Around the World in 80 Days – 200 Times
I have been flying in excess of 100,000 miles annually since 1971. I could have circumnavigated the globe at the equator more than 200 times – I have also been inside an aircraft cabin more than 2 full years of my life. I will share a few memorable and not so memorable moments.
As we circled the airfield my colleague stated:
“Wherever we are it is not Phnom Penh!”
The empty airfield was surrounded by jungle and the perimeter was filled with hundreds of ruined aircraft slowly disappearing into the foliage. We were flying a WWII bomber based in Indonesia that seemed to require various mid-flight repairs.
After landing, the pilot rushed back to tell us we had landed in Ho Chi Minh – the former Saigon and that all would be well. We had arrived from Singapore sitting on a shipment of relief supplies strapped to the floor.
The pilot explained he was free-lancing a little and that hidden in the tail of the ancient aircraft was a brand new American aircraft engine – to be traded for some valuable antique ceramic elephants to be hidden in the same compartment.
The owner of the charter protested that he must have been cheated on his load given the extra weight of the engine – the pilot simply shrugged his shoulders and said “empty tanks”. He negotiated for just enough fuel to get back into the air and glide into our destination – Phnom Penh.
It was dusk and without fuel the pilot went straight into the dark runway of a lifeless airport. We landed so hard that both tires burst and we careened into a rice paddy. A jeep soon arrived and nobody seemed concerned or excited. We piled in and decided dinner was the most appropriate next activity – and drove into the equally lifeless and unlit City of Phnom Penh. After dinner (at the one old hotel that operated a generator big enough to serve food to the few eclectic foreigners) the pilot excused himself. He intended to return to the airport and with the help of a flashlight explore the large number of flying wrecks pushed into the jungle for wheels that would fit his axles. Next morning he took off for Singapore and like the Wise Men of the East we “returned by another way!”.
We were warmly received by the authorities and after business were taken to the Tuol Sleng extermination prison. They were excavating the mass graves and many bodies still had most of the hair and the clothing was barely decayed. They wanted to make sure that we understood that Pol Pot – still fighting in the jungle at the time – was a really bad actor.
Another memorable hard landing was on the desert sand at a nameless location in Puntland – about midpoint between Mogadishu, Djibouti and Yemen if that helps. It was an emergency landing to consider an overheated engine on our Fokker Friendship – the only aircraft of that particular Somali fleet that had not yet had a terminal crash. The Somali passengers screamed to be allowed to get out of the aircraft but the pilot kept the doors locked. He then decided to let the engine cool, take off with two engines and then immediately turn the defective engine off and fly to our destination Hargeisa on one engine. We arrived safely and I understand he did the same on the return to Mogadishu flying the entire distance with one engine and no passengers.
Our first visit to Africa was 1971 and had a memorable beginning. With snow in North America we were delayed, rerouted via another European capital and someone in their wisdom thought that an alternate flight arriving in Kano in the far north of Nigeria rather than the capital Lagos might be a great idea. Our actual destination was in a much more remote area. The large jet had only 4 passengers for Kano and would then continue to South Africa. Instead of going to the terminal, the pilot stopped on the runway at 4:00 AM, lowered a stairway and the four of us were ‘invited’ to leave with our luggage. He promptly turned the plane around and took off. Eventually someone arrived from the terminal, took our luggage and we followed them into the darkness. We seemed to be walking through a huge Sahara style tent encampment and could hear the noise of people and animals – it was Hajj time and these were family waiting for the unscheduled return of their relatives from Mecca. We were impressed with this expression of friendship for relatives – but soon learned this was all about swarming a plane from Mecca on the tarmac and while relatives wearing their flowing robes were warmly greeted – a great deal of contraband could pass from one flowing robe to another. By the time they arrived at customs it was all over.
We had been told there would be a flight south at 7:00 AM – but were advised that this being Sunday it was not the case. When we asked about hotels we were quickly advised that the richer relatives of the group on the tarmac occupied every hotel room in Kano including the hallways. We quickly grabbed the only other expat on the flight – who happened to be the local Ford dealer – recognizing our situation invited us to his home for a memorable weekend. In the absence of any means of communication my brother did what the Kano friend predicted – with experience in remote Africa he will think through the alternatives and meet you on arrival wherever that is. We arrived a day later at Ibadan and indeed my family was there to greet me. It was a lesson in predictive communication that served me well in later situations.
