Nestled in the heart of New Lahore with Gulberg nearby and Model Town just next door, is the century-old Walton Airport. In 1918, a group of aviation enthusiasts asked the British Raj to create an airstrip, where the latter allotted 158 acres of land. The airstrip was officially launched in 1920 and registered as the Northern Indian Flying Club in 1922, and then used by enthusiasts looking to enjoy the thrill of flying planes.
In 1930, in order to be able to officially raise funds for its improvement and maintenance, at an annual meeting of the club, it was decided to formally transform the club into a business. In 1932, the club was officially registered as a company, changing its importance and prestige once and for all. Other planes were also acquired at this time.
In 1933, the founder of the Walton Railway Training School, Sir Colonel Cusack Walton was invited to run the flying club and in 1935 this flight track was given the name “Walton Airfield”. During World War II and again during the 1971 war, the flight track was also used as an air base.
Later, after the creation of Pakistan, it was historically the first location of the nation’s founding father, the initial arrival of Quaid-e-Azam in Pakistan. After the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the Northern Indian Flying Club changed its name to Lahore Flying Club and the airport itself was used as the official airport for Lahore. In 1951, the then governor of Punjab donated 20,000 rupees to the Lahore flying club, and in a 1953 grant program, the general manager of the Association of Civil Authorities told the club training of commercial pilots. When Pakistan International Airport acquired its first Boeing 720 jet aircraft, Walton Airport was unable to handle the loading of a jet aircraft and it was then that the government decided to create the new Allamah Iqbal International Airport in 1962.
Recently, it was announced that the historic airport needs to be moved as its location in the heart of Lahore is unsafe and should be moved to a more remote location. A new ordinance was introduced on February 4 as the “ Lahore Central Business District Development Authority Ordinance ” and under it a new development authority in Lahore called the Central Authority Lahore Business District Development Facility headed by Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar is to be established.
Currently, five different flying clubs operate at Walton Airport: Lahore Flying Club, Hybrid Aviation Pvt Ltd, Hybrid Flying Club, Airborne Aviation and Ultra Light and Sports Flying Club. Hundreds of students in training to become pilots fly at the airport. According to the CAA, at present, approximately 2,000 flights operate per month from the airport.
In 2012, a two-seater plane in a training flight crashed into the lawn of a house in Model Town. The trainer and the pilot died in the accident. Another plane crashed in May 2018 near Ferozepur Road during a training session at the old airport. The pilot and co-pilot suffered only minor injuries. In another incident in September 2020, a plane crashed at the airport where, after the crash, the front wheel of the plane broke, but no injuries were sustained by the pilot trainee at the controls of the aircraft.
According to Shuja Imran, who is a cadet pilot and video blogger for a Youtube channel aimed at aviation enthusiasts, “Walton Airport is the only airport in Pakistan entirely dedicated to training student pilots.”
There are currently around 100 student pilots actively participating in aviation training at the soon-to-be relocated airport, while another 100 are involved in classroom preparation before they can begin their training. While some reports have been received that the airport will be transferred to Sheikhupura, no official statement has been made revealing concrete plans as to when and where the relocation will take place. Imran, who has been flying to the airport since 2017, says the decision will impact him and several others as it will be more difficult to get to the new location. “This will affect both students and trainers as it will add additional travel time to the new location,” he said. “It will also be difficult for the flying clubs to recover in the new location.”
Offshoring can be a deterrent for students wishing to enroll in the future, which could potentially impact the future of aviation in Pakistan – a fact which is alarming after its current state where a number of trained and professional pilots is lean as it is.
“In essence, an airport shouldn’t be located in the middle of the city, but since every airport in Pakistan is in the middle of the city, this argument in itself is wrong,” says Imran.
“If this is the reason the airport has been moved, Allama Iqbal International Airport and Karachi Jinnah International Airport should also be moved,” he said. “There should definitely be more security settings in place, than the CAA should be implementing, but other than that it’s not a valid point.”
Shahzaib Anzar, who obtained his commercial pilot license in December 2019 and is currently taking a flight instructor training course with Hybrid Aviation.
