KUALA LUMPUR: They do not refer to Capt Muhammad Muzzafar Feroze Khan after the famed Zulu chief ‘Shaka’, for nothing.
Better known as Zeff among his comrades, the United States Navy fighter pilot adopted the call-sign ‘Shaka’, to demonstrate his warrior skills – including over 1,000 remarkable arrested-landings on ten aircraft carriers in combat missions, clocking over 3,600 flying hours in a variety of jets including the A-6 Intruder, S-38 Viking, and F/A-18 Hornet.
The retiring US embassy senior defence attache’s story is that of a young Pakistani schoolboy from Karachi – whose parents had migrated from India – who dreamed big to eventually become a US citizen to join their navy.
He rose through the ranks to eventually command a naval fighter squadron with the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group and command a large navy base in New Jersey, among his colourful naval career.
Significantly, Zeff’s father Wing Commander (Rtd) Feroze Zafar Khan was also a pilot, initially with the Pakistan Air Force before serving Pakistan International Airlines as a captain.
His younger brother Commander (Rtd) Jalal Feroze Khan, 49, also became a US Navy pilot, and is now flying for Delta Airlines.
“It has been a long, arduous journey for me,
“Never in my wildest dreams did I, as a young Pakistani boy, imagine becoming a naval fighter pilot, let alone serving with one of the mightiest militaries in the world,
“The sad part is that my late father (Feroze Zafar, who died in 2008) and my mother Zahra Haqqi (who is unable to travel from Dallas, Texas) are not here to witness this momentous occasion,” said Zeff, during a recent retirement ceremony in his honour at ambassador Brian McFeeters residence in Jalan Langgak Golf, Ampang.
Zeff, who turned 57 on March 21, is officially retiring on Aug 1 after an illustrious 37-year military career.
The ceremony, steeped in military tradition, was witnessed by McFeeters, US Pacific Army deputy commander Lt Gen James Jarrard, Zeff’s family and Military Attache Corps members comprising defence advisers and attaches from the various countries.
Present were Zeff’s wife Shenaz Hessaun Ally-Khan; daughter Hannah Amelia, 32 – a Capital One Bank anti-money laundering specialist; son Staff-Sergeant Gabriel Hafeez, 29 – an infantry Marine on a recruiting assignment; and son Armaan, 14 – an International School Kuala Lumpur student.
Looking back, Zeff said that he grew up on air force bases all over Pakistan, where his father was serving and lived along with his mother, Jalal and sister Hasnat Qureshi, 56.
“While in school, I was enthralled with the daily roar of jet engines and the regimented life of airmen.
“My burning desire to someday fly came naturally through my father, and it was further fuelled after watching Hollywood movies on aviators – like ‘Tora Tora Tora’, ‘Midway’, ‘Final Countdown’, ‘An Officer and a Gentlemen’ and ‘Top Gun’ – nearly five decades ago,” said Zeff.
Feroze Zafar was originally born in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh in India in 1932 but migrated to a newly independent Pakistan in 1947 during the British partition.
Zahra was born in Hyderabad Deccan, Andhra Pradesh in India in 1938 before moving with her parents to Pakistan.
Zeff mused how as a schoolboy, he inadvertently had interpreted the markings on a toy airplane: “On the side of it were stars and stripes, along with ‘USAF’.
“Most of us know ‘USAF’ stands for United States Air Force, but back then in Pakistan I used to think that it was the name of a nice Muslim boy named Yusuf!”
“My journey to the US was full of suspense.
“After completing high school in Karachi in 1981, I went over to the US consulate and stood in line anxiously waiting to see if I would get a visa.
“It was the first time I physically saw the American flag up close.
“Fast forwarding, my American journey has brought me a full circle, where I ended my military career at a US embassy – more so at the ambassador’s home.
“Back then, I was outside the fence line and now I am inside!” said Zeff.
He added that after obtaining his visa, he went to San Antonio, Texas to learn to fly for over a year – obtaining his commercial pilot’s license with instrument rating.
In 1982, he furthered his studies in computer science at University of North Texas in Denton for three years, before returning to work in Pakistan for two years.
“By then, I realized the difference of life in the US as compared with Pakistan and decided to move back to the US.
“When I returned to the US, I applied to join the US Navy and fully expected to be turned down owing to my background, but later realized that everything was possible in the US if you set your mind to it.
“I could not imagine that as a muslim immigrant, I would be allowed to serve in the US military, wear the uniform of a great nation and fly jets off aircraft carriers.
