwise, had flown off-course into the prohibited Indian airspace surrounding the 8,125 metres high Nanga Parbat peak.

The Indian angle

Some commented that the 'Indians, having warned the Pakistanis not to commit airspace violations, shot the plane down near the Line of Control'.

While that possibility seemed unreal, the fear of neither finding the wreckage nor seeing an investigation report was quite real. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, the loved ones gathered at Islamabad airport to blame various government agencies for not doing enough. Few realised that a forty-four seat turbo-prop aircraft, flying over peaks with an average height of 6,000 metres, was like a needle in a haystack; for it to vanish altogether was easy.

Many years later, some would report on the internet:

"The plane accidently twice crossed the border over LOC and was shot down near Neelam Valley by the Indian Air Defence's SAM missiles. Pakistan Army and Government was notified immediately by the Indian Government about this mistake. The news was put on top secret as any disclosure could had lead to severe public pressure leading to an all out war. The truth was finally leaked in 1994. Rajiv Gandhi probably called Benazir to cover it up so both countries do not go into war. The Pakistani agencies themselves leaked the report to embarrass Benazir in the coming elections. Takbeer Magazine published some wreckage pictures but nobody bothered."

A futile search

Twenty-four hours later, there were whispers that the Air Force, having conducted only a hurried high altitude survey, had expressed its inability to spare C-130s or helicopters for finding the missing plane. The crash appeared to be a less significant matter compared with the infinitely more important job of using all resources to keep the Indian Army at bay over Siachin. It was impossible to believe that none of the spy satellites recorded the accident or that satellite photos were unavailable to help locate the survivors. In the bitter cold of the high mountains, there would be no survivors, only statistics.
Days passed painfully, and desperation drove many to consult with spiritually gifted individuals. One of them claimed that he could ask Muslim jinns on our side to contact the Hindu ones across the border to help locate the missing, and that for the price of a few sacrificial black goats, relatives could see their loved ones again. Those who followed dubious modes of investigation never witnessed miracles.

The security concerns of those days required two commandos aboard each Fokker. Since the armed men always came with secret instructions from their superiors, and which they never shared with the pilots, some said that a failed attempt to hijack the aircraft to India had resulted in an explosive scuffle on board. In the face of this theory, all official mouthpieces only maintained deathly silence.

By the first week of September 1989, the search was officially over; the inexplicable accident was attributed to ‘God’s will’ by the mournful public and to ‘pilot error’ by the soulless bureaucracy. When the temporary status of ‘PK-404 delayed’ changed into a permanent ‘PK-404 cancelled’, I knew Billy and Dabbu would remain under the snow that never melted.

Ahsan Aftab 'Billy' Bilgrami owned Billy’s Super Market in Karachi, and the forever-smiling Sohail 'Dabbu' Zubair Shamshad grew up on Temple Road where I too lived. Dabbu joined the Walton Flying Club a few years before I did. The words of both the men echoed in my mind during daytime, their faces appeared in my nightmares. And somewhere over the snow I imagined lay, scattered by the wind, burnt pages of the storybooks of the lives of fifty-four people.

Enter Benazir

On 6 August 1990, Benazir Bhutto ceased to be a ‘very very important person’ (VVIP) and became just an ordinary person. On 17 September 1990, as freshly deposed Prime Minister, she boarded not a VVIP flight but a scheduled commercial one, and desired to see the pilots. The captain anxiously asked the stewardess to escort mohtarma sahiba to the flight deck.

An imposing figure, she entered greeting all with a smile. She sat behind the captain on the ‘jump seat’, diagonally across from where I could see her well. Once amidst us poor masses, she indulged in small talk. As the Sindhi flight engineer attempted to impress her by switching from English to the native tongue, the captain busied himself with enquiring about her political well-being which to me mattered not a bit.

“I’m fine but I would feel much better if I had some coffee”, replied the deposed Prime Minister when the captain asked her if she cared for tea or coffee.

The captain whispered something to the stewardess who dutifully returned with a paper-cup for the ousted ruler so accustomed to using the finest porcelain. Just when I felt a strong urge to ask Benazir about the missing Fokker, she spoke: “So what happened to that Fokker which crashed in the mountains?”
Sipping coffee, she took the words right out of my mouth. Were Billy, Dabbu and others speaking through her? But before anybody could answer, Billy and Dabbu moved my tongue to protest and I uttered the unimaginable: “You would know better, you tell us!”

The Oxford Union-trained debater, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, kept silent. Rhetoric, political science, philosophy, all failed there and then. She knew but could not, or perhaps did not wish to tell. I clearly saw that my counter-question embarrassed her. The captain seemed visibly upset as well.

