Friday, 14 December 2012


Briefly, an explanation is needed; the Hajj is a five day annual pilgrimage made by those of the Islamic faith to their holiest site, Mecca in Saudi Arabia; this is often combined with a less important stopover at the second most holiest city Medina, around 250 miles to the north of Jeddah. As a Hajj pilot based in the Middle East you would very quickly become very familiar with these two airports.

This was to be my second Hajj operation; two years ago I flew the Boeing 737-800 for NEOS, an Italian airline based in Milan, whilst subcontracted to Nasair in Eritrea. Great fun, but this year would be totally different. I would be based in Baghdad and flying the Boeing 747-400 on behalf of the Hajj Commission under Iraqi Airways AOC. Operating to Madinah, Jeddah, Basra, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah life as a contract pilot is seldom dull!

During the period which the Hajj operates, the role of the airline pilot is to primarily transport these pilgrims from cities all over the world to Jeddah, this being the nearest airport to Mecca, and site of the incredible Hajj terminal.


And secondly to the city of Medina which has, literally, as its centre-point the ‘first’ Mosque.

However, the role of the Hajj pilot involves operating in an environment which to most commercial pilots would be completely alien, especially when operating out of Iraq to-boot! Hopefully the following will highlight this ‘unusual’ operation.

Our hotel in Baghdad, though not in the protected ‘green Zone’ is nevertheless in a ‘secure’ enough area, being protected by three security rings which surround the Baghdad International Airport, formerly Saddam International Airport. Hints to this dictator’s past can still be found.


Our final line of defence is provided by a private security company which posts guards armed with their AK47s at the entrance and around the hotel’s periphery, as well as a multitude of closed circuit television cameras. Although this did not stop the American forces ‘raiding’ the hotel recently, ordering everyone out of their rooms at gunpoint as they believed that two al-Qaeda operatives had infiltrated the guests.

Also, there are the occasional mortar and rocket attacks where the insurgents’ fire in our general direction, primarily aiming for the large American airbase attached to the airport and their ‘Camp Victory’ facilities. One such attack took place just a couple of nights ago with the impacts occurring at ‘French Village’ located just over a mile from our hotel. The resulting explosions shook the hotel, which is why our beds are not flush with the walls, in-case anything becomes dislodged then this will not fall on our heads whilst sleeping!

Today’s flight is scheduled to depart at 0200 local time, however, as a crew we know that this will never depart on time; making our schedule of Baghdad-Medina-Baghdad a long day out indeed. Even though we will only be flying short sectors, with none of them more than two and a quarter hours each, however, it is what happens on the ground before departure and during the turn-around which takes up most of the duty day.

So with our crew assembled, comprising twelve cabin crew (the minimum legally required to operate our fully laden Boeing 747-400), one ground engineer who flies with us plus myself and my co-pilot we depart our hotel in its rickety old shuttle bus for the airport and the first of many security checks.

Our Iraq Airways identity cards are checked prior to entering the airport’s terminal area at its last roadside checkpoint and then after disembarking from the bus we are instructed to line all our crew bags up where the ‘K9’, the sniffer dog, checks them for explosives. We are given a cursory hand search, men in the open, women in a curtained off booth. With these checks completed, we are allowed to enter the airport terminal building itself, after our bags have been x-rayed and we’ve passed through a normal airport body scanner.

Time for the crew to split up with the pilots heading off to the Iraq Airways flight operations to collect the flight plans, weather and notams, our purser accompanies us to collect the General Declaration. This document allows us to retrieve our passports which are held by the airport’s immigration officers during our layover in Baghdad.  With the paperwork completed we repeat the x-ray and body search processes three more times before being allowed on-board our white tailed Boeing 747-400. As of yet the airline’s colour scheme has yet to be painted onto the fuselage, its registration YI-AQQ, an ex-JAL aircraft with a 420 seat configuration, 70 business and 350 economy towers over the other aircraft on the airport’s apron.


Once on-board one of the aspects of this type of operation which I relish is that the crew has to do everything, chase everything and organise everything, just to keep it all going. Our South African ground engineer not only completes his transit checks and refuelling of the aircraft, but also ensures that the baggage pallets have been loaded where we want them to be and that the cargo hold locks have been activated correctly. With the fuel we tend to uplift as much from Baghdad as we can, where it is six times cheaper than in Saudi Arabia. So 130,000 pounds has become our standard fuel figure departing Baghdad, which is sufficient to fly to either Jeddah or Medina and then still have sufficient remaining for the return sector to Baghdad, with full reserves and ‘some for mum’.

Our aircraft is in excellent condition and has been extremely well maintained but even so, as in any airline faults occur and at the moment our APU is not working, whilst we are currently waiting for a new starter to arrive. This condition throws up more operational considerations, as we need ground electrics as well as ground air carts for engine starting. We also need ground air conditioning units as even at this time of the morning the aircraft interior heats up rapidly during passenger boarding.

On-board our cabin crew have to complete their own security checks, liaising with me for a check of the PA and cabin evacuation systems, whilst also ensuring the aircraft is clean, the water and toilet systems have been correctly serviced and that we have sufficient catering on-board.

In the cockpit whilst managing the overall operation we have our own tasks to complete, such as completing the initial cockpit set-up where we ensure that all the switches are correctly set, loading the FMS (Flight Management System) with route, navigation and performance information for this flight, so this is literally both the heart and brains of the operation. We also have to complete the load-sheet in triplicate and the trim sheet too, this will confirm that the aircraft is correctly loaded and within all structural limits. Not such a big deal for us, because even with a full load and tankering fuel, we are still comparatively light for a Boeing 747-400 on take-off, around 650,000 pounds, compared with our maximum allowed take-off weight of 830,000 pounds. 


