Nur Khan: A Tale of a Legend

Air Marshal Nur khan
Air Marshal Nur khan

Note: This article features Air Marshal(R) Nur Khan of Pakistan Air Force & his achievements.

Some people are so gifted and are so incredible that they can turn dust into gold with just the touch of their hands, one such remarkable personality is Nur Khan and his services to the state of Pakistan are unforgettable and priceless. Ever wondered why PAF in spite of being a small Air force has always done wonders in Air combat, PAF has kill records against India, Soviet Union, Afghanistan and even Israel.

PAF in its history was always outnumbered but never outgunned, PAF faced a numerically much larger and technologically much advanced adversary but even then against all those odds PAF rose to be the dominant force in Air and achieved Air superiority against all its enemies. The reason for such Excellency and professionalism in PAF is due to selfless efforts and sacrifices of two great gentlemen i.e Air Marshal Asghar Khan and Air Marshal Nur khan, both of them laid down such strong foundations for PAF that even today PAF is second to none and a force to be reckoned with.

Air Marshal Nur Khan was a true gentleman, soldier, statesman, sportsman and a perfect administrator. He was a Living legend a one man Army. Today we will shed some light on the life of Air Marshal Nur Khan and we will inform our nation of his heroics and services for the sake of Pakistan.

Early Life

Air Marshal Malik Nur Khan Awan was born on 2 February 1923 in the Tamman town located in the vicinity of the Chakwal District in Punjab, Pakistan. His family roots trace back to the family of Nawab of Kalabagh Amir Mohammad Khan. His father, Subedar-Major and honorary Army captain Malik Mihr Khan, served in the British Indian Army.

After Completing his education from the famed Aitchison College, he was accepted to join the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) at Dehra Dun where he secured his graduation. He performed exceptionally well in RIMC where his British principal once noted as:

“An excellent military family from a very military center. The boy has been well educated and is more advanced than many Awans of his age. He is physically fit and should make an officer anyhow, he is the right type.”

Upon graduation, the family paid for his flying lesson to learn to fly the de Havilland Tiger Moth and got qualified as a pilot from the Lahore Flying Club. In 1940, he was in the Royal Indian Air Force reserve and trained as an air crew from the United Kingdom. Nur Khan never attended the university nor he received university education instead of gaining commission as a Pilot officer in the No. 1 Squadron of the RIAF on 6 January 1941. In the United Kingdom, his additional training took place as a gunnery and bomber pilot with the RAF. Upon returning in 1942–43, he was sent to participate in the Burma campaign with the RIAF on the side of the United Kingdom, and served against the Imperial Japanese Air Force in 1945.

In 1946, Nur Khan was made commanding officer of the No. 4 Squadron of the RIAF which he commanded until 1947. After the partition of British India which resulted in the establishment of Pakistan, Nur Khan opted for Pakistan and joined the newly formed Pakistan Air Force (PAF) where he was the base commander of the PAF Base Lahore.

Career with PAF

In 1948, he was elevated as base commander of the PAF Base Chaklala but was later posted as air attaché at the High Commission of Pakistan in the United Kingdom. However, this position was short-lived when he was asked to return to Pakistan to be posted as commandant of Pakistan Air Force Academy in Risalpur, NWFP (Then).

His career in the Air Force progressed well as he was posted at the AHQ in Rawalpindi as the Director of Organizations, which he remained till 1951. He served as an F-86 Sabre program director where he oversaw the induction of the jet fighter as he played an influential role in the opposition against acquiring the F-84 Thunderjet. From 1955–56, he was promoted as Group Captain and served base commander of the PAF Base Peshawar, followed by commanding the PAF Base Mauripur and PAF Base Chaklala until 1957. Before posting at the AHQ in Rawalpindi as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief (Air Operations) in 1957, his last field assignment included his role AOC of No. 1 Group stationed in PAF Base Peshawar as an Air Commodore.

From 1958–65, he served on the deputation as chairman of civilian organizations and his appointment to three-star appointment was approved by President Ayub Khan in 1965. Air Marshal Asghar Khan resigned from the command of the Air Force as its chief when he cemented conflict of interests issues with President Ayub Khan. Air Vice Marshal Nur Khan was a populist military figure in the country due to his involvement in sports management and managing-director of civilian Pakistan International Airlines, and his name was included in the nomination papers for the command of the Air Force. On contrary, Nur Khan was never reached to the four-star rank of Air Chief Marshal but appointed to serve as an air force commander under President President Ayub. In 1965, Nur Khan was appointed as Commander in Chief and was promoted as Air Marshal.

1965 War & making of a Legend

During the war with India in 1965, Nur Khan became a national fame and hero when he maintained an aerial supremacy against IAF despite its shortcomings. He led the bombing missions during the war using the C-130 Hercules for that purpose in support to the army advances. His actions of valor and efforts won him the praise in all over the country after the war; he was credited with turning the tide of the war in his country’s favor that gained air superiority in the first 24 hours.

Once addressing his fellow officers and airmen he said.

