One Sunday morning early this year the Cormorant stood silent and waiting on the broad asphalt apron front of the customs shed at the Dhahran, Saudi Arabia airfield. Near the cockpit is a cluster of small, metal plates that tell the life story of this durable DC-3 that flies tile desert pipeline "milk run" from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia to Beirut, Lebanon. One plate reveals that the Cormorant was accepted for World War II duty by the U.S. Army Air Corps in July 1942. Another shows that the plane was converted to civilian use in 1947, and a third documents its further conversion into a versatile cargo-passenger carrier a year later.
Aptly named for those long-winged sea birds, the Cormorant today leapfrogs from one pump station to the next, serving the diverse human and technical needs of the miles. The eastern end is owned and operated by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and the western end by the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company (Tapline).
The cool early-morning wind rustled the flight manifest on the counter of the Aramco flight shack. It was 6:53 a.m., and Flight D-453-W/E was shaping up. A green Mercedes swung up to the parking guard rail and two men got out. One walked up to the flight shack and put his luggage on the big scales. He helped tie a set of "Beirut" tags to his suitcase and large Aramco flight bag. Two Saudi Arabs, Mukhtar 'Adli and 'Abd Allah Batin, bound for Badanah, reported to the flight counter.
7:10 —The "check pilot" assigned to the flight tugged at the leather peak of his flight cap. He dug his hands into his pockets and said, "One of the pilots who came down last night says the weather's good up the line. But we may get clobbered a bit around Damascus."
The co-pilot for the flight walked away from the parked plane. "We've got a big generator on board to go to Turaif," he said.
7:22—The flight captain signaled to the cluster of passengers to board the plane.
7:45—The plane taxied to the runway. Engines roared. Brakes off, the Cormorant rolled down the runway, gathering speed.
7:47—Airborne and climbing: the Persian Gulf, blue under the thin haze; Dhahran, green-black off to the left; al-Khobar, a building-block city to the right. The plane slowly gained altitude. On the left wing are the large green letters "ARAMCO"; on the right wing in black letters is the designation N717A.
Lashed to the floor in the center of the cabin was a large, 3,100-pound 42-KVA generator. It had been carefully loaded and tied down the night before. At the right rear of the cabin a lattice of green canvas webbing held cargo in place—small boxes, luggage and personal effects, some rolled tightly in rugs. There was also a box marked "Electric Cautery," and against the rear wall of the cabin stood another medical item in transit—a large brown paper folder marked "X-Rays—Clinic—Beirut."
As the passengers settled themselves, the Cormorant hummed along on the first leg of the pump station "milk run." It would not return to Dhahran for six more days. On this day it would stop, in succession, at Nariyah, Qaisu-mah, Rafha, Badanah and Turaif, and terminate at Beirut. Tomorrow (Monday) it would return station-by-station to Qaisumah. Tuesday, it would double back to Beirut. Wednesday, it would fly down the line only as far as Badanah. Thursday, it would return to Beirut. Friday, no flight on the Moslem Sabbath. Saturday, all the way back to Dhahran but on Saturday the "milk ran" would become an egg run with a supply of eggs from Beirut being dropped off at each pump station.
The seemingly endless steppe of northern Saudi Arabia rolled away under the plane. Wet patches shone darkly, for the winter rains had been plentiful. Camel trails coming down from Kuwait and Iraq merged from the distant ground haze and straggled away to the south toward wells and villages lost in the misty distances. Only the slender black thread of the pipeline imposed a straight line upon the curves and meanderings of the northern desert.
8:35—The Cormorant was held in a long, gradual descent. The co-pilot ran his finger down the landing check-list above his seat. Memory is taboo; every landing is routined step by step. Nariyah lay ahead. The minaret of the mosque in the Saudi Arab settlement loomed in the sun. Then, the oiled landing strip.
8:42—Nariyah. The double doors were flung open. Warm greetings in Arabic filled the sunny air. "Marhaba." (Hello.) "Ahlan wasahlan." (You are welcome.) "Kayf haalak?" (How are you?) A stake truck backed up to the plane and a loading ramp bridged the last couple of feet to take cargo off and put cargo on.
