This is not patriotism talking; the Sherdils know that they are the world-beating air force, fighter pilots. How do they fly so close and perform maneuvers with such precision? It is part training and the rest is enormous trust in each other. Flying beautifully and gracefully, and moving like one wing, Sherdils bowl over audiences every time they make their arrowhead formation entrances. With the call, “Pull up…Pull up…Pull up…Now,” begins an aerial performance that has won the hearts of millions across the globe. It has left even more wondering how they execute maneuvers from the first loop to the last death-defying bomb burst. It is no idle boast that the Sherdils, the aerobatics display team of the Pakistan Air Force, are world-renowned. The team comprises a selected group of instructor pilots from the Advanced Jet Training Squadron of PAF Academy Asghar Khan in Risalpur. Their whole lives are built around flying. The best of the best have choreographed performances in air shows around the world.
The idea of forming an aerobatics team was carved into reality by an Academy instructor, Sqn Ldr Bahar-Ul- Haq, who was on an exchange tour of RAF College Cranwell Aerobatics Team in the 1970s. It was then decided to put up a brief show on graduation parades at the academy, to demonstrate the outstanding skills of academy instructors. After several months of practice, Wg Cdr Imtiaz A Bhatti led a team of four instructor pilots in T-37 aircraft aka ‘Tweety Birds’, and put up an impressive show, flying wing tip to wing tip, twisting and turning over the skies of the PAF Academy on 17th August 1972. For over two years, these daredevils performed with the call-sign of its formation leader. It was bestowed the befitting name – The Sherdils – on 19th September 1974. The team continued to perform up until December 1991, when sanctions were imposed on the sale of military equipment to Pakistan. It took five years for the sanctions to be lifted and the Sherdils could blaze into the skies once again.
Tweety-Bird served Sherdils for nearly 37 years. During this period, it performed on various national occasions such as Academy Graduation Parades, for visiting heads of- state, Pakistan Day, and Defence Day celebrations. In the late 90s, PAF Academy had inducted the modern K-8P aircraft for jet training; in parallel to old T-37s. At the turn of the century, the idea emerged to trade T-37 with K-8P for the Sherdils’ team. After extensive studies on power-margin and throttle in-puts available to the formatting flyers as well as better performance capabilities of K-8 jet as an aerobatic platform, the change-over from the old T-37 to K-8 was a logical choice. On 18th November 2009, the first-ever 4-ship K-8 pulled up for a loop in diamond formation to the thrill of the audience with Sqn Ldr Amir Misbah as a leader.
From Four to Nine Ship
On 27th March 2004, a new milestone was achieved when Wg Cdr Tariq Chaudhary, led six aircraft into formation aerobatics instead of four for the first time. The present Sherdil Formation Aerobatics team comprises nine aircraft, which is being led by Wg Cdr Mohammad Irfan Pattal. The run-ins are executed by all nine out of which three peel-off and the remaining six-ship formation perform the aerobatics sequence.
The Sherdils’ Sequence
Driven by the consumption to be the world’s best airmen, the maneuvers executed by the Sherdils rattle even the pros. These sequences are variations of the maneuvers that every airman learns during his training as a fighter pilot. Their moves are undertakings with no room for errors. Flying just 500 feet above the ground, the sequence starts with the first run-in of the 9-ship formation at over 600 km/h. As the team enters the arena, the leader gives a ‘Pull-up’ call that audiences hear in real-time thrice before the front 6-ship formation pulls up for a complete loop and the rear 3-ship formation performs a lateral bomb burst maneuver. Moving in prescribed pieces of air space, the 6-ship adjusts for a wing over towards the left side. Just as the audience is catching its breath, two Sherdil pilots appear at high speeds over the site. Throttles pushed into the corner, they cross each other at an accumulated speed of 1,000 km/h above a euphoric crowd. They fly on to perform a high-G turn known as a Carousel, while in the backdrop, keeping tight formation, the 6-ship have completed a parallel loop over the site. When the primary formation makes an exit with a high-G turn to the right side, a Sherdil pilot who had earlier broken off makes an abrupt entrance from the rear at 600 km/h and implements what is known as the ‘Tail-slide’. This is complemented by the 6-ship formation that once again enters the scene and carries out the Barrel Roll maneuver. As the Barrel Roll is done, Sherdil 8 and 9 enter the fray and dash into the course at 500 feet high. They perform ‘Shaheen-Break’ in the middle of the air show site. The aerobatics concludes with the final act, the moment audiences sit on the edge of their chairs for. The 6-ship formation enters the arena one last time and pulls up to perform possibly the gutsiest move of the show, the Bomb Burst Loop.
