Mianwali – The Cradle of Fighter Pilots

Alan Warnes visits Mianwali, where all PAF pilots go to learn to fly fast jets.

FOR THE Pakistan Air Force pilots arriving at Mianwali, situated in the desert scrub some 200 miles (320km) south of Islamabad, the next 20 months are destined to shape the rest of their lives. Becoming a fighter pilot in Pakistan is not just a great honour — it earns candidates a special place in the hearts of their countrymen. They become part of an elite group who put their country before their personal wealth, something which is becoming a rarity in today’s world.

The successful new pilots will find that their dream of flying the F-16 — the most prestigious aircraft in the PAF — or even the JF-17 Thunder has become a real possibility. However, the hard work has only just begun and for some who enter the ‘Cradle of The Fighter Pilots’, as Mianwali is known, it will end in tears. Though many will pass the stringent tests that lie ahead, others will fail to make the grade.

All PAF pilots begin by attending the PAF Academy at Risalpur, where they will spend three-and-a-half years training to be an officer. As part of the pilot syllabus, they will undergo 50 hours of primary flying training (PFT) on Super Mushshaks, during which they are expected to show their instructors that they have the initiative and skills to fly an aircraft. Successful candidates move on to the basic flying training (BFT) stream, flying another 125 hours in the Cessna T-37C or the K-8 Karakorum. During the BFT phase, student pilots will be expected to demonstrate good airmanship in a jet and a limited amount of fighter skills.

‘Cradle of Fighter Pilots’

Experienced aviators posted to the 37th Combat Training Wing (CTW) at Mianwali take on the enormous responsibility of ensuring that potential fighter pilots are trained to a level at which they will be capable of carrying out the air defence of Pakistan in years to come. At Mianwali, the 37th CTW Commanding Officer, Group Captain Khawaja Abdul Majeed, has four squadrons under his control, three of which fulfil a training role, flying about 250 hours per squadron per month, and a fourth, flying Alouettes in a Search and Rescue role.

The first of the three training units that the new arrival will attend is the 1st Fighter Conversion Unit, flying the Chinese-built FT-5, which has been operational with the PAF since 1975. If all goes well, they will move on to 18 or 19 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) flying Chengdu F-7Ps. There are 12-15 instructors per squadron (Qualified Flying Instructors [taught at Flying Instructor School] on 1 FCU and Instructor Pilots on the OCUs) and all maintain combat-readiness by taking on additional training syllabi themselves in between teaching. During a time of war these aircraft will be used to protect Pakistan’s skies, and during the increased tension with India in 2002, the units at Mianwali were on alert to do just that.

«Initial pilot training is very important to us — we use a ‘building block’ approach,» the Mianwali Base Commander, Air Commodore Tahir Rafiq, told AFM. «Having flown the Super Mushshak in the 100-110 knots bracket, they (students) then move on to the T-37 (200 knots), then the FT-5 in the 300 knots bracket, and finally the Chengdu F-7P (400-550 knots), which when completed means you are close to operational readiness».

Advanced Flying Training

You might find it strange to hear that the PAF still carries out advanced flying training on a 1950s-era Chinese built MiG-17, referred to by the Chinese as the FT-5, but that is the case. No reliance on sophisticated systems here — it’s back to the basics in an analogue cockpit.

Students fresh from the PAF Academy are taught the basics of fighter flying with the 1 FCU. Air Cdr Tahir summed up the gap between the first classes at the 1 FCU and graduation from the Academy, telling me: «Advanced flying training is where pilots with basic flying training add basic fighter skills».

Once they are competent in flying fighters, young pilots will fly between 10 and 12 hours in the tandem FT-5 before being deemed good enough to fly solo. The ‘building block’ approach continues – go solo, make mistakes and then learn from debrief, go as a dual-ship formation and then debrief, and so on. There are between 28 and 30 students on a course — the attrition (axed from course) rate is about 15%.

This usually concerns those who have graduated from the Academy as borderline cases and given a chance to progress. While some students fail, a small number might excel at the 1 FCU due to the different environment and from not having instructor pilots watching their every move, though it is likely that any shortcomings they might have will emerge while undergoing the OCU and that these will eventually catch up with them before they can graduate from Mianwali.

«A small number might also fail with 18 and 19 OCU not because they are bad pilots but because in a new environment they might not feel confident about understanding the mechanics of fighter flying, whereas until then they could have been fine on basic flying manoeuvres and some tactical flying,» said Air Cdr Tahir. Pilots such as these will still get the chance to fly helicopters or Hercules. Each course lasts around six to eight months, and there are usually about three courses with each squadron over two years. Add the extra-curricular flying by the instructors and you soon realise that there is a serious amount of flying going on at Mianwali most days.