8:52—Take-off from Nariyah. Camels grazed away to the right. Someone observed that eleven passengers would come aboard at the next station, Qaisumah. "We'll have to drop the generator off to make room. They'll truck it to Turaif from there."
9:53—The wheels of the plane touched the oil-outlined landing strip at Qaisumah, where Aramco's part of the pipeline system ends and Tapline's begins. A sign read "Elevation 1,165 feet." Ground temperature: 53 degrees. Four trucks were parked facing the airstrip; one had an A-frame at the rear for lifting heavy cargo. Passengers huddled in a cinder-block weather shed out of the cold wind. 'Abd Allah Muhammad, his wife and his infant son and daughter, bound for Rafha, waited in the shelter. The agile Saudi Arab cargo crew released the heavy turbine from the floor of the plane's cabin. In a short time the generator was in the truck.
Qaisumah had 5.05 inches of rain during the first seven weeks of 1961, compared with about 1.5 inches in all of 1960. Someone observed: "There'll be thousands of camels here this summer for grazing." A pilot commented on the encroachment of plant-life on the Qaisumah landing strip: "Yes, and if the heavy rain keeps up, you'll have to mow the runway."
All seats aboard were swung down into place. One Saudi Arab worker had debarked at Qaisumah; two Americans and nine Saudi Arabs were added to the passenger list. The flight crew had been completed by the addition of Mike Bado, the "milk run" cargo expediter.
10:54—Take off, Qaisumah. Jim Hughes, foreman of pipeline repair at Turaif, talked to another passenger. Hughes had been at Qaisumah on a special job, repairing a section valve that had broken on the pipeline. Away to the left on the desert floor, seven Bedouin tents were lined up end to end with the open section of each tent facing east.
12:01—Rafha. The desert looked more its parched self. "Funny thing," someone remarked, "there's been a lot of rain up and down the line, but we haven't had much." 'Abd Allah Muhammad and his family, four other Saudi Arabs and one American debarked at Rafha. Bahij Saud, a medical laboratory technician, and Janus Verhoeven, an electrician, joined the flight. Mike Bado oversaw the exchange of cargo.
12:21—Take off, Rafha. Passengers who had boarded at Dhahran were offered a box lunch—turkey and lettuce sandwich, cheese sandwich, two hard-boiled eggs, salt and pepper, potato salad, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, pineapple juice, fresh orange, pineapple upside-down cake. Ramadhan, the month-long Moslem sunrise-to-sunset fast, had already started; all the Saudi Arabs aboard declined the lunch.
Mike Bado flies the "milk run" regularly from Qaisumah to Beirut, as well as all intermediate flights. Mike is a stocky, good-natured Lebanese who has made more than 500 flights on these runs. "I like it," he said briefly. "I know everybody."
"Tomorrow, when we come back down the line," he went on, "we will bring frozen foods to Turaif. That's the distribution point for the other stations. And on that trip we bring personal things too—like fruit from home for the Lebanese employees. On Wednesday we carry fresh vegetables from Beirut to Turaif and Badanah. On Saturday Rafha and Qaisumah get their vegetables. Then on Sunday everybody gets eggs all down the line.
"Passenger traffic is heaviest at Christmas and Easter," Mike continued. "Once in a while we have an emergency flight. Not long ago we were having lunch in Qaisumah and the word came that we were going right away to Badanah—the big hospital for the pipeline is there, and we have flown patients to the hospital sometimes.
"Chickens and rabbits turn up as cargo sometimes," Mike said. "Last month we carried a hooded falcon from Qaisumah to Badanah. And look here." He lifted the rope-tied lid on a small wooden box under the cargo webbing. "You know what they are? Truffles. To the Saudi Arabs, they're a great delicacy. At this time of the year truffles are found along the line at certain places. We must have more than a hundred kilos on every flight now."
1:23 p.m.—Badanah. A little bumpy coming in. The electric cautery was quickly unloaded and given to a doctor from Badanah's forty-bed hospital. John Terry, superintendent of the station, joined the pilots and the ground crew under the forward belly of the plane. A sample of aviation gasoline was drawn and examined before the plane was refueled. A repair had been made in the avgas pipeline at the airstrip and the line had then been leak-tested with water. Terry waited to be certain that no water was present in the fuel.