Nigeria was not the only Hajj experience. In 1976 at Christmas we were visiting Cairo on the way to Karachi. Beirut had been a jewel on our prior visit but now it was civil war. We were scheduled to fly Cairo – Beirut – Karachi but friends cautioned us about Beirut. We found an alternative Cairo – Jeddah – Karachi possibility and blissfully boarded our flight to Saudi Arabia. Anyone on these flights will appreciate the metamorphosis that takes place on these aircraft – the gorgeous, jeweled, colorful Gucci-clad Saudi women visit the bathroom one at a time and emerge covered head to ankle in flowing black. They have fleets of Mercedes waiting at the foot of the stairway (remember this was 1976) and disappear straight into the desert – or today into their palaces. On arrival we were rudely told our Karachi flight did not exist and without visas we had 8 hours to leave the country or face arrest. It was Hajj season again and the airport was absolutely jammed with pilgrims in their flowing white robes waiting for their charters to remote places of the Islamic world. After some searching we discovered there was a charter to Karachi within the 8 hours but the operator did not know if there would be a spare seat. There was and we joined about 200 pilgrims in white robes, carrying their rolls and baskets on their head marching single file a mile or so to some corner of the airport. These people were used to taking care of themselves and indeed they did. The scariest part of the flight was the tea service. The pilgrims would place their propane burners in the aisle of the aircraft and make tea. We were praying more than the pilgrims on this part of the trip.
We arrived in Karachi to be met by my Harvard classmate in a Mercedes and spent the days in refugee camps searching tea stalls for a particular refugee with only a name and a photo and the evenings with the glitterati of Karachi. We did find him on the third day!
The evening we were supposed to fly from Beirut a flight from Beirut to Karachi had a bomb on board, exploded over the Saudi desert and killed all 89 passengers.
Our early experiences were still part of the glory days of flying when you were treated with dignity, the stewardesses as they were called were beautiful, young, dressed in couture and provided quality food and service – even in the back of the plane. We spent 1972-74 in Bangladesh and our standard voyage was Pan Am Airlines on their round-the-world flights. Pan Am #1 started in New York and Pan Am #2 started in LA and circumnavigated the globe in opposite directions. It was a world class cattle run. The plane from New York (as I recall) would stop in London, Frankfurt, Athens, Istanbul, Tehran, Karachi, Delhi, Bangkok and so forth. Food and passengers would change after each stop. It was slow, exotic but you never missed a connection!
The hub and spoke system won the battle of the airways and today we all experience the chaotic pleasure of hubs like London, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Singapore and of course Dubai and its neighbors. Instead of comparing airline service, those who fly a great deal now compare the airline lounges available in different cities – and they do indeed make the hassle of flying a little more bearable – if you have access to those lounges! Regrettably the airports outside of North America win all of the prizes in that category.
Although Pan Am was global King in the early 70’s some of the other airlines were already building their reputations. They had the benefit of a much lower wage structure and correspondingly could throw more staff – and usually wine – at any situation. Our first flight out of civil war torn Dhaka in 1972 was to Bangkok on Thai Airlines. We did make some shuttle trips to the aptly named Dum-Dum airport in Calcutta but those flights are best forgotten. On one occasion we approached a counter in that airport. The bureaucrat behind the counter greeted us with the words – “What you be wanting I not be giving” – before he had heard our request!
On those early Thai flights Leona and I were greeted by gorgeous, smiling stewardesses who welcomed us with an orchid – having no good place to pin the orchid it would be pinned on the knee of my jeans. The food was exotic and fabulous with plenty of wine. It had been a challenging experience in Bangladesh so on our first visit I arranged for a Mercedes Limo for pickup and a great weekend in Bangkok. Leona would come to think of the storied Oriental Hotel in Bangkok as her second home in Asia – and we have stayed there many times. Other airlines have followed that model and today give the European and North American airlines a real challenge in most of the world.
Emirates business class on a 380 is indeed fabulous, and the Turkish Airlines chef in full uniform puts on a show but the really memorable moments are reserved for lesser airlines, remote locations and especially the smaller aircraft.
The Porter Pilatus PC-6 built in Switzerland from 1959 until 2017 is an amazing STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft. I first learned to appreciate its capability in Bangladesh in 1972. A related agency owned one and we shared its use to manage difficult projects in locations with limited access. It would take off and land on soccer fields but landing could be a challenge. On one occasion we landed so that we would miss the goalposts but the necessary reversing engine did not reverse. The very alert pilot gunned the engine and managed to do a power turn around the far goal posts squeezing between ditches and buildings and cruised to a stop on the return lap. With various obstacles he decided to kick a few of us off the plane and took off on the regulation field safely.
