Saturday, January 16, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: FLIGHT OF THE FALCON Story of a Fighter Pilot by S. Sajad Haider

PUBLISHED In Daily Times / 16 Jan 2010 & the PROBE & Posted in CHOWK

Sajad Haider’s (SJ) name made headlines, both in war and peace. The former remains his legacy, faithfully revisited every September. The latter became a fleeting moment in history, which no one talks about. This story would be incomplete without either - its shock and awe value – lessened, considerably. But when Haider’s debut novel - Flight of the Falcon, sets out to demolish myths of Indo-Pak wars 1965 & 1971, several other fine illusions became collateral damage in the process.

His legendary exploits during battle, notwithstanding, Haider’s fall from grace was swift. A recurring role in controversies (domestic and international) plagued his professional career. Refusal to conform caused its premature end. Out of these extraordinary, if unorthodox life experiences, is born a story that flaunts the unwritten code of silence typically held sacrosanct.

Haider saw action in both wars as commander of a fighter squadron (‘65) and a tactical fighter wing (‘71). Speaking from such a unique vantage point has advantages. It has been used to assess PAK military operations and political adventurism of that era. This fact finding mission clears away prevalent misconceptions about PAF’s alleged lacklustre performance in ’71 - indicts top leadership (military and political) for ineptitude – cross references claimed kills (aerial) against recorded data and berates the system for letting air-brushed versions of history become impediments. It does so by amassing a repository of previously documented facts and figures from both sides of the border in the hope that this serves as a catalyst for ‘deeper more incisive probes’ in the future.

To call them ‘sensational revelations’ would be inaccurate, for our war time fiascos have spawned many books and articles by local and foreign observers alike – neutral or otherwise. Exhuming carefully crafted fairytales is not uncommon. Treading what was once considered to be hallowed ground has been in vogue for quite some time. The puzzle – in this case our history - comes together more easily with so many pieces to choose from. The issue is separating true historians on a quest for truth from vindictive pseudo analysts trashing institutions for sport. Now, all these versions compete for attention with another that has a personal stake in resurrecting old ghosts as Haider re-lives painful memories of his incarceration in the final half of the book to identify the burgeoning turmoil within his professional life that became a precursor to witch hunts against the crème de le crème of our PAF. But there is more to this cautionary tale of lost opportunities and political decay. ‘Flight of the Falcons’ vividly captures these magnificent men in their outnumbered flying machines at their finest – as creators of The Falcons Four (world class formation aerobatics team) and champions of air combat (65/71) war. It is a fitting tribute to the unsung heroes, martyrs and regular men in service for accomplishing what they did with whatever little they had.

Haider’s journey, from his most triumphant moments to the bleakest hours plays out like a Shakespearean drama where, according to one observer, he is a ‘maverick, top gun and Casanova’ rolled into one, forced to go through an obstacle course laid with incarceration, intrigues, and tribunals. And while one-sided versions, however committed to the pursuit of truth, require the occasional suspension of disbelief when shades of grey are carefully edited leaving the ‘shining armour concept’ intact, they are no less entertaining.

The writers 8 years spent in the business world could spawn a sequel; one that will go after the wheelers and dealers, or as he puts it, ‘crocodiles and piranhas’, who define the underbelly of ‘the Pakistani business world’. Someone who once told President Zia exactly what he thought of his regime should have no qualms about putting up an encore performance. Back in the day, Nosey – as he is referred to by his peers - stepped on powerful toes. Today, his book continues the tradition.

Since its launch in May 2009, Sajad Haider’s book has sent ripples across the nation and garnered responses from different parts of the world. The second edition has already been sold out and a third, revised version of Flight of the Falcon is under print. The upcoming edition has been further amended to include additional comments by the author where he reiterates his views about the 1965 and 1971 wars; revisits 6th of September to analyze, what he labels as command failures at Mauripur and Sargodha, and their contentious decision making process that resulted in the ‘avoidable loss of Sqn Ldr Sarfraz Rafiqui and Flt Lt Yunus Hussain’ – jewels in the PAF’s crown. An incident about Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas has also been updated. The botched hijack attempt has now been replaced with one attested by Grp.Capt. Zaheer Hussain - President of Air Investigation Board, who was also the officer in charge of the original investigation. The revised epilogue has been topped off with some scathing commentary - and the nuclear Godfather of the nation - Dr. AQ Khan does not come off well when it is over. The third edition is expected be on the shelves in about two weeks.

Acknowledgement: Thank you Darakhshanda Khurrum for the maverick comment. It got me in trouble but hey...:)

UPDATE: The Urdu Version of this book called "Shaheen Ki Parwaz" will be available from 5 Oct 2010

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