Flight To Tunis For The Arab Conference
The brand new Boeing 727 Advanced was powered by a variant of the three Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines for better performance at high altitude airfields. It was equipped with dual Litton INS (inertial navigation systems) and the latest Collins flight director approach guidance system. It also had a reserve fuel tank to increase its range. In first class there were eight facing arm chairs upholstered in elephant skin which were separated by two coffee tables. Down the back were 75 economy seats to accommodate the armed guards.
The president of the country made it clear that he wanted an all British flight crew. At the time there were only two British pilots in the country. I had an Australian passport and an FAA flight engineer’s licence in addition to my airline transport pilot’s licence, so my name was put forward as a compromise solution. It was accepted so a British Australian flight crew was contracted to fly the V.I.P. 727. Our principal duties consisted of flying the president and his entourage to meetings with Arab leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The contract did involve some limited line flying but we were excluded from the annual Haj flights.
It was a pretty easy job with not much flying involved. Accommodation was 5 star with the authority to charge just about anything to the room bill including international phone calls. The job came with the usual gold watches and cash handouts. We were the envy of the line pilots who were doing there 75+ hours of scheduled airline flying around the Middle East with very few layovers outside the country.
I shared an apartment with the captain, Ray Rendall, who had a great sense of humour. I remember telling him that while I was a corporate pilot in Europe, I had flown a light twin engine aircraft called a PA23 Apache. In the event of an engine failure, the single engine performance of this aircraft was abysmal to say the least. Effectively, the second engine was to get you to the crash site! Ray thought this was uproariously funny and couldn’t stop laughing for 10 minutes. Tears were rolling down his face and dropping into his scotch.
On one occasion we were sitting around not doing too much. Ray suggested we take the V.I.P. aircraft up to check the navigation equipment. He pointed out that we were charged with the responsibility of running a smooth and efficient operation. We flew a triangular pattern around the country for about an hour checking INS co-ordinates with ground stations we over flew, as well as checking the aircraft systems. New aircraft often contain bugs which need to be ironed out during the first 100 hours of operation.
One late October day we were told that we would be flying to Tunis the in the morning with a technical fuel stop in Athens. We were given special instructions to fly 10 nautical miles north of the airway from Sana’a to Gizan because of the possibility that rival tribes would fire on the aircraft. In fact, this had happened to us the previous week on approach to Taiz. We took a bullet through the leading edge of the wing. A piece of speed tape was placed over the hole and we continued the detail with no detrimental aerodynamic effects. Apart from having to fly off airways in Yemen, the flight to Athens was routine using Iraklion, Crete as an enroute alternate as we didn’t have enough fuel to divert to Thessalonica in northern Greece, had this been necessary.
About an hour after leaving Athens we entered a holding pattern over the Tunis VOR (very high frequency omnirange) and descended initially to flight level 220 (22,000 feet). Arab leaders were converging on Tunis from all over the region and aircraft were stacked up in the holding pattern every 1,000 feet. Finally, after a long time holding, we were cleared for the approach.
At Tunis airport we climbed aboard a minibus with the cabin crew, and we expected a short ride to the hotel as it was close to the airport. Instead of which the driver drove straight through Tunis and kept going south for the best part of an hour before pulling up in front of a holiday resort that had been closed for the winter months. The boilers had been shut down and there was no hot water. The evening meal was a cold buffet comprising mostly of local food with very little choice. After dinner we managed to persuade the management to crank up the boilers so that we could at least enjoy a hot shower. It took literally hours before warm water started flowing through the pipes. Meantime Ray was on the phone to the V.I.P. flight protocol manager explaining our plight and insisting that we move into a hotel in the city. An agreement was reached on the basis that we would put up with the resort for one night and the next morning we would be moved into the best hotel in Tunis for the duration of the conference.
After the conference ended we were asked to file a flight plan for Tripoli in Libya to pay a courtesy visit on the colonel. Over Tripoli at night we became a little disorientated. The navaid at the airport was inoperative or had been switched off for maintenance. None of us had been there before and there was quite a bit of low cloud over the city as well as to the south where the airport was supposed to be. After about 10 minutes flying in circles over the city we eventually picked up the airport out in the desert and well to the south of the city.
