For thousands of years the immense, desolate, arid Arabian subcontinent, devoid of waterways, its shifting sands inhospitable to paved highways, was tenuously stitched together only by the trails of countless camel caravans. They plodded forward unhurriedly from the dawn of history toward modern times at the same steady two-and-a-half-miles-an-hour pace they traveled in the days of Moses, and Jesus, and Muhammad. And then, abruptly, the thread was broken in the mid-twentieth century as the camel yielded to the airplane, a beast of burden indifferent to heat and cold, of a calm and predictable disposition, consuming dark liquids from the soil as plentiful in Arabia as water is scarce, a silver needle weaving a silver tapestry high in the sky.
The leap from the most primitive means of animal transport to the most sophisticated jet aircraft in a single bound of less than 20 years is a remarkable feat of technical agility. But in a sense it was inevitable, for the early 1950's in Saudi Arabia saw the emergence of a bustling business and governmental community that needed fast communications with all parts of the kingdom—ten times as extensive as New York state—that had a national income from oil revenues sufficient to cover the formidable costs of building a modern airline from scratch, and that was developing a fledging generation of educated, dedicated young Saudis eager to win its wings by learning to run a complex industrial enterprise on its own.
That enterprise had been born, quite by accident, as the result of the visit by President Roosevelt to King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud in 1945. Assigned by the President to conceive of a gift for the King of appropriate magnificence, Colonel Harry Snyder, the Pentagon's Islamic specialist and part-time adviser to the State Department (now a dean at Saudi Arabia's College of Petroleum and Minerals), after rejecting refrigerators, air conditioners and other cool ideas as too trifling, suggested a DC-3.
His Majesty was delighted with the present—it was, after all, a distinct improvement over the usual autographed photo—and forthwith became a flying fan, as indeed did most of the numerous members of the royal family. Almost without realizing it, the government was soon transporting princes, their friends, their friends' families, and their families' friends. As those categories comprise a large part of the Saudi population, the original DC-3 (still in honorable service, incidentally) was supplemented by the purchase of five more, and, willy-nilly, Saudi Arabia was in the airline business.
From the beginning, Saudi Arabian Airlines had a distinct flavor all its own. Schedules were an earnest of good intentions, like a politician's campaign promises, rather than an obligation to provide transportation to cash customers. In the early days more than one loaded aircraft was called back from the taxiway, emptied of its indignant passengers, and pre-empted by an official of some rank for a spur-of-the-moment junket to Beirut, Baghdad, or perhaps a distant Saudi oasis. In that same era many passengers, whatever their rank, insisted on wearing their habitual dress, and if that included a .30-30 rifle, crossed bandoliers bristling with ammunition, a pistol and a curved dagger stuck in the belt and maybe even a hooded hunting falcon on the wrist, who was going to object? Pilots did discourage passengers from brewing tea in the aisles, pointing out that this beverage, along with coffee and milk, was available to all on request, but to the nomads of 25 years ago, a rifle was almost as vital as water. Besides, for all the hardware, it is a matter of record that not a single Saudi plane was ever diverted to Havana.
The Saudi Arab Government started its air operations bravely enough, but soon discovered that it takes more than planes to make an airline, that it takes pilots, mechanics, tower controllers, meteorologists, radiomen, economists, engineers and men from dozens of other specialties; that it takes airstrips, hangars, repair shops, sales offices, fueling facilities; that it takes organization, financing, record-keeping, planning, initiative, vision, perseverance. All these vital elements were either in short supply or wholly lacking. In early 1950, for example, there were only two airstrips in the entire kingdom, no Saudi pilots, no Saudi airframe and power-plant mechanics, no Saudi radar operators—the list was long.
It didn't become miraculously shorter later that year when the government retained Trans World Airlines (which had supplied the original pilots under contract) to provide management, technical and financial services, . but the airline finally had a name—it had been merely a department in the Ministry of Defense and Aviation—and a goal: to train Saudi citizens to take over all aspects of the operation of Saudi Arabian Airlines in measured steps of increasing responsibility.
