The legacy of Wright brothers

May 31, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of “flying machines”, Walton being an alternative airport for emergency situations, and the need to keep habitats away from airports

Hijab Imtiaz, the first Muslim lady pilot ever.

The urge to be able to fly has always made man envy the birds. Ancient folklore, mythology and classic literature are full of stories of attempts to fly, sometimes tragic. Though some sort of gliders flew successfully, a real test flight of an aero plane, with an engine powered by gasoline in internal combustion system, had to wait till 1904, exactly a hundred years after the first steam powered railway rolled out.

It was in Ohio, USA, where the Wright brothers successfully flew a flying machine. (The life histories of Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) are available on various websites.) The occasion when their 82-year-old father accompanied them on a flight imploring his two sons to fly higher and higher would seem to be a piece of fiction. The senior brother was incapacitated in the 1908 accident in which Lt Thomas Selfridge was the first casualty in aircraft history. The junior however, was able to live to see the dream of humankind come to maturity. He saw their machines enter the jet age and even saw the ‘sound barrier’ breaking phenomenon. He died of a massive heart attack in 1948. The horror inflicted especially on the non-combatant civilians during the two wars and later the two atomic bombs delivered by the flying machines, must have taxed his thoracic health.

Railway and photography may have brought new explorations of topography, but airplanes raised the ‘eye-level’ perspective from a higher altitude. The invention’s potential as a speedy, travel vehicle was realised instantly. Airports soon became a necessary part of town planning, yet had to be far enough from the densely populated areas especially when many attempts resulted in accidents, sometimes fatal. Large strips had to be levelled to make runways for the planes to land as well as take off. Large tracks were cleared of ridges and plantations, and animals. The birds, in particular, had to be discouraged.

The task was somewhat different from freeing the railway tracks from the grazing, wandering animals. The age of lethal air-balloon ships filled with hydrogen gas was over.

The flying machines were instantly adopted and improved upon for transportation of cargo and humans to distant lands, even before they developed the ability to cross the seas separating the continents.

It was a great financial success. Its military potential too was realised early on. Hence, even the Ottomans established an air force during the Great War (as the first war was then called). Bombs tied with ropes were manually released over the intended targets as shown in the film Lawrence of Arabia.

An old man in 1973 told me in Syria that the unexploded eggs were taken away by the villagers to be hatched. Venturing on such early, ancient flying machines still was a very daring feat. With no protective gear for the eyes and no parachute to jump safely, it was only for the daredevils. This was matched by the vulnerability of the population of the cities, with no air sirens or warning system evolved till then.

Within a short span of time, most combating countries had air forces. Temporary airstrips and larger airports were developed with more stringent rules. Karachi airport was originally developed as the largest one in Asia. Of the three largest hangars in the world, one was in Karachi; it was sadly ordered to be demolished by Ayub Khan in 1960. During the WWII it had served to store and dispatch military hardware and personnel. After the WWII, millions of ‘war-surplus’ parachutes were sold in the flea markets for a pittance to be used in the outfitting of ‘shuttle-cock’ burkas. This fabric has remained a popular textile product ever since.

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In the western countries, where human life and dignity is more important, great care is taken to keep habitats away from the airports. Even Concorde planes were withdrawn upon public protests. Lately, the planned expansion of Heathrow Airport has become a rallying point for the civil society.

Flying clubs established for sports, adventure and training are constrained by strict safety rules the world over. Lahore too had been blessed with one as early as 1930. The legendary Hijab Imtiaz got training from London and a licence to fly after passing the requisite tests in 1936. Walton Airport, as it is called, was established far away from the city, in the forest land of Bhabra village opposite Model Town. The old trees and wild vegetation were removed and some structures were built for offices and residences of the staff and some hangars were provided. After partition it continued to serve as a flying club, besides allowing its airstrip to be used by three airlines namely Pak Air, Orient Airways and the Crescent Air Transport. All these were merged to form the national carrier i.e. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which soon became one of the leading airlines especially under the dynamic administration of Air Marshal Noor Khan.

Some 50 years ago, China bought four Trident planes (only four years old) from PIA. A dozen Pakistani pilots and some technicians and engineers trained the Chinese. But those were the days when the PIA were Great People to Fly With; maybe because the airlines had not been over-staffed on political grounds and merit was non-negotiable.

Presently, as claimed on its website, there are five single-engine small planes and some privately owned planes parked at the Lahore Flying Club. There is also a facility for chartered planes for those who can afford them. The Flying Club has started venturing beyond its original mandate. It seems to have grown into a business venture. At daybreak there are numerous small planes taking off from the strip, all fanning out and hovering over the neighbouring housing colonies. This creates gruesome noise pollution and there is always a lingering fear of these machines colliding and falling over the houses.

The fleet has no air ambulance. Indeed many dreadful and fatal accidents have left psychedelic scars on the peace-loving neighbourhood. All day long, the machines seem to be involved in ‘friendly’ dogfights among the learners. There is just nobody to complain to. The violators all belong to the moneyed class; ‘filthy rich’ would be a more appropriate epitaph in case of an eventuality.

A few of the planes have come down, and a door of at least one plane having flung open fell down. Gulberg III’s P Block too is an encroachment on the airstrip.

In the pre-Partition days, a small plane is said to have come down in the lawns of Hotel Metropole, where Wapda House now stands. The pilot was reportedly only trying to impress his girlfriend with its somersault moves.

True, the Walton was also envisaged as an alternative airport for any emergency situations. The area, once an outskirt of Lahore, has become the hub of commercial activities. With cheel gosht and other baits, birds and scavengers too have been attracted to the runway. Among the scariest of the air accidents, some are reported to have been caused by birds. The job of a bird shooter at the airports is the cruelest of all professions, said Mustansar Hussain Tarrar, the renowned playwright and travel writer.

Plantations at the Lahore airport, carried out by Mustafa Kamal’s off-shore horticultural company, based in Jamia Ashrafia, does not seem to have taken these safety factors into consideration. Disembarking passengers can be seen feeding the canines and birds the hardly edible meals served during the flights.

The recently allowed high-rises are also a risk factor. There seems to have been no attempt for placing some blinking lights on the buildings located on the route of take-off and landings. The expert helicopter flier, Imtiaz Uppal, in the dark of the night, having strayed near the border, had got his chopper entangled into a mosque minaret. He suffered multiple internal injuries before he died some fifteen days later.

The recent accident in Karachi has made people think about the causes, the central being human encroachments. Just imagine Asia’s largest airport surrounded by housing colonies on all sides. The enquiry team should hear the attendant cleaner Ijaz Masih who was an eyewitness to the two attempts made by the pilot of the ill-fated plane, about it landing over the residences of Model Colony just near the airstrip. “The pilot should have attempted to belly-land in the muddy area nearby,” was his opinion, based on pure street wisdom. The plane’s landing wheels just did not come out, he said.

The Wright brothers long studied the flight patterns of birds. A bird certainly does not ‘belly-land’. I too observed this while looking at images of houbara bustard depicted on the pottery pieces from Harappa Museum. But that was some 4,000 years before the newly rich Arabs started exterminating them.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Hijab Imtiaz Taj, the country’s foremost Muslim lady pilot)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

The legacy of Wright brothers