Ethiopia to Greece via Djibouti, flight report June 22-24, 2003
In the air again and it feels GREAT. I left Addis Ababa this morning at 10:30 local time with an almost no hassle departure. The only problem was the rain. I had planned to depart at 8:30 but decided to wait for less rain and improved visibility and ceiling. This is only a short 2.5 hours flight, mostly "downhill" as I start at 7600 feet and end at 47 feet, but there are a few mountains around that I need to see and avoid. It starts to clear and I take off, it feels GREAT. I climb and remain only a few thousand feet above the surface, but soon the surface elevation drops and I'm higher. At the same time it becomes very hazy, I see less and less. For a while I feel like I'm in a red cloud, but I can just make out the ground on both sides if I look closely. I don't feel real comfortable, but know that the ground is descending and I'm clear. I thought I would see the Red Sea and it clears a small amount as I get close to Djibouti, but I can only see a few miles, nothing really. I'm cleared to descend, finally I find the airport, fly the pattern and land. It's HOT. After a cool morning requiring a jacket at 7,000 feet in Addis, it's 43 degrees C and very uncomfortable in Djibouti. I clear customs and immigration then start to work with ATC on my flight plan, landing and fees, and met report for the next day.
Everything is close and after several hours all is worked out and ready for an early morning departure. Only need to gas up at 1800 hr. I prefer to fill up when it's a little cooler, rather than during the heat of the day. If the Mobil person had showed up as planned it would have been great, he was an hour late (change of shifts) and it took another hour to refuel from the two 55 gallon drums. So, not much time left for dinner. I had the taxi take me to a supermarket and I bought pizza, flan, cookies, juice, candy and water. Enough for dinner and 2 meals during the flight. Off to bed.
Departure went as planned at 0530 local time. Unfortunately, I had headwinds right from the start. When I looked at the met report, it showed 10 to 15 k headwinds, which would be ok, but 25 to 35k is too much. I climbed to 6000 feet through hazy, still dark skies. I couldn't see the sea below me and even as it got light, I could barely see the land. After an hour into the flight, I'd pretty much decided that I'd need to stop in Luxor for more gas. There were small bumps and a rain shower over southern Eritrea, and the ground speed dropped to 95k, I'll definitely need a stop.
The sun came out to my right and the red haze continued. No pictures on this leg, which is too bad because I'd wanted to see the Red Sea. Oh well. When the ground speed went above 110k, I cheered, but knew that a stop was still required. The combination of time flown plus remaining estimated time enroute had to be less than 15 hours for me to continue. I only had 17 hrs of fuel and I didn't want to have any question about fuel with the last 3 hours over the Mediterranean to Iraklion.
I'm asked to climb to 8,500 ft, which I do, very slowly. After 2 position reports with Asmera, I lose contact with them. But, I'm pretty sure I'll pick them up as I get closer to their main airport, so I'm not worried. When everything is running smoothly and I have no further position reports, I plug in to HF email to see if I can make contact with any stations. Hurray, contact the first time. Unfortunately, since I have a backlog of position report to send, I use up all the 30 minutes allotted time immediately and can't send any more emails. Also, the return messages say that the position reports aren't accepted because they are too old. Double bummer. It's fun watching the position reports on the map (see Kid's Page if you haven't yet seen the position reports).
I talk with Asmera control as I get closer and confirm my flight level at 8,500 ft. While I was over the sea, I felt comfortable at FL085, but as I approached land, the minimum safe enroute altitude was 11,000 going up to 11,600. At the next position report, I questioned remaining at 8,500, he responded that it was okay. I was vigilantly looking at the land through the haze. It started increasing in elevation, but slowly, so I thought I was ok. I kept looking ahead and down. I was also getting close to the 4 hours on the back