Monday, 10 December 2012


Okay, doom and gloom first, best get it out of the way now. In the current economic climate, to be honest there are few options for those pilots who are looking for their next, or maybe their first job. Unless of course you fancy working in West Africa, China, or even worse than Lagos or Shenzhen, Ryan-land!

The days of becoming a Hamster (BEA and junior BOAC pilots know what I mean) or a re-born Virgin are long behind us and for most, dipping their toes into the world of contract flying could be the only way of securing employment. Even these two ‘legacy’ carriers that I’ve just mentioned are amongst dozens of others which are looking at reducing the number of personnel in their flight ops departments. But don’t be scared about contracting, having experienced career airlines such as Dan Air, Virgin Atlantic and Thomsonfly, I thoroughly recommend it.

Okay the financial security is not there, but where is it anywhere at the moment? This was personally brought home to me by watching two of my previous airlines’ pensions shrivelling up; one alone lost 22% in the last year, unfortunately not the ex-wife’s 22%!

But, if you’re willing to consider a 12 month contract to just tide you over in the short term, then believe it or not there is still a lot of choice out there in the job market, although to be honest the options as I previously intimated are generally in the less salubrious areas of the world. Which in my own opinion is what makes them more interesting, especially places like Seoul, Bucharest, Casablanca and Asmara?

Okay our industry is in a downturn, but those of us who have been around the block more often than one of Blakey’s buses knows that this is cyclical. (By the way, one of my co-pilots in Virgin Atlantic actually appeared in one of the ‘On The Buses’ films. Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you any further Andy!) Well, over my last twenty five years in this industry I’ve seen it before, and the good times will return; it may just take a bit longer this time.

So to explain where I am going with this, I have recently returned from enjoying my latest experience, adventure as my long suffering wife calls it, and the following ‘story’ highlights just one of those days, those long, long days! I say long day as I should have learnt from my brief time flying the DC10 for a Zimbabwe registered freight company, that ‘Flight Time Limitations’ in Africa were looked at as merely a daft suggestion than a rule. Therefore the day out which I shall shortly explain would never happen to, nor be tolerated by say, a British Airways pilot, and quite rightly so! But then it’s one of the ‘perks’ of being a pilot in the up and down world of contract flying. You need to manage the situation yourself and the need for flexibility and understanding of your environment is paramount to keeping the operation going whilst never forgetting, always being safe. Bizarrely, do you know what though; I wouldn’t swap this topsy-turvy lifestyle for all the weeks on the beach in the Caribbean, or weekends shopping in New York! Twelve years falling over in the same Irish bar in Miami, and delving through the bargain basement in Macy’s in Manhattan, whilst Delsey dining (eating out of, and on your suitcase) in my dolls house sized room in Narita outside of Tokyo, was enough thanks!

Well, this latest adventure was to be a new one on me, as after operating from more than 200 different airports on five continents; I still had to look up the place that I was being sent to in my nine year old daughter’s atlas. You see, whilst being employed by a UK aircrew agency Avcom, though my contract was ‘conveniently’ registered in the Cayman Islands and subcontracted out by them to a small Italian airline Neos, which was based at Milan’s Malpensa airport; I was sent on a detachment for a relatively new Eritrean airline Nasair, by the way that’s in Africa, but you probably guessed that from the title of this piece! I think my lawyer would have fun tracing back any liability issues!

For the spotters I’ve probably added two new airlines to their hit lists, as I too had never heard of either airline until I’d become directly involved with them. Briefly a little bit of history to appease the various marketing departments. Neos, initially partly owned by TUI, started operations in 2002 with a single B737-800W whilst Nasair commenced flight operations in December 2006 initially with a not so new B737-200. Back to Neos briefly, even though the company was from a ‘civilized’ European country, their training department and method of operating the B737NG came as quite a culture shock, but there in lies a tale for another time!

So back to now, there were seven of us in all on my crew, five flight attendants and two pilots. We were to be based for around two weeks in Asmara the country’s capital. I say around two weeks as we could not be guaranteed that Nasair would release us on the day that our parent company had scheduled us to return, there were always ‘problems’ with the tickets, in other words no one wanted to pay for them! As we were on a wet lease fortunately we would be operating one of Neos’s own aircraft, I-NEOW a B-737-800W, by the way the ‘W’ stands for Winglet, and Neos were very proud of that ‘W’! Big picture, little picture!

