Memoirs of a pilot

‘Random Recalls’ by Air Commodore (r) Abdul Wajid Salim (Sitara-e-Jurat) is a memoir, filled with stories from his time in PAF

By Munazza Siddiqui
June 17, 2024
A representational image of the cover ofAir Commodore (retd) Abdul Wajid Salim's "Random Recalls" book. — ajnbooks website/File

Memoirs can serve as the missing pieces of history, especially in countries where public discourse is constrained by sanitized or curated narratives. They not only enrich the historical tapestry but also promote a more truthful and inclusive account of a nation’s past.


‘Random Recalls’ by Air Commodore (r) Abdul Wajid Salim (Sitara-e-Jurat) is one such memoir, filled with anecdotes and stories from his time in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and later in the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of Pakistan. The book spans over three decades of his service, providing a blend of humorous, harrowing and thought-provoking tales that offer a glimpse into military and aviation life.

The book is a compilation of some of his more memorable flying missions around the world, his experiences as a flight navigator, provost marshal and much more. Having logged in over 6,000 flight hours, the mission details are interspersed with issues such as mid-air clash of egos, the fears and the uncertainties of tackling dangerous terrain, the desire to complete the mission despite odds and the in-flight humour that saves the day.

Two events detailed in the book offer interesting vantage points: the fall of Dhaka and the rise of Arab decadence. The turmoil of 1971 was aggravated by Bhola, one of the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded, also known as the Great Cyclone of 1970. It struck the then East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal in November 1970, leaving well over 300,000 dead and a loss amounting to millions of dollars. It is still one of the world’s deadliest humanitarian disasters.

At a time when we are witnessing record temperatures, the world seems to have forgotten about Bhola, and what climate devastation can actually look like. Running C-130 sorties in that weather was not for the faint-hearted. It fell on the skills of the navigator to weather those storms.

There are also details of Mission Jaisalmer carried out on the night of 5/6 December 1971. It was a bombing mission against an Indian Air Force Base in Rajasthan in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire. Another part of our history that fades in and out of our collective memories is the US arms embargo imposed on Pakistan soon after the 1965 war on account of “Pakistani use of American military supplies against India”. The book has an interesting chapter on how Pakistan turned to China and Russia after our US-origin aircraft fleet was grounded due to American restrictions.

The sense of mortality that tends to overwhelm a memoir is exactly what also makes it an honest read. Nothing makes a person acknowledge the positive traits of the enemy more than the precariousness of war. Before India stopped overflights by all Pakistani aircrafts, civil and military, our planes on their weekly mail-run to former East Pakistan were required to make a stop at either Delhi or Nagpur for customs inspections. During one such stop, the author and his team witnessed the arrival of Indian Prime Minister Prime Indira Gandhi, without fuss and without protocol. The simplicity with which that VVIP arrival was handled impressed many that day, writes the author.

He also witnessed firsthand the upheavals in the Middle East during the early 1970s. The book offers insights into how the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OAPEC) oil embargo on the USA and European allies changed the course of Arab monarchies overnight. Their newfound petrodollar wealth triggered a buying frenzy the world had never seen before, and brought out some not-so-good traits in them like arrogance and greed. Perhaps, that’s exactly why Arab monarchies get along so well with the US. Just as the US went from barbarism to decadence without living through enlightenment, the medieval societies of the Middle East were catapulted into the 20th century by sudden wealth.

A thread that runs throughout the book is the multifaceted role of C-130 aircraft in the history of Pakistan. This utilitarian and versatile aircraft is often ignored for the sleek fighter jets. But the book appreciates the C-130 for the critical roles it has played in transport, military and humanitarian missions.

It’s natural to wonder if pilots and air navigators ever get to have strange encounters. Surely enough, halfway through the book, the author mentions his ‘close encounters of a special kind’ with unidentified aerial objects above the skies of Birmingham (UK), Sibbi (Pakistan) and a couple of other places. Were they real? Hard to say, but the author does state the impossibility of a celestial body rising from the west, or that “the object was not visible to radar, it was 1966 and stealth technology had not been developed at that time.”

Overall, Random Recalls is an easy-to-read book that will appeal not only to aviation enthusiasts but also to general readers interested in military memoirs. The book is sprinkled with navigator wisdom: about desire and destiny, about how a navigator is never lost, only unsure of his position, about how a man with complexes makes a poor leader and how good leaders leave behind even better legacies.

The writer is an executive producer at Geo News. She tweets/posts