While ferrying a Beech Duke from the UAE to the U.S.,Bill Cox encountered a long delay and attempteda daring solution.
I had delivered the Beech Duke to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, five months before on the premise that the airplane might be able to improve rainfall. The modified Duke belonged to Weather Modifications, Inc. of Fargo, N.D., a company that specialized in cloud seeding.
Over the previous five years, I had made a series of deliveries and pickups from Fargo to Amman, Jordan, dropping off the Duke in October and retrieving it for the return trip to Fargo in March.
Cloud seeding for rain in some of the driest deserts in the world was only slightly better than pointless. Apparently, you have to start with clouds. Indeed, the Weather Mod crew on the ground in Amman for six months a year had reported that almost continuous clear skies made a seeding aircraft irrelevant.
That contract had expired, and the government of UAE had opted for a short, six-month contract to improve rainfall in the Persian Gulf country. Now, that contract had also expired, and I was hired to return the Duke to North Dakota.
Within an hour of clearing customs, I learned that there was a major problem. Three days before my arrival, a Piper Navajo had tried to depart Abu Dhabi, apparently lost an engine, rolled inverted and crashed on the airport, killing all aboard. As a result, the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority grounded all U.S.-registered aircraft at Abu Dhabi.
There weren't many. Besides "my" Duke, there was a Lear 36, a Cessna 210, a Piper Seneca II and a 58 Baron. None of these aircraft had any association with the accident victim, but that made no difference. We were all stuck in Abu Dhabi until the local ATC finished their investigation. That could take a few days—or, more likely, a few months.
I checked into the Intercontinental Hotel and, by coincidence, had dinner with the Learjet crew who had arrived the same day as the accident. The Lear's passengers had long since finished their business and departed on the airlines, but the crew was stuck and, apparently, so was I. The Lear's two-man crew was already considering flying back to New York on the airlines to await permission for departure.
After two days of arguing with local aviation officials that I had nothing to do with the accident other than flying an American-registered aircraft, it appeared I also was doomed to mark time until someone in the government decided I could leave.
Accordingly, I decided to try something based on the age-old left-hand/right-hand premise. I was counting on the premise that not everyone would be on the same page. If you think the U.S. government is often disorganized, imagine how loosely things are run in the Middle East.
I knew the Duke was fully fueled and oiled for the 1,000 nm leg to Luxor, Egypt. My overflight and landing clearances were still good, so I filed an IFR flight plan by way of Doha, Qatar; Bahrain; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, expecting to have it rejected at any moment. To my surprise, the plan was accepted as routine.
I checked out of the hotel, grabbed a cab to Abu Dhabi Airport and made my way to Emirates Air Service where the Duke was hangared. I arrived just before lunch when I knew the hangar would be relatively empty, and sure enough, only the manager, a friendly Canadian, was there. He reminded me that I couldn't leave, and I told him I was just planning to do some engine run-ups. The manager looked at my luggage, smiled knowingly and then conveniently went to lunch himself.
I loaded my bags into the airplane, went through the preflight checks, started engines, dialed up clearance delivery and held my breath. To my surprise, clearance came through with my IFR flight plan. So far, so good.
I read back the clearance and switched to ground control, again expecting to be told to hold my position, but again, I was cleared to the run-up area. Apparently, not everyone had received the message that American airplanes weren't allowed to depart UAE.
I hurried through the run-up and pretakeoff checks, then asked for takeoff clearance. There was a long pause, and I assumed I had been caught. But no, I was finally cleared for takeoff.
I hustled out onto the 13,000-foot runway, pushed the throttles full forward and released the brakes. As I climbed out over the Persian Gulf, I expected to be instructed to return to Abu Dhabi, but that directive never came. I continued my climb to FL220, still on a vector toward the distant coast of Iran. Finally, I turned on course to Qatar, anticipating the call to return to Abu Dhabi.
The Duke cleared UAE airspace in short order, and I immediately dialed up the next control agency.
By the time I had reached Bahrain, the jig was finally up. The Bahrain center controller told me UAE control had called and requested I return to Abu Dhabi. Like so many of the technical people in the Middle East, the controller was an American, complete with a Texas accent. It turned out he was a retired FAA center controller from Houston. I stalled for time and turned toward Riyadh. I argued my case that I was long since out of UAE airspace, and therefore not subject to their direction. I told the Texan I wanted to fly my original flight plan to Luxor, Egypt.
The controller was sympathetic, but he wasn't sure if he could help. He did a little more coordinating with UAE as I crossed into Saudi airspace, then finally came back and recleared me to Riyadh and on to Luxor. He said UAE was still adamant that I should return to Abu Dhabi but apparently acknowledged that I was no longer in their control. My Bahrain controller gave me a phone number to call in Abu Dhabi upon landing in Luxor.
Before he handed me off, I asked if he liked working and living in Bahrain. He said it wasn't too bad, but commented he only planned to put up with it for another year or two to accumulate a nest egg. His final comment was an incredulous, "Do you have any idea how much these people pay?"
I copied the number obediently but wasn't too concerned. I had filed a flight plan that had been approved, apparently by mistake, then I had gone through ground and tower for departure, just as normal. I hadn't done anything wrong other than ignore the proviso that I wasn't supposed to leave UAE.
I pointed the Duke out across the endless desert of the Rub' al Khali, the dreaded Endless Quarter of Saudi Arabia. A few hours later, I landed in Luxor, checked into the hotel and made the call back to Abu Dhabi.
Sure enough, exactly as I might have predicted, they had no idea who I was or what I was calling about.