Now I’m no stranger to Africa but early impressions, infact it only took five minutes to be exact after disembarking from the Yemeni airlines A310, the one which is sadly now at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and walking across the unlit ramp to the overcrowded and steaming arrivals hall, for my suspicions to be confirmed. We had been travelling for the whole day from Milan via Rome to Sana’a in the Yemen then onwards to Asmara. Flying on a B737, A330 and an A310, all of which were dry! The brightly lit hall left a fair amount to be desired, infact appeared to leave a fair amount to still be built. It was going to be proven that I’d definitely stayed in more cosmopolitan cities for sure, even in Africa. Especially as a couple of days later it seemed that we’d exhausted all of the local tourist attractions after visiting the heavily guarded tank graveyard, three octogenarians with locally issued sticks, and the 1950’s bowling alley! By the way the bowling alley had no means of automatically picking up the pins after they’d been knocked down, so you were allocated a young local lad who hid behind the pins to do this for you. This after several beers created a whole new sport!

My crew on this detachment consisted of a real character and all round nice guy in Leonardo my co-pilot and the five fabulous cabin crew led by the senior cabin crew member Ermelinda. After completing all of the airport’s arrival procedures, in triplicate, we shoehorned ourselves and our luggage into the dusty hot Nasair minibus for the short drive to our hotel. Once again using just first impressions to go on, I was preparing for a bit of a disappointment. We pulled up in front of the most decrepit looking hotel I’ve been forced to stay in, and I’ve stayed in Tashkent, Lagos and Hull! I think that we all shared the same opinion that this was to be no luxury holiday! As an aside I was later to find out that we had been ‘upgraded’, even though I had no hot water for two days at least I had water, the previous crew had had no water at all in their hotel/bordello.

Back to why we were here, good news, we were escaping from Asmara, if only for fourteen hours or so as we were scheduled to operate a Hajj flight for Nasair. This meant us operating a sixty minute ferry flight from Asmara to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, load up with an assortment of returning pilgrims, and fly them back to their ‘homes’ around N’djamena in Chad, before another ferry flight back to Asmara. Nice day out I thought, well I’d never done a Hajj contract before, and three new airports to operate from, boy were my eyes about to be opened!

Our day started with the same battered old company minibus from a few days prior, picking us up at the crack of dawn from our hotel, the temperature outside was only just above freezing as even though Asmara is in East Africa; its elevation is almost 8,000 feet above mean sea level, the cold and thin air not helping the smokers amongst the crew! The drive to the airport only took fifteen minutes along the dusty potholed roads, past the UN complex, dodging the early morning traffic of goats and wobbly cyclists!    

On reaching the airport we passed through what amounted to a ‘gesture’ towards security, I swear the screening machines were probably not plugged in! On the surface though, I must say that their system appeared much better than the shed and clipboard operation of the Lagos airport freight ramp. Heading off in search of the Nasair briefing office, we were fortunate that Leonardo knew the way as he was on his second detachment here, it was located in the main airport’s terminal building and there were no signposts obviously. Neos operations were ahead of the game as they had already faxed through the flight-plans, which is a task that could take more than thirty minutes on the archaic equipment available, no laser printers here! The duty manager or ramp agent, I never did find out his exact title or unfortunately his name had arranged for what he considered to be a selection of ‘suitable’ weather reports to be printed off. However, there were no Notams for either Asmara or N’djamena though; two out of three of our destinations, and my polite insistence over my need for these were met with a smile and a promise that I would have them prior to departure! I was not totally convinced. A lot of people just shrug their shoulders and play the joker card, well this is Africa, but this was one joker that I wanted to keep up my sleeve for when I felt that I really needed it!