The poem

What the relatives of the perished passengers and crew members suspected, what they all truly experienced, and whatever little I knew were all woven into a poem titled The Snow Will Melt and which was published in Air Safety Magazine. I quietly handed over to her the magazine on whose page fifteen the poem started with the dedication:

In memory of our lost friends of PK-404. On August 25, 1989, PIA’s flight PK-404, operated by an F-27 aircraft on a scheduled service from Gilgit to Islamabad, was declared missing a few minutes after take-off. Fifty-four passengers, including five crew members, were aboard the ill-fated aircraft.

A voracious reader like her father, Benazir Bhutto read the poem silently as if also reading between the lines, and as if standing by the graves of the lost fifty-four persons. Perhaps that was the only way she knew of paying respect to the lives whose loss would forever remain unexplained. I could not tell if the astute politician was pained. She made no verbal comments but did borrow a ballpoint pen to scribble in the page’s border the following diplomatic words:

"This is an extremely moving poem which mirrors the anguish which the nation felt."

- (signed) Benazir Bhutto. 17 September, 1990.

But Benazir misspelled her own name as BRNAZIR. Was it an innocent mistake or did a truthful tongue make a mighty pen falter? If one looked at the keyboard of a computer, the alphabet ‘R’ and ‘E’ are located right next to one another. Was Benazir typing instead of writing?

I cannot ask her such questions. She is in God’s custody and will be thoroughly questioned upon being raised. The angel of Death correctly spelled BENAZIR on 27 December 2007 when he read the final line of the poem of her life. The anguish of a twice bitten nation prevented her from assuming the office of the Prime Minister for the third time.

No death is painless, not even the one that men face suddenly or while asleep. What is more painful than death itself is facing the sudden truth of being responsible for, directly or indirectly, the death and destruction of fellow human beings, it grinds one’s soul into hellish dust, it stretches into painfully hot eons the fading moments of life’s own snow that always melts.

Postscript (February 2019)

On 3 November 1950, Air India flight AI-245 (Lockheed L-749A Constellation, 'Malabar Princess') crashed ironically at a site only 200 meters from the very spot where 'Kanchenjumga' crashed in 1966. The crash inspired a 1952 novel in French, La neige en deuil ("The Snow in Mourning"), by Henri Troyat.

Sixteen years later, on 14 January 1966, India's AI-101 flight (Boeing 707, 'Kanchenjunga') crashed over Mont Blanc mountains (Switzerland).

"There were times when we prevented terrible catastrophes and tried to secure more peace. We had trouble, you know, with India back in the 60s when they got uppity and started work on an atomic bomb. Loud mouthed cow-lovers bragging about how clever they were and how they, too, were going to be a great power in the world. The thing is, they were getting into bed with the Russians.

Of course, Pakistan was in bed with the chinks so India had to find another bed partner. And we did not want them to have any kind of nuclear weaponry because God knows what they would have done with it. Probably strut their stuff like a Washington nigger with a brass watch. Probably nuke the Pakis. They’re all a bunch of neo-coons anyway.

Oh yes, and their head expert was fully capable of building a bomb and we knew just what he was up to. He was warned several times but what an arrogant prick that one was. Told our people to f..k off and then made it clear that no one would stop him and India from getting nuclear parity with the big boys. Loud mouths bring it all down on themselves.

[His name was Homi Jehangir Bhabha [Chairman Indian Atomic Energy Commission]. That one was dangerous, believe me. He had an unfortunate accident. He was flying to Vienna to stir up more trouble when his 707 had a bomb go off in the cargo hold and they all came down on a high mountain way up in the Alps. No real evidence and the world was much safer."
— excerpt from Conversations With the Crow - part 14

The same year, in 1966, Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahaqdur Shastri died mysteriously at Tashkent while negotiating a peace accord after the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar has written in his memoir, Beyond the Lines:

“In a corner of the room, however, on a dressing table, there was an overturned thermos flask. It appeared that Shastri had struggled to open it.

Pakistan’s foreign secretary Aziz Ahmed who, together with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the foreign minister, was opposed to the Tashkent talks, which they thought was President Ayub Khan’s act of capitulation to India, reported Shastri’s death to Bhutto like this:

“Aziz Ahmad rang Bhutto who was half asleep and heard only the word ‘died’. He apparently asked, ‘Which of the two bastards?’ The late Salmaan Taseer in his book, Bhutto: a Political Biography, has Aziz Ahmed saying: ‘The bastard’s dead’. And Bhutto asking: ‘Which one?’ [meaning Shastri or Ayub].

