en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 19, Number 4July/August 1968

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Discovery! The Story Of Aramco Then

Chapter 4: The Plane

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS: In the fall of 1933 two American geologists stepped ashore at Jubail on the Arabian Gulf. They were the vanguard of a ten-man beachhead that the Standard Oil Company of California, with the blessings and encouragement of King Ibn Salud, was establishing in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia.

The preliminaries leading to that landing had taken many years: from the early 1920's when some British financiers formed a syndicate to deal in oil concessions, to the day in 1933 when Socal's land-lease expert Lloyd Hamilton wound up three and a half months of negotiations and cabled company headquarters in San Francisco that exploration of the concession area could begin.

During those years many countries, companies and individuals had played important roles: Great Britain, hoping to maintain its dominance over Middle East petroleum; the syndicate, which offered an American company its first opening in the Middle East; H. St. John Philby, the British explorer, and Charles Crane, an American philanthropist and Arabist, who helped King Ibn Sa'ud decide to go after oil; mining engineer Karl Twitchell who first assessed the Kingdom's mineral wealth, and Hamilton. Above all there was the King himself whose far-reaching decision it was to award the concession to develop his country's oil to the firm that for many years afterward would be called Casoc—the California Arabian Standard Oil Company. Finally there were the men who made the beachhead, men like Robert P. (Bert) Miller and Schuyler B. (Krug) Henry, down-to-earth, practical mm handpicked for hard work and hard living.

One by one they straggled in, went to work, made friends, and, perhaps inevitably, began to introduce the comforts and luxuries which are common today but which in Saudi Arabia 35 years ago were still novel. In the meantime they traced out on their maps as best they could the features of this almost featureless land, waiting with a growing impatience for the airplane they had to have to do the job properly—the airplane that was only then taking shape in far away San Francisco.

Among the agreements worked out between Standard Oil's negotiator Lloyd Hamilton and the representatives of King Ibn Sa'ud, one of most important was the Company's right to use airplanes in its exploration work. The agreement was subject to strict but unspecified limitations, but the merest look at the map of the concession told Socal officials that they would need to use the right.

In September, 1933, about the time Miller and Henry were establishing the beachhead at Jubail, Clark Gester, Socal's chief geologist, called in a former employe, an ex-Navy pilot then conducting an air mapping business in Los Angeles. Gester knew Dick Kerr from a long time back, and knew him as a man peculiarly qualified for jobs demanding ingenuity, versatility, and imagination. Kerr was a graduate geologist from the University of California; he was a pilot and a mechanic; he was an excellent photographer; he boiled over with energies and enthusiasms. And if on a job he ran into something that he didn't know, he was the kind who would go without sleep for three nights in a row and come up knowing it. If you had tied his elbows he couldn't have talked.

Gester wranted him to frame a proposal to make an aerial geological reconnaissance, on a contract basis, do the necessary aerial photography, and provide air support for ground parties in Arabia. Kerr looked up Arabia in the atlas, obtained the general impression that it was covered with high sand dunes, and decided that a small plane would work better than one of the new Douglas models. He and his partner, Walter English, submitted a proposal, Gester and Doc Nomland approved it, and Socal ordered a special Fairchild 71 from the Kreider-Reisoner plant at Hagerstown, Maryland. It would have a hole in the bottom for taking vertical photographs, a removable window on each side for taking obliques, and in deference to the expected sand it would have the biggest tires they could find: 36x18's. Charley Rocheville, who would be Kerr's co-pilot and mechanic, designed an extra gas tank which left seating space for only four people, but increased the cruising radius to a safe 350 miles. Kerr bought all the equipment and supplies he thought necessary (including 5,000 gallons of aviation gasoline in 5-gallon cans), shipped them direct to Bahrain on the Socal tanker El Segimdo, and headed for Maryland to give the makers of their plane some pointers.