According to him, “From a safety point of view, there should be a clearance of 1,000 feet which should be added above the tallest building in the area. However, there is so much construction around Walton Airport that shouldn’t have happened and it is affecting flight safety. To the right of Walton is the Falcon complex and to the left is the Naval Housing Company and Askari V. Most of these were built right next to the airstrip.
“People in this area throw a lot of garbage outside their homes and it attracts birds, which can be a risk of theft,” he said. “There have been incidents where birds hit the screen of the plane’s window and in some cases they broke the window and also entered the plane.”
According to Anzar, there are around 100 flight instructors between the flying clubs operating at the airport who gain experience in flight hours. All of them are based in Lahore and this will add extra trips to them. “Now tell me, the students who are based in Lahore, won’t they naturally go to the Allama Iqbal airport flying club? Won’t this affect the business of flying clubs that are transferred from Lahore? Which student is going to shuttle an extra hour to find out when he or she can just do it at Allama Iqbal Airport?
“The airport was destroyed by governments who did not prioritize what it represents. Who cares about heritage after all? ” he added.
“The same goes for Allamah Iqbal International Airport. There have also been constructions there which according to the world, flight safety is dangerous for theft, ”he said. “So slowly, this airport will also become dangerous and it will also have to be moved.”
The airport, which is surrounded by a small forest spread over 20 acres and includes 9,000 trees, is also likely to be lost if the business center is developed here – a move that appears counterproductive to the commitment of the government on climate change to increase greenery through trees. plantation across the country.
The decision could also be particularly damaging for the city which is already the second most polluted city in the world with an air quality index of 247 and a level of air pollution recorded at a concentration of PM2.5 of 197 µg / m³.
Currently, no provision has been made in the existing ordinance to preserve the heritage of the airport during the creation of the new business district.
Anthony Chaudhry, who has been the secretary of the Lahore flying club since 1986, says: “It has been in operation since before the score. It is fundamentally a heritage and must be preserved [as such]. “
According to Chaudhry, “There are accidents all over the world, even at the main airport. It’s not an argument [for closing Walton Airport]. There is already so much pollution in the city and the eradication of the forest will only further increase this pollution.
To counter the argument that the airport is located in the middle of Gulberg and Model Town and hinders business development in the region, he blames planning for Lahore. “The heritage of the airport should have been preserved and these areas should not have been planned and built around the airport to begin with,” he says.
“The airport was there earlier than all the buildings. These buildings should not have been built so close to the airport. They are fundamentally illegal. “
“Walton must be preserved as is,” he said at the end. And maybe it should happen even if this preservation seems different from what we might have in mind. The airport could be relocated to ensure the safety of the area, but the structural integrity of the existing structure and strip should not be paved on the new neighborhood either. A third solution that honors the heritage of the area, while converting it into a business district, should be considered more closely.
Lahore Flying Club filed a petition in the Lahore High Court requesting the Court under Article 199 of the Constitution to ‘prohibit the respondents from interfering with the proper functioning of the petitioner who performs his legal duties at Walton Airfield’ ‘. The petition further notes that this decision is “detrimental to the property of the petitioner” and “detrimental to the environment / cultural heritage of Lahore”. The court, in its last session on the issue, adjourned proceedings in the case on March 16.
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) public relations official Saad Bin Ayub and Lahore Civil Aviation Authority declined to comment on the matter, citing that the CAA is not authorized to talk about.
However, the current affair does not in any way, shape or form deter the progress of the business center. During the last week of February, a cornerstone laying ceremony was held where Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the ceremonial cornerstone for the new business district. At the ceremony, the Prime Minister dubbed it a ‘plug and play’ initiative for wealth creation and estimated that in the first phase alone, some 1.3 trillion rupees would be generated, which he said would offer the federal government 250 rupees. billion in the form of tax revenue.
During the ceremony, at the request of a journalist, the prime minister said the forest would be kept intact while the neighborhood was being built. However, this was not spelled out in the ordinance itself. No provision was made in the ordinance either for the preservation of the heritage value of the site.
The closure of Walton Airport is a testament to the country’s continued disregard for the preservation of history. It is yet another decision, in a long tradition of decision making in the country, to go short-term. While economic activity is an integral need, the decision should not be an “ either or ” but rather an elaborate long-term plan to develop an authority that commemorates the heritage of the region and proposes a solution for its reuse. for the creation of wealth. .
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