Friday, April 27, 2018

The Lonely Little American Radio Station in Pakistan: AFRTS Peshawar

In January of this year, we had the opportunity to see a movie in Malaysia right after the HFCC shortwave frequency conference there about the lawyer who negotiated the release of American pilot Francis Gary Powers who was shot down over the Soviet Union 58 years ago.  It was back on Sunday May 1, 1960, that Captain F. Gary Powers was shot down while flying a high altitude cold war spy mission over the Soviet Union, continental Russia. 

            While high over the city of Sverdlovsk, his plane was hit by the first of three Dvina S75 surface to air missiles that were fired from a launching pad near Kosulino on the edge of the Ural mountains.  What does all this have to do with an American radio station in Pakistan?  Here’s Ray Robinson with the answer.

            The plane began to spiral downwards, upside down with the nose pointing upwards, and Gary Powers was flung out into space as soon as he opened the canopy.  He floated down to Earth by parachute, hitting the ground rather hard, and he was immediately arrested.  Thus he was catapulted into the world’s news headlines, in what became known as the U2 Incident.

            The Gary Powers story began with a take-off at the American operated Peshawar Air Station at Badaber in a remote country area of Pakistan, some four miles south of the frontier city of Peshawar.  The aircraft was a Lockheed U2 plane, Model A, which had a capability of flying at 70,000 feet (13¼ miles high), way above interception by normal aggressive counter-measures.  This plane was more like a jet propelled glider than a regular airplane, and the Powers overflight of Russia under Operation Grand Slam, was the United States’ 24th deep-penetration overflight of Russian territory.

            The Peshawar Air Station (or PAS) at Badaber was established by the United States under the designation Project Sandbag in 1958 with the cooperation of the Pakistani president Ayub Khan.  The major purpose for this American facility during the Cold War was to provide electronic surveillance of the Soviet Union, and its total staff while operational was around 1300 personnel.

            This American airbase incorporated many western amenities for the benefit of their personnel, including a school for the children, swimming pool, bowling alley, a golf course and a shop that sold regular American products.  There was also a radio broadcasting station, and a TV station as well, on the base.

            The radio station was a unit of AFRTS, the American Forces Radio & TV Service, and it was inaugurated quite early in the development of the air base.  Originally, this radio station was operating with 10 watts on 850 kHz; though soon afterwards when newer equipment was installed, the operating channel was moved upwards to 870 kHz, with 25 watts.

            Programming for AFRTS PAS Peshawar was provided by local talent, recordings from AFRTS in the United States, and at times by off air relays on shortwave.  At the time when an international radio monitor who was living in Pakistan, visited this small AFRTS radio broadcasting station in 1968, it was no longer operating on mediumwave but on FM only at 107 MHz.  However, the WRTVHB does not show any FM listing for this station, only the two consecutive medium wave channels. 

            At the time of the visit, the station engineer stated that the base was due to close some time soon, and that the radio station would be closed also.  However, in spite of the pending closure, plans were in hand for the installation of additional upgraded equipment.  Right towards the end, with closure of the base looming on the horizon as personnel were transferring elsewhere, the TV station was closed, though the radio station continued on air, albeit at a lower programming level.

             The American air base, Peshawar Air Station, was taken into service on July 17, 1959, and it was officially closed a little more than a decade later on January 7, 1970.  The entire facility was handed over to the Pakistani air force, though the new owners never used it for flight activities, but only as a Vocational Training Center.

            Only one QSL was ever issued to verify the reception of AFRTS PAS Peshawar, and that was a generic card from AFRTS headquarters in the United States.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 476)