A year or two before the Partition, Jinnah would tell the Muslim industrialist Habib Rahimtoola that he wished to form a Muslim airline:
‘Habib’, he said, ‘I want an airline which will be the reserve for the Pakistan Air Force. By starting an airline you will employ technical staff. You will have pilots. You will have navigators. You will have all these people, all trained technicians. They will be my reserve for my Air Force’.
Or so recalled the one-time senior PIA executive Enver Jamall in his 1980s memoir. One cannot be certain if Jinnah ever said those words—civil aviation remains so intertwined with nationalism that the two are difficult to disentangle, even today. But that is exactly what my new research project on the early years of Pakistani civil aviation sets out to do. Using private and public sources both in Pakistan and abroad, my project explores the contours of civil aviation in Pakistan in its early years, and its relationship to the state and the nation-building project.
Passengers and bystanders with an Orient Airways Douglas DC-3 on the occasion of the arrival of the Burmese High Commissioner to India at Calcutta, October 1947.
The outline of the early years of Pakistani civil aviation are well known. The first airline to operate out of Pakistan was Orient Airways, formed in late 1946 by a group of leading Muslim industrialists, prominently Mirza Ahmed Ispahani. Initially based in Calcutta, the airline shifted its operations to Karachi in October 1947, and remained Pakistan’s leading airline until it was folded into the newly formed Pakistan International Airline Corporation in 1955.
The period from 1947 to 1955, I am discovering, was an exciting and turbulent time for Pakistani aviation. The fledgling Pakistani airlines–which included, as well as Orient, Yusuf Haroon’s airline Pak Air Limited and the non-scheduled charter airline Crescent Airways–struggled through a wide range of challenges. On the technical front, civil aviation had to contend with a shortage of trained personnel and spare parts, challenging maintenance logistics and rapid technological change. Other than Karachi, civilian aerodromes were crude and increasingly unsuited to the new generation aircraft entering service by the early 1950s. The relationship with the state was a difficult one—there were heavy government demands in times of emergency, and following several prominent crashes, increased government and public concerns over safety. Pakistani aviation moreover could not function without foreign assistance. British, and later American, technical support was crucial to the running of aircraft and aerial facilities. Perhaps most galling for the country’s civilian and military leadership, aeroplanes connecting East to West Pakistan needed to land and resupply in India.
The era of private civil aviation officially ended with the formation of the state- controlled Pakistan International Airline Corporation in 1955. How and why this came to be is an important aspect of my project. What pressures and opportunities pushed the state toward the creation of a state airline, and what was its relationship to the nation and nationalism more broadly? The project also explores the international context, particularly technical assistance programs by the United States, and international civil aviation (including in post-colonial states).
Waqar Zaidi is Assistant Professor at the MGSHSS.
This article was first published in the MGSHSS newsletter, 'Guftugu'.