However, our first and most important job on being presented with the wad of paperwork was to complete the government currency declaration forms, with to us their obvious flaw, I could tell you why but I won’t! Next task was to make a decision on the fuel which we required to have on board to fly the one hour sector to Jeddah, very simple this last one. In Asmara there’s no JET A1 fuel available to us, even though there’s a fuel farm located on the airport. I should imagine this is reserved for the mighty Eritrean air force, which in Asmara comprised one modern looking Mig 29 fighter, no photos were to be taken we were told, but if you’re interested you can see it on Google Earth! As well as a selection of ‘distressed’ training aircraft, including I believe an old T33. As a result of this fuel situation we always had to plan to arrive into Asmara with at least eight tons of fuel remaining onboard, enough to get back out again and fly to either Khartoum or Jeddah.

So pre-flight briefing complete, especially as Leonardo had already prepared as far as he could manual loadsheets and ATC flight plans whilst in the hotel, such was his efficiency and professionalism which I was to find would be echoed frequently over the next week or so. It was again time for another foray for us through one more ‘security’ checkpoint, after which we were allowed to stroll out to our aircraft. Health and safety nitwits would be jumping up and down at this, as there was not a high-viz jacket in sight! Well, to be honest the only thing moving on the ramp were the two birds which our engineer had  flushed out of the APU exhaust on our aircraft, and also now that the sun had risen we were lucky as the temperature was starting to do so also. As mentioned the apron was not exactly a bustle of activity, there were only three other aircraft, two of which were Nasair B737-200 aircraft being tended to by a couple of scruffy Russian engineers. I’ll add here, that a couple of days later when we had to return to the airport to put our aircraft to bed and complete the mid term parking procedure, you see it was to be staying on the ground for a while, these two characters waved us onboard the most knackered looking of these two aircraft. Wanting to know, by just using hand signals but we got the gist, if we could assist them with some urgent engineering. Which unfortunately we couldn’t, but on our way out through the ‘business class’ section being nosy we peered into the flight deck, where I was surprised to see that on the glareshield they had wired up the same type of Tom-Tom satnav that you could buy back home in Halfords!

The only other airworthy looking aircraft on the ramp was an Eritrean airline’s B767, which not surprisingly also appeared to have seen better days. In comparison our shiny and spotless looking aircraft was a pearl cast amongst swine, parked as it was in the cheap seats as far from the airport terminal as was physically possible. The aircraft was one which Neos had picked up from the unfortunate demise of Excel Airways in the UK and now placed on the Italian register, and having been repainted, in what are basically TUI colours but with the NASAIR logo on the side of the fuselage, and I must say looked very smart.

Our ground engineer, a great chap called Rory who was a Dutchman from Nairobi but married to an Eritrean lass, was sat in the forward left doorway of our aircraft, his legs casually dangling over the side as he wrote up the daily check in the technical log, a set of insubstantial and wobbly step ladders reaching only halfway up to this open doorway not a site that I’d ever witnessed at London Heathrow! Now I could not imagine the female cabin crew with their high heels, climbing up this ladder and pulling themselves up the final three feet to board the aircraft. But this was what our still smiling ramp agent insisted that we needed to do, the reason being that Nasair had not paid their last bill to the airport authorities, so in return we were to receive no assistance with ground operations! I could see Rory looking down at us as we approached grinning away, and I could visualise him mouthing, ‘welcome to Africa!’

Once I had diplomatically persuaded our ramp agent, and that he realised that this flight was not departing using a step ladder, he sprung, sorry loped into action. Fifteen minutes later a knackered looking tractor fired up and spewing blue and black smoke pulled an equally looking knackered set of steps towards us, five minutes of comic too and frowing and the steps were sort of in position.

Leonardo busied himself with the pre-departure safety check and the preliminary flight deck inspection, the APU was already running and thanks to Rory’s previous efforts there was no smell of roasting ‘poultry’! I was pleased to note that the flight deck was actually at quite a pleasant temperature as I stood behind Leonardo in the cramped confines of the B737 cockpit. I checked over the technical log, which Rory had finished, ‘Good’ no defects carried forward. There very rarely were on Neos aircraft I found, as they were kept in excellent condition and maintained to the high requirements befitting an ETOPS operation, and the daily check was now up to date. There was still the same amount of fuel onboard as the aircraft had arrived with, a strange comment you might think, but only if you were not used to African operations. I shall explain why it was unusual for Africa, as last year whilst flying the DC10-30F in and out of Lagos and Dar es Salaam, you would return to the aircraft after a layover and fifty plus gallons could be missing. This was accepted as the norm, another unofficial African baksheesh!

