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Volume 18, Number 6November/December 1967

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Fly The Desert Sky

To move supplies and men, and speed the search for oil…

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody
Additional photographs by S. M. Amin

In July 1956, a national U.S. magazine published a two-page map charting all air traffic over the North Atlantic at midnight on a random spring night. It showed that there were 110 aircraft: military planes, 70 commercial flights representing 18 airlines and, just about halfway to Europe, a lone DC-6B owned by a somewhat unusual airline—the Arabian American Oil Company.

It probably seems odd today to think that an oil company operating exclusive in a country as far away as Saudi Arabi would ever have operated an international airline. But 20 years ago when that airline was organized, commercial air service into and out of the Middle East was no what it is today. It certainly wasn't sufficient to meet the pressing needs of a company engaged in the enormous postwar development of some of the world's biggest oil fields. So it was that on an April day in 1947 an Aramco pilot gunned a DC-4 Skymaster, the "Flying Camel," down a runway on Roosevelt Field, Long Island and headed for the Azores on the first leg of a 7,000-mile trip that after stops in Lisbon, Rome and Beirut, would end on the sandy shore of the Arabian Gulf.

Many Aramco veterans consider the late 40's and the 50's as the golden years of the company's Aviation Department—and with some reason. Before widespread commercial jet service finally eliminated the need for Aramco's own transatlantic flights—which ended on January 1, 1961—the "Camel" and her two younger sisters, the "Gazelle" and the "Oryx," had grown to DC-6B's and the company had logged a remarkable record. It had flown 17,200,000 miles with 87,600 international passengers and 7,300,000 pounds of cargo, made 2,400 Atlantic crossings and completed a satisfying 13 ½ years of scheduled international service without a single fatality or injury.

But though small when compared to those golden transatlantic years, Aramco Aviations' operations in Saudi Arabia today are equally impressive in terms of scope and variety. The department has ten planes: three single-engine Beavers which can carry 1,200-1,500 pounds of supplies or five passengers, five DC-3s (two on lease to the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company (Tapline)) and its most recent acquisitions, two Fokker F-27 "Friendships," manufactured in Holland. The company has also leased five Bell helicopters for special exploration work and a deHavilland twin Otter which can carry 4,000 pounds or 13 passengers—three times the load of a Beaver—yet is still able to land on a short field.

The men who fly Aramco's planes are the last to suggest that they have adventurous jobs. "Routine," they insist. "It's just routine." But they often fly, nevertheless, over what has been called "the world's bleakest terrain," the 250,000-square-mile Rub' al-Khali or Empty Quarter. And even R. F. "Moe" Morris, who flew one of the company's first DC-3s from Texas in 1947 and is now manager of the Aviation Department, acknowledges that flying there can be difficult.

"Flying in most of Saudi Arabia is like flying anywhere," he once said, "but when you get down there, there's nothing. You'll fly for hours without seeing a living thing: man, beast or vegetation. No roads or railways, no lakes or streams, no woods, no villages. Just great stretches of sand or gravel between the rolling dunes or occasional limestone hills and escarpments."

According to the pilots, desert flying can at times be like no other challenge they have ever faced. Although there are short range radio beacons at all outlying exploration camps to guide planes in, the fliers still must turn often to dead reckoning navigation when they get out of range. On other occasions sandstorms whip up such dust that pilots can't see a camp a mile away. And in summer it is worse! In winter, cold air masses can hold the dust to a 4,000-foot ceiling but in the hot part of the year pilots have to climb as high as 14,000 feet to find a blue sky.

Summer poses other problems too. At high temperatures, the air density reduces engine efficiency and power so that pilots must cut their cargo loads, and on short trips, when there is no time to rise above the heat bumps, there is a mean bounce in the ride. The new helicopters just leased had to have their motors especially adapted for the scorching summer temperatures.

But extreme conditions like these don't mean that air transport in the desert is too difficult or too hazardous. On the contrary, they make it indispensible.

"If you had the time, money and patience," Bob Carr of the Exploration Department says, "I suppose 90 per cent of the concession area could be covered in conventional ground vehicles, that is two-wheel drive with sand tires." But beyond the inhabited areas travel is tediously slow; a convoy of trucks to the eastern section of the Rub' al-Khali—where Aramco is now working—takes a month to make the long round trip, even though the vehicles are equipped with huge sand tires for the Sand Mountains territory and oversized radiators which are needed in very hot weather.

Even in areas where there are good blacktop roads distances are great—it's a 12-14-hour drive by bus from production workers' homes in Hofuf to the Arabian Gulf oil fields at Safaniya—and during sandstorms low-skimming sand just a few feet off the ground sometimes cuts horizontal visibility and closes roads while vertical visibility for planes remains excellent.

But given the desirability of air transport, there are still problems to face. How, for example, do the Aramco planes manage to set down safely in a hostile desert miles away from their Dhahran headquarters? One pilot explains that this is not as great a problem as might at first be expected. "There are probably more air strips here in a 500-mile radius than anywhere else in the world," he says. "All you need is a bare expanse of gravel floor with a stretch marked out with a streak of oil, four barrels, or four flares at night and presto, there's an airstrip."

