Birth of a Nation, Birth of an Airline
Air transport has probably never been more important to the development of a new nation than in the case of Pakistan. In June 1946, when Pakistan was still in the offing, Mr. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Founder of the upcoming nation, instructed Mr. M.A. Ispahani, a leading industrialist, to set up a national airline, on a priority basis. With his singular vision and foresight, Mr. Jinnah realized that with the formation of the two wings of Pakistan, separated by 1100 miles, a swift and efficient mode of transport was imperative.
Orient Airways Takes to the Skies
On 23rd October 1946, a new airline was born. Initially registered as a pilot project in Calcutta, Orient Airways Ltd. had at its helm Mr. M.A. Ispahani as Chairman and Air Vice Marshal O.K. Carter as General Manager. The new carrier’s base remained in Calcutta and an operating license was obtained in May 1947.
Four Douglas DC-3s were purchased from Tempo of Texas in February 1947 and operations commenced on 4th June 1947. The designated route for Orient Airways was Calcutta-Akyab-Rangoon, which also happened to be the first post-war international sector to be flown by an airline registered in India. Within two months of Orient Airways’ operational beginnings, Pakistan was born. The birth of a new nation generated one of the largest transfers of population in the history of mankind.
Orient Airways, along with the help of BOAC aircraft which had been chartered by the Government of Pakistan, started relief operations and transportation of people between Delhi and Karachi, the two capitals. Subsequently, Orient Airways transferred its base to Pakistan and established a vital link between Karachi and Dacca, the two capitals of the two wings of Pakistan. With a skeleton fleet of just two DC-3s, three crew members, and twelve mechanics, Orient Airways launched its scheduled operations in a fairy-tale manner. The initial routes were Karachi-Lahore-Peshawar, Karachi-Quetta-Lahore and Karachi-Delhi Calcutta-Dacca. By the end of 1949, Orient Airways had acquired 10 DC-3s and 3 Convair 240s which were operated on these routes. In 1950, it had become increasingly apparent that additional capacity would have to be inducted to cater to the growing needs of the sub-continent.
A New National Flag Carrier for Pakistan
Orient Airways was a privately owned company, with limited capital and resources. It could not be expected to grow and expand independently. It was then that the Government of Pakistan decided to form a state-owned airline and invited Orient Airways to merge with it. The outcome of the merger was the birth of a new airline, through PIAC Ordinance 1955 on January 10, 1955.
In addition to transport activities, Orient Airways had established the nucleus of overhaul and maintenance facilities and acquired trained pilots, engineers and technicians, measures which proved to be a great asset for PIA during its teething phase.
PIA’s First International Service
The year 1955 also marked the inauguration of the fledgling airline’s first scheduled international service – to the glittering, glitzy capital city of London, via Cairo and Rome. Initially, there was much criticism, as the public could not comprehend or justify the need to operate an international route when, in their opinion, other projects vital for a developing country should have been given a higher priority. However, PIA’s focus was, and continues to be, to serve the Pakistani community at large. The provision of transportation to expatriates has remained one of the foremost priorities of the national airline. Moreover, PIA earned substantial foreign exchange through international services, which it invested in the purchase of aircraft and spare parts, as fleet expansion was a grave necessity for the airline.
New Planes, New Directions, New Management
In 1956, orders were placed for two Super Constellations and five Viscounts which were to be delivered in 1959. At this juncture, PIA possessed a small fleet which comprised of Convairs, Viscounts, Super Constellations and DC-3s.
While Mr. M.A. Ispahani was the first Chairman of the new dynamic airline; it was the first Managing Director of PIA, Mr. Zafar-ul-Ahsan, who in his 4 year tenure, got the ball truly rolling and set the shape of things to come. The PIA Head Office building at Karachi Airport, which houses all the major departments of the airline, was the brain-child of Mr. Zafar-ul- Ahsan. In fact, on his departure from the airline, the employees presented him with a silver replica of the building with the caption, “The House You Built”.
In 1959, the Government of Pakistan appointed Air Commodore Nur Khan as the Managing Director of PIA. With his visionary leadership, PIA ‘took off’ and within a short span of 6 years, gained the stature and status of one of the world’s frontline carriers. In aviation circles, this period has often been referred to as the “golden years of PIA”.
Development, expansion, and growth were keywords that the new management was committed to. In March 1960, PIA launched its first Boeing 707 jet service on the London-Karachi-Dacca, route which later proved to be very successful. This trail-blazing accomplishment resulted in PIA becoming the first Asian Airline to operate a jet aircraft, setting trends for the future. In 1961, the airline took on the mammoth task of initiating a cross-Atlantic service from Karachi to New York. By this time, PIA had placed orders for more new aircraft, which included Fokker F-27s, Boeing 720Bs and Sikorsky helicopters. Helicopter services in East Pakistan had gained momentum by 1962 and expanded to include Sylhet, Chittagong, Dacca, Comilla and Ishurdi. PIA’s helicopter services carried over 70,000 passengers during the first year of operation. At the time, it was regarded as a stellar operation, equal to any other in the world. Unfortunately, due to two mishaps, the service was discontinued in 1966.
