After the eventful series of flights in the Karakorams to validate the microlight’s performance while preparing for our much delayed charity project "Flight for Life", the endeavor had sadly slowed down to a grinding halt by the unending bureaucratic complacency of a few countries. We were not to let bureaucratic problems discourage or force us abandon our noble project. On the contrary it did not bring any relief to our families, who would rather have had it buried, thus ending their apprehensions of the dangers in such an adventure. It would be foolish to bang head on into an obstacle that may come our way instead find a way around or over it; A lesson learnt the hard way! Our mission had over the years grown too important for our ego and passionately committed to it, yet we were mindful of it being destroyed by frustration. None of our previous flying adventures had been in ideal weather conditions; call it defiance of logic, common wisdom or blame it for cashing on an opportunity; it is history now.
As a sequel to our memorable exploration of the far reaches of Karakoram Mountain Range in a micro light aircraft during August 2001, Chitral, yet another of Pakistan's picturesque valleys was since long; beckoning. Finally on 28th November 2003, during the Eid-ul-Azha holidays (Marking the end of Holy Month of Ramadan) we found time to make an attempt. It was a beautifully clear and sunny day, not a speck of cloud with unlimited visibility. The weatherman at Islamabad and Chitral had forecasted good weather with fair winds all day long.
For those who are not familiar with this beautiful valley tucked in the rugged and stunning embrace of Hindukush Mountains. It lies at an elevation of (3,700 ft). Trichmir (25,550 ft) the highest peak of the Hindukush mountain dominates northern end of this 322km long exotic valley. Afghanistan borders it on its North, South and West. In the north a narrow strip of Afghan territory, Wakhan, separates it from Tajikistan. Chitral attracts mountaineers, anglers, hunters, hikers, naturalists, Polo lovers and anthropologists from all over the world. Famous tourists’ attractions of Chitral include the adrenalin pumping Shandur Polo Tournament during July at the highest and most spectacular Polo ground in the world, located at 12300 feet.
The Kalash valleys-the home of the Kafir-Kalash or "Wearers of the Black Robe" a primitive pagan tribe. Their ancestry is controversal and shrouded in mystery. A legend says that five soldiers of the legions of Alexander of Macedon settled in Chitral and are the progenitors of the Kafir-Kalash.
In winters from early November to end March, snow over Lowari Pass (10,000 feet high) isolates it from down country. Although another road link through Afghanistan through the realm of afghan war lords remains open. Weather permitting; a couple of subsidized daily flights by Pakistan Airlines aging Fokker F-27 remains the lifeline.
Wiser from our past experience in the mountains we took off early from Islamabad in our Shadow Star Streak microlight. We had dressed for the cold in polafleece socks, thermal undergarments and gloves. Cold draughts through the numerous leaks in the cockpit, a relief in summers however becomes a nuisance in winters.
The air was reassuringly smooth while climbing to 10,000 feet, en route crossing the elongated shaped 50 miles long lake of Tarbela Dam (Worlds largest earth filled dam in mid 1970’s). North wards in the far distance we could see the towering snow capped Himalayas and Karakoram mountains ranges and to the northwest loomed the Hindukush range. One hour into the flight we flew over the famous Swat Valley, speckled with the golden and red hues of fall. Through our headsets Yanni's music blending with the vista. Soon after crossing Swat valley 30 miles ahead the unmistakable snow covered deep V of Lowari Pass (10,500 feet) appeared. We climbed to 11500 feet to allow a reasonable safety margin; mindful of notorious down draughts at the pass.
Below the barren landscape (due to indiscriminate logging) changed to snow covered pine forests. 15 miles from the Lowari pass which now appeared to be at almost at eye level and below we could see the snaking road sharply zigzagging up to the pass. It was getting cold, with outside temperature at minus 9°C degrees. Flying over the pass we could make out a gang of workers shoveling the snow. Crossing a high pass is akin to swallowing a lump in ones throat with a feeling of anxiousness and relief! Safely across, valley of Chitral stretched below us. Chitral our final destination still 30 miles away. Slowly began descending to avoid over cooling the engine, but at the same time to defrost our extremities. We looked around for signs of wind, hoping to spot smoke in the sparsely inhabited landscape. Suddenly to our surprise and forecast, we felt the buffets and noticed the ground speed slowed by 15 miles an hour. We established radio contact with the control tower 8 miles short of the airport, warning us of three quarters cross wind gusting from 30 to 35 miles an hour; an eventful arrival in waiting!
