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Volume 24, Number 1January/February 1973

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Arabs In The Air

In the Middle East today, a sky-minded and capable young man can often start from scratch and, without ever leaving the area, rise to the top in aviation.

Written by Frederick King Poole
Photographed by Wasim Tchorbachi

In the pure, blue-tinted desert air, Amman, the city of seven hills, recedes into the background and four fast, low-wing Piper Cherokees, climbing at full throttle on a southerly track to Aqaba, flash into the solitude of the surrounding wastelands. Operated by men obviously practicing advanced training maneuvers as well as cross-country navigation, the sleek, single-engine aircraft fall into a straight-line formation, swoop down to investigate possible emergency landing sites, then set a course following a string of hills overlooking the Jordan River Valley. Out past the starboard wings, orange groves of the rich agricultural lands watered by the East Ghor Canal appear. Down to the left are the long black tents of the Bedouins and, occasionally, camel riders in red ghutras , carrying silver daggers, members of Jordan's elegant Desert Patrol.

Further on, above rock and sand, the band of Cherokees descends again to zoom over desert castles built to protect the routes to Mecca; over the ornate stone carvings which are all that can be seen from the air of the ancient stone-protected city of Petra; over a monastery built on a needle of rock where the prophet Aaron, brother of Moses, is said to be buried—and then on to a formation landing at Aqaba, Jordan's port on an inlet at the tip of the Red Sea, once a fortress but now a playground whose crystal-clear waters, tropical fish and coral make it a leading attraction for skin divers and sunbathers.

A man down in the desert might well wonder what is going on. Is it a movie? Or a military exercise?

It is neither. It is simply a demonstration, by instructors and students at Jordan's Royal Academy of Aeronautics, that in aviation, as in many things, the Arabs these days can often go it alone.

This is an accelerating trend in the Arab countries: to build up a civil aviation tradition good enough to train national pilots for national airlines. These days, it is no longer impossible for a young man to receive a large part of his air and ground instruction in the Arab world.

The achievement of the goal can be described only as the realization of a dream—for that is how pilots always talk of it. Almost all aviation professionals, the hardcore professionals, are men who have wanted to be pilots since childhood and who, without exception, believe they have escaped the mundane lives that most people accept.

This sense of pride cropped up during the trip from Amman to Aqaba when the Aqaba control tower, accustomed to receiving only three commercial flights a week, objected to the sudden appearance of our Cherokee armada. The Academy's chief flying instructor, Capt. Lee Jones, a former RAF squadron leader who founded the RAF's celebrated aerobatic formation flying unit, the Red Arrows, had radioed ahead that he and his pipe-smoking deputy, Nayef Shukri, only 28 years old but already widely known in the region, planned to land their two planes together, side by side. The tower had opposed the plan, but Captain Jones was firm about our intentions and the descent and landing were carried out in perfect order—as originally planned.

Afterwards, during a formal debriefing in the shade of Aqaba terminal, one could feel the pride welling up in the young Jordanians as their leader spoke of the landing: "Never let anyone, not even a flight controller, make the final decisions for you," Capt. Jones told them.

"Under international law, when you are the man at the controls nobody can tell you what to do, he can only advise you. You are the one who has to make the decisions. It is you who will have to answer for the results."

The captain of an aircraft does indeed have to answer for the results. Like the captain of an ocean liner, he has total responsibility for the aircraft under his command. On the other hand, this is one of the reasons why being a pilot—a common dream in childhood—never, for most young dreamers, amounts to more than childhood fantasy.

That the dream and reality could come together in the Arab world would have seemed farfetched not long ago. In the years following World War II, aviation was still in its infancy most places outside the West, and the operational crews of what regional airlines existed were composed almost entirely of foreigners, usually Americans or Europeans. Throughout the then-underdeveloped countries, aviation was decades behind.

But today hundreds of young Arabs who are undergoing flight training stand as proof that their dreams are far more than fantasy. A young man practicing aerobatic maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, a pretty girl flying high above the mountains of Lebanon, a Jordanian making a simulated instrument flight in a Link Trainer at Amman International Airport—these and many more know what is real.

Furthermore, these new pilots have already begun to think of themselves as part of an established tradition. Although aviation mindedness came late to the Middle East, there are already Middle Eastern aviation success stories.

A case in point is the career of Abdel-Mawla Oweini who, 25 years ago, was a 13-year-old boy who plastered the walls of his bedroom in Beirut with pictures of airplanes, attended every movie in town that touched on aviation, and, whenever he heard the noise of powerful engines, looked to the sky.

Abdel-Mawla's family wrote off his Mobsession. In the 1940's few Arabs had ever been pilots. Besides, the Oweini family over the years had a tradition of success in business and the professions.