In the midst of that the firecrackerish Kerr somehow found two weeks to tackle a major problem: how to get film that could stand up to Saudi Arabia's heat. He went to Rochester, New York, and there conducted a series of tests with the Eastman Kodak plant for the developing of aerial films in warm water, since, rumor said, even the drinking water in Arabia never got cooler than a slow boil. Between them, he and the Eastman Research Division found a process of hardening the film with potassium chrome alum, and succeded in developing film at water temperatures as high as 120°. By the end of the month Kerr had his photographic supplies taken care of, and was in New York buying electrical parts and water distillation equipment for his desert darkroom.

Kerr had arranged for the plane, due to be completed on February 1, 1934, to go as deck cargo on the S. S. Exodiorda of the American Export Lines, sailing February 6, but it was not until the day before the Exochorda was to sail that the plane was delivered. Hastily, Charley Rocheville took it for a half-hour test flight to see if it flew—it did—and then, with Kerr, headed for North Beach, Flushing, now the site of La Guardia airport, where they had to land it on a foot of new snow. Next morning a crane set it, with its wings folded locust-fashion, on a barge, and an hour before sailing time the barge bumped alongside the Exochorda, The Captain, a man named Reyerson, was not pleased, and was not going to accept any airplane this late in the game. But Dick Kerr was a hard person to refuse; if he couldn't talk you down he grinned you down. At four that afternoon the Exochorda put out to sea with the Fairchild 71 parked on its afterdeck and Kerr and Rocheville frantically lashing it down and getting canvas covers over it.

Twenty-three days out of New York they pulled into the harbor at Alexandria, unloaded it from the deck and watched anxiously as it was ignominiously hauled six miles through the city with its tail skid on a donkey cart and about a hundred Egyptians helping to pull and push. North of the city, at a small private airport called ar-Ramlah (meaning "the sand"), they tested the Fairchild thoroughly, and made friends with Royal Air Force officers who gave them copies of the RAF flight maps to all the places they would stop at en route to Saudi Arabia: Cairo, Gaza, Rutbah Wells, Baghdad, Basra, Kuwait and Bahrain.

When at last they were ready to take off and fly the last leg, however, they found that they could not leave Egypt without a triptyque, a carnet de passage, and God knew what else. That meant explanations, forms, the posting of bond, little journeys from official to official, the discovery that they would have to move the airplane to Cairo to get clearance, long arguments with customs about the precise purpose of all the miscellaneous cargo aboard the craft. After two weeks of it they were about convinced that they would spend the rest of their lives in Cairo, but the RAF people did them favors and got them their permit. If it occurred to them that they would need permission not only to leave Egypt but to land in Saudi Arabia they did not let the thought bother them; with their Egyptian papers finally in their hands they went to the airport and looked aloft. A sandstorm was blowing, the visibility was about a hundred yards, their eyes and teeth were full of grit. But they had been in Egypt all they wanted to be; they climbed in and took off for Gaza.

Visibility upstairs was no better than down below; within a short time they had completely lost sight of the ground, except those parts of it which were flying in small fragments in the air. Acknowledging that they couldn't possibly find Gaza in the murk, Kerr turned back—and found that he couldn't find Cairo.

Eventually he did find the Nile delta, whose agricultural development held down the sand and permitted some low contact flying back up the river. With wheels practically scraping the housetops they located the airport and came down. There some displeased officials informed them that since they had now used up their permit to leave Egypt, they would have to obtain a second one.

That took most of another week. This time, when they took off, they waited for clear weather. Their friends the RAF escorted them to Ismailia in two fighter planes, partly out of friendship and partly to see that they crossed the Suez Canal at that particular spot and no other.

Gaza held them overnight. In the morning they left for Baghdad, with a planned fuel stop at Rutbah Wells, but they arrived at Rutbah Wells on the bumper of a brisk tail wind, and having plenty of fuel, decided to go straight on to Baghdad. Over the Euphrates they met another sandstorm that reduced visibility and had them hedgehopping across the bald, barren desert. Expecting the region between the Tigris and Euphrates to be a Garden of Eden, they went straight over the mud town of Ramadi on the Euphrates, recognizing the river but not the town.