Shastri’s wife Lalita asked for a probe into her husband's death. The family seemed upset that Jan Muhammad, Indian Ambassador T.N Kaul’s cook at the time, had cooked the food, and not Ram Nath, his own personal servant."

The CIA is nobody's friend. The agency's suspected role may have saved Bhutto but not in the long run: he actively pursued Pakistan's atomic programme and was hung for an alleged murder by military dictator Zial-ul-Haq.

The final question remains unanswered: who was aboard PIA's F-27?


Photo of AP-BBF: History of PIA
Benazir Bhutto photo: FOX News
Nanga Parbat: source of photo unknown

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.


nauma said...

i am at a loss of words. i never know what way to express someone's death!

all i can say is, Allah sabko jannat naseeb kurey , aur families ko dher sara sabar dey, Aameen:(

TGH said...

Thanks for expressing yourself, Nauma. Hopefully I will write a sequel to this titled: 'The Rain Will Stop'.


TGH said...


Date: August 25, 1989
Time: 07:45
Location: Near Gilgit, Pakistan
Operator: Pakistan International Airlines
Flight #: PK-404
Route: Gilgit-Islamabad Chaklala
AC Type: Fokker F-27 Friendship 200
Registration: AP-BBF
cn / ln: 10207
Aboard: 54 (passengers 49 + crew 05)
Fatalities: All
Ground: 0
Summary: Crashed into Himalaya Mountains en-route from Gilgit to Islamabad

TGH said...

From George Milquetoast on FaceBook 01 November 2010:

"The Snow Will Melt" brought me to tears. You are an exceptional writer, and your art is a gift to mankind. The person I lost was a very good friend that I went to college with..."

My reply:

Thanks very much George. May your friend rest in peace.

George Milquetoast said...

Post 1 of 2

Hello again, Tahir. I apologize for the tardiness of this post when compared to your post of 06 Nov 2010. As you know, I am recovering my health.

I have a request for your readers. Before I state that request, let me give them a little background so that they will understand where I am coming from.

I believe that it is inexcusable that flight PK-404 has not been found in the last 21 years. That failure indicates an abdication of responsibility and/or the need for secrecy. I want to provide perhaps a little closure for the families of the deceased, so that those families might rest a little easier knowing that their loved ones have finally been found and perhaps have their remains and effects recovered for proper burial.

Among other things, I am considered expert at Image Processing and Computer Vision. There are "Super-Resolution" algorithms that use multiple input images and provide an output image with increased resolution. The imagery available on sources such as Google Earth and Google Maps is too low-resolution for an effective search even using the most sophisticated Computer Vision techniques. Depending on information I can obtain from sources such as your readers, I may be talking with providers of publicly-available satellite data soon. If I get access to the data I need, I may be able to increase the image resolution enough to visualize portions of fuselage, wings, engines, propellers, or other aircraft surfaces. The techniques I would use would not mislead to an incorrect outcome. If I can't get the resolution high enough, I might be able to use Statistical Pattern Recognition techniques to classify spatially clustered detritus and find multiple sites worth further investigation. And if that fails, I may be able to obtain hyper-spectral image data that would allow me to detect the difference between white-painted aircraft metal and snow. The satellite data will need to have been acquired during the Summer months when the sun was almost directly overhead, when the snows have receded from higher elevations, and when shadows occlude little information. However, the resolutions needed for much of this effort are so high that a great deal of data would be needed at considerable expense. 10-meter-per-pixel resolutions are inadequate. 1-meter resolutions after super-resolution processing would be superb, but 3-meter resolutions would likely suffice. How much data would be required to cover all questionable terrain with pixels having 3-meter resolution? An extraordinarily large amount, and after data acquisition, processing would take an extraordinary amount of time. And the data might cost too much. That is why the search must be tapered to a more limited scope within areas of highest likelihood. I refuse to accept any money towards this effort, and believe it to be ghoulish to do this for profit. I will not undertake this effort if data acquisition is too costly. I also have no interest in identifying locations of military interest. Governments can afford huge quantities of data to perform super-resolution, but I cannot. As such, I need the assistance of your
readers to reduce the search scope.

None of this will work if the government(s) in question have already removed all evidence. I find it very odd that PK-404 was a morning flight and yet no aerial search was conducted until late in the day, even in a time of raised military tensions. If PK-404 flew into or near a contested area or a no-fly zone, it is highly likely that all governments knew its location exactly.

You readers might ask "What information could George use from me?"

(Continued on Post 2 of 2)

George Milquetoast said...

Post 2 of 2

You readers might ask "What information could George use from me?"