“I don’t need your 100 percent I need more than that from all of you. I need you to go far and beyond your normal call of duty and work with me to make a strategy to win this war, I am open to any suggestion from anyone even if he is an aircraftman”.

After listening to his speech all the staff of PAF was pumped and motivated, junior airmen came up with the idea of turning C-130 into a Bomber and informed Air Marshal about their plan and he appreciated their idea and gave them a go ahead and later PAF used C-130 as bomber in the war.

He himself flew C-130 to drop supplies for the front line soldiers, once he missed his assigned target and troops on the ground radioed that it’s okay you drop the supplies anywhere near the assigned position and we will gather the supplies but he refused and said I will make another pass and later on he dropped the supplies on the assigned area.

During the war of 1965, he himself ordered one of his Pilot to fly F-104 above one of the Indian Air base and break the sound barrier when he is just above the base. Pilot did exactly that later he ordered him to do that “AGAIN” and he did it again. Soon after that Indian radio channels were transmitting news of Pakistani attack on Indian airbase and of loud explosions, Pakistanis could listen to the panic of the Indian public live on their radios.

His management skills and his administration made PAF a turning factor in the war of 1965 and due to his efforts Pakistan was able to defend her territory from Indian aggression, due to the leadership of Air Marshal Nur Khan, PAF not only achieved Air superiority over IAF but also played a significant role in giving air cover to PAK ARMY and PAK NAVY in the war.

Participation in war with Israel

In 1967, Nur Khan volunteered to serve in the allegiance of Arab countries’ Air Forces against Israel during the Six-Day War. He flew in many aerial missions and witnessed the dogfight with Israeli IAF whose pilots noted his aerial skills during the conflict. In fact, the IAF’s fighter pilot, Major-General Ezer Weizman, the former Israeli President (1993–2000) and Defence Minister (1977–80), wrote in his autobiography that:

“He was a formidable fellow and I was glad that he was Pakistani and not an Egyptian”.

Under his leadership the PAF pilots shot down many Israeli jets without losing a Single jet or a Dogfight.

He advised the Arab countries that:

“Your Air forces cannot match the numerical and technological advanced air force of Israel and it will take you a lot of time to come to the level of IAF so I advise you to at least improve your Air Defense capabilities so that you can inflict damage to IAF, you have a great ally USSR (Soviet Union) take Anti-Aircraft missiles from them”.

Arab countries listened to his advice and started procuring Anti Air craft missiles(SAMS) from USSR and this had a significant impact in 1973 war. As compared to just few losses in 1967 war IAF suffered 100s of losses in 1973 due to advanced Air defense capabilities of Arab countries.

After the Six-Day conflict, Nur Khan returned to Pakistan to complete his tenure as Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Air Force under President Ayub Khan and retired in 1969.

Career with Pakistan International Airlines

Nur Khan was gifted with administrative skills. He was also known to turn around Pakistan International Airlines into a profitable and recognized entity. In 1960, PIA’s very first jetliner (a Boeing 707-321 leased from Pan Am) took a gentle turn under the command of Malik Nur Khan. Nur Khan was PIA’s chairman from 1959 to 1965. His success in establishing PIA on a firm and profitable financial basis in six years is now a feat of airline history. Under his charismatic and inspirational leadership, PIA became one of the leading and respected airlines of the world.

During his tenure, PIA became the third Asian airline to operate jet aircraft after India and Japan. The airline inducted modern Boeing 720 B jet in its fleet. PIA started flying to China and flights to Europe via Moscow were also launched during this period. In 1961 PIA initiated its first trans-Atlantic operation, with the initiation of flights from Karachi to New York. In 1962, a PIA flight recorded the fastest travel time between London and Karachi, a record that remains unbroken to this day.

During 1964, PIA became the first non-communist national flag carrier to operate flights to China. Similarly, under Nur Khan PIA became the first Asian airline to introduce jet aircraft into operation. Under him PIA enjoyed commercial success as a profit-making corporation.

In 1973, Nur Khan was specially requested by the government of Pakistan to resume control of PIA. During his second term as airline’s head, PIA became operator of wide-body DC-10s and Boeing 747s. Popular Green & Gold aircraft livery was introduced, plus many more achievements were made by the airline under Nur Khan’s leadership. He kept PIA out of Pakistan’s turbulent political arena and returned it to a sound commercial basis.

Nur Khan was a dynamic leader and believed in innovation and new ideas.
Nur Khan was thus able to raise a young airline to a stature where it merited comparisons with the world’s top airlines.

Under him PIA enjoyed commercial success as a profit-making corporation.

Nur Khan as a SSG Commando

On 20 January 1978, a PIA plane (while at Karachi) carrying 22 passengers was hijacked by a gunman and asked to be flown to India. The then chairman of PIA, Air Marshal (Retd) Nur Khan boarded the plane to negotiate with the hijacker. He was hit by a bullet while trying to disarm the hijacker but still managed to overpower him. He acted just like a SSG Commando to save the lives of PIA passengers.