The country was so much more barren than their expectations that they thought they were lost. They decided to hold speed and course for one hour; then, if they had not found Baghdad, they would turn back to the Euphrates and hunt a landing place. They were about to turn to the river when they found themselves flying over a big town that turned out to be Baghdad. They were surprised. So were the airport officials, who chided them for not keeping to their announced schedule, pronounced shedule.

Again the Royal Air Force was friendly, entertained them, sent them on next day to Basra to yet another RAF mess and more entertainment. But the Basra RAF was emphatic about two things: under no circumstances should they fly over the Shaikhdom of Kuwait, and under absolutely no circumstances, no matter who told them it was permissible, should they try to land in Saudi Arabia. They should go to Bahrain and let the RAF there try to get them permission to cross over. To the RAF pilots, who had perhaps listened to too many exaggerated and fanciful stories about Bedouins, coming down in Saudi Arabia sounded, rightly or wrongly, like finding yourself afoot at night in leopard country.

It did no good for Kerr and Rocheville to protest that their outfit at Jubail had all the necessary permission and had already laid out a landing strip. The RAF could not be convinced, and insisted that the two should accept as a present a pair of 45 automatics. The thought that perhaps he had better cable Bahrain, and try to get a message to Jubail that they were arriving, entered Kerr's head, but it seemed a lot of trouble. And anyway, the plane could get there long before any message.

They did follow the advice about not flying over Kuwait, staying out to sea south from Basra until they were well past the Shaikhdom. Then they turned in to the Saudi Arab coast and flew down along it, rubbernecking at the occasional black patches of Bedouin tents, the improbable-looking palm gardens, the shoreline colored like changeable silk, with arrowy fishtraps pointing out toward deep water and an occasional dhow leaning across the wind and the cormorants thronging on bare coral islands.

Finding Jubail gave them no difficulty. They made one pass over it and saw an airstrip (Burchfiel and Dreyfus had dragged it the week before) and they saw people standing whose mixture of clothing said that they were not quite Arabs. Rocheville was flying the plane. He circled and brought her in, and because he was up in the nose he insisted later that he was definitely the ninth Casoc man to arrive in Arabia. Kerr, who was out of the plane first, disputed his. claim. But Kerr achieved another distinction by his rush to put his feet on Arabian soil: he was immediately arrested by the Amir of Jubail for landing without permission.

The Amir was greatly agitated. Though he had heard from Miller, who had heard from Lenahan, that the plane was on the way, he had received no orders about it from his government. When he saw the Fairchild coming in, he rushed a detachment of soldiers to the field to protect it from the crowd. The crowd, hearing the plane and then seeing the scramble of the soldiers, rushed after. When the Fairchild came in, touched its wheels and bounced and rolled to a stop, and the door opened and Dick Kerr burst out to greet al-Hasa, the joy of the crowd could not be contained. They surged forward to meet him, the soldiers set upon the crowd with canes and camel sticks and scattered them over the desert, and the Amir, trembling with outrage, arrested Kerr and Rocheville and ordered the plane taxied to the compound and padlocked. No one was either to fly it or work on it. Two days later he said it should be taken to Tarut Island and there impounded under the protection of the Amir of Qatif until the Government sent some sort of instructions about it.

Miller, naturally, did not want the delay and nuisance of taking the plane to Tarut Island and leaving it there, possibly exposed to the fingers of the curious. He stalled by demanding that the pilots first be allowed to inspect the landing field on Tarut, to see if it was safe, and he had Burchfiel arrange donkeys to take them from the boat to the field, some distance inland. Kerr, though somewhat crestfallen at the effect he had created by his dramatic arrival, was not so crestfallen he was going to ride any donkey. He could make better time walking. So he suffered a second humiliation. The white donkey, its forelegs and ears stained with henna, took off and left him as if he were standing still: al-Hasa donkeys, he discovered, can out-walk, out-trot, and out-gallop a man.