The only language that I can read is English and translation engines are very low quality. There are archived English-language newspaper articles within which it was stated that two British mountain climbers observed a low-flying aircraft on the morning of 25 August, 1989. I do not know if these climbers observed PK-404 or some other airplane. I do not know where these climbers were located when they observed the aircraft. I do not know where these climbers observed the airplane nor do I know if they detailed the heading of the airplane. It would also help if I could obtain the names (and locations) of these climbers, since I might be able to ask them directly. Does anyone have any information that could shed light on any of this?

How severe is the weather in and around Gilgit and the Northern Areas in late August? Does the weather often force pilots to fly significantly off course or use different routes? If so, what are these typical alternative routes? Please be as specific as possible if you are describing a flight path.

I have read how the pilot reported to the tower in typical fashion seven minutes into the flight of PK-404, and that the aircraft disappeared from radar nine minutes into the flight. Considering the mountainous terrain and assuming the the description of radar involves only civilian radar, where were the civilian radars located? If the civilian radars are quite distant from the actual flight path and not located very high in the mountains, it is likely that the mountains could have easily occluded radar signals between the radar source and PK-404. Knowledge of the location of civilian radars on 25 August 1989 could significantly shape/reduce my search area. By the way, if published specifications (climb rate, top speed and ceiling) for the Fokker F-27 Friendship 200 are to be believed, nine minutes into the flight from Gilgit could place PK-404 in the vicinity of Nanga Parbat.

If a reader has access to the “Google Earth” software, then please use the software to go to the latitude-longitude coordinates "35.000695, 74.630850". If you place your “eye altitude” or viewing elevation at approximately 18500 feet (5640 meters) you will observe an interesting “scar” pattern on the side of the mountain. It looks like it could be a very wide “shotgun” pattern of a debris impact field approximately 1000 feet (330 meters) above the valley floor. If you then raise your “eye altitude” to approximately 10.15 miles (16.33 kilometers) you will see what appears to be a line apparently denoting the start of the no-fly zone approximately 3.2 miles (5.1 kilometers) to the west. I would need to generate higher resolution imagery to determine if this is a debris field of interest, but do not want to do so unless this would be a reasonable location to investigate. After all, this is on the “wrong” side of Nanga Parbat, and I could be observing a debris field or scarring from a different episode of military conflict. I also note that there are interesting and suspicious blurred regions in the vicinity of Nanga Parbat, most noticeably at higher elevations.

Please give me your thoughts. If you can provide any good leads that might reduce the scope of this search, it would be very greatly appreciated. All of my effort will be performed in my spare time, and this endeavor may take a very long time, depending on the accuracy and validity of the information I obtain.

Tahir, I wish to thank your readers for their time and patience while reading these long posts and thank them in advance for the information they might provide.

TGH said...

Maqs, March 13, 2014 at 2:55 AM
Tahir a really well written and thought provoking commentary and one that resonates closely with my feelings on the subject, as I'm sure it must be for those of us who knew Billy and Dabu and also had the privilege to fly the F-27 across the majestic mountains of the Karakoram

TGH said...

TGH, March 13, 2014 at 5:41 AM
Thanks for commenting Maqs.
While re-reading the story, I made a few minor but important changes to improve the flow and meaning of what needed to be said. The comments of other readers also shed plenty of light on this buried matter.

Stephen Hall said...

Having watched the plane fly in front of nanga parbat and having helped with the initial rescue I could probably answer many of your questions and if I can be of assistance in helping to finally locate the aircraft please let me know
Stephen hall

TGH said...

Hi Stephen.
Thanks for your comment and offer to help.
You claim to KNOW a lot. Why didn't you write about it in your own blog?
Well, let's get on with it then and surprise the world.

saleem said... in peace

Majumdar said...

Tahir mian,

Is it possible that Indian agencies may have been behind this?


TGH said...

They say, the other side did fire the 'warning shots' a few days BEFORE the final 'shot'. But then who can uncover what the governments decide to cover? I suppose, God will one day.

Hannia Javaid said...

Stephen Hall,
can you please tell what can be the possible reasons of disappearance of that plane....I came across this plane crash while looking for the PIA aur crash that happened yesterday...
And can you also tell what exactly did you see during the search operation?
I am just very curious.
Hannia Javaid

Unknown said...

Hello everyone, I might be found this plane's wreckage on google maps application. I prepared a video over this incident and showed the planes wreckage on video. Check out my channel and watch my video. Please inform someone from local officals to find this wreckage.

Wanderer said...

My friend list he sister to this missing flight. She was newly married and one of the crew members. Her mother still waits for her daughter to come back. It was a heart breaking accidents. I wish that there was an explanation