The new cargo included two golf bags with caddy carts attached. Two boys, Jimmy Foody and Paul Booth, Jr., shortly joined the bags aboard for a short trip to Turaif.
2:04—Take off, Badanah. The plane swung over 'Ar'ar, a Saudi Arab community of 7,000, and the headquarters of the Amir of the Northern Province of Saudi Arabia.
2:49—Bumpy weather. The light panel flashed: "Fasten Your Seat Belts." Suddenly, the plane was closed in by a milky mist. Just as suddenly, the plane was in the clear again. Mike Bado dug fruit juice and chocolate milk cans from a cooler and opened them for the American passengers.
3:02—Touch down, Turaif. Jim Foody was there when the doors opened to greet his son Jimmy and Paul Booth. "They've been down to Badanah to show John Terry how to play a little golf. John had a little invitational tournament down there for everyone up and down the line. The boys went but we were having our own little tournament here. They played well but they didn't quite win."
Turaif has a government building at the edge of the airfield—the Passport Office. It is the final pump station stop on the flight and a Saudi Arabian port of entry. Passports were collected from the Beirut passengers. Turaif is the headquarters for the major shopwork that is needed on pumphouse equipment for the pipeline. Such equipment is tagged, placed aboard the "milk run" and delivered to the Turaif shops for repair except in cases where the repair demands on-the-spot service by a man from Turaif.
3:31—Take off, Turaif. Last leg of the "milk run." Three Saudi Arabs, three Americans and the crew of four aboard—plus a 100-pound crankshaft, aluminum ladders, auto parts, film rewinder tools, asbestos packing, communications parts, turbine parts and other small cargo bound for the pipeline storehouse at Sidon, the headquarters mail room in Beirut, the company clinic, and several other terminal points.
Mike Bado rounded out his clerical flight work: the load record, official journey log, an international E/D card for each passenger and immigration sheets.
John and Judy Rosquist thumbed through some magazines. They were going to Beirut to renew their passports which had to be held together by stout rubber bands. Their accordion-like insert pages of the passports testified to the great amount of traveling they had done in recent years. Rosquist laughed: "The last time I went through U. S. Customs the guy started folding out these extra pages and he suddenly stopped and said, 'My gosh, don't you ever stay home?'" (The Rosquists were the first American employees along the line to marry. Judy Rosquist had been a nurse at Badanah where she had met John. Rosquist is the supervising turbine technician at Turaif.)
3:41—Crossed the border into Jordan. Still climbing. Weather getting rough. The desert now looked red through the overcast.
4:17—Nearing 12,500 feet. Very cold in plane. Heater not working. Crossed into Syria.
4:49—Crossed border of Lebanon. The sun glistened on the snow in the Lebanese mountains. The deep valleys, the whiteness of the snow, the tiny houses in the mountain villages gave the airscape a peculiar post-card unreality. In the distance the Mediterranean shimmered hazily. Then the plane was over the fabulous Bekaa valley, the vast green and fertile valley that stretches like a great farm for dozens of miles.
5.08—The mountains dropped swiftly to the sea and the plane was over the Mediterranean. Below lay Beirut, "the Paris of the Middle East." The dramatic green-black depths of the mountains had given way to the sun-swept buildings of the sprawling city which looked brilliantly clean in the clear afternoon air.
The Cormorant swung north in a broad arc, banking easily. It finally closed the vast loop and headed south along the shoreline awaiting landing orders. The city lay off to the left of the plane, a jewel of buildings old and new in an incredible framework of snow-mantled mountains and deep enamel-blue sea. Finally, the Cormorant made a long descending curve and headed for one of the long runways.
5:23—Touch down, Beirut. As the plane turned toward the terminal building, Beirut's skyline loomed beyond the end of the runway. It was 3:27 Beirut time. The Cormorant, a one-time war bird, had finished another day's work.
Mike Bado laughed at a final question. "No," he said, "we never carry any milk on the 'milk run'."