The Haunting Memories of the PAK-1 Crash

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
7 MINS READAug 11, 2018 | 13:00 GMT
Thirty years ago, Fred Burton found himself in a remote corner of Pakistan, investigating the crash of PAK-1, the presidential aircraft.

Thirty years ago, Fred Burton found himself in a remote corner of Pakistan, investigating the crash of PAK-1, the presidential aircraft.


On Aug. 17, 1988, the Pakistani presidential aircraft, code-named PAK-1, plummeted out of the sky into a dusty field outside Bahawalpur in southeastern Pakistan. Within a matter of hours, I found myself overlooking the still-smoking crater that the C-130 Hercules aircraft had dug into the earth in a region near the Pakistani border with India. The investigation that followed, long before the days of instant internet and cellphone communications, may have been the most complex I'd ever worked in my career as a special agent for the U.S. State Department.

When I close my eyes today, I can still picture the crash site. The plane had been carrying Pakistani President Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq along with several other dignitaries, including members of the Pakistani joint chiefs of staff, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Herbert Wassom and Arnie Raphel, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. Raphel, like every other person aboard, had died. The State Department had a vested interest in figuring out why.

As a general rule, complex international cases are hard to solve, and nothing about the process of investigating them ever seemed to be straightforward. This was especially true in this crash investigation, where a confluence of suspects and a dearth of information made an already challenging job that much more difficult.

At the time of the crash, Zia and the American brass were returning to Islamabad after witnessing a demonstration of a U.S. military tank. The president was a close ally of the United States and had spearheaded the covert U.S. war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, earning the enmity of the Kremlin and of its Soviet clients in Kabul. Zia, an army general who had come to power in a military coup 13 years before, had further alienated his domestic opponents in a push to consolidate his hold on power in Pakistan, which he was running as a virtual one-man show. And to top it all off, tensions between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, as they often do, had been running high. The mysterious crash had only added to their frictions. Amid these conditions, investigators from the United States and Pakistan joined together to answer the question: Why did PAK-1 crash? Was it an accident? Was it brought down by sabotage? Did an outside power arrange for or participate directly in its demise? There was no shortage of possibilities, and we had a big job ahead of us.

Heading to the Scene

Soon after I was informed about the disaster, I found myself aboard an executive jet on a U.S. Air Force Special Air Mission along with a colleague from the State Department's counterterrorism branch. I had been on the job as a special agent for only three years but had already seen my share of mayhem. However, I had experienced nothing on the scale of a crash of a giant cargo plane like the Hercules. After we arrived in Germany, we were joined by a U.S. Air Force Accident Mishap Team, boarded a C-5A Galaxy and landed in the middle of the night at Chakala Air Force Base in Islamabad. From there, we attended tense meetings with the Pakistani military, which like many other militaries was riven by interservice rivalries (Zia was army, and the plane's pilots were air force). We also met with officials at the U.S. Embassy.

The team then pushed on via a C-130 Hercules (like the one that had crashed) to the Pakistani military base at Bahawalpur. From there, our convoy of heavily guarded Land Cruisers sped through dusty villages to a military outpost a few miles from the crash site where we set up our base camp. We would spend the next few days trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together as best we could.

I still remember arriving for the first time at the isolated crash site, where dust devils swirled in the blast furnace heat. There was no sign of habitation anywhere. The Pakistani military had set up a buffet line about 25 yards from the smoking black hole in the ground, but none of us could eat. At first glance, it appeared as if the wings of the Vietnam-era aircraft had broken off on impact, and from the outline of the impact zone, the plane had likely hit the ground at a 60- to 65-degree angle. A fire that followed had consumed almost all the debris except for a few smaller pieces of fuselage that had been scattered at impact. I can recall someone from the bottom of the crash pit handing me a badly burned black wallet.

Examining the Pieces

The investigation progressed. Hours turned into days as we struggled to find firsthand accounts of the events that led to the crash. Luckily, we met a shepherd who had seen the aircraft go down. During our interview with him, his gestures indicated that the aircraft had been gyrating up and down like a roller coaster before impact.

From his account and other information we gleaned, we were able to put together this sequence of events:

  1. Three minutes after it took off, PAK-1 lost control.
  2. For two more minutes, the aircraft followed an erratic path through the air.
  3. During that time, the pilots failed to issue a mayday or set off any emergency alerts, a key clue to what was going on inside.
  4. Just before the plane hit the ground, somebody outside the flight deck shouted for the pilot and an unknown person managed to key the plane's radio, but neither pilot spoke. It was as if they were incapacitated.

The report issued by Pakistani investigators concluded that the crash was the result of sabotage or a criminal act but stopped short of assigning culpability to any specific group or country.

Further investigation ruled out some possible causes: Neither weather, catastrophic mechanical failure nor pilot error led to the crash. Based on autopsy reports, we were able to determine there had not been a fire onboard before the plane hit the ground. The investigation team did the best job that we could. As I wrote in my memoir, Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, the report issued by Pakistani investigators concluded that the crash was the result of sabotage or a criminal act but stopped short of assigning culpability to any specific group or country. In the absence of a definite suspect, a number of wild theories have been advanced over the years about what brought the plane down. Among them: a bomb secreted in a crate of mangoes loaded on the plane at the last minute exploded; a canister of nerve gas hidden in the cockpit was triggered remotely, killing the pilots; or even that a Soviet satellite had struck PAK-1 with an energy weapon, causing it to fall from the sky. I have my own ideas of what happened, tied in with the geopolitics of the era.

The Scene Behind the Scenes

A few weeks before the PAK-1 crash, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had publicly stated that Pakistan would pay dearly for its support of the Afghan mujahideen. The Russians, as is their wont, had a rather ruthless way of settling scores, a practice they continue to follow today. Given the somewhat lackadaisical security around PAK-1 as it sat on the tarmac in Bahawalpur, an agent working for Moscow would have had the opportunity to board the aircraft and set it up to crash.

A few weeks after we returned from the crash site, I'd learned that we had been dispatched to buy time for diplomats to defuse the foreign policy mess that Shevardnadze's comments had created, plus give them a chance to ease the enflamed tensions between Pakistan and India. When deciding who would participate on the U.S. investigative team, the powers that be in Washington purposefully left the FBI out of the loop. They thought that an FBI presence would signal to the world that Washington suspected the plane had been brought down by sabotage or terrorism. But, C-130s just don't fall from the sky.

No matter what caused PAK-1 to go down that day, I can only imagine how horrible the last two minutes aboard that aircraft were for its passengers. That thought continues to haunt me, even 30 years later.

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