Once again I could see that Leonardo was well up to speed and knew his job. After checking the many items of cockpit safety equipment which amongst others included, a BCF fire extinguisher, Draeger smoke hood, crash axe and crew life jackets in the back of the pilot seats, he took out the various Jeppesen charts for all three sectors. Remember the saying, ‘In God we trust, all else we check!’ Well it sometimes pays off even if you think that it’s not necessary. One UK Company that I worked for, I found that there was an item written by one Captain some pages back in the aircraft tech log which stated that the cockpit lifejackets had demo use only stamped on them. So it pays to check, remember the A320 surfing on the Hudson, best to find this sort of thing out before you actually need them?

Meanwhile, Ermelinda popped her head around the cockpit door, I pointed out that the galley power was now on in case there was any chance of a cup of something hot, whilst also discussing between us the need to keep the forward toilet locked so only the crew could use it. The need for this became apparent as the further back down the aircraft you walked the worse was the smell of stale urine. You see a lot of the passengers that we carried during Hajj operations had no concept of toilets or how to use them, bizarre but true as some of the stains up the fuselage wall would attest to. So some bright spark had come up with a colour poster for the toilets which tried to explain the obvious, two different methods of how to use them were illustrated, and we live in the 21st Century, some times it’s hard to believe. Needing some fresh air, I rather pointlessly donned my high-viz vest, well you never know where there might be an ‘elf and safety’ spy, and stepped into the fresh air of a bright Eritrean January morning to start my aircraft walkround.

Arriving back on the flightdeck Leonardo had loaded the FMS with all the required navigation and performance data, and completed the cockpit setup, ensuring all the switches were in the correct position prior to starting engines. I tried to persuade Rory to come and join us on our adventure, chatting to him whilst I signed the technical log, but he would have none of it. Rory swiftly left before I tried any firmer means of persuasion and was replaced by our smiley agent and a shabbily dressed colleague, one who advised us that he had our Notams. His helpful assessment was that, “there were no valid Notams, except in Asmara where no fuel was available!” Brilliant, that was it, and all we were going to receive, a kind of poor man’s verbal briefing. He was to be known for the next ten days as Mr. Notam, amongst other names not suitable for a family publication. Heaving all the ground staff off of the aircraft with copies of loadsheets and ‘security’ documents, I instructed Ermelinda to close the front door, and unfortunately still no hint of a cup of coffee! Leonardo was pilot flying for the first sector, so after he completed a comprehensive first emergency and departure brief, we amalgamated the pre-flight and before start checklists into one, expediting our departure, and allowing us to leave a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Clearance to start engines was obtained from both ATC and our ground crew, noting the reduced duct pressure provided by the aircraft’s APU due to our high altitude, we started our number two engine, and boy was it slow to start. This was followed by an equally sluggish number one engine; all parameters were within limits though. Dismissing the ground crew, and accomplishing the after start checklist finishing with setting the flaps to five degrees, our take off setting today, Leonardo called for taxi clearance. All clear on both sides, and clearance to taxi to the runway’s only holding point, I released the brakes, no increase of engine power was  required, as we were both very light and parked on quite a marked downhill slope!

After checking the full and free movement of the flight controls we received our departure clearance from the Asmara tower controller which was basically a left turn after departure avoiding the city on course climbing to 35,000 feet. After reviewing the take off briefing Ermelinda gave us a cabin secure check, and I armed the auto-throttle whilst Leonardo selected the engine start switches to continuous as per Neos company procedures. With the before take off checklist now complete, we received clearance to enter and backtrack runway 07, we seemed to enter the runway at the bottom of a dip, as it was all up hill to the runway’s end. Two rather large eagle type birds (sorry I’m no Bill Oddie!) were basking in the sun, wings outstretched but definitely in our way slightly off to one side of the runway centre line and right in line with our number two engine, flashing our landing lights had no effect. Unfortunately Boeing’s do not come fitted with a horn, whilst slowing down so as to not ruin either of our days, they fortunately realised we were the bigger bird and with half a dozen lazy strides became airborne and headed off towards the tank like armoured vehicle parked on the airport’s perimeter. Turning off of the centre line at the runway’s end, taxiing to the left I started to follow the painted yellow line to guide us while turning around, and quickly decided against it as I was pretty sure that my B737 was not the four-wheel off road version, which is where we would be if we’d continued.