On another occasion we were planning to land at the official Dhaka airport but as we approached there was a threatening black cloud approaching from the other direction. The pilot thought he could land before the big wind would hit. The PC-6 lands at barely 50 knots and the arriving wind was much stronger. The Aircraft was simply tossed into the air and tumbled backwards out of control to an altitude of several thousand feet. The pilot regained control and then headed at full speed with wind to the new airport a few miles away – the runway was built but nothing else. We landed with wind at full speed then all jumped out to hang onto the wings while the storm passed – then calmly took off and returned to our original destination. I developed an eternal appreciation for Swiss engineering!
The same pilot was taking me to an abandoned airport at the foot of the Himalayas, an airport that had been used by allied planes to fly the ‘Hump” to China in WWII. It was abandoned and full of unrepaired bomb craters – but the amazing Pilatus could find patches of pavement between the craters to operate. The pilot approached at about 5,000 feet and with a wicked grin asked if I was ready for some adventure. He then dove straight down and just before we reached the ground, straightened out the plane and landed on one those patches between the craters.
On a later takeoff from a soccer field the plane would clip a low rice bund on takeoff and destroy half of its landing gear. He communicated his problem and many of us with family or associates on the flight headed for the airport. He circled the airport until he was absolutely out of fuel and then landed balancing on the one good wheel as long as possible. Finally the plane dropped, the prop hit the ground and the plane ended up in a heap. Nobody was injured but that plane never flew again.
MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) is an organization that performs flight miracles every day. They are an independent agency but organized to serve church and Christian mission agencies in remote locations. Much of their flying involves health and emergency support to people from those regions. We used their services this winter landing on a stretch of sand in the Lower Omo region of Ethiopia. On the return our pilot was the owner of what was now a private flight service and very experienced. We were flying along the Rift Valley and he asked if we cared to see some flamingoes. He dropped the plane to possibly 10 meters and flew along the edge of rift lakes scaring up thousands of flamingoes. Very entertaining but not sure it was appreciated by the flamingoes.
In 2016 we used MAF services to visit a development agency friend high up in the tangled and remote mountains of Irian Jaya – the Indonesian part of Papua. The locals are in transition and may show up in pants one day and wearing a penis gourd the next. The tribal people may look primitive to us but Jared Diamond the writer on the history of human development states that these people require more brain power to survive than we do. Everything required to live and survive must be remembered and passed along in their short life spans – while we can know nothing and simply look it up on Google and promptly forget.
The airstrips are ‘interesting’ and In the absence of any flat land the local tribesmen appreciate the value of the air contact and hack airstrips using primitive tools from the tops of ridges. To keep the airstrip short given the high altitude they are built on a slope. The one we used had a 6 degree slope at the upper half and 15 degree slope on the lower – you land uphill and take off downhill. Aborting is not an option!
Another memorable aircraft is the DC-3. The last commercial version was built in 1942 but 16,000 were built for the military. An amazing 2,000 of these ancient aircraft are still flying! My early flying days to the Canadian north and the Paraguayan Chaco were on military versions of that aircraft. The
DC-3 took off at a low angle and you always hoped you cleared the forest! During my first visit to Ethiopia in 1971 we used the DC-3 to visit the history route of Lalibela and points north such as Axum. The Lalibela runway was gravel along the edge of the river making for a dusty and noisy landing. The airport was unique. There was no terminal of any kind but a bamboo structure about 12 by 12 feet with a roof and no walls. Its only utility was to protect the scale to weigh the luggage to assure the aircraft could lift off. The scale was hauled down the mountain from Lalibela to meet the arriving flight and after takeoff it would be hauled back up the mountain!
The final days of the Soviet Union were experienced as an empire in collapse and the rules and practices of flying reflected the decrepit and corrupt system. The planes were noisy, dirty and the safety practices seemed non-existent. Memories of several flights seem to include buxom Russian women. On one occasion the table for eating dropped from the back of the chair. Space was tight but the woman next to me tried to drop the table but her ample bosom was in the way and she accomplished at best a 45 degree angle. She insisted on eating her meal in that situation – made more difficult by the fact they were serving boiled eggs and they kept rolling away.