It's not quite that easy, of course, but the pilots have found most of the desert accessible to their planes with a minimum of preparations and precautions. The trick is to choose a good site. Near the Arabian Gulf, for example, there are sabkhahs or salt flats so smooth, according to one flier, "that you'd think they'd make beautiful landing strips—if you didn't know better. The airplane could sink in them up to the fuselage."

Such strips, fortunately, can be packed down firmly just by driving heavy trucks across them. Furthermore, the DC-3s have low-pressure tires and can land on flat stretches of sand or gravel marked by car tracks. When heavy traffic is anticipated, a mixture of clay and sand is dumped, graded, watered and rolled until it can support the weight of a plane.

Aramco aircraft have played a valuable role in the company's exploration efforts almost from the beginning. The planes became doubly important when gravity and seismic crews began searching for oil in the Sand Mountains of the eastern Rub' al-Khali. Small, five-place Beavers provided support from base camps to outlying "spike camps" for gravity crews, who for ground transportation used light four-wheel drive vehicles. In seismic exploration, crews record shock waves set off by controlled underground explosions to learn about substructures. The earliest seismic exploration in the eastern Rub' al-Khali was principally for reconnaissance, the shot holes were located in a somewhat random pattern, and seismic crews, also traveling in large-tired four-wheel-drive vehicles, worked along exposed and relatively flat sabkhahs rather than over sandy areas because the former were easier to get to and offered better conditions for recording.

As the company required more and better information on substructures, Aramco's seismic exploration moved into a second phase during which crews were required to set their shot holes in straight lines at regular intervals, regardless of the terrain encountered. This meant working on both sabkhahs and in sand dunes, which in the eastern Rub' al-Khali can rise as high as 700 feet and have slip faces as steep as 30 degrees. The new conditions called for new types of land and air transportation suitable to these challenging surfaces. Sand buggies—called marsh buggies when employed in Louisiana oil exploration work—were required for carrying recording, drilling and shooting equipment over the varying areas of operations. Five helicopters, whose speed and flexibility make them well suited for exploration in the Sand Mountains, were leased to carry personnel and supplies from spike camps along the shot lines. A twin Otter was found to be well suited as the air link between the seismic party's base camp and its spike camps.

In good weather, each of the five helicopters, can carry 600-pound loads at about 70 miles per hour while Power Wagons or sand buggies can only carry reduced loads of 1,000-1,500 pounds because of the terrain, and creep about it 10 miles per hour. Furthermore, the copters can fly straight up the steep leeward face of a dune from the usual Beaver and Otter landing strip found in outlying camps, making unnecessary miles of driving around the "mountain" to the gradually-inclined windward slope.

"Of course the work could be done without helicopters," one exploration man admits, "but it would be extremely difficult without the mobility and speed they offer us." Now helicopters are being considered for future offshore work in the Gulf.

The two new F-27s are the main exploration camps' aerial link with Dhahran. Named after the trimotor which pioneering Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic in 1928, the "Friendships" are powered by twin turbo-prop 1,930 HP Rolls Royce engines and can operate from a 5,000-foot runway. These pressurized "combi-planes" carry 40 passengers or 12,000 pounds of freight, are readily convertible to combinations of personnel and cargo. Unlike most big planes, the F-27s, which sit low to the ground but have high wings mounted on top of the fuselage, offer excellent passenger visibility. With a range of 1,200 miles, they can cruise at 279 mph, at 21,000 feet. The F-27 was explicitly designed by Fokker as an updated replacement for aging DC-3s, and since 1958 it has found customers in 33 countries. For Aramco, the two F-27s replaced not only two DC-3s, but two Convairs as well.

Since the Fokker is also manufactured under license in the United States by Fairchild, the two newest planes carry distant echoes of Aramco Aviation's humble beginnings. That was back in 1934 when two young pilots named Dick Kerr and Charley Rocheville escorted a Fairchild 71 single engine by sea from New York to Alexandria, Egypt, and then daringly "hopped" it to Saudi Arabia under its own power by way of Cairo, Gaza, Baghdad, Basrah and Jubail where the 3rst exploration parties were waiting desperately for an "aerial eye". Their flight was really the start of Aramco's airline.

The early days of flying in Arabia have given birth, of course, to numerous legends. One tells of the time when a hive of bees broke loose from their crate on a flight to the al-Kharj experimental farm. Then there's the story of the 60 screeching prize hunting falcons which were flown tied to a burlap-covered plank for a local amir. There was also the old Bedouin who tried to cook his dinner on an open fire in the cabin.

Later the DC-3s which used to fly to Asmara, in Ethiopia, to pick up fresh fruit had to be "trimmed" or leveled with ballast on the empty leg of the flight. One pilot remembers seeing piles of Arabian sand which had been dumped over the years at the edge of the loading ramp at the Asmara airport and being questioned by a friend there, "Do you really think you'll ever be able to get all the sand out of that country?"