You have to keep on top of what is going on, or more often, not going on and realising that we were still not boarding passengers, it is up to us to find out why. So leaving the cosy environs of the cockpit I ascertain from our ramp agent that our passengers would not be boarding for another three hours as they had been held up by enhanced security checks entering the airport as a result of the multitude of bombs which exploded in downtown Baghdad this evening. The Hajj operation generally is a case of ‘Hurry Up And Wait’ and operating out of Iraq just exacerbates the situation.

Well eventually, with dawn threatening to rise and our 0200 departure time nearly 3 hours behind us, passenger boarding is finally completed. As I will be PF (Pilot Flying) down to Medina, I complete a departure and emergency briefing, covering discussion items relating to what will happen and what we hope will not.

With the calculated zero fuel weight (the weight of the aircraft, passengers and baggage) entered into the FMS we check our performance charts to see what power setting can be used. At this weight we can use a maximum de-rate, by using an assumed temperature of 55 degrees, this allows us to reduce the wear and stress on the engines and so prolong their life. We use the speeds calculated now by the FMS for take-off, V1 (decision speed in event of a critical malfunction occurring during take-off, defined as the maximum speed at which the initial actions to reject the take-off must be commenced.  Vr (the speed at which we rotate, initiate the actions required to become airborne) and V2 (the engine out target speed). Checking that both the V1 speed is annunciated on the PFD (Primary Flight Display) as well as the V2 speed also, once we’ve manually set it on the speed selector window of the MCP (Mode Control Panel).

With the pre-flight and before start checklists completed, it is time to review the supplementary procedures as the APU is inoperative for starting the first engine whilst parked on the gate using an external air supply. We need to start engine number four first then disconnect the ground services before pushing back. Then once the pushback is completed we can use the cross-bleed start checklist for the remaining three engines. This involves increasing thrust on the operating engine so that there is sufficient bleed air to start the remaining engines.

We have now been on duty nearly six hours and only just reached a position where we can call ATC for taxi clearance. Completing our pre taxi procedures requires selecting the flaps to twenty degrees and checking the full and free movement of the control surfaces against their display on the status page of the lower EICAS (Engine Indicating Crew Alert System). Finally, we complete the after start checklist, and we can depart under our own power.

Baghdad ground control issues us with our transponder code and clears us to taxi to the holding point of runway 33 Right via taxiways Yankee and Sierra. Now these are not denoted on the Jeppesen taxi charts, but having operated out of Baghdad now for the last couple of months we know the routing.

There is no need to increase engine thrust as we are so overpowered at this light weight that simply releasing the parking brake causes the aircraft to start moving, this brings its own concerns as we have to be careful with the brakes, not ride them and cause them to unnecessarily heat up. Tyres need to be nursed as well watching for a maximum speed of ten knots in turns and thirty knots in a straight line before slowing back down again. As with preserving the engines we need to also minimise the wear on the tyres and brakes due to the difficulty in getting spares and maintenance with the resultant high costs in this part of the world.

Having been advised by our purser that the cabin is ready for take-off we complete the before take-off checklist, being advised by ground control to change frequency over to Baghdad tower, we await our departure instructions

Looking over to my left, I can see to the south east of the airport the silhouette of one of Saddam’s palaces, a monstrosity surrounded by ornate lagoons and villas. Approaching the holding point at the runway’s threshold, I slow the aircraft down, anticipating that there will be no delay to our departure, just our ATC clearance to come.


Although there are SIDs (Standard Instrument Departures) prescribed for Baghdad airport, for obvious reasons it is best not to fly routes which can be planned for in advance and monitored by third parties who might have criminal intentions. Therefore just prior to take-off we are given a heading to fly after departure and clearance to climb to five thousand feet. The heading takes us away from the city and out over the desert and relative safety. The memories of what happened to the DHL Airbus A300 are always there, made more poignant as it is parked less than two hundred yards from the hotel we stay in here!


With the cabin crew notified over the PA system of our impending take-off I review our immediate actions when airborne. With the undercarriage selected up I remind us that all exterior lights are to be switched off to, the cabin crew have already been briefed to switch off all their cabin lights.

It’s very ghostly here as at night on the ground in Baghdad you can hear many aircraft and helicopters flying around, but it is impossible to see any of them, as nobody flies around with lights on here, again for obvious reasons.

With take –off clearance received and lined up on the runway’s centreline I advance the four thrust levers to 70%N1 and check for stable power indications before depressing the TOGA (Take Off Go Around) switches. Now the auto-throttle system automatically advances the thrust levers to our previously selected power setting, and our take-off roll commences.

With a call of ’80 knots’ to cross check airspeed indications and that neither pilot is incapacitated, we quickly accelerate to V1 and shortly after Vr. Initially climbing away at 165 knots and with a positive rate of climb confirmed, I ask for ‘gear up and lights off’. At four hundred feet above the ground I ask for the Heading mode to be selected to correctly direct the flight directors and following its commands bank the aircraft in the required direction to pick up our previously cleared heading.


Now flying outside the relative safety of the airport’s perimeter, we head south west and out over the desert. Our ND (Navigation Display) portraying many TCAS (Traffic Collision Alerting System) targets; helicopters, UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) and other random military traffic with fabulously imaginative call-signs. However, we were being expertly and assuredly looked after by the American Air Traffic Controllers and our day out was about to begin in earnest.