The 5000ft runway at Chitral located at mouth of a twisting gorge with single approach for landing due to a steep hill at its northern end. The control tower radioed to watch out for a Fokker F-27 stranded due to the wind, it was time to brace our selves for a roller coaster ride. A few hundred yards short of the threshold a severe down draught caught us; only with full power barely managed to cross the security fence around the runway. Expecting a hard touch down, which surprisingly turned out to fairly smooth, or perhaps it felt it that way!! Bhangoo prompted for compliments; unamused by Ajab's chuckle in relief. Taxing in such cross wind to the apron would have been like wind surfing our minimalist machine. The control tower was radioed for help, who sent a fire tender. We got out while the firemen held on to the wings pushing the Star Streak to sanctuary created by arranging fire tenders on two sides to act as windbreakers. The staff at the airport came trickling out, curious for a closer look at our home built machine. In apparent disbelief they asked, if we flown this contraption from Islamabad (no offense to David Cook’s design) then glanced at the stranded Fokker for comparison! They quizzed our logic, why would some one want to fly such a thing to Chitral, when it could be comfortably undertaken in the comfort of a larger machine. The same question can asked from mountaineers or extreme sportsmen for their motivation. Perhaps the answer lies in the adrenalin rush and high one gets at the safe climax of such pursuits. The feeling of brief euphoria is invariably experienced alone with memories for sharing with like-minded souls in posterity.
We waited in the airport’s cozy lounge (courtesy Chitral Scouts) for the wind to slow down sipping hot tea and savoring light snacks. With pressing engagements the following day, we had no intention of being stranded to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. One advantage of the microlight is their ability for short take off and landing. Therefore we could to take off in the cross wind instead of tail wind and yet be able to turn back well short of smashing into the hill at the end of the runway. Anticipating the return climb over the Lowari pass to be long due to the tail winds, we required additional fuel. It is unforgivable to run out of fuel due to bad flight planning.
Off we went searching for unadulterated fuel at the local gas stations, a scarce commodity in winters. We located one seemingly modern gas station, took the owner in confidence to testify, if his stock was adulterated as it meant endangering two lives. We preferred to wait instead of playing Russian roulette with adulterated fuel. After his assurance and comparison of the fuel with our sample, we took fifteen liters (sufficient for an additional hour). Back at the airport, quickly refueled and waited all ready to hop in the microlight whenever the wind dropped below 20 miles per hour. Meanwhile we chatted with the Fokker pilot. He told us that at that elevation and available runway, the maximum allowable tail wind component was 10 knots. Around 2 pm the wind had slowed to 15 knots and the Fokker pilot instructed 15 passengers to be off loaded. We watched it roar down the 5000-foot runway, successfully lifting off with 1500 feet of runway remaining. We quickly followed suite after a quick good-bye to the hospitable airport staff, taxing well past the threshold. We were airborne in less than 400 feet and banking sharply to the right to have sufficient room for a 180-degree turn before end of the runway. The air was turbulent but acceptable as the Star Streak despite its diminutive size handles very well in turbulence. Now our worry was the climb to 12000 feet in strong tail wind conditions. Extra fuel was indeed very comforting and we spiraled into a climb were the valley permitted.
Thirty minutes later we were at 12000 feet and made a bee line for the pass. Crossing it uneventfully, we descended to 8000 feet maintaining high cruise speed to reach Islamabad, legally 30 minutes before sunset. On the right the setting sun bathed the mountains with a beautiful reddish hue. Return flight was smooth except that the GPS would momentarily freeze. We safely landed at Islamabad airport two hours after leaving Chitral, another memorable experience.
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All photos and article from Ajab Khan