Led by Wg Cdr Ali Zaidi, formatting Sherdil twisted and turned over Thal Range for the Fire Power Demonstration on 6th May 2010, before an excited audience. From 16th to 21st November 2010, the Sherdils were tasked to perform at the Zhuhai Air Show, China 2,300 nautical miles (NM) away. The aerobatic formation was led by Sqn Ldr Khalid Matin. Sherdils participated in the Pakistan Day fly-past over the Presidency, Islamabad, in a 7-ship formation on 23rd March 2014, led by Wg Cdr Asim Zia. Subsequently, international audiences witnessed the formation of aerobatics on Pakistan Day Parades in the years 2015 and 2016. On 6th September 2015, Sherdils participated in the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the 1965 war. The 9-ship formation, led by Wg Cdr Amjad Mehmood, awed the audience gathered at F-9 Park, Islamabad. On 7th December 2015, Sherdils performed on the occasion of Fire Power Demonstration – 2015, at PAF Air to Ground Firing Range Sonmiani, led by Sqn Ldr Hammad Khurshid. The Sherdils performed flawlessly, in the backdrop of the Arabian Sea, to the delight of national and international dignitaries. In March 2016, Sherdils flew in their highly responsive K-8 at short notice to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to participate in the culmination ceremony of Exercise Raad-Al-Shamaal. The team led by Sqn Ldr Taimur Nawaz Khan, performed for a gathering of monarchs, political leaders, and top military commanders.
Up till 2017 Sherdils’ K-8P aircraft were painted in the overall white color scheme with red and blue stripes and a lion (Sherdil logo) painted in red on the vertical stabilizer. The team Sherdil announced their attractive yet modest new livery at an airshow held on the country’s 70th Independence Day celebrations held at Islamabad on August 14. The fuselage is painted in a combination of green and white symbolizing the Pakistani flag. A crescent and star in the center of the belly are integrated into a green geometric figure which runs all across the belly, symbolizing the Eagle. Looking from underneath, the aircraft appears to be an Eagle carrying the Pakistani Flag piercing through the blue skies. The new paint job has an amazing Pakistani feel and the K-8 looks like a blank canvas turned into an art piece on the ground and in the air. For the upper half of the aircraft, the old color scheme of Red and Blue stripes running all over the white fuselage is kept for better contrast. In the beginning, the Sherdils appeared in all red T-37s. However, maintaining the red-painted aircraft without the costly polyurethane coating became a problem. The team reverted to the all-metal finish, with only the nose, wingtips, and tail painted day-glow orange. In 1980, with the induction of six ex-USAF T-37s, which were polyurethane-coated all white, ‘Sherdil’ became a logical choice for a new titillating appearance. The dramatic ‘sunburst’ paint scheme was adopted, red rays on an all-white background. Later, the aircraft was again painted red, but with the rays in white, a scheme that is in vogue till the 80s. Colored smoke was used to enhance the aesthetic qualities of the formation; smoke trails give the impression of multi-colored ribbons twirling in the sky. Over a span of 47 years, Sherdils have performed on graduation parades, air shows, visits of foreign dignitaries, Defence Day and Pakistan Day parades, etc. They have demonstrated with Turkish Air Force F-16 on 7th September 1997, and with the Red Arrows on 24th November 1997, in Islamabad. They have had the honor of flying aerobatics on the 100 years of Flight Celebrations held at Al Ain Air show on 14th December 2003, Dubai air show in 2007, Fire Power Demo 2010-16-19, on the 70th Independence Day, Karachi, and also IDEAS 2018, in Karachi.
Becoming a Sherdil
Being a Sherdil is no easy task. They possess experience, knowledge, and finesse to maintain their thrust to be the world’s best flyers. It entails what the Sherdils’ crew term as ‘Wits of a warrior and Guts of a Gladiator.’ Candidates must have an impeccable record and at least a thousand flying hours to their name. They must meet stringent criteria before they are inducted. Practicing routines take the total dedication of their time. The training commences in well-planned steps. It is initiated with the basic level of two-ship formation and then moves on to four-ship, six-ship, and, finally, to nine ship formation flying. These training sessions are all conducted at higher altitudes. As the pilots become adept, the altitude is decreased gradually to as low as 500 feet above the ground.
In order to keep the aerobatics skill alive for Basic Flying Training (BFT) instructor pilots, the T-37 formation aerobatics team was revived in October 2018. Supplementing the existing Sherdil team, the ‘Bravehearts’ provide flexibility at selected occasions during formation aerobatics. The Brave hearts comprise four T-37 aircraft, which perform initial run-in, pull up for a loop, barrel roll, cloverleaf, and linear bomb burst loop. Integration of Bravehearts in Sherdils’ display profile was well appreciated at PAF as well as the national level. However, to further add color and variety to the overall display, a few maneuvers were added in the previous profile, this year. The ‘Twister’ maneuver was added in sequence instead of parallel-loop and steep turn. The previously inducted ‘carousel’ (circle of no-joy) maneuver was replaced with the more dynamic and appealing 5-6G 360° turn and level inverted pass. Whether it is the tightness of the graceful diamond roll providing an amazing angle to photograph or the ballet-like precision of the bomb burst, what the Sherdils do is wondrously beautiful. Keep in mind that behind the beauty of each move, the Sherdils are executing perfected combat flying skills. Call it dedication, skill, teamwork, attention to detail, they all fit. That is why any PAF pilot will tell you, it is a proud privilege to be a ‘Sherdil’.