Now pointing the right way and lined back up on the centreline with all checks complete, we were given takeoff clearance. I mentally ran through the rejected takeoff drill, switching on my weather radar and switching off the taxi light as we rolled slowly forwards, Leonardo advanced the thrust levers to 40%N1 before pressing the TOGA switches and off we trundled. There seemed to be more potholes on the runway than the road outside of our hotel, one was so large, that later on our return we would actually steer the aircraft around it as I imagined replacement tyres were probably at a premium here in Asmara.

I quickly called 80 and shortly after V1 and Rotate speeds almost simultaneously, as Leonardo eased the nose up to around 15 degrees of pitch initially before the automatics worked out a more suitable pitch attitude for our initial climb out. The only instruction we were given by ATC was to fly around the city before turning onto a heading which would intercept the Northerly track out of the Asmara VOR defining the airway up to the Eritrean Saudi Arabian border. A task made easier for us due to the high elevation we were starting from, so as a result our TAS was immediately about 20% higher than our IAS giving a larger radius of turn comfortably keeping us visually on the periphery of the town. Not that I thought they’d be any noise monitoring posts, not here not anywhere in Africa, noise abatement in Africa is more of a courtesy than a requirement I’ve found. Anyway passing around 9,300 feet the autothrottle system set the full climb thrust rating, and with a hint to Leonardo that the 10,000 feet checks could be delayed awhile, considering the altitude which we’d started from; we were shortly passing both the minimum safe altitude and transition altitude of 11,500 feet and heading in the right direction. After reselecting the altimeters to the standard setting Leonardo selected the B system autopilot and then the minimum clean speed on the MCP so that we could accelerate the aircraft and retract the flaps on schedule. With the aircraft cleaned up and the after takeoff checklist complete and accelerating to our initial climb speed of 290 knots prior to selecting VNAV, it was time to concentrate on looking out the window and realising just how beautiful this country actually was. My spell as a tourist was curtailed by the Asmara controller handing us over early to Jeddah, no radar in Eritrea and no known traffic meant ‘no problem’.

As we approached the border between the two countries level at our cruise altitude of 35,000 feet, importantly there was still no cup of coffee or sandwich yet, and as an aside still no contact with Jeddah ATC either, though we could hear other aircraft transmitting to them, we were still just a bit too far away. The arrival routing for Jeddah, via waypoint KASER had already been programmed by Leonardo into the FMS and the expected runway 34R, so we knew that we were heading in the right direction. Just enough time for a quick check of the Notams for Jeddah, nothing special except that if we had passengers we were to inform them when we passed various holy sites, I suppose so that they could start praying, fortunately we were empty, so not necessary. Although maybe if they thought it was my landing, then this alone would be sufficient need to summon up divine intervention! So I busied myself with a quick fuel check, plenty was my conclusion as we had enough to hold for a good few hours before returning ‘back’ to our alternate of Asmara, and time to quickly complete the rest of the paperwork. Leonardo in the mean time calculated the necessary landing data, speeds flap and autobrake setting required for landing an empty aircraft on a 4,000 meter runway! Time for a quick landing brief, and now we were in contact with Jeddah ATC, descent clearance.

