By S. M. Hali
Air Commodore Muhammad Mahmood Alam breathed his last on March 18, 2013 after a prolonged illness. He was buried with full military honours at the graveyard at PAF base Masroor, Karachi. M.M. Alam shot to fame during the 1965 Pakistan-India War, when on 7th September; he became the world’s first fighter’s ace in the jet-age. His name became emblazoned with golden letters forever in the annals of Pakistan’s history and he is remembered for his feats as a fighter pilot but little is known about Alam—the man.
Alam was a humble person and he never let fame and success swell his head, if anything it increased his humility and faith in the Almighty. During the 1965 War, I was a student of class VIII in PAF Public School Sargodha. After the war, I requested him for his autograph. He didn’t spurn me away and to this day I proudly carry his autograph, scribbled in a neat hand: “God is Great!” signed Muhammad Mahmood Alam.
The next encounter with him was in 1967, just after the Arab-Israeli War, when Alam came to deliver the Friday sermon at our school mosque. He was an outstanding orator and his speech was so full of vigour and fury as he spoke of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians that we youngsters became so charged that had he given the command, we would have marched to Israel to defend the faith.
Much later in life, I used to have numerous sittings with him and listen spellbound to his views on life, politics and professionalism. He shared with me that whereas remarkable fighter pilots like Rafiqui, Yunus, Alauddin, Munir and numerous others embraced shahadat, Allah did not grant him his wish to make the supreme sacrifice of his life in the defence of the nation, perhaps because he was destined to serve other purposes.
On 6th September, PAF’s plan to carry out a preemptive strike at Indian air bases simultaneously with a time on target (TOT) at 5:05 pm did not materialize since the strike aircraft at Sargodha were not ready on time while no 19 Squadron from Peshawar successfully struck Pathankot at the designated TOT. PAF pressed on with the attacks, despite the delays. Resultantly, having lost the element of surprise, Alam’s strike formation, heading for Adampur, was greeted by a vigilant formation of Hunters. In the ensuing air battle, Alam shot down one Hunter and extricated his formation. As Alam and his boys were returning, Rafiqui’s formation was exiting to attack Halwara, where Rafiqui and Yunus embraced shahadat. Alam’s faith in Allah and destiny was reinforced each day. Two days before the war, flying a reconnaissance mission over Jammu, his aircraft’s canopy was shattered by ground fire, but he continued the mission, destroying Indian heavy artillery and lived to fight another day.
The episode of downing numerous Hunters was no fluke; having flown the superior aircraft, he knew exactly where to outmaneuver it. During the rest of his service, Alam devoted his life to studying the latest tactics and strategy, sharing them with his juniors. Extremely frugal, he would support needy students and the poor. His departure from PAF too was melodramatic. Being a principled person, distressed by the air chief’s involvement in shady defence deals, he tried to apprise the reigning military dictator of the air chief’s transgressions. When the dictator responded that he was aware of it, Alam stated that he had come to ask him to take action against the air chief but if he (the dictator) chose to remain oblivious of the air chief’s misdeeds despite having full knowledge, then the dictator had no right to serve; Alam rendered his own resignation, spending his time teaching the Quràn to youngsters in a mosque. When the Soviets attacked Afghanistan, he participated in the Jihad, received serious injuries and returned. He continued his Spartan bachelor’s life, since he claimed to have been wedded to his profession. It was Air Chief Marshal Abbas Khattak, who tried to resurrect the veteran war hero, inviting MM Alam, to reside in any officers’ mess. He also asked him to address PAF personnel and motivate them. The legendary war hero kept his side of the bargain and wrote pamphlets on air combat and inspired aircrew all over Pakistan to give their very best. With his demise, Pakistan has lost a genuine warrior, who devoted his life to the service of the nation, sans any lust for power, pelf or authority, unafraid to express his opinion.