Historic Firsts and Unbroken Records
In 1962, finding the upper winds forecast favorable, PIA set out to break the record for the fastest flight between London and Karachi. With representatives of FAI (Federation Aeronautique International) on board to monitor the official timings, PIA completed the flight in 6 hours, 43 minutes, 51 seconds, a record which remains unbroken to this day.
In 1964, PIA achieved another historic first, regarded as a major milestones in the chequered history of the airline. On 29th April, 1964, with a Boeing 720B, PIA earned the distinction of becoming the first airline from a non-communist country to fly into the People’s Republic of China. PIA’s first service to China was from Karachi to Shanghai via Canton. In 1964-65, PIA expanded its fleet further with the addition of a fourth Boeing 720B and two Fokker F-27s. Serious development had become a reality and the PIA team continued to move ahead with ambitious plans and goals for the national flag carrier.
A collective pride and a joyous buoyancy was pervasive within the PIA family. Riding high on the crest of success, PIA became a household name in Pakistan in the mid sixties. The war between India and Pakistan, during 1965, further tested the national airline. PIA played a major role in providing logistical support to the Armed Forces by operating special flights using Boeings, Super Constellations, and Viscounts. The Founder of the Nation, Mr. Jinnah had predicted that the Pakistan Airforce would need the support of a civil airline in special circumstances, and this came into evidence during the war.
In 1966, a system of feeder services linking eight new points in West Pakistan was introduced. By this time, the airline’s Viscounts were proving inadequate owing to traffic growth, and had to be replaced by Tridents. The airline continued up the growth curve, receiving two Fokker F-27s, two Boeing 707s and one Trident in the following year.
Style, Glamour, and Charisma
Around this time, the airline saw a change in the top slot. Air Vice Marshal, Asghar Khan took over the reigns of PIA for a tenure of 3 years. A number of highpoints are attributed to this period. The most colourful, if not the most significant, occurrence for PIA was the introduction of a new air-hostesses’ uniform designed by none other than the renowned French designer, Pierre Cardin. Taking the aviation world by storm, this move, more than any other single factor, imprinted PIA’s name on the international market. The uniforms were an instant hit, both at home and abroad.
Safety Management System at PIA
PIA is the first airline to get certified (initial certification) on Safety Management System (SMS) by Civil Aviation Authority CAA – Pakistan. CAA Air Navigation Order (ANO 91.0032 issued in September 2008) binds all airlines operating in Pakistan to have SMS. Well before the issuance of this ANO, PIA initiated SMS awareness and implementation in July 2008. PIA awarded initial certification on SMS in 27th February 2009 by CAA.
The Pursuit of Excellence Through Technology and Quality Control
Not content with a number of historic firsts under its belt, PIA made history yet again, by installing Pakistan’s first computer, an IBM1401, in 1967. PIA’s first Engine Overhaul Shop, located near the Head Office building, was also completed and commissioned around this time. The Ground Training School (GTS) now known as the PIA Training Centre, was first conceived and developed during 1961-62. Interestingly, training was initially imparted in the T-shaped building which has now become the PIA Dispensary, close to the Head Office building.
Besides visible development and growth in traffic and revenues in the sixties, PIA added additional destinations, new equipment, and cutting-edge technology to support its ever expanding operations. A new Jet Hangar for Boeings with a supporting airframe overhaul shop was completed and commissioned in 1968.
In 1970, PIA set up its own Flight Kitchen in Karachi, which caters, even today, to the national airline as well as other carriers. Over the years, with the airline’s expansion and increased capacity, the need for a second Flight Kitchen became imperative.
Ushering In a New Era of Growth and Development
PIA heralded the nineties by donning a bright new corporate identity. Old-timers may remember the flutter that the earlier green and gold livery had created when it was first introduced in 1974. However, in keeping with the changing times, PIA introduced a smart, sporty 90’s look. The familiar PIA green was reinforced with moss green and pale blue stripes were incorporated into the new corporate identity. The stripes, a universal symbol of sport, highlighted PIA’s active participation and sponsorship of a diverse range of national games. PIA’s players have always been at the forefront of Pakistani Cricket, Hockey, Squash, Football, Chess, Bridge, Polo and Table-Tennis teams. The nineties also saw the expansion of PIA’s massive Haj and Umrah operations to Pakistan’s smaller cities, in addition to the major cities of Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Quetta and Karachi.
PIA’s growth continues unabated and the airline now operates globally, covering the entire domestic landscape and international destinations spread over 4 continents.
Impressive statistics for a comparatively young airline? Since its inception in 1955, PIA has indeed, come a long way.