Once again we were driven out to a holiday resort by the sea which had been closed down for the winter. However, this time the boilers had been lit and hot water flowed through the shower heads. The food was not great but was acceptable. Rain was pelting down and there was a cold sea breeze. It was a pretty miserable location. However, it wasn’t worth complaining about it because we were scheduled to fly out the next morning.
After dinner the two pilots were summoned to the palace for an intense flight planning session. The reason for this was that we were not very popular in the region and had been refused overfly rights through the airspace of several countries. This meant flight planning a very long circuitous routing back to Sana’a.
Next day at the airport a red carpet was rolled out to the aircraft and a large brass band was playing. A Libyan official walked out to the aircraft and told me to shut down the auxiliary power unit as it was drowning out the band. I reluctantly complied leaving a “dead aircraft” with no hydraulics and no wheel chocks. Somebody must have removed them.
After all the goodbyes I was told that I could restore power to the aircraft. The official party came aboard and we started the engines. Ray taxied the aircraft to the south of the field for a departure to the north. Once the aircraft was clean with the gear up and the flaps retracted he banked sharply to the right and took up a southerly heading for the Sudanese border. Entering Sudanese airspace we turned approximately 60 degrees to the left and headed for Khartoum which was our next destination.
The Khartoum stopover proved to be a 30 minute goodwill visit for a quick chat between the two leaders. The Sudanese president turned up at the airport in a light blue track suit. I doubt very much that he’d jogged out from the city. After the short meeting we departed for Sana’a.
The flight planned airway took us through Ethiopian airspace near Asmara, in what is now Eritrea. Approaching the Addis FIR (flight information region) the first officer called Addis on HF to give an estimate for the Addis FIR boundary. This was met with an immediate response, “Confirm you have the North Yemen president on board”. The first officer replied affirmatively. Addis then said “Do NOT enter Addis airspace. I repeat do NOT enter Addis airspace”. Apparently our fearless leader was not popular in Ethiopia either. This had not been mentioned at the emergency flight planning session in Tripoli the previous evening, while other countries were being ruled out for over flight.
Ray, who was aware that there were MIG fighters based in Addis, changed heading 70 degrees to the left to stay clear of Ethiopian airspace. The first officer re-programmed the INS from present position to Port Sudan on the Red Sea then on to Gizan and Sana’a. This added about half an hour to the estimated flight time.
The protocol manager, who had noticed the change in heading came to the flight deck for an explanation. After we’d explained that we had been refused entry to Ethiopian airspace and we were now routing via Port Sudan and Gizan, he seemed to relax. He must have been aware of the political situation between the two countries, but probably figured that because we would have been in Ethiopian airspace for no more than 15 minutes, the probability of being intercepted by enemy fighters was pretty remote. We didn’t hold this view as it was clear to us that Addis knew of our intentions to overfly their airspace.
Now that there was no risk of being blasted out of the sky, his only concern was to have us call Sana’a on HF to notify the band of our 30 minute delay. Before leaving the flight deck he reminded us to fly off airways in Yemeni airspace to reduce the possibility of being fired on by local tribesmen hostile to the government.
On arrival in Sana’a someone tried to open a bottle of champagne in the cockpit. At 7,200 feet the cork would have become a missile reverberating around the confined space or taking out somebody’s eye. I grabbed the bottle, opened the first officer’s window and prised it open. The cork’s trajectory was spectacular as it rose to a great height then went clear across the apron and landed in the grass.
The protocol manager re-appeared with a stack of $100 bills. He counted out 10 bills on the center pedestal saying “Pick it up!”. You didn’t have to be asked twice. He then repeated the scenario for the other two pilots and the flight mechanic.
The Arab conference flight had been a five day trip, not too comfortable, and not without a certain amount of anxiety, but nevertheless an interesting and worthwhile experience.