The real challenges of Russia in those days reflected the centralized mind that had organized the system. Air travel was on Moscow time even if you were 6 time zones away in remote Siberia. Moscow viewed itself as the center of the world and instead of a large airport where you could change planes to another destination – Moscow had 4 airports at the four points of the compass. If you arrived from the East and wanted to continue further West it would require hours to traverse the entire City.
The Russians in Communist times used humor to deal with their frustrations. At the time the joke was that Moscow really had 5 airports. A teenage German had piloted a small craft at low levels all the way from Germany to Moscow without being detected and landed in Red Square to the huge embarrassment of the Military and Government.
When we think of the Soviet Union we think of security and paranoia but the reality was much more chaotic. On one occasion we arrived at Domodedovo Airport (East direction) and as usual the passenger drop did not relate to the front entry. We were walking toward the airport dragging our luggage when a tractor and luggage cart came along. We asked for a ride – he advised he would go onto the tarmac not the terminal – as a joke we offered him a little tip to take us across the tarmac to the actual departure gate on his wagon. He complied but then had the problem of another ‘persuasion’ to actually get back into the terminal from the ‘secure’ tarmac.
When the Soviet Union collapsed the borders and rules became even more confusing. Obtaining visas or permits to visit different cities or even Russia itself were only minor obstacles since we manufactured the documents ourselves using an old Russian typewriter – then faxing it back and forth enough times to make it look suitably ‘aged’. Leaving Russia then presented a problem since we frequently entered Russia other than formally. We wanted to fly out of Sheremetyevo – the international airport – and they did control documents to a greater degree. Before departure we needed to find a compliant office in Moscow to create the evidence that we had in fact entered Russia.
On one occasion we wanted to fly from northern Kazakhstan to an airport in the Central Caucasus. The flight only flew once per week and was full. We were with the regional Governor and without permission to be in the region. At that point the KGB called him to ask if he could check if we had documents to be there legally – which amused him greatly. Instead of using a hotel we were staying at a personal hunting lodge in the nearby mountains so they could not check. When we asked him for help in getting on the flight he broke into a broad grin and called the same KGB back and asked if they would give up the three front seats always reserved for them – which they did.
Over the years there have been many opportunities to use the amazing helicopters and land in unorthodox locations. Memorable flights include flying in full survival gear to Sable Island, landing on glaciers, on rooftop, or in refugee camps and the recent flight into the Zambezi river gorge below Victoria Falls – notable with a teenage woman as pilot – who did a magnificent job. On one occasion I was alone in a small helicopter piloted by the former pilot of the dictator of Zaire. We were flying over rural Bangladesh where we had agricultural projects but flying too high for me to identify crops. The landscape was dotted with small villages like islands surrounded by fields. I asked him to fly a little lower – he dropped to just above the crops and then slalomed through the palm clusters like a world class skier at a very high speed. Needless to say I was distracted from the crops and he enjoyed giving me a little thrill.
Today flights and aircraft have become both reliable and standardized. The differentiation often occurs on the ground especially with airports. Most world travelers enjoy the magnificent new Hong Kong terminal but old-timers will recall checking the brand names on the laundry as we landed between the apartment buildings at the old Kaitak.
The most challenging commercial airport is reputed to be Paro in Bhutan. A very limited number of pilots are authorized to wind their way visually across ridges, along mountainsides, through valleys to land on the short runway on the floor of a deep valley. We made that flight in the last year and landing at Paro is indeed a work of Art.
I am often asked if I have had moments of fear. My aircraft has hit birds to take out an engine, a recent aborted takeoff and the usual travails of any frequent flyer – but I only refused to fly on one occasion. During the period 1972-74 on assignment in Bangladesh after the civil war we flew frequently on small (and old) planes into airports often without control towers. During the winter the region experiences dense morning fog and pilots would delay take off and hope they could do a visual landing. That often meant dropping into the fog and all too often pulling back sharply when they saw palm trees out their window rather than a runway. My assignment was complete, I had made all of my final administrative visits to remote locations when a delegation from North America arrived and wanted a ‘tour’ of some of our projects. At that point I felt as if I had played Russian Roulette with every flight and survived – and somehow I did not have the mental stamina to risk fate and take that one extra flight which served no purpose other than being a tourist guide. I refused and sent them on their own.
After 5 million and possibly 7 million miles there are still new frontiers. A few months ago I had the opportunity in Brazil to test a version of what is to become a future system of airships to serve the Canadian North and other remote locations. I was even able to pilot the airship!
Flight has made the world accessible to our generation in a manner that no prior generation could experience. I consider it a true gift and still marvel as I take off for some near or far destination.