Once, short of fuel and lost in a dust storm, another pilot landed on a mesa in the middle of the desert, miraculously coming to a halt just two feet from the edge. When the weather cleared he had no idea where he was and radioed for help. Aramco quickly put their chief guide, Khamis ibn Ranthou on the air. Khamis, through some Yemeni passengers on the plane, got local Bedouins to give some of the names of local geography and was able to guide a rescue party to within a half mile of the downed plane.

The pilots soon learn to recognize what few landmarks there are and give them pet names. Those who flew the "milk run" to Beirut, stopping at the pumping stations along the Tapline, used to call the pipeline "the Iron Compass". Coming into Abqaiq there is a series of long rocky outcrops with dunes stretching downwind like the wakes of ships. They look for all the world from the air like their nickname, "The Sixth Fleet".

For a short time, the early planes had names too. Tiny Navion aircraft went by bee or wasp, Beechcraft by woodpecker or parrot. DC-3s were called after larger birds such as sea gull or quail; the Convairs rated eagle or falcon. Now the planes go by simple number designations, all in the 700 block of numbers reserved for them by the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), whose strict regulations the company complies with.

Aramco pilots have carried drums of drinking water, diesel fuel, and gasoline for cars and the small desert-based Beaver aircraft. They have flown people who were ill or hurt, machine parts needed in a hurry, fresh vegetables to distant drilling sites, and even live sheep and goats for holiday feasts. On occasions they have engaged in emergency aerial searches for cars lost or stranded in the desert, or small boats adrift in the Gulf.

But today for the most part, the passengers and cargo are prosaic, the flights in the main, routine. They carry high school students to Beirut and Rome, executives to an oil congress in Baghdad, Government Relations spokesmen to Riyadh or Jiddah, inspectors along pipelines, exploration men to distant concession areas.

About 50 per cent of the flights are scheduled—such as the seven "commuter" flights per week that carry Saudi Arab workers from their homes in Abqaiq or Hofuf to the Northern Area fields. On these flights, pilots make a three-hour round trip from Dhahran, land half a dozen times, yet spend less than 30 minutes on the ground, sometimes never cutting their engines. One pilot, a New Yorker, fondly refers to this busy service as "The Brighton Beach Express," a nickname made all the more appropriate by the hissing of the F-27's air brakes as it taxis towards a ramp.

In 1966 Aramco's planes logged 1,028,928 miles in support of the company's operations. During a typical winter month such as last January, there were 138 flights—completely apart from Exploration's hundreds of base-to-spike camp shuttle flights—while for the entire year of 1967 the Aviation Department estimates its planes will have been in the air a total of about 6,800 hours.

Virtually all repairs and maintenance on the planes is done in Aramco's two 140 X 160-foot hangers which are located in a self-contained compound across the field from the terminal at Dhahran International Airport—though mechanical supervisors frequently fly down to inspect the Beavers stationed in the Rub' al-Khali itself. The maintenance section has roughly 75 men, three fourths of whom are Saudi Arabs.

Each plane has a daily inspection by the line crew, and a 100-hour inspection in which as many as a dozen men may be crawling industriously over the plane. To achieve maximum safety and efficiency, according to Hank Alisch, the superintendent, responsibility for a piece of work is fixed on one man. "He records the trouble, does the work and 'signs it off'". The shops work on everything from propellers and brakes to radios and seat cushions. Only for major overhaul are engines air-shipped to the United States—safely packed in airtight drums which resemble huge tin cans.

Sand and heat have been an annoying part of the maintenance picture for so long that they are considered routine by the men and no longer a special problem. But constant watchfulness is needed—and practiced—by the crews. Because many of the nights are a series of short hops (averaging 28 minutes) maintenance men discovered recently that a small motor which controls a wing flap and requires changing every 2,400 hours in normal use according to the manufacturer, in these operations needs replacement after only 1,100 hours.

The entire Aviation Department now consists of 108 men, 16 of whom are pilots. Each morning at 7:30 a group of these desert fliers—some now with more than 20 years of desert experience—report to the dispatcher's office to pick up their flight plans. The chief dispatcher, John Smith, will follow each flight path by VHF radio (Very High Frequency) until the plane returns to Dhahran and the flight log is closed out. In the office is a plastic notice board which on a typical day might have remarks like these neatly printed on it in orange crayon:

Safaniya—work starts next week on bump 800 feet from north end of runway.

Massawa—Goats seen on and adjacent to runway 9/7.

G-4—Elevation is 450 ft. instead of 485 ft. Jiddah—Crew members required to show health cards for smallpox and cholera.

G-3—Fresh oil dumped near runway on ramp. Do not taxi across it.

The Arabian Desert could, with some imagination, be considered a hot, dry counterpart of the wild and lonely North Atlantic Ocean. Choose any hour of the day and chart the desert sky. Chances are high that an Aramco plane will be up there, helping move men and supplies in the search for oil, on a dramatic errand of mercy—or just another routine run of the Brighton Beach Express.

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 1-7 of the November/December 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1967 images.