Considering the years that pilots spend attaining their exalted status, it may seem surprising that one of the less complicated tasks of the TWA advisory group, today numbering more than 300, was the training of flying officers. Yet the production of pilots is a process of almost machine-tool precision. Given the raw material—young men clear of eye, sound of wind, and intelligent—flying schools the world over can turn out first-rate pilots in periods that vary only according to the rating desired. Saudi Arabian Airlines went them one better by becoming the first airline to adopt ab initio training, handcrafting the pilot from the pre-flight stage to the moment when, nearly a million miles later, he takes command of the big jets.
Arriving in batches of 20, fresh from high school, potential pilots are given intensive ground school and concurrent flight practice for from 14 to 20 months, depending on the student's background and ability. Although each class is the pick of Saudi Arabia's schools, the course maintains such tough standards that no more than 15 will eventually graduate and proudly take the right-hand seat of a DC-3 or Convair as first officer, there to gain the experience and maturity which, after years of carefully observed development, leads to the captain's four golden stripes. But before he can take that first step toward the goal of his career, he will already have logged nearly 300 flying hours (plus 1,250 hours of ground school and 1,000 hours of individual study), and qualified for commercial, instrument and multi-engine tickets under the FAA, whose rigorous procedures he follows from the first.
Saudi Arabian Airlines became airborne more than 20 years ago with Americans at the controls, but progressively the Saudi's themselves are guiding the airline's destiny. Of a total of 68 captains and 52 first officers, Saudi pilots already account for 30 and 40 respectively, and within a decade it is probable that the airline's flying complement will be exclusively Saudi Arab.
That the same may be true of all echelons within the company is the purpose of a unique cadet training program directed by Mr. Hamza Dabbagh and designed to supply the voracious appetite of all Saudi Arabian Airlines departments for skilled administrators and technicians.
"In a nation developing as fast as ours, there just isn't enough trained manpower to go around, so we have had to attract ambitious youngsters and train them from the ground up," explains Mr. Dabbagh, a serious, zealous educator who has studied American and continental teaching methods, and adapted them to a Middle Eastern environment. "Beginning in 1963 we have taken the country's brightest junior high graduates and put them through a crash course that qualifies them to enter any phase of the airline business, about on par with the best in the West. Since the average student's background is quite unlike his American counterpart's—remember, he may have begun life in nomadic, pastoral surroundings, and in school concentrated on Arabic literature, history and religion—this is no mean accomplishment. We start almost from scratch in making these green young men mature, responsible, well-trained adults. And we give ourselves exactly three years to do it."
The three-sided curriculum covers the student's every waking hour from morning calisthenics to supervised study before lights out. One segment of the forced-draft study program prepares the cadets to qualify for the high school diploma of the Ministry of Education. In the second, the students plunge into the world of aviation: aerodynamics, theory of flight, airline history, organization, economics and scheduling, and shopwork with strong emphasis on air-frame and engine repair. They also learn to drive an automobile and to type, and they spend 800 classroom hours mastering the lingua franca of international travel—English. The program's third part is devoted to cultural orientation. Here the cadet duplicates everyday experiences of young men in the West which are so foreign to many young Saudis: how to chair a meeting, introduce strangers, select a wardrobe and how to treat women clients—all those commonplaces of social contact that each culture takes for granted but are so different for people of other lands to understand and adopt.
For the successful cadet, three years of basic training is only the first step in his career. A further period of study, ranging from six months to several years, follows in engineering, pilot training, management, sales or other specialties before the young man finally has a firm grasp of his trade.
The wisdom of this painstaking attention to the business of training is apparent when one considers the immense cost and complexity of the airline's basic commodity, the airplane. The Boeing 707 368-C, for example, of which Saudi Arabian Airlines has two—in addition to two Boeing 720-B's, three DC-9's, two DC-6's, eight Convairs and nine DC-3's—costs upwards of $7 million each, and is assembled from well over a million parts, most of them expensive. The galley (there are two aboard each 707) costs $20,000; a passenger seat is $1,500—and there are 199 of them; the pilot's glass windscreen is also $1,500; a main-gear tire (there are eight) costs $276, and sometimes survives but a single landing; and each of the four engines sells for $225,000. One set of maintenance manuals makes a stack seven feet high weighing 300 pounds, and four men are employed merely to keep them up to date. The pilots must know intimately the function of every mechanism aboard, which means practically memorizing two operating manuals each the size of the Manhattan telephone directory.