The arrival routing was promptly cancelled by the Jeddah radar controller and we were cleared descent to 6,000 feet and to maintain high speed, which for Neos meant M0.78 until reaching 290kts IAS. We were number one for the approach and sent direct to the initial approach fix for runway 34R, crossing the coast to the South of the airfield, even in the haze and the blowing sand it was obvious how beautiful the beaches could have been. Approach checks complete now that we had selected QNH, and still admiring the scenery out of the window I contemplated if bikinis and beach bars would ever be allowed down there! Leonardo was enjoying himself too, and I could see the mental cogs whirring as he kept updating his high speed continuous descent approach. Twenty miles from touchdown he started to slow up, calling for flaps to be extended and as we did so intercepting the ILS localiser and glideslope, this was good I thought, and it was followed by a thoroughly respectable landing considering the turbulence caused by the thermals and gusty wind. Exiting to the left of the runway after a landing roll which would have impressed a carrier pilot, it was obvious where we had to taxi to as up ahead appeared the mighty Hajj terminal. This was a structure modelled on what I could only describe as a vast number of interlinked Bedouin tents, spectacular, and possibly a future design for London’s Heathrow? Parked at this terminal were aircraft from airlines which I had never heard of before, some of which were operating old, very old by the look of them, classic B747 types.

Our parking stand was a remote one abeam the terminal’s main structure, and apparently flanked by stockpiles of bulging discarded sacks, pieces of luggage and a vast array of water containers, or so I thought! This was where the fun was about to begin, and by the end of the turnaround I’d need something stronger than coffee to calm my nerves. As true here as anywhere it would materialise, the easy part of aviation is the flying, the operating of the aircraft. The difficult part is what goes on whilst you have the aircraft doors open and trying to manage the ground operation, with those members of the ground staff whose sole goal it is to make life as easy as possible for them, whilst severely harassing and messing with you!


The fun was about to begin!    


It’s only after the forward door opened that I realised just how hot it was, even in January the temperature was heading up to forty degrees. It was then that the groundstaff literally stormed the aircraft, there seemed to be a lot of men introducing themselves as ‘chiefs’! But before dealing with them I wanted to ensure that we had chocks in place on the main wheels so that I could release the parking brake, after a long taxi in high temperatures with a light aircraft the brakes get hot quickly. The problem with a light aircraft is that it wants to accelerate even at idle thrust, so the technique is to allow the groundspeed to slowly increase to 20kts, and then apply one smooth brake application to bring the speed back below 10kts, but even this procedure will cause the brakes to eventually heat up.

So tie off, high-viz on, I made my apologies and left to check outside, we had chocks but that is not what immediately concerned me. Our forward hold was being loaded with an assortment of cases and sacks. The sacks being luggage, but when I tried to pick one up I quickly realised that standard weights for loading could not be used; I tried several in turn and reckoned that they must weigh twenty to thirty kilos each. Not only that, but there was a whole trolley loaded with various water containers, these contained gallons of Zam-Zam or holy water, and I estimated that there were around a hundred and fifty of these.

On re-entering the flightdeck I was told that we were full, 184 passengers and after making a quick mental calculation I realised that we had a problem, we would be too heavy. I asked the most senior looking ramp agent, who spoke flawless English, exactly how much baggage we had, only to be told it’s no problem, which was not the answer I was after! I pressed home my request for accurate information, but there was nothing forthcoming, it was then that Ermelinda asked to speak to me. She had a problem with the catering, and needed water uplifting too, but no one would talk to her, she was just shrugged off, a cultural problem to be overcome. I insisted that she was to be spoken to respectfully, and that her requests were to be actioned, this was met with more ‘yes, yes, yes!’ Leonardo reminded me that we needed to uplift fuel too, which I duly requested, which I was told was on its way. Our schedule allowed us the luxury of a two hour turnaround, and I realised I was going to need all of it!

So to the maths, we needed to depart with 16,000kgs of fuel for the flight to N’djamena, that was easy as that figure was non-negotiable, but calculating our zero fuel weight was the problem. Even being conservative with the figures, 150 pieces of baggage and the same again in containers of water, plus 184 passengers, we were more than 3,000kgs over the structural limit! I reckoned that we could take all the passengers but only 65 bags and no water. Well, this was not possible according to the ramp agent, nobody else leaves anything behind I was told. I insisted on my request but he just walked off. I tried calling Milan on our company mobile phone but was unable to be connected, the reason being, I had to register the phone and receive a validation from the operator first, Saudi Arabian red tape I suppose! So I did the only thing I could think of and handed over responsibility for this to Leonardo as it seemed way too complicated for me, and do you know, he had the situation resolved and our ops on the phone in less than 10 minutes. I was amazed, on speaking to the duty ops guy I was unceremoniously put on hold, and then heard a voice I was not expecting, my chief pilot. We bounced the ball back and forth between the two of us sparring like two unyielding tennis players, but it was explained to me that this was a once in a lifetime journey for the pilgrims and that I couldn’t leave anything behind. I hit what I thought was a winning backhand explaining in detail my predicament with the weight I was expected to carry, but was smashed out of the court and left knowing what was wanted of me!

