My Turn to Fly

JP on the telephone with Saudi ATC in the Bahrain Weather Office

18 April 2002 - The wake up call came at 5:00 a.m. I awoke refreshed and felt as though I had finally acclimated to the time zone. JP and I had agreed we would meet for breakfast at 6:00, then we'd meet someone who would escort us to the Weather Office at 6:30. When we arrived at the Weather Office JP called Saudi ATC on the phone. We'd had some concern that they'd insist we land somewhere within their country, a prospect that didn't please us, mostly because doing so would add at least two hours to what was looking like very long day already. Not only did the Saudi's not insist we land; but they gave us a routing that was shorter than what was expected. Good news… things were looking up.

We walked back down to the ramp and waited for our escort to drive us to the airplane. When he arrived, we discovered that someone had taken the van containing our luggage. Eventually the van came back; someone had taken it to put fuel in the tank. We then went to the airplane to wait for fuel to arrive. And oh did we wait… and wait… and wait. Finally, an hour and a half after getting to the airplane, a small pickup truck with a 55 gallon drum of 100 octane avgas sitting in the bed arrived, pulling a hand pump. The problem with flying an airplane with a reciprocating engine is that it doesn't burn jet fuel. Jet fuel is cheap and in abundant quantities everywhere, 100 octane avgas is neither cheap nor abundant. Consequently, almost all of JP's stops since departing Singapore were planned around the availability of fuel. Even with availability, it's not something many of these airports pump very often so it takes time for them to dig out the equipment. Fortunately, once they arrived the fuelers efficiently topped off our tanks. We had hoped to be airborne by 7:30; in reality it was almost 9:00 when we started our taxi to the runway.

I hadn't flown an airplane since November 1994, so it was with anxious anticipation that I climbed into the left seat. I'd been practicing with Microsoft Flight Simulator for awhile before the trip; but I still had some apprehension about finally flying again, even though I have something in excess of 12,000 flight hours logged. Also, all my previous flight time had been logged in the US and Canada. The terminology and procedures that air traffic controllers use outside North America are different. Another concern I had was understanding what controllers were saying even though all speak English.

We requested and were granted our start clearance, completed our checklists and started the engine. We called ground control who gave us our clearance to Luxor, Egypt (HELX), then we began our taxi to runway 12, which was only a short distance from where we were parked. We completed our before takeoff checklist items, then called the tower ready for departure. Bahrain Tower gave us our takeoff clearance and we were on our way. I applied full power, accelerated to 65 knots, then rotated the aircraft nose up a few degrees. We were airborne!

Depending on your perspective, older Mooneys such as N221HP have a manual landing gear system that is either much loved or despised. While the airplane continues to accelerate after takeoff, the pilot needs to push in on a thumb button, pull down on the hand grip, then rotate the 18 inch bar to which those are connected 90° from vertical to horizontal and make sure the handle secures in a latch on the floor, all before the airplane reaches 80 knots. JP and I had discussed the procedure prior to departure; but it's not something that can be practiced. The maneuver requires strength and coordination, none of which I had that morning. After a couple of tries I decided to let the expert handle it. I asked JP to raise the gear for me… PLEASE! He did so, I retracted the flaps on schedule and we continued our climb to our assigned cruise altitude of 10,000 feet.

During our climb, the departure controller in Bahrain gave us a series of left turns that pointed us westbound, then handed us off to the Saudi controller as we approached Dhahran, just a few miles from Bahrain. Saudi Arabia may be the most patriarchal country on the planet since the demise of the Taliban. In their view, women have no business flying airplanes consequently their air traffic controllers won't talk to women pilots. JP had a headset and took care of the communication during the almost seven hours we were in Saudi airspace. Fortunately, an airplane doesn't care who's flying as long as the pilot treats it with respect.

Okay, so flying resembles riding a bicycle in that old techniques, though a little rusty, came right back. I found I had little difficulty keeping the airplane pointed in the right direction and climbing at the proper airspeed. Shortly after passing Dhahran, we leveled at 10,000 feet, I got the pitch trim set then engaged the autopilot and settled in for the eight hour flight to Egypt. JP has some engine management techniques for squeezing as much performance as possible from every drop of fuel. I was happy to let him handle the cruise power settings.