Abdel-Mawla did not disappoint his family; he became a highly successful professional man. But he also realized the dream. Still in his thirties, he has not only had years of high adventure behind him, but has also become a figure to be reckoned with in the aviation world. Today Abdel-Mawla is Captain Oweini, a senior flight captain of the Beirut-based Trans Mediterranean Airways, one of the world's largest and most significant cargo carriers. A dozen times a year he circles the globe in command of a Boeing 707. A self-confident, expansive and genial commander, he has made himself into the sort of man who by force of personality attracts attention everywhere. And everywhere can be almost anywhere for Captain Oweini: Bombay or Tokyo, New York or Amsterdan.

Moreover, on his way to the top he established a new family tradition. One of his younger brothers, Sami, 32, is now afirst officer, which in practice means copilot and second in command of an aircraft. Another, Nabeel, 29, is a flight engineer. Together, the Oweini brothers could make up an entire TMA Boeing operational flight crew.

Despite his youth, his current eminence and the carefully plotted international jet routes he now flies, Captain Oweini knows all about what pilots still refer to as "flying by the seat of your pants." He began such flying as soon as he was licensed, ferrying cargoes about the Middle East in old four-engine Yorks, which were really no more than converted World War II bombers. He flew oil equipment to Oman while that state was still a medieval bastion, cut off by government policy from most contact with the outside world. In the early 1960's he flew in the Congo for the United Nations, a time that saw 12 foreign pilots slaughtered by Congolese tribesmen. Once he landed in an area of Uganda so remote that his aircraft was the first the local people had ever seen.

It was in the desert, however, that he faced some of his greatest challenges. All over the Middle East there are near-perfect flying conditions for at least 10 months of the year, but every part of the world has its hazards and in the Arab lands it is the unique dangers of desert flying—a set of frequently unpredictable conditions that must be taken into consideration by any man from the region who chooses aviation as his career.

On a clear summer day, over coffee at a Beirut restaurant beside the blue Mediterranean, Captain Oweini reminisced about flying over the great wastelands which begin not many miles away and which, in the early days, were strewn with the wreckage of aircraft.

Some sources say this was because some airlines simply could not maintain their planes properly. But it was also because weather conditions can change so fast that pilots were caught off guard. "Sandstorms are something that have to be experienced to be believed. It is not just a matter of reduced visibility. I have been in sandstorms where I could see my finger in front of my face but not much else."

For a novice airman, to have visibility cut suddenly is more than disconcerting. With no horizon, you must study the instrument panel intently and listen carefully to the engine to discover whether you are flying straight and level, climbing close to stalling speed, or diving down. Winds in a sandstorm reach gale force and the highest skills are required for takeoffs and landings. To be able to navigate means heavy reliance upon instruments. Radio beacons and Instrument Landing Systems have now been set up all over the Middle East, but as recently as seven years ago a pilot flying to most points across the desert to the Arabian Gulf often had no radio aids to guide him. Frequently, when he took off he did not know where he would eventually be able to touch down.

The most hazardous time for pilots is in the spring when the "khamsin," a frontal system named for the Arabic word for "fifty," indicating the days of its duration, moves across North Africa into the Middle East, bringing blinding sandstorms that often last for 48 hours or longer, whirlwinds accompanied by thunderstorms affecting areas of up to 300 miles in length and sometimes reaching heights of 10,000 feet.

Capt. Trian Udrisky, a retired TMA commander, who was in charge of civil aviation in prewar Rumania and now serves as senior flying instructor at the private pilots' Aero Club of Lebanon, remembers vividly trips to the Gulf without instrument aids during the khamsin. He also recalls the terror of the habub, an African spring sandstorm that occurs when a tropical air mass moves up from the equator. "In the Sudan once I landed in Khartoum easily and under fine visibility, and by the time I had stepped out of the cockpit the habub had come up, I could see nothing, and the sand was blowing so hard it was like sticks being hurled at my face."

In Amman, Nayef pointed out further difficulties in desert flight: "Usually, if all other methods fail, a pilot can rely on landmarks for navigation in good weather. If you lack radio aids, you can at least look down and see something that is marked on your chart. But in desert flying, charts are often no more valuable than they would be over the open seas. A sand hill marked on a chart can have shifted position by many miles before the chart is distributed."

Michel Abboud, a short, personable 26-year-old TMA first officer, who at various times has served as a flying instructor at Beirut's Aero Club, Amman's Royal Academy, and a flying school in Cyprus, once made a flight from Khartoum across the savannah belt and the Sahara to Tripoli in Libya relying solely on dead reckoning, which is navigation by figuring the effect on an airplane's track of the winds, and from that knowledge deciding what heading to use. He arrived only a few miles off course. "But I was lucky," he admits. "Winds can shift so drastically from those reported at the start of a flight that there have been cases of pilots winding up hundreds of miles from their intended track."