Flying Never Stops At Mianwali

Early last year the PAF Air Academy took delivery of an additional six K-8s, boosting the K-8 inventory to 12, and enabling the aircraft at Risalpur to take on some aspects of the 1 FCU course. There are many advantages of operating the K-8 in the advanced flying training phase. Firstly, pilots do not need re-training on how to fly the FT-5 after leaving the Academy, which will save some 40% of valuable time on the course. Secondly, K-8s can be equipped with air-to-air weapons and air-to-ground weapons that the FT-5 cannot carry, with the result that some of the weapons course is now carried out at the Academy. As deliveries of the 33 K-8s the PAF now expects to receive (instead of 72 as previously announced) steps up, more training will be carried out at Risalpur. Eventually, in 2007, when all the aircraft have been delivered, the K-8 will take over the FT-5’s advanced flying training role and be transferred to Mianwali.

Following the 1965 war between Pakistan and India, the Base Administration at Sargodha set about converting a deserted landing strip at Mianwali into an improved and fully-developed operational base. Intended to act as Sargodha’s diversionary airfield, it became operational during the 1971 Indo-Pak War.

By August 1974, Mianwali had become a fully-fledged operational air base, primarily to conduct flying training. In June 1977 when the 37th CTW was formed there, it had on strength the 1st Fighter Combat Unit (FCU) and one OCU — 14 Sqn – operating F-6s, then the PAF’s main front line fighter. No.1 FCU, equipped with FT-5s, had moved into Mianwali from Masroor in November 1975, and had been followed by 14 Sqn in November 1976 to carry out operational conversion of the pilots on F-6s. After graduating over 100 pilots, 14 Sqn moved to Minhas in August 1986 and re-equipped with F-16s, while 25 Sqn was moving out of Sargodha into Mianwali with F-6s. In 1990, with 95 F-7P/FT-7Ps on order and one squadron (20 Sqn) already converted. 19 Sqn, then still re-equipping, was moved to Mianwali to act as an OCU for those pilots due to convert on to the PAF’s latest mount. It began its first course in September 1991. The swopping-out of units however, did not stop there and in January 1996, 25 Sqn relocated to Minhas and re-equipped stepped up, a second F-7P unit. 18 Sqn, moved in from Rafiqui, in December 1998 to share the workload, becoming the second F-7P OCU at Mianwali.

No.1 FCU was assigned a wartime role in 1987 and took on a secondary air defence role in April 1988. As recently as October 2003, the FT-5s went on a live firing exercise in which they fired the infrared AIM-9P Sidewinders at drones and other targets.

Preparing For Combat Readiness

For those who make it through the Advanced Flying Training, the next step is a posting to either of the co-located 18 or 19 OCU for operational conversion to the F-7P, as most of the new pilots leaving Mianwali will generally be posted to an operational F-7P squadron. At the OCUs, the instructor pilots are responsible for getting the rookie pilots closer to an operational level of flying. To ensure this, pilots spend approximately 75 hours on either unit, learning how to fly an afterburning aircraft at high speed (400-550 knots) with instruments, as well as in tactical formations and learning the basics of close air support. There are more solo missions in the F-7P than the FT-5, because the pilot has already learnt how to fly a fast jet. Time is also spent sharpening skills on the F-7P simulators acquired in 1995/6. which are housed with 19 OCU. Once the pilot has flown 20-30 sorties over the six to eight months spent with the OCU, he or she (the PAF has just started to recruit female pilots) should be almost combat ready. Although they would normally go to an F-7P unit there have been times when students were posted to the newer F-7PG with double-delta wings, or to the A-5 Fantan in the air-to-ground role, which takes another 50-60 hours.

Like most westernised air forces (the PAF’s heritage has a huge RAF influence) flying training plays a very big part in the Pakistan Air Force. Although the new fighter pilots might think they have made if when they graduate from Mianwali, the PAF’s ‘second Academy’, they will be very much mistaken. As the Mianwali Base Commander. Air Commodore Tahir Rafiq put it: «If you were to measure the fighter skills of a pilot leaving here, they would probably be graded at between four and five out of ten. They have a long way to go. When combat-ready on a squadron, you reach levels six to seven, and then if you get to graduate from Combat Commanders School at Sargodha, you get to between seven and nine. No one reaches ten – only God is perfect».

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