In case you hadn't realized it, Saudi Arabia is mostly desert. Until you reach the western third of the country where a few mountains rise from the sand, it's pretty flat. Less than an hour past Dhahran, the scenery became yellowish and opaque. Sandstorm. Now there wasn't even endless desert at which to look. This condition continued for the next several hours. Our speed across the ground was a respectable 150 knots for a couple of hours, then the wind shifted and our ground speed progressively dropped until we were doing less than 100 knots. This was turning into a very long flight.

Although the minimum enroute altitude for the route we were flying was 16,000 feet due to the sparse ground-based communication facilities, the Saudis permitted us to use a lower altitude since the Mooney is neither pressurized nor turbocharged and would have rebelled at being asked to fly much higher than 10,000. Our procedure evolved into getting a frequency to contact the next available controller and providing an estimate of the times we'd reach specific points along the route. Along the way we were out of range of the ground-based navigational aids that made up those points, but the GPS allowed us to predict our times over various checkpoints with accuracy.

When the sandstorm finally cleared we found ourselves looking at a moonscape of disconnected coal black mountains poking through dull yellow sand. Periodically we saw small settlements, nothing more than clumps of buildings; but at our altitude we were unable to determine anything about the character of these outposts.

Our generally smooth ride began to deteriorate as cumulus clouds started building. The Mooney's unsophisticated but reliable autopilot works well in smooth air; however the turbulence we were experiencing caused the airplane to pitch, roll and yaw uncomfortably. I deselected the autopilot and hand flew the airplane the remainder of the way to the Red Sea, which was fine with me as I needed the practice.

I approached the Red Sea with anticipation born from Biblical stories since childhood. As it turned out, our crossing was anticlimactic. The two surprises were the absolute lack of visible activity and the realization that the sea is well over 100 miles wide. Bible stories had led me to believe Moses had led the children of Israel across it in just a few hours; it must have taken them at least a week.

As we crossed the coastline onto the African continent, the scenery was similar to what was behind, desert and mountains. The difference was the reddish color of the Egyptian mountains made them less of a contrast with the sand. In short order, we were able to contact Egyptian ATC. We proceeded directly to Luxor, crossed the airport and descended to land on runway 02L. After landing, we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp, which happened to be the same ramp they parked airliners. They put us between a Boeing 737 and a DC9. Our total flight time that day was exactly eight hours. I needed a potty, now!

I didn't have time to reflect on the flight until later that evening in the hotel. I wasn't as smooth and precise with the controls as I'd hoped; but I was better than I expected. A Mooney is not an easy airplane to fly because it is so aerodynamically clean and the speed limitations for gear and flap extension are so low that a considerable amount of planning is required to get the airplane into landing configuration. JP and I have differing, though valid, techniques for achieving the required speed reduction, which led to good discussions on aerodynamics during subsequent legs.

Our "handler/guide," Sayyed, met us as we got out of the airplane. We removed our bags and secured the Mooney, then climbed into the bus that would take us to the terminal where we cleared Passport Control and Customs with no difficulty. Luxor is everything Dubai is not. My first impression of Luxor upon walking out the front of the terminal is that it is an impoverished area in a third-world country. I suffered immediate culture shock.

view of the nile river from the hotel in luxor
View of the Nile river from the hotel

The first hint I had of this was the hoard of men outside the terminal competing for the chance to carry a bag for a tip. Sayyed got us a taxi, we loaded our bags inside, with some indigenous help, then we headed for downtown Luxor. The main form of transportation seemed to be donkey-drawn two-wheeled carts transporting sugar cane, the major crop in that area. Our driver, Mohammed, and any other motor vehicle on the road would pass these carts and bicyclists by coming up quickly behind them, then leaning on the horn as they went around. The result was a cacophony of blaring horns.

The distance from the airport to the town was about 5 km. On either side of the road were cane fields and what appeared to be two story, mud-walled huts that served as the dwellings for the subsistence farmers who worked the fields. The lush vegetation punctuated that we were within the couple of miles on either side of the Nile river that serves as the only fertile area of Egypt. As we entered Luxor we passed the ruins of a temple that made my jaw drop. The only thing I could think to say as I quickly got my camera out was, "Is that for real?" It was the oldest thing I'd seen in my life and it stood in contrast to its surroundings.

We arrived at the Sheraton Luxor, a modern hotel that sits on the banks of the Nile. We checked into the hotel, then JP and I met downstairs where we each had a beer prior to going in for dinner. We planned to stay in Luxor one full day so we could visit the tombs. We agreed to meet for breakfast at 6:00 a.m., which would give us an opportunity to get ahead of all the other tourists. I was tired; I fell asleep quickly that night.