I ended the call, Leonardo gave me a sympathetic smile, but I needed some time on my own to decide my next course of action and asked Leonardo to leave the flightdeck. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t consider an evening flight on Saudia back to London, but that was not the professional way to behave, so I formulated a plan, another plan!

I told the ramp agent what I wanted, no baggage and no Zam-Zam water, only passengers which caused a rather heated argument, another one that needed to be defused, I could feel myself starting to get wound up by it all which was not acceptable, so I left to supervise the refuelling! Glad I did, as the holy water was being loaded into the aft hold, on explaining that this was not to be placed onboard, I was rudely ignored, so climbing onto the conveyor belt I started unloading the rear hold myself, more heated discussions in the now forty degrees sunlight followed. Also it appeared that all the baggage was in the process of being loaded too, contrary to my instructions! I felt that I was losing control of the situation, and needed to make my mark in the sand, literally, but summoning over the senior ramp agent who previously spoke excellent English, he now pretended to not speak or understand English at all. It was only when I insisted on seeing his identity pass and made a pretence of writing his name down that his ability to speak English returned. I now played my joker, and said I would take 65 pieces of baggage, and arrange for the rest to be taken by our next flight. I had no idea if there was to be another flight, but it was a way for me to feel happy that we were safe, and for him to save face; an important concept which I had learnt to work around whilst being employed by the Koreans.

With the loading arrangements to my satisfaction, and the refuelling complete it was time to load the passengers. As each bus in turn deposited its colourful load onto the ramp, it was obvious that they had more water and cabin baggage, enough to send Ryanair cabin crew into orbit! Leonardo had managed to complete a loadsheet which had us at maximum zero fuel weight, and just over a 1000kgs below maximum take-off weight, so performance off of the 4000m runway would not be a problem.

So I was happy, I had finally managed to have the aircraft loaded the way that I wanted it. I remembered the B757 whose gear collapsed on taxi out from here last year after being overloaded on a Hajj flight, just because it’s a Hajj flight doesn’t mean you can compromise on safety, as there will always be something waiting to catch you out, and bite you! Ermelinda too had found a way to establish her own authority, as each time a member of the groundcrew boarded she insisted on personally scrutinising their identity pass, and made sure she took her time in doing so!

I thought it crazy, but our little team were fighting just to complete our little pieces of the big picture. Working the Hajj was becoming a bit like commuting on the M25 motorway; I certainly couldn’t do it on a daily basis, my sanity wouldn’t allow it! So passengers loaded, bizarrely men at the front and women at the back of the aircraft, even though they had boarded together, once onboard they had segregated themselves. All doors closed, pre-departure checks and Leonardo’s briefing complete, as he was pilot flying again for this sector, I started to smile, after all the problems, the hassles and the fights, as a team we had managed the situation and scored a small victory because I him to call for start clearance twelve minutes before scheduled departure time. For the second time today we were about to depart early, not even my boss could complain at that, well he would when he found out what I had left behind!

Except that the gods were against us, Jeddah ATC advised us that they had no flightplan for us to N’djamena, and that we must contact our company, in Italy!

I wasn’t prepared for the next twist, as nobody had told us. Saudi Arabia does not recognise Chad, and would not accept a flightplan to there as our destination. So our ops department in Milan had filed us to Khartoum in Sudan with one callsign, and on entering Sudanese airspace we were to change our callsign and destination so that we could continue onwards to N’djamena. Now I didn’t mind this arrangement, but it would have been nice for someone to have told us!

With this vital information known to us now Leonardo asked for start clearance with our new callsign to Khartoum. Success, we were cleared to start and pushback with no further delay, still a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. We had beaten the Hajj demons and emerged victorious…for now!