Keeping the big birds safe and serviceable is the responsibility of hordes of clerks, mechanics and engineers, whose very existence the average traveler never suspects. Every part of the plane has a card on which its history is recorded, its inspections noted, and at specified intervals beginning with each 50 hours of flight time, thorough checks are made to insure its proper condition and function. The "C" hangar check for each 800 flying hours totals 64 working hours by 150 men, and every 10 "C" checks the airplane is literally pulled to pieces, tested, X-rayed, and reassembled, at a cost of three weeks' work totalling 15,000 man-hours. For added insurance, the life of each aircraft component is carefully and conservatively computed and, when this period expires, it is thrown away, regardless of condition. Some planes, such as the airline's original DC-3, thus contain virtually nothing of the original plane but the brass registration plate. The theory of modern aircraft maintenance is that nothing can be left to chance.
It is this policy of careful checking and rechecking, deliberate redundancy, methodical attention to the smallest detail, that characterizes the mentality of the airline professional, on the ground as in the air. It is this characteristic that is often difficult to transfer to the Saudi student, whose once-pastoral culture demanded an entirely different outlook. But since the cadets will one day completely assume the heavy responsibilities of operation, their abilities in such areas must be artfully shaped, sharpened to a razor's edge, and kept bright by constant challenge, contact and competition with the airlines of other nations.
The current status of Saudi Arabian Airlines indicates that considerable progress toward this goal has already been made. Its fleet of 26 commercial aircraft is the largest in the Middle East, and twice as big as, for example, the national airlines of Turkey and Austria. In 1967 it flew 300 million passenger-revenue-miles, plus 11 million ton-miles of cargo and mail. It employs 3,900 people, operates out of 24 airports in Saudi Arabia, and from 24 airports in 18 countries on three continents abroad. Its overall-load factor is now 48 per cent, a respectable figure for an airline with such fast-expanding services, and total traffic is increasing by approximately 20 per cent annually.
One unusual aspect of the operations is the high proportion—around 35 per cent—of non-scheduled to scheduled flights, arising from the twin circumstances that Saudi Arabia is the goal of the annual pilgrimage which devout Muslims try to make at least once in their lifetimes, and also the temporary residence of thousands of foreign teachers who vacation at home each summer. In 1967, of the 316,226 foreign hajjis who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, one-third arrived and departed by air, mostly within one month, and about 25 per cent of them used Saudi Arabian Airlines. That same year, between June 5 and July 5, some 18,000 teachers were transported home—mostly to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq—for vacation, and returned to their posts once more between August 15 and September 15. The requirement that planes be available for these peak periods plays havoc with regular schedules and turns traffic dispatchers gray, but whatever the temporary inconvenience, it beats the congestion and misery that used to attend the mass movements of people in Saudi Arabia in the days of camel caravans.
Some traditionalists profess to disapprove of the rapid transition from the romantic ship of the desert to the fairly impersonal ship of the skies. They see it as a symptom of the mechanization of life which is cheerless, cramped, unexciting and probably unnecessary. Captain Nahar Nassar, the chief pilot, dismisses the complaint with an indulgent wave of the hand.
"Let 'em travel camelback from Jiddah to Dhahran as people did in my father's day: three hot, dusty, miserable months it used to take. Then let 'em travel with me: cool, comfortable, and exactly one and a half hours. Then ask 'em again which they prefer... Of course," he muses, "I don't speak from personal experience. You see, I've never been on a camel, myself."
Daniel da Cruz, who writes regularly for Aramco World, is also chief correspondent in the Middle East for McGraw Rill World News.