After five months into my last adventure, sorry position of employment, one which primarily involved flying around the non-holiday destinations of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia on a Boeing 747-400 aircraft for The Supreme Hajj and Umrah Commission; I was offered the opportunity to operate a flight to a different destination, Tripoli in Libya.
‘Cool’ I thought; a change of region for my family to follow on CNN news to keep up to date with my latest movements.
My enthusiasm though was not repeated by my family, who were deeply unenthusiastic at this prospect. They had become used to the fact that I was no longer based in a cosmopolitan western city, or by the banks of one of Italy’s many beautiful lakes; but instead in the semi-secure area between Baghdad airport’s two north-south runways.
My accommodation was protected not by smart overdressed doormen, but instead by even smarter and politer ex-Ghurkha guards wielding AK47s. My once stylish hotel rooms were swapped for air conditioned containers with hot and hot running water; but I loved it, I could often be heard to say “It is what it is”, and always with a smile on my face.
Trying to explain that operating into the Libyan war zone on an Iraqi government backed humanitarian rescue flight would be perfectly safe, was to be honest; met with more than a little bit of disbelief. Not surprising really, especially after all of my previous assurances about our safety in Baghdad had fallen on deaf ears after two mortar shells landed nearby my compound whilst I was chatting on Skype with my daughter, she being in leafy Surrey and myself in sandy Baghdad, it was not a scenario that she wanted to become used to. I was told that this threat of mortars was the reason why there was a gap between the walls and the bed, so that if the pictures fell off the wall, they wouldn’t land on my head. Why didn’t they just move the pictures? Or was that simply another ‘urban legend’ amongst so many associated with this region?
Now I had been to Tripoli before, using the airport as a place to fill up on cheap fuel whilst flying a DC10 between my then home base south east of Paris to destinations in Africa. So I was familiar with the airport, but that was before civil war had broken out.
The operation almost stumbled at the first hurdle, as the Iraqi flight planning department led me to believe that they’d not heard of European Flow Control or their CFMU, Central Flow Maintenance Unit. Not really their fault as it had been many years since they had operated outside of the Middle East region. So I diplomatically as possible suggested that they re-file our flight plan, not through closed Libyan airspace but by the only approved entry point that the current circumstances allowed.
This meant that over-flight permits were required for Jordan, Egypt, Greece and Malta as well as landing permission for Tripoli itself. My fabulous UK based boss, a highly experienced UK training captain and airline manager, whom acted as a consultant for this operation worked tirelessly to obtain these on Iraqi Airways behalf, and after a day’s delay obtained all the necessary clearances as well as the specialised insurance required for this type of operation.
So having suffered this delay to our flight whilst waiting for the necessary paperwork to be obtained, and receiving an amount of cash, which I had a hunch would not be sufficient to cover expected and unforeseen expenses, we were ready to depart.
The aircraft was fully catered for what we hoped would be a full load, and fuelled to enable us to fly to Tripoli and back to Baghdad with extra reserves to cover any unexpected ‘surprises’. Well fuel here in Baghdad was virtually free, as it was literally coming out of the ground, and how much we carried was never questioned.
Sitting with my fabulous colleague on the flight deck, Marty an American Captain who had a terrifically dry sense of humour, plus behind us a full complement of cabin crew, sufficient security personnel and two ground engineers we departed Baghdad on runway 33R for our ‘adventure’ to Tripoli.
Our routing took us west from Baghdad towards the Jordanian border, passing to the north of Petra and the Dead Sea and into Egyptian airspace, being careful not to cut the corner and stray into Israeli airspace for obvious reasons. A beautiful day to go flying took us over the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, where looking down I was amazed at how few ships were waiting to transit, maybe a sign of either the global economy or the uncertainty of this region’s stability.
