The late Maj Gen Naseerullah Babar was a legendary leader of officers and men who were fortunate to have served in the Pakistan Army. He was Commanding 3 Army Air Squadron at Dhamial Base in mid-1960s, while I was a 26-year-old brash young captain with an insatiable love for adventure. I got the first taste of his medicine when, to my ever-lasting shame, I mistreated two of his subordinates one night at the officers’ mess over a very trivial issue. Next morning, he had the book thrown at me, leaving an indelible mark on my dossier, much to my dismay.

Having started his flying career on light observation planes, he was selected to proceed to USA along with some of the best Army pilots for training as helicopter pilots when the U.S. govt. decided to give Pakistan 18 OH-13S 2/3 seat observation helicopters (tail numbers 639132 thru 639149). On returning to Pakistan, he raised 3 Army Avn Sqn and became its first CO. Although I was a mechanical engineer with a degree from an institute which later morphed into UET Lahore, on completion of my flying course in Feb 1967, I found myself in 1 Army Aviation Sqn, which enabled me to fly L-19s in various terrains and conditions, and in end-1968 got selected for a helicopter conversion course at Dhamial, along with seven Army and one PAF pilots.

Let us backtrack a little bit. In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, 3 Sqn’s helicopters were widely dispersed along the West Pakistan/Indian border and in Kashmir, and rendered yeomen’s support to the Pak Army. One day, Col. Babar was flying with Maj. Akram along the front lines in the Chamb/Jaurian sector when he saw a large group of soldiers. Taking them to be Pakistanis, they landed close by. To their horror, they soon realized the soldiers were Indian, not Pakistani. Instead of scooting away, Col Babar got out, drew his pistol, confidently walked up to them and said, “You’re surrounded by our troops, so lay down your arms!”. They meekly complied, and were marched off under his watchful eyes to the nearest Pak position, where they became POWs. Col Babar was awarded a well-deserved Sitara-e-Jurrat for his bravery, while Maj. Akram was awarded a Tamgha-e-Quaid-e-Azam.

In early July 1971, Henry Kissinger paid a visit to New Delhi and then to Islamabad. It was given out in the media that he been afflicted with the “Delhi Belly” (loose-motions) because of ingestion of some food or liquid, and he had been sent to recuperate at the NWFP (now KP) Governor’ House, Nathiagali. July 13th, I was told to position an OH-13S at the Base HQ to take a director from the Foreign Office to meet Kissinger. While I was sitting in Col Babar’s office, the director (Mr. Ahmad Kamal who later had an outstanding career in the Foreign Service) arrived accompanied by his PA. Since helicopter performance degrades substantially at high altitudes and temperatures, he wanted to summon a bigger and more powerful aircraft to take them to Nathia, but I said I could perform the mission, to which he reluctantly agreed. So off we went to the hills on a beautiful day. But then tragedy struck. While attempting to land on the lawn in front of the Governor House, I hit the near edge of the lawn, the damaged helicopter slid back before coming to rest. Luckily no one sustained any injury, nor did the fuel catch fire (in full view of the horrified US Ambassador and several other Americans). Deeply embarrassed, I phoned the Base Commander and apprised him of the accident. He just hung up. An hour later an Alouette with Col Babar on board arrived to rescue me. When asked by the US ambassador about what would happen to me, he said “Nothing, even the best pilots can have accidents.” Returning to Base, he told me, “Tomorrow, you and I will fly to Nathia!” We couldn’t fly the next day, but he told me to resume flying at Dhamial. When I said that as per the Base SOP I needed a check-ride with an instructor before I could fly again, he said, “The hell with the SOP! You go fly tomorrow and report compliance” (just like a fallen rider is told to get back on the saddle and resume riding). My CO, however, ticked me off for taking too many risks; the admonishment fell on deaf ears. In due course, I was produced before the Base Commander for disciplinary action. He let me off scot free, and later told my CO that he just did not have the heart to punish me lest it affect my career.

Kissinger had in fact been flown to China for an epochal opening up of a dialogue with the Chinese, which enabled President Nixon to visit China some months later. Pakistan’s role in facilitating these visits was duly acknowledged by the Americans.

Sometime later, Col Babar was promoted and took over command of Artillery of an infantry division. The 1971 war soon broke out, which found Brig Babar leading an infantry brigade assault on the Indians in Chamb area for which he was awarded his second S.J. In due course, he was promoted as GOC of an infantry division at Okara. After a short stint there, he was appointed Governor of NWFP. When Benazir became PM he became one of her trusted advisors, and later became Federal Interior Minister. Old timers will recall how he took on Nawab Akbar Bugti when he arrived to attend a National Assembly session along with a big band of gun-toting tribesmen. Gen Babar confronted Bugti and told him that he would be provided all the security that he desired, but there was no way that the tribal goons would be allowed to terrorise Islamabad. Bugti blinked.

In the mid-1990s, Karachi had been held hostage by the MQM goons and large segments of Karachi had been declared no-go areas. Gen Babar flew to Karachi, and armed only with his signature Mallaca cane and got the barriers removed in a short order. The MQM knew fully well that no dare mess with the General.

These are just a few episodes in the General’s marvelous career. I have always had tremendous respect for him. He passed away in Jan 2011. Large numbers of his friends and admirers attended a reference in the Islamabad Club; it was chaired by the late Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who was a legendry leader in his own right.

Rest in peace, General; you have set the bar very high for those who may try to emulate your gallantry. You will always be held in the highest esteem by all those who were fortunate enough to serve Pakistan with you. While you are no more in this mortal world, your legend will live on for ages.