Friday, March 23, 2012

23 March and the F-104 Starfighters

Today is 23 March - a day is celebrated in Pakistan for two reasons: One, it was the day back in 1940 when a historic resolution was passed in the city of Lahore at Minto Park (now called the Iqbal Park) to demand a separate homeland for the Muslims of the British India from the ruling British empire, and secondly it was the day in 1956 when Pakistan was declared as a republic - the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. 

For many years since 1956, the day was celebrated with the display of armed Forces parade, to which other segments of national significance were also included much later. Although the 23 March parades were held in all provincial metropolis, the main avenue used to be Rawalpindi, later shifted to Islamabad. However, lately due to the extensive employment of Pakistan Army against the militants, the holding of this annual feature has been discontinued.

While I was sitting this morning, reminiscing the memory of the bygone days, I remembered one 23 March parade that I witnessed as a child many many years ago in 1964. The special event on that day was the display of the F-104 Starfigher aircraft that Pakistan had acquired from the USA. In fact Pakistan was the only country outside NATO, who was given the F-104s supersonic aircraft by the USA, for then Pakistan under President Ayub Khan was a strong ally of the USA. It was another story that like always, as even now, USA abandoned Pakistan, despite being member of the SEATO and CENTO, when India attacked Pakistan in September 1965. Thereafter, there have been many occasions when USA abandoned Pakistan having used it for the fulfillment of its own interests.

F-104 Starfighetr of Pakistan Air Force
Anyway coming back to the day in 1964 and the F-104s. Pakistan was delivered 14 supersonic F-104, known as the Starfighter. I as a child was also interested to see the aircraft as one of my uncles Flight Lieutenant (later air Vice Marshal) Amjad Hussian, was also a F-104 Starfighter pilot of Number 9 PAF squadron. Presently, the Number 9 Squadron operates and flies the F-16 Fighting Falcons. 


On that sunny day of 23 March 1964, the sleek shinning F-104s roared past over us with its peculiar thundering voice and the entire arena applauded for having seen the Starfigher for the first time in their lives, and that also included me as well. It was the same aircraft, which broke the sound barrier around 11 AM on 6 September 1965 - a thunderous noise that announced the breaking out of war between India and Pakistan. I was in school when the sound barrier was broken and it was soon after that our school was closed and we were all sent home.

A beautiful painting of  the farewell flight of the F-104 Starfighers in 1972, after serving PAF for 11 years [Photo: PAF ]  

The F-104s continued to serve Pakistan Air Force for 11 years and were finally retired from service in 1972 mainly because of the want of spares as back in the OEM, the production of F-104s has been since ceased. The Starfighers flew for the last time in an impressive air show from the Masroor air base in Karachi. Many heavyhearted airmen and officers of No 9 Squadron witnessed the farewell flight, some of them served in the Squadron for two wars. From among the Squadron's veteran pilots, the two took up the Starfighters for the last time.

Those who have seen this majestic aircraft zooming past the skies during the 60s would cherish the memories of this wonderful aircraft the Pakistan Air Force had the honour to fly for more than a decade. Even when I watched the F-16s and the JF-17 Thunder during the 23 March parades on many occasions, these aircraft reminded me of the day when I first saw a supersonic aircraft for the first time in my life - a day the memories of which I still cherish.

It may be added here for the information of my readers that the PAF's F-104s were somewhat unique. While being the lightest among the starfighters in combat configuration, the more powerful J-79-IIA engines gave them additional manoeuvre energy. The 20mm Galling gun, retrofitted to the PAF's F-104s by specific request, also added to the fighter's combat effectiveness. 

The sound of the Starfighters F-104 [YouTube]

Many celebrated PAF pilots like Air Chief marshal Jamal A Khan, Air Vice Marshals Farooq Umar, Amjad Hussain and Abbas Mirza, Air Commodores Rashid Bhatti and Amanullah Khan have had the honour of flying the F-104s. Flight Lieutenants Tariq Majeed and Abasi and Wing Commander M L Middlecoat were lost along with their aircraft. 
The Starfighters Farewell Flight

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