Heading further north we flew over the densely packed city of Cairo…too smoggy to see the pyramids unfortunately, in-fact I have never seen them from the air…then coasting out over Alexandria and into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
A good time to eat my lamb kebabs and warm chips served by a member of our fabulous cabin crew, as we had about half an hour of peace and quiet before entering the busy European area, home to numerous charter flights dropping in and out of the beautifully scenic Greek islands; a type of flying which I had thoroughly enjoyed in many previous companies, almost too many to mention, but for whom I consider myself lucky to have worked for.
I need to add here that in all my years of flying, I have never met such a professional, friendly and conscientious group of cabin crew, who accepted whatever they were tasked with, always with a smile on their face. I doubt if I shall have the good fortune to fly with a comparable group of friends and colleagues again…..especially as I am flying the Boeing 747 freighter now! No cabin crew, just a load master and occasionally a ground engineer, not a skirt or sweetly perfumed young lady in sight, and not quite the same!
With lunch over and the Greek border south east of the island of Crete approaching, it was time to see if our flight would be accepted by European Air Traffic Control agencies. Yes, we had the required over-flight permits but even so we were still an Iraqi registered aircraft flying under an Iraqi Airways call-sign, the first time in many years that such a flight had passed through this region.
I need not have worried as we were cleared to enter and given a direct routing to a position south of Malta. I tempted fate by thinking that it was all running like clockwork, I should have known better!
With our Flight Management Computers correctly programmed for the arrival onto Tripoli’s westerly runway, utilising the Instrument Landing System there, that might or might not be working, Marty and I conducted a thorough arrival briefing, and escape plan should the need arise. Well, we were not overly sure what to expect, we had both seen the news as reported on various television channels and the situation on the ground looked pretty ugly, and wasn’t about to improve anytime soon.
Having already discussed the benefits of landing in either daylight or at night, and decided that both had their advantages and downsides too. You see we were used to operating into airports where there could be threats from the ground and understood what was needed to be done. So a daylight landing it was to be, but a continuous descent approach would be flown, staying above 3,000 feet for as long as possible. This was the height that we considered to be safe from SAFI, or Small Arms Fire.
So with all our pre-descent procedures complete and clearance to enter Libyan airspace obtained we started our descent, and finished our last cup of coffee. We were handed over by the Maltese controller to a surprisingly chirpy Libyan one, who passed over the weather for Tripoli and gave us our arrival clearance and asked us to pass on any information as to whether the ground based navigation aids were actually working! He couldn’t be sure as to if they were, or how long they would remain functioning, yes we were in Africa where this was a ‘routine’ experience, but nevertheless reminded us that we were also entering a hostile area.
Again we need not have worried as the ILS was functioning correctly and so were the approach and tower control frequencies for Tripoli.
Keeping our eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary, unknown military aircraft, lasers or unfriendly items sent our way from the ground, Marty and I configured the aircraft for landing.
Going back to lasers, aircraft are these days being targeted too often by them, primarily by idiots on the ground who think that it is funny to try and shine them into the cockpit of aircraft, be this in the UK, the Canary Islands or many other countries. Though when it happened to me on the approach into an Iraqi airport at night, it tended to concentrate the mind and reminded me of the old saying….”It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground!” A foolhardy and dangerous thing to do as it could blind the pilots and lead to a less than satisfactory outcome to all on-board that particular aircraft.
However, apart from a gusty wind and associated turbulence, the approach and landing was uneventful and we exited the runway and headed to our designated parking spot. I didn’t realise how busy it would be here, with a multitude of aircraft arriving and departing on rescue flights.
I also didn’t realise that now the fun was about to begin in earnest, especially as we were greeted by a pickup truck driven by a character waving a pro-Gaddafi green flag and shouting out associated Arabic messages extoling the virtues of that regime, and down with the USA, down with England. We decided it might be prudent that for a while some of us became ‘honorary’ Australian citizens.
I can’t help but wonder what happened to this guy? But that would be irrelevant as we now had more important things to worry about, and a deadline that could not be extended to comply with. This deadline was dictated by our insurance company that would only give us cover for a maximum of three hours on the ground in a war zone, so we needed to get organized, find our passengers and leave as swiftly as possible.
This would prove to be easier said than done………