The Tarut field they found short, bumpy, and dangerous, with the shells of old planes scattered over it. Happily they reported to the Amir that they could not possibly set the Fairchild down there. Unhappily the Amir insisted; Miller said he would not order the plane to be moved: if the Amir wanted to have somebody take it over there, that was his responsibility.

In Jiddah, meanwhile, Lenahan was finding the airplane problem more difficult than the problem of customs duties. The King and Abdullah Sulaiman were both extremely angry about the unauthorized landing of a foreign plane on Saudi Arab soil, and half inclined to rescind the temporary general permission contained in the Private Agreement. There was a short, almost savage flurry of irritability: impetuousness of the Dick Kerr variety, innocent though the Saudi Government finally understood it to be, could be dangerous.

Suspicion communicated itself downward, too. The Government radio operator, during all the excitement, was sitting one day in the padlocked plane with the radio turned on, and heard the signal of Bushire, across the Arabian Gulf in Iran. Convinced that the oil men had been sending messages to Iran, he rushed to report, and neither he nor his superiors could be placated until it was demonstrated to them that the plane's sending apparatus was hopelessly broken down, and that no one could have sent a message if they had wanted to.

Eventually everyone was placated, and eventually it came out that Ibn Sa'ud had two very good reasons for being upset at the unauthorized landing: he was having trouble with the Imam of Yemen (trouble that was to break out into war the following May); and he was afraid that if they flew too low or too far in toward the Najd, the Bedouins might be tempted to try out their shooting eyes. Kerr and Rocheville kept discreetly to themselves the unheeded warnings of the RAF in Basra.

For those reasons the King insisted they use no radio, fly high and stay out of the interior. The prohibitions reduced the usefulness of the plane, but it was still better and faster than the car-and-camel caravans for reconnaissance. While Lenahan worked to get the restrictions lessened or removed, Kerr and Rocheville prepared the Fairchild, and on March 30, quite a while after they had leaped out to embrace the sands of Arabia and the Amir of Jubail, they made their first tentative air explorations. The first flight took them down the coast as far as Selwa, at the foot of the Qatar Peninsula, the second over the Ras Tanura sandspit, Tarut Island, and the Dammam Dome.

To achieve the most within the limitations imposed upon them, Miller proposed, and Kerr agreed to, a plan of flying straight parallel courses six miles apart, over any area to be studied, while geologists with drafting boards mounted by the windows sketched everything in the three-mile strip on each side. They noted everything—settlements, aim, palm gardens, physiographic details, caravan routes, and if they saw anything that looked particularly interesting they photographed it. The most interesting thing they had so far found, the Dammam Dome, they photographed very thoroughly from the highest altitude they could get the Fairchild to reach.

But it was aerial surveying against difficulties, and it strained their capacities for adaptation. For one thing, on top of the limitations imposed by the Saudi Government, Kerr discovered that he had a mild personnel problem. Felix Dreyfus, technically a mechanic, had come out to Arabia expecting to have something to do with airplane work, and his expectation was not unnatural. Back in Sausalito he had once built himself a homemade plane and got it to fly. Later he had been a pilot and mechanic for the Loening Amphibian Ferry Service across San Francisco Bay, and when Socal drilled a wildcat on Santa Rosa Island off Santa Barbara, he had flown the company plane back and forth across the channel there. Now here were Kerr and Rocheville taking over the whole air operation, and Dreyfus was disappointed. But his first disgruntled suspicion could not persist in the face of Kerr's good nature, and in the face of the fact that Kerr was not a company employee, but an independent contractor. Dreyfus eventually shrugged away his disappointment, and when Lenahan got the ban lifted against flights to the interior, and a little later got the restriction removed against use of the radio, Dreyfus turned his ingenious and multiple talents to the task of keeping the radio communications system running. He made no pretense of being a radio technician, but they had little "out-of-order" time.

With radio permitted, the field parties acquired ears, though not yet a voice. The only voice was that of the plane's transmitter, kept constantly busy sending messages and time signals to the ground camps, and reporting its position every half hour to Jubail. It had a good many positions to report, for now they were systematically coordinating air and ground work and getting Arabia onto paper.

