28 Jan Bush Flying In Yemen With 727s
As the 727 descended through a thick cloud layer and I caught my first glimpse of the rugged terrain which makes up most of western Yemen, I felt excited yet a little apprehensive about my one year flying contract which was to be based in Sana’a in the Yemen Arab Republic, as it was known then. Before leaving Italy I had done a little research regarding the geography, weather patterns, and available navaids (radio navigation aids) in Yemen.
After landing in Sana’a the first thing I noticed while walking across the ramp, was that my breathing rate had increased. This was because the airfield elevation was 7,216 ft AMSL (above mean sea level) which was equivalent to walking on top of Mt Kosciusko, Australia’s highest mountain. Just to the south of the airfield there was a 12,000 ft mountain. Most of the mountains in the Arabian peninsular are concentrated in Yemen.
On the ride into town we passed multi-storyed buildings constructed of mud brick with brightly painted walls. We overtook several carts drawn by donkeys and loaded up with household goods. The men were dressed in sarongs held up by broad belts with curved daggers attached to them. The women were completely covered in black burqas.
Reaching the town we drove down some dusty back streets to the Al Hamd Palace Hotel which used to be occupied by the Imam before Egyptian mercenaries invaded the country in 1962.
I introduced myself to a small group of American pilots who were sitting on the front steps drinking whisky without ice. I thought this was a little out of character until they explained about the corrosion in the city water supply and how they had been affected when they first got out there. Bottled water or soda was the norm for holding it all together.
One of the group complained that he had to climb 84 stairs every day to get to his room on the top floor. Some wit had determined that the energy expended was equivalent to walking up 256 stairs at sea level. That made a very good case for not forgetting anything that would necessitate a return to the room in the heat of the day.
Next morning while the eggs and beef bacon were being served, I asked my colleagues about the navaids in the country. Someone said “There aren’t any!” He then said “I should qualify that – there aren’t any precision approaches in the country, but there are a few antiquated NDBs (non directional beacons). These are not much use when the needle points to the middle of a thunderstorm cell instead of to the airfield, during the two rainy seasons. Out here it’s bush flying with 727s!” It didn’t sound to me like too much fun with all the high terrain.
My first training flight was to Addis via Djibouti and Taiz which was only a twenty minute flight to the south of Sana’a. I asked if I could see the approach plate for Taiz. This was met with raucous laughter as they handed me the Jeppesen plate which was annotated Vicinity Chart Only – No Published Procedure. As we descended towards the runway I could see why there was no published procedure. Taiz was 4,600 ft above sea level in a valley surrounded by high mountains. The published MSA (minimum safe altitude) was 13,800 ft. This meant that a descent could not be started without visual contact with the ground.
On the ground in Taiz I asked what the procedure was for approaching the airfield in bad weather during the two rainy seasons. This was of concern to me because we had flights scheduled into Taiz every day and sometimes twice a day. The chief pilot explained to me that they had two homegrown STARs (Standard Terminal Arrival Routes).
The first was unofficially designated the Chicken Coop One Arrival with the Ridge Transition for an approach to the south for runway 18. It consisted of breaking cloud at or above the MSA of 13,800 ft, looking for a Yemeni farmer’s chicken coops on top of a mountain, then turning east and transitioning along a ridge for a predetermined time before making a right turn to a heading of 180 degrees. Hopefully, there would be a runway somewhere in front of the aircraft. If there was a rapid descent towards the airport could be started.
The second was designated the City One Arrival with the Tower Transition. It consisted of breaking cloud at or above 13,800 ft and looking for the city of Taiz, then descending on an easterly heading in a valley until a radio tower became visible through the low scud. At this point the aircraft was turned to a heading of north, and with a bit of a luck runway 36 would be visible about 3 miles ahead of the aircraft.
Contract airline flying can be exciting, but with a good standard of airmanship should never be dangerous. It is well compensated, usually with a good tax free salary, and many of the usual airline perks.