HERITAGE: CRASH-LANDING ON WALTON

Published June 6, 2021
Aircraft, Air Traffic Control Tower and, in the far background, air force housing on land that once belonged to the Flying Club
Aircraft, Air Traffic Control Tower and, in the far background, air force housing on land that once belonged to the Flying Club

I have two abiding memories of the Walton aerodrome. This first is from 1956, or the year after. I would have been four or five. Driving with my uncle, the doctor, in his Austin, just the two of us, we came to an old house where my uncle sat in the living room and chatted with another doctor, a European.

Besides a servant or two, there was no one else in the house and I, wearying of things I did not understand, wandered off into the large garden outside. Through a gap in the hedge, I saw several planes parked by a steel wall. Today I know that would have been the wall of an aircraft hangar.

I poked about the clearly junked planes before clambering into the open door of one. Up the inclined aisle, I walked past dancing cobwebs, between tattered seats with more metal than upholstery, into the cockpit. I took one seat, grabbed the steering wheel and, producing sounds of engines, flew the giant machine into the blue welkin above. As the craft flew, I stood by the side window to watch the landscape unfold way beneath me.

I do not recall how long I flew over a very interesting world of rivers and forests before my uncle startled me. ‘Good job. You’ve flown long. Let’s go home now!’

Plaque outside the Ultralight Sports Flying Club hangar
Plaque outside the Ultralight Sports Flying Club hangar

The next time I saw Walton aerodrome was perhaps three or four years later, when I came with my mother to receive a cousin of mine, for this was the first international airport of Lahore. In 1962, they shifted the airport to a place in the cantonment, which for some inexplicable reason was marked ‘Fish Tanks’ on an old map of the area. Walton, again, became as it had started out in the beginning: a flying club.

Once the paramount aviator training institution in the country, the Walton aerodrome is yet another piece of our heritage that is about to be erased in the name of development

In the 1960s, I would cycle to Walton to watch bright orange gliders, hauled by an antiquated military vehicle with the lettering ‘Dodge Power Wagon’ on its bonnet cover. Once airborne, the pilot released the steel rope and flew free. Sometimes I would wonder if the pilots felt the same thrill I had experienced many years earlier, flying the aircraft which I now know was a DC-3 Dakota. Though the flying club has no gliders now, those who once took to the air in engine-less aircraft to acquire glider pilot licenses number a hundred and eighteen.

Rewind to the year 1930, when a group of aviators donated their personal holdings in this part of Lahore to establish the Punjab Flying Club. These gentlemen were Dr Gokal Chand Narang, Dr J.B. Sproull (a European resident of Lahore), Roop Chand and Sardar Bahadur Sir Sunder Singh Mijithia. On a grass strip, they began flying operations that year. By 1937, when the institution was renamed the Northern Indian Flying Club, it was spread over 156 acres of land. (Aside: over the years, much of this land was occupied by powerful agencies and turned into housing and offices. Today, the club holds less than a fifth of what it once owned.)

‘Lahore Flying Club since 1930’, lettering on the main hangar
‘Lahore Flying Club since 1930’, lettering on the main hangar

Come World War II and the flying club doubled as a military strip as well. Not long after, with Pakistan on the world map, the Quaid-i-Azam landed at Walton. The hangar today designated as the Ultralight Sports Flying Club (USFC) was used as a VIP lounge for the founder of Pakistan. Others of his followers also graced this building, according it premium position in Pakistan’s built heritage.

Post-independence, the Lahore Flying Club became the paramount aviator training institution of the country and, today, some 80 percent of the pilots flying for Pakistani airlines have passed through its doors on their way to the skies. Not only that, until 1952, 80 cadets of the Royal Pakistan Air Force, as it was then known, got their initial flying training here.

From the Walton runway flew Orient Airways, Pak Air and Crescent Air Transport, which were eventually to be merged into one that we today know as Pakistan International Airlines. In more ways than one, the Walton aerodrome, or the Lahore Flying Club if you please, has made much history in Pakistan.

With a respectable number of privately owned aircraft and trainee pilots, the club was just about breaking even — this because it receives no government funding. Trainee pilots pay a certain amount per hour to fly, and the club needs to have 200 hours of flying to generate enough funds to pay its staff. As for the salaries, they are nothing less than a joke. A trained aircraft mechanic earns 18,000 rupees per month, and the chief instructor makes just over 100,000 rupees! For most of these persons, keeping the club flying is a labour of love.

Duped by a glib land grabber, the government has agreed to shift the flying club in order to turn this beautiful open space with trees into concrete. For beginners, they have prohibited flying from Walton. No flying means no funds — that should effectively asphyxiate the institution. There are airy-fairy plans to shift the club to Muridke, outside Lahore. In the meanwhile, there is talk of forcing the club to remove its aircraft, spare parts and equipment to Faisalabad where, without a hangar and storage facilities, all will be at the mercy of the elements. All this equipment is worth several hundred million rupees.

The main hangar with massive gates
The main hangar with massive gates

The schemes to shift to Faisalabad or Muridke are, at best, hare-brained. Consider: the mechanics with their meagre salary will hardly be able to maintain the daily commute out and back. Some of these men are second-generation employees, who will certainly become jobless. If anything, the government owes them the gratitude to let them continue in their profession.

Consider those great men from landed families only 100 years ago who donated their personal holdings to create what eventually became the Lahore Flying Club. And loathe now those who began as clerks and coolies and made big money by sucking up to powerful men who now wish to destroy a legacy for a few more rupees in their already bloated bank accounts. Old money and new simply have no comparison.

We who recite Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s name as if it comes from scripture will not hesitate to tear down a building where he had rested his tired body after a journey from Delhi to Lahore. We almost did the same with Faletti’s Hotel and the room where Jinnah had stayed while attending court in Lahore back in the 1920s. But then pressure from those who care for this once-beautiful city prevented the destruction of that historic hotel.

Can we once again do the same to save a priceless piece of our heritage that we do not own? This is what we have rightfully borrowed from generations of the future and to whom we have to pass it on.

Postscript: Dr Sproull, a dentist, is listed as the second secretary of the flying club, serving from 1941 to 1948. Could it have been this gentleman that my doctor uncle had gone to see some years later, taking me along so that I could give myself the ride of my life?g

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. He tweets @odysseuslahori

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 6th, 2021

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