“Despite the 9-11 (Sept 11, 2001) terrorist attack on the US, I am grateful as a muslim immigrant to be later given the opportunity to command a squadron, a navy base, be an ‘air boss’ of an aircraft carrier and eventually become a senior defence attache,” said Zeff.
He was proud of the US’ core values of ‘Duty, Honour, Courage, Commitment, Equal Opportunity’ and acceptance of diversity.
“It is not about the colour of your skin, your religion or where you come from but what you bring to the team.
“There are wooden ships and there are sailing ships, but the best kind of ships are friendships!
“This was a lifelong dream from the time USS Enterprise visited Karachi in the late ‘70s, when I saw sailors running around the city with navy ballcaps.
“Today, I can proudly say that between the three Khans (myself, my brother and son), we have 68 years of military service.
“That flag that I first saw at the consulate in Karachi, has been proudly worn on our uniform sleeves and our hearts,” said Zeff.
He reflected on how blessed and a tremendous honour it had been to have served in a truly land of opportunity in the US, working for incredible leaders and great mentors who molded them to became lethal warriors and seasoned diplomats.
“I just cannot believe the US Navy would pay me to have so much fun through my entire career, especially recording my 1,000th aircraft carrier landing in the Philippine Sea in 2007, on my father’s birthday!” said Zeff.
He, however, cautioned that although landing fighter jets on aircraft carriers was extremely exciting, it nevertheless was inherently dangerous especially at night.
“I have lost my share of good friends, who were taken far too early. “Their sacrifice and commitment have left an indelible mark on me – lest we forget!
“I am also humbled and salute the dedication of the young maintenance crew, whom you are given the opportunity to lead.
“We often burden them with the responsibilities to safeguard our lives, just by paying them peanuts,” he said.
On his long forays at sea, Zeff spoke about missing many important family events but managed to keep the reunion intact.
“We just cannot explain the type of spouses who are crazy enough to marry naval aviators, who endure long periods of separation and who are painfully and quietly forced to accept that they are second to the job.
“We must commend the sacrifices endured and unwavering support from our families throughout our journeys.
“My wife and soul mate has been my loyal wingman for 17 over years since my (second) marriage.
“We have been through thick and thin, through good times and bad, in sickness and in good health. She is my beacon of hope when I am down.
“Although she came into the navy family late, her first assignment was to be the executive officer’s and then the commander’s wife while I was on deployment.
“Since that experience, I knew that there was no parental challenges that we could not master. She has been my rock, my sounding board and a source of tremendous support,” said Zeff.
He added that his military and deployment experiences had built life-long bonds, esprit de corps, camaraderie and unforgettable home-coming experiences, but were something that only those who had served would ever know.
“We are bonded for life by proprietary knowledge that excludes all others from our fraternity.
“I will cherish that knowledge for the rest of my life.
“For when I am 90 years old, sitting on my porch in my rocking chair and someone asks me what I have done with my life, I will tell them proudly that I was a naval aviator, who worked with the finest people on the planet,” said Zeff.
On his embassy experience in Kuala Lumpur, Zeff said that he had been part of a small team where every single person was phenomenal, focused and productive.
“We came to work with a smile and got along well. The willingness to selflessly give each other’s time and talent had strengthened our ties with Malaysia” said Zeff.
Meanwhile, Jarrard paid tribute to Zeff for his unwavering patriotism, noble and honorable service.
He described Zeff as part of the US military where its men and women often sacrificed their limbs and lives while serving in hazardous missions.
“These are the dedicated professional servicemen who endure and live on the edge of danger.
“They ensure that peace prevails, so that many of us live comfortably and sleep well at night.
“We cannot pay just about anybody to do their tasks. These are the lot who do it out of love for their country and fellow humans,” said Jarrard.
McFeeters credited Zeff as among the breed that kept US-Malaysia relations on a positive note with his selfless, devoted, inspiring, compassionate, and empowering character.
“He is approachable, gracious and a true team player, always willing to be a mentor and share his vast expertise, experience, and knowledge.
“Malaysia and the United States share many of the same values and interests.
“We both believe that peace, security, and a rules-based international order are the foundations upon which all nations prosper.
“It is our top priority to promote peace and mutual security in Malaysia and the region,” he said.
McFeeters added that Zeff and his team worked hard daily with Malaysian officals to strengthen its own capacity to promote peace, regional security, and stability.
“Zeff and his team of defense cooperation specialists and attachés are responsible for many of these efforts involving building partnerships through military training and exercises, bilateral visits, defence supplies and grants, and increasing Malaysia’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to strengthen maritime domain awareness,” said McFeeters.