President Zia-ul-Haq waved to the army officers who had come to see him off. He then boarded Pak One, the call sign of C-130 which was used as Presidential plane. Pak One took off from Bahawalpur airstrip at 4:30 pm. Pak one was followed by a Cessna reconnaissance plane carrying General Aslam beg, the vice chief of army staff. A few minutes after takeoff, Pak One crashed in plains of Bahawalpur district resulting in death of Zia-ul-Haq and 30 others. General Aslam beg saw the site of plane crash and instructed his pilot to fly to Islamabad. On 17th August 1988, 11 year dictatorial regime of General Zia-ul-Haq was finally over.
General Zia-ul-Haq had gone to Bahawalpur to witness exercise of the Tank M1 Abrahams. Pakistan Army was contemplating purchasing this tank. Major General Mahmood Ali Durrani, General officer commanding of 1st Armored Division in Multan, had invited General Zia to witness the exercise. Major General Mahmood had earlier served as military secretary of General Zia and was very close to him. On 17th August 1988, General Zia left Islamabad in Morning for Bahawalpur via Pak one. Pak One was parked at a makeshift airstrip near the exercise site. General Zia was accompanied by General Akhtar Abdul Rehman, the Chairman joint chiefs of staff committee and former director general of ISI. American ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel and Brigadier General Herbert Wassom, chief American military attaché in Pakistan, were also with the General Zia. The tank missed 10 out of 10 times during the exercise and proved to be a failure. General Zia, after watching the exercise, took lunch and had casual chat with guests and left for Islamabad on 4:30 pm.
Captain Mahsood, the pilot of Pak One, informed control tower about his position a few minutes after takeoff. After that there was complete radio silence and nothing was heard from Pak one despite many attempts made by control tower to communicate with pilot. Eye witnesses in Bahawalpur saw a Plane crashing to the ground and exploding. The exact circumstances that resulted in plane crash are still not known. The autopsies of pilots were prevented by Pakistani government and this links towards an alleged cover-up. Since the crash had resulted in deaths of two US citizens, Federal bureau of investigation came from USA to investigate the matter. These investigators didn’t carry out any meaningful conclusions and spend most of their time in sight-seeing. Preliminary investigations carried out by Pakistan Air force revealed that crash of Pak One was result of an act of sabotage.
Investigative journalist Edward J. Epstein has conducted a detailed research on this incident. According to the findings of Epstein, Pak One crashed because the pilot of the plan was rendered unconscious by a nerve gas. He has named an American nerve gas VX which could have been used for this purpose. A soviet never gas also existed which could do the same task. The plane was in perfect working condition mechanically and the reason of the crash was not a mechanical failure, adds Epstein.
Nerve gas knocked out the pilots in few seconds after takeoff. Brigadier Yousaf, former ISI officer, writes in his book that the nerve gas was possibly attached to an altitude triggering mechanism. When the plane reached a certain level of altitude, the spread of nerve gas was triggered. According to eye-witness accounts the plane made zigzag movements before crashing down. This sort of movement is technically called Phugoid and this happens when a C-130 aircraft is left uncontrolled by a pilot. Some other accounts quote eye witnesses that plane was burning before it hit the ground, hinting towards an explosion in the air. However both Brigadier Yousaf and Edward J. Epstein reject this theory and maintain that Pak one exploded after hitting the ground.
Pak one was parked on a poorly guarded airstrip in Bahawalpur. Some technicians carried out some maintenance work on one of the doors of Pak One. Possibly these technicians could have planted the device in cockpit which was used to spread the nerve gas to kill the pilots. There is also another interesting theory relating to mangoes. Major General Mahmood Ali Durrani gifted General Zia crates of Mangoes which were placed in Cockpit. It’s a custom that mangoes are gifted to guests and visitors. According to most of the accounts, Nerve gas device was hidden in these mango crates which caused the ultimate disaster. A proper investigation was never carried out in this important incident therefore nothing can be said with authenticity. However, the nerve gas hidden in Mango crates theory is believed to be the real cause of the crash of Pak One.
Till to date there has not been any conclusive investigation of this incident and neither has anyone been officially blamed for the attack. There has been an official cover-up of the issue for reasons not known by general public. The question that who is responsible for this crash has never been answered and it never will be. Different people have come up with a different perpetrator of this attack including USA, USSR, India, Shia extremists and Al-Zulfiqar Organization. Each of the nominated perpetrators has their reason to eliminate General Zia but no one can prove the blame. Benazir Bhutto arguably gave the best explanation of the plane crash. She said that “It must have been an act of God.” 25 years have passed since the crash of Pak one and it contains a lesson for the dictators. If a dictator doesn’t learn a lesson from the fate of General Zia then He must be ready to face the hostile revenge of nature.
1) Epstein, E. J. (1989). Who Killed Zia? Vanity Fair .
2) Yousaf, M., & Adkin, M. (1992). Afganistan, The Bear Trap: The Defeat Of A Superpower . Pen & Sword Books Ltd.