They established a carefully-checked east-west baseline clear across the concession, from Jubail to the Dahana sands, and a north-south line from Jubail to Selwa. From these they worked out a net of aerial triangulation and tied it in with the map data, the ground traverses, and the astronomical stations of the ground crews. As fast as they got something new, Allen White transferred it onto his base grids,

Almost at once they found themselves correcting the existing maps, which were based primarily upon the data of a few explorers and upon camel traverses. Camels did not have speedometers, and explorers in Arabia had not had the advantage either of radio time signals or of chronometers that worked. All of the explorers, of whom Philby turned out to be the most dependable, had managed to get a reasonably good latitude fix by an observation on Polaris at upper and lower culmination without knowing the time, but establishing longitude required either accurate chronometer time or a radio time signal. Now, equipped with both, the Casoc parties found some points on the map of al-Hasa off by as much as 25 miles.

Through the good flying weather of April they were able to be in the air three or four days of each week. When they had photographed the coastal area they gave Henry, Hoover, Loch and Brown a helping hand by flying them over the regions they had been working with no higher point of vantage than the top of a dune, a truck, or a camel. Toward the end of April the plane established Henry and Hoover in a camp 160 miles west of Jubail, farther out in the desert than they had yet dared to go, and used that camp with its camel-supplied gasoline dump as a base from which to cover previously unstudied country.

It was fair country to fly in except when the sand blew, and after their experience in Egypt they watched the barometer very closely indeed. Landing was not the problem Kerr had feared. The large soft tires of the Fairchild, though they had a tendency to make the plane unstable and cut its speed by 15 miles an hour, permitted them to come down even in soft sand, and they could taxi across sand that the touring cars could not traverse. Most of the time they were within gliding distance of gravel plains or the coastal sabkhas on which they could have landed even with hard tires. The dikaka was the only kind of country that gave them bad dreams. Across these sandy plains, sometimes level, sometimes rolling, always closely set with tough runty shrubs hardly two feet high, the prevailing north wind had built little washboard ridges on the leeward side of every bush. Dikaka was no place to try to land an airplane.

Quite apart from the terrain, they worried some during that first season about what might happen to them if they had to make a forced landing out in the empty desert. Even assuming that the Bedouins were well-disposed, how would they manage to survive heat, thirst, sandstorms, serpents, in a region without a tree or a settlement, with no human habitation except the occasional black tents of the tribes of Ishmael? Experience taught them that they need not fear. The Bedouins had a habit of seeing everything that went on; even in a region apparently empty of humanity, they had the knack that some of the Americans had observed among the Navajo. Beside a broken car or a stranger afoot or mounted, they could appear out of the ground. And the "Bedouin telegraph" worked magically: along its human transmission line messages moved swiftly and directly to Ibn Sa'ud. If they had ever been forced down, the Bedouins would probably have picked them up within hours, taken hospitable care of them, and turned them over as soon as possible to the nearest Government officials.

They learned ways of making use of the bareness of the terrain. When a field crew, depending on the plane for supplies, wanted to move to another location and, not yet equipped with radio transmitter, could not inform headquarters, they simply wrote their instructions on the earth. Sometimes they drove a car or pickup around and around until they had worn a plain circle into the ground and then across this they drove a directional arrow pointing toward their new camp. Above it they wrote in the ground with shovels the compass reading, and below it the number of kilometers to the new camp. Then they sprinkled the whole sign with gasoline and set it afire and burned it black against the face of the desert. It could be read from the air miles away.

With the plane, spare parts could be flown out on a day's notice, and the danger of car trouble or breakdown in the desert was reduced to practically nothing. What was more important, the infrequent mail that trickled in by launch or dhow from Bahrain could be delivered quickly. They might still be at the utter end of the world, but they were not out of touch either with the world or with each other. That, as the first year in the field wore on, would make a difference...


This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the July/August 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1968 images.