Career with Pakistan Hockey

Nur Khan was handed the reins of Pakistan Hockey Federation as its president in 1976 and was President of the Pakistan Hockey Federation during 1967 – 1969, and 1976 – 1984. During his Presidency, The Pakistan Hockey Federation won 2 Olympic Gold Medals (1968 Mexico & 1984 Los Angeles), 2 Hockey World Cups (1978 & 1982) and 2 Hockey Champions Trophy (1978 & 1980). Being a sports enthusiast, he not only ably facilitated the game at home for eight years. but also played an iconic role in international hockey arena. Conception of Champions Trophy, an annual hockey tournament, was his brain child that was realized in 1978 by his endeavors.
On his personal initiative, the FIH introduced the World Cup Tournament and the Champions Trophy Tournament, which are now rated amongst the major international tournaments, alongside the Olympics. The World Cup and Champions Trophy are the toughest events in Hockey.

He made valuable and tremendous contributions in Hockey in Pakistan. During his first tenure (1967–1969) that Pakistan hockey team won the Mexico Olympics and in second tenure (1976–1986) Pakistani team won Los Angeles Olympics.

Career with Pakistan Cricket Board

In 1980, he was also brought in as President of Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP; currently known as Pakistan Cricket Board) to manage the disarrayed cricket affairs. He served as president from 1980 to 1984. In this capacity, he helped win the hosting rights for the 1987 Cricket World Cup with India.

He was also part of the organising committee of the 1987 World Cup and was credited with bringing some of the World Cup matches to Pakistan.

Omar Noman, in his history of cricket in Pakistan, said:

“Nur Khan was an exceptional administrator. He did not know much about cricket, but his efficiency and vision had a positive effect on the development of hockey, squash, and cricket.”

He introduced the idea of neutral umpires in cricket. Later on Imran khan pursued this idea and after few years ICC introduced neutral umpires.

He was not part of PCB when Pakistan won its only world cup in 1992 under the charismatic leadership of Imran Khan but the foundation stones he laid down in PCB during his tenure were the main factors behind Pakistan’s Glorious victory in 1992.

Career with Squash

From 1951 to 1963, Pakistanis achieved remarkable success in Squash winning the most coveted title, the British Open, all those thirteen years. Thereafter, it was a barren period. Any Pakistani failed to land the title over the next decade except one Aftab Javaid who managed to reach the final.

Nur Khan took over the charge of Pakistan International Airlines for the second time in 1973. He immediately took revolutionary steps. He initiated the PIA Colts scheme. Young promising boys were spotted and given a monthly stipend. They were coached and sent to participate in international tournaments with PIA bearing the travel expenses.

Whosoever performed well on the international circuit was given permanent employment in PIA. The incentives didn’t end there. If any of the players achieved some major success in prime events, he was rewarded with a departmental promotion. All this led to a surfeit of world class Pakistani players in the 70s: Qamar Zaman, Gogi Allauddin, Hiddy Jahan, Mo Khan Junior and others. There used to be six to seven Pakistanis among the top 10 in the world rankings.
In 1975, on Nur Khan’s request, legendary Azam Khan, four-time winner of British Open (1959–62), who was running a squash club in England, prepared Qamar Zaman and Mohibullah Junior for the British Open. Qamar Zaman brought back the title to Pakistan after 12 years.

He gave the Squash World Jahangir Khan, a pure PIA colts product who became the greatest squash player of all time. Pakistan Open initiated in 1980 became a prestigious tournament and the country also hosted World Open.

Career in Politics & Governorship

In 1969, Nur Khan retired from his military service and his prestige led him to secure an appointment in Cabinet led by President Yahya Khan; but it was short-lived due to his demands for reforms. His tenure was renewed and his retirement was overturned by President Yahya who appointed him as Deputy CMLA under his administration.

In Yahya administration, he was inducted as cabinet minister of communications, health, labour, and science on August 1969.
Nur Khan, however, was appointed as Governor of West Pakistan on 1 September 1969 who made radical reforms in country’s political and educational structure.

He supported the devolution of controversial One Unit program and oversaw its termination in 1970. He also announced new labour and educational policy to limit the role of politics in the universities. Nur Khan was later unexpectedly replaced with Lieutenant-General Attiqur Rehman on 1 July 1970 after witnessing the termination of One Unit program and tendering resignation from his renewed term in 1970 over mutual disagreement with President Yahya.
In 1985, he decided to enter in national politics as a nonpartisan after successfully participating in the general elections to be elected as a member of National Assembly (a lower house. In 1987, he joined the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and contested for the Constituency NA-44 on a PPP’s platform in the general elections held in 1988. He conceded his defeat and eventually retired from the politics in 1988.

Legacy of the Legend

In commemoration of his services rendered to Pakistan Air Force, PAF Base Chaklala was renamed as PAF Base Nur Khan in 2012. Considered the hero of the 1965 air war – the man who led the Pakistan air force achieve parity over the three times larger Indian air force from the very first day of the 1965 war – a man widely respected not only for his integrity but also for his sharp intelligence and outstanding management abilities.

Military Awards

1. Hilal-e-Jurat.
2. Sitar-e-Shujaat.
3. Order of Independence (Jordan).
4. Order of the Cedar (Lebanon).
5. Order of Orange-Nassau.




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