Our flight from HELX (Luxor, Egypt) to OMAJ (Amman, Jordan) went smoothly … once we got off the ground. What follows will read as tedious; trust me, it was. We were hoping for a 9 a.m. departure, so we were at the airport at 8:00. First, we couldn’t figure out how to get to our airplane. The taxi dropped us off at the “Departure” part of the terminal, which didn’t help much. There is no “General Aviation” part of an airport in this part of the world, at least in Egypt. We had to try to call our handling people, EgyptAir Ground Support, but the phone number we had didn’t work, so we had to call our guy Eddie (G.A.S.E.) who actually prefers us to use What’s App or What’s Up or whatever the hell it is. So we sent him a message and he called EgyptAir and eventually, after 30 minutes, one of their guys came and found us. So then it is through Security, which takes awhile when they discover that Adam has a black box in his bag that has a mysterious electronic purpose … obviously a dangerous …. printer. (You can’t do what we are doing without, at minimum, a cell phone with coverage everywhere, a computer, a printer, and solid internet service. It’s just not possible anymore. Long story there.) So we get through that Security checkpoint, then it’s on to Customs and Immigration. That takes awhile and is all handled in Arabic so no idea what transpired. Then on to another part of the terminal and another Security checkpoint. Each checkpoint includes an x-ray of our bags and a physical pat-down of our person and, occasionally a removal of our shoes. Then we go to an office and pay some fees. Then we board a bus, which takes us to another office. Our handler, Muhammad, goes in and comes back with an invoice for $64 for landing fees and $199 for his handling charges. By the standards of this part of the world, we remark that this seems reasonable. Fees at Amman, which we will pay in another two days, will be several times that sum. Muhammad pays them and we pay him. Then the bus takes us to our airplane. We preflight and load up. We are not buying fuel, because there is no avgas in Luxor, which we knew and planned for. We get on the radio and call the tower. No flight plan. We knew it had been filed but Adam brought a paper copy just in case, two in fact. (Hence the printer.) Mohammad goes to check on the flight plan. Comes back to tell us there is no flight plan. Time passes. We are on a huge ramp. I mean huge. We are the only airplane on the ramp. It is several acres of concrete. Very, very hot by now. Actually, the air is tolerable, with a light breeze, but the sun is unbelievably hot. The sort of weather that can scorch you before you know it. No shade anywhere except in the airplane, where it is unbearably hot. Adam is confined to the airplane, monitoring the radio for further news. Imagine parking your car in the mall parking lot. The vast mall parking lot. Not a tree for shade. On the hottest day of a hot summer. Then imagine rolling up your windows, turning off the engine and therefore the air-conditioning and fan. Then just sit. We sit. We swelter. A Qatar jet lands. Before it reaches the ramp, a truck with several Qatar ground handlers drives up to our airplane. I was momentarily concerned that they would try to have us moved or somehow locked down. As it turned out, they wanted to take each other’s photograph with our airplane. That is how rare and peculiar it is in Egypt to see a small, general aviation airplane on an airport ramp. One of the men asked me if it was a Piper. Suddenly three big buses, two mobile jetway ramps, and about five trucks appear and surround the jet. I need to brush up on my airplanes; it’s just a very large two-engine jet. Much activity. The buses and trucks surround the jet, mostly on our side. We wonder if they are acting to protect them from us or us from them. My guess would be the former. We swelter some more. I finally opened up the baggage doors — well the rear doors which we call the baggage doors because the four rear seats have been removed. I climb in and sit on my suitcase, just to get out of the brutal sun. More back and forth about the flight plan. We message Ahmed Hassan, Eddie’s partner who works flight plans for us. (He works as an airline dispatcher and knows the Middle East system better than we do.) He tells us that he had filed the flight plan that we sent him. We get the AFTN number from Ahmed. We call the tower back. (I am giving you the shortened, expurgated, version of events.) It is now about an hour that we have been sitting on the ramp, unable to go anywhere or get out of the sun.
Finally, after insisting that we have a flight plan on file — by now Ahmed has had to update and postpone our departure time several times as the morning has worn on — the tower miraculously finds our flight plan. (In retrospect, Ahmad suggests and we concur that the flight plan, although filed through the normal, required, online channels, hit that point in the process where it required manual handling and someone just didn’t bother to keep the chain moving all the way to the tower. Apparently this happens a lot. (NB: Always have a paper copy of your flight plan with you. You will have to file online, but you will eventually, perhaps, have to show a paper copy to make it happen.)
From that point onward, as has been the case, ATC takes over and handles us efficiently and professionally. We get our clearance (similar in most regards to what you would receive in the states — more or less the CRAFT that we teach every instrument student) permission to start our engine — standard drill around here – permission to taxi, directed to runway 02, cleared for takeoff with final climb instructions, and we are on our way. From that point forward all proceeds as planned. The radio communications have some different wrinkles, but nothing illogical, and we fly the route we had filed, across the Red Sea, past Sharm el-Sheikh, the well-known diving resort at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, and up the Gulf of Aqaba, over into Jordan, and straight to Amman. Upon our arrival at OJAM, we were cleared for the ILS approach to runway 24, which involved a standard procedure turn. Interestingly enough, the initial approach fix, which was discernible from logic and experience but lacked the familiar IAP found on U.S. charts — even though we are using Jepp charts for each country rather than the native charts. We were asked to reduce speed due to traffic in the pattern, which seemed a little unnecessary given the low traffic count. I could not help but wonder how long this tower controller would survive at Teterboro.
So, it seems that once in the air, the air traffic control systems of the countries through which we have flown operate professionally, albeit under different airspace rules and designations and with different phraseology, but the departures and arrivals are tedious (and expensive) to a degree that would be intolerable in the United States.
But here we are in the Le Meridian Hotel in Amman, with solid internet access and a spectacular view of the city.
So here are the first few of my rules to live by on a journey such as this:
1) Always fuel on arrival. Don’t wait until the day of departure. You can never predict how long it will take to acquire and pay for fuel — or it if will be available at all. Better yet, bring your jet. Jet-A is available everywhere. But we left the jet home this trip. Some pilots and some handlers will choose to wait and fuel just before departure so that expanding fuel doesn’t overflow the tanks through the vents in the heat. I’m willing to give up a little fuel, even at these prices, to make the departure schedule more predictable.
2) It’s never going to be predictable. Get over it. And don’t schedule a hard date at your destination for a flight day — because you might be able to flight plan your flight down to the last minute and the precise fuel burn — but you will never be able to know with any certainty when you will finally be wheels up. Don’t kid yourself. It will always take longer than you think.
3) When you arrive, always get clear instructions and directions as to how you will get back to your airplane on your day of departure. You may end up in the departure area of an international airport several security checkpoints and two miles from your airplane with no idea how to get from here to there. and …
4) Always put on sunscreen every morning, whether you think you will need it or not. You think you will ride the bus out to your airplane, climb in, get your clearance and go. And soon be at altitude in the sweet, cool air. You make me laugh. You never know when you will spend two hours sitting or standing in the merciless, shade-less, blistering sun waiting for some official, whose job you don’t quite understand, to perform some function you didn’t know was necessary. Be prepared.
There will be more rules to live by, but that’s a start …