Another constant problem is landing in the desert—even when the skies are clear. If there is a runway, an experienced pilot, or for that matter an amateur, can easily judge the height at which he must regress to land. But if there is no defined runway to use as a reference point or, as is frequently the case at desert airports, the runway cannot be seen because the wind has covered it with sand, any pilot will have difficulty in figuring the correct regress point. If you are too high, you overshoot; if you are too low, which is far worse, you can plummet nose down into the sand.

Bearing in mind that trainees may one day be command pilots flying desert routes, the Royal Academy in Jordan recently inaugurated a desert-survival program. Each student must now spend two grueling months out in the desert under supervision of the Royal Jordanian Army. The training involves techniques for finding water, long forced marches to build up endurance, instruction in finding your position by the sun and stars, and even hand-to-hand combat. "We did not know what would happen when we started the program," Captain Jones said, "but so far every young man we have sent to the desert has finished the course."

The desert-survival course is but one example of the stringent standards expected by the Royal Academy. A student in Jordan can now complete all his training towards his commercial pilot's license with Instrument Rating—making him eligible to start training on transport planes with an airline—in about a year. During this period in Jordan the students now go through upwards of 1,000 hours of ground instruction, which is many times more than most commercial pilots receive. They also put in well over the required minimum of 200 hours in the air.

At its spacious, breezy headquarters beside the Amman airfield, the academy's classrooms are a 30-sec-ond walk from its fleet of Cherokees. There are six single-engined Cherokees, a twin-engine Piper and six full-time flight instructors, in addition to ground instructors. The academy is also taking delivery soon of a small plane designed for the strains of loops, rolls and other aerobatics.

Meanwhile, at Beirut International Airport, the busiest in the Middle East, the newest commercial training venture in the region is under way. The two-year-old aviation section of the private Academy of Technical Sciences is operating with two Cherokees, has two more on order, and has the use of a leased twin-engine Piper Comanche. With plans to expand to the same size as the Jordanian academy, the Technical Academy already has 22 full-time commercial flying students, operating out of the TMA hangar. As in Jordan, where there are Syrian and Pakistani students, as well as young Jordanians headed for jobs with Alia, the Royal Jordanian Airline, the Beirut school has flying students from Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well as from Lebanon. The whole point of such flying facilities, according to Salim Hajj, founder and president of the Technical Academy, is that "there is no reason why Arab pilots should be sent to England or America to learn their flying. We have advanced to the point where we are capable of training our own pilots right here."

That enthusiastic view, of course, skips over the need for considerable exposure to the snow, fog and other variables in weather , that one rarely encounters in the Middle East. Nevertheless, as testimony to Mr. Hajj's faith in the future of Arab aviation, his school is producing what he believes is the only girl career pilot ever to be trained in the Middle East: Simona Joseph Yammine, a lively, talkative, brown-haired Beiruti whom one would expect to encounter in a discotheque rather than a hangar. Simona has completed her examinations with Lebanon's Department of Civil Aviation and, barely out of her teens, should soon be the first local girl to become an aviation professional, a pilot eligible to start airline training should any line be sufficently impressed with the basic arguments of Women's Lib.

Chatting recently in the left-hand pilot's seat of a Cherokee, dressed in an incongrously stylish blue and white pants suit, Simona circled the old castle on the breakwater of southern Lebanon's scenic port of Sidon. While handling the controls and keeping an eye on the instruments, she spoke with amusement of how her friends and family reacted to her career.

"Even the little children used to laugh at me when I was in school," she said. "I couldn't think of anything else but flying even then. When I was supposed to be studying I was making paper airplanes."

Today Simona doesn't mind the laughter. "I want to work in aviation," she said. "I might even use some of my family's land to set up a new airport exclusively for light aircraft. But mainly I think flying is fun."

There was a pause while she waited for another question. Then she said, "You'd better ask me what I'm going to do next year... I'm going to buy my own plane and make a trip by myself around the world."

Across the airfield, situated in a hangar belonging to Lebanon's Middle East Airlines, the Aero Club, which has a Cherokee and three slow, high-winged Cessna 150's—two-seater aircraft which are still the favorite type of plane of many pilots who want to "feel the air"—there are other girlstudents. But Simona remains unique, so far, in making aviation a life plan.

Another center for Arab flying is the Nicosia Airport in Cyprus, not an Arab country, but only 150 miles from Beirut and with excellent flying conditions almost every day of the year.

In 1965, two young Cypriot air-traffic controllers, Spiros Christophides and Milton Georgiades, returned home from training in England, bought two Piper Colts, which are similar to the more common Cessna 150's, and opened a private flying club, partly to promote aviation on their island and partly so that they themselves could keep up their pilot's ratings. They set up headquarters in the sprawling, disused Old Airport, which had been abandoned when Nicosia's modern new passenger terminal was built.

In the years since, Spiros and Milton's Nicosia Flying Club, working in conjunction with its offshoot, Daedalus Aviation, Ltd., has reached the point where half a dozen instructors provide commercial training for about 50 Arab students a year. One of their graduates is flying for Alia, another for Syrian Airways, five for TMA, and eight for MEA. They now have four Cessna 150's, including one especially designed for aerobatics, a four-seater Cessna 172 and a six-seater Cessna 206, in addition to one of the original Colts.

On a recent visit to the Old Airport, where a relaxed and friendly atmosphere always prevails, flying activities included a highly sophisticated three-Cessna formation flight over the beach resort of Famagusta, where scores of sun-loving tourists were on their feet waving as we went by; loops and rolls performed high over the Nicosia airfield; and many hours of the advanced semi-aerobatic exercises that commercial pilots must learn.

Among the students participating in the formation flight was Johnny Abdo, a cheerful and collected young man, who at the age of 24 resigned from TMA's Traffic Division to fulfill a life-long ambition to become a pilot. "There is nothing like this," Johnny said. "Even when I start flying transports I'm always going to stay around small planes."

Another enthusiastic Lebanese, Robert Saliba, 23, who had come over with 21-year-old Jean Nehme, a friend he first met at the Aero Club, spoke of how "I began this more or less as a business but now that I can fly, now that I understand what it means to be in the air, I do it because more than anything else it is just what I want to do."

Eisa Ben Laden, 22, a handsome, clear-eyed Saudi who had become a close friend of Nayef's while they were studying together in England at the Oxford Air Training School, was completing his Commercial License with an eye to steering his family's engineering firm, the Shaik Mohamed Ben Laden Organization, further into aviation. Another friend of Eisa's, Fouad Shaker, 21, a happy-go-lucky Bahraini, was mulling plans for an air-taxi service between his Gulf island state and Iran. And Bassam Zaim Jamilia, 26, from Aleppo, in Syria, had recently given up a profitable import-export business in Cairo and was in training to become a pilot with Syrian Airways.

All spoke of how aviation facilities in the region are mushrooming. One nearby example, a new Nicosia air-taxi company, Air Venus, had just started offering flight training with two Cherokees, and was ready to add two more, plus two twin-engine Pipers, and set up its own airfield near the beach village of Paphos.

In Cairo, which before military considerations changed the emphasis to air force flying was the center for civil aviation training in the Middle East—Captain Oweini, for instance, made his first solo flight there— plans have been set forth for a revitalized civil training program on similar lines to Jordan's and on a larger scale.

In Beirut, construction has started on a new two-story clubhouse for the Aero Club, which, although geared to private pilots, has trained a number of young men who are now pilots with Lebanon's two international airlines.

After becoming a commercial pilot, a student must, of course, go on to training with an airline before he can fly large transports. Fortunately for any pilot in the Middle East, good training facilities are close at hand. In 1965, the Lebanese Government and the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets international aviation standards, jointly set up the Civil Aviation Safety Center near the Beirut airport. Using the most complex modern facilities, the Safety Center has provided training for thousands of airline pilots from all over the world. Naguib Nassr, 32, an intense, wiry, former Aero Club instructor and holder of Lebanon's "Student Pilot Permit No. 1," recently joined MEA as a first officer, and is currently training on the Safety Center's Redifon Boeing 707 Digital Flight Simulator, the only computerized jet transport simulator for thousands of miles around.

But, important though it may be, modern technology is not the ultimate concern of advanced professionals. Every pilot I have met in the Middle East has talked with the pride shown by the Jordanian students during their debriefing at Aqaba. All have maintained the dream. Captain Oweini still has in his mind the image of his boyhood bedroom plastered with pictures of aircraft. Bassam, who, like most Arab pilots, is the first member of his family to enter aviation, still recalls how, as a young teen-ager, he spent his free hours as a spectator at the Aleppo airfield; he has a 14-year-old brother at home who is now doing the same. One feels that years hence Simona will still have characteristics of the little girl who flew paper planes.

Nayef summed it all up after dinner in Amman one night. Leaning back, smiling, puffing on the pipe that has become his trademark, he began talking about his own career. "I am where I am because I am a pilot. It is as simple as that. But another time in history I would have had to live abroad to do what I want to do in the future. Now we are going to be able to match the best pilots anywhere. I'm staying on at the academy because all the exciting things that have to do with flying are now all taking place right here."

Frederick King Poole spent four years as a UPI correspondent and four years as a book editor before writing his first novel, Where Dragons Dwell, for Harper & Row and accepting a commission for a second novel now in progress. He has lived in the Middle East since 1971 where, as this article suggests, he has continued his avocation as pilot.

This article appeared on pages 25-32 of the January/February 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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