Often the flying part is the easiest of the tasks set for a pilot. It is the organisation and operation on the ground which requires the greatest skills, both in diplomacy and management, and this day would test both of these.
Annoyingly my mobile phone would not work here on the ground in Tripoli, and my only means of communication with my boss in the UK and Iraqi Airways in Baghdad was through Stockholm Radio using the HF network, not ideal, so an alternative needed to be sourced to solve this problem, along with other problems which were starting to unfold on a minute by minute basis.
With various people boarding our aircraft and being searched by our Iraqi Airways security team, it soon materialised that before anything could be done we had to pay. This would be for navigation fees, landing charges, handling and parking charges too. So with a member of the Iraqi Embassy and a local Libyan handling agent I was whisked off to relieve myself of several thousand US Dollars. Accompanied by a fabulous gentleman, again a member of our security team, who did a great impression of Lord Nelson, as he always kept his hand inside his buttoned up jacket, we drove off to the flight planning and handling office. Now I have been to many of these ‘departments’ in my career, but the sight of this one was one which I was totally unprepared for. It resembled a rundown squat used as a New York crack den and inhabited by some very untidy individuals. However, the Libyan staff here could not have been more helpful. They had nothing, their country was in melt down, yet what they did have they wanted to share with me; a cup of ‘chai’ with them was almost a humbling experience.
One member of the local Iraqi Embassy staff kindly leant me his personal mobile phone which was most welcome, and I was allowed to keep it for the ‘duration’, I am sure he meant just a couple of hours, but I returned it two days later and with its credit exhausted!
Returning to my aircraft, it materialised that we only had 70 passengers, the problem being that there were so many checkpoints between the city and the airport that it was becoming very difficult for the ‘refugees’ to make their way. This was compounded by the security teams manning these checkpoints ‘confiscating’ their money, passports and anything else which they took a fancy to, along with systematically beating them. We were then advised that it would be many more hours before any more of our passengers would be in a position to board our aircraft.
We were advised that these seventy passengers would be removed from the airport if they did not board immediately, now I didn’t want to board them, as we were advised that it would be unacceptable to fly to Tripoli and then only return to Baghdad with seventy passengers, it would have been a political public relations disaster. However, I didn’t want to lose those that we had, as there were many families with children. So a group decision was made to board them and wait as long as we could.
After three hours on the ground and all extensions to our insurance running out, we had to leave and with the option of returning to Baghdad being an unfavourable one, and a guarantee from the Iraqi Embassy staff that our remaining passengers plus the seventy we already had would be ready to depart the following day; I decided to offload those already on-board and depart for Tunis which was only an hour away. There we could come up with our next plan, and buy us some more time.
The decision to fly to Tunis was made as we were very fortunate that our senior cabin crew member was from Tunis and who had friends at the airport there, and it was through him and my UK boss that we were able to organise our over flight permissions of Tunisia and our landing permit into Tunis, again it’s who you know in this business! So with the very understanding passengers disembarked and the aircraft pre-flight checks all completed we started our engines for a departure to Tunis’s Carthage International Airport.
Although the westerly runway was favoured by the surface wind, the entry onto this runway had been destroyed so a back-track followed by a 180 degree turn at the poorly lit runway’s end would be required to take off in a westerly direction. It was now dark, and not wishing to take any undue risks Marty and I decided that it would be prudent to accept a ten knot tailwind and depart using the full length available on the easterly runway.
After an uneventful take-off we were cleared by Libyan air traffic control to fly direct to our exit point on the Libyan-Tunisian border However, this would mean flying over the town of Zawarah a coastal town west of Tripoli which we had earlier been advised by Iraqi embassy personnel was experiencing hostile actions. Instead we decided on a northerly track between the eastern edge of Tripoli and the quaintly named town of Castelverde; so keeping us clear of Zawarah.
Climbing to our cruise altitude of 38,000 feet only took fifteen minutes, and being handed over to Tunisian air traffic control west of the island of Djerba, we were cleared direct to a waypoint named Zahra which was the initial approach fix for the arrival routing into Carthage airport when using the ten thousand feet long runway 01.
A normal landing using just idle reverse and no autobrakes ensued. We customarily tried to use as little reverse thrust as necessary to minimise engine ware and foreign objects damage, accompanied with minimal braking to reduce brake and tyre ware too. Our preference was to use the available runway length whenever possible and so reducing our maintenance costs as much as possible; with only one Boeing 747-400 in our company we had little flexibility during unscheduled maintenance.
We planned to stay on the ground in Tunis for around sixteen hours, taking rest in the hotel and coming up with an alternative plan of action. During this ground time the necessary landing and over-flight permits were obtained, Tunisian handling bills paid by a member of the Iraqi embassy in Tunis, and the aircraft was re-catered…most important!
The subsequent flight to Tripoli was uneventful. There were 210 passengers waiting for us on arrival, and after spending the last of my dollars and donating all the catering which we could spare to the extremely grateful ground staff, we closed our doors and set off for home, well Baghdad anyway.
A great adventure and very rewarding that we had removed so many families from harm’s way; however, it’s a question of ‘the devil you know’ I suppose. Tripoli or Baghdad, as we say Hobson’s choice I suppose. Although a year on, it seems that Tripoli is actually a safer proposition than Baghdad.
I’m no longer involved with the Boeing 747-400 operation in Baghdad; instead I have secured a fantastic contract flying the Boeing 747-400 for Silkways in Azerbaijan; yet another fabulous
adventure flying freight to destinations as diverse as Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan China and Europe.
I consider myself to be very lucky.
If you would like to fly with Alan on the Boeing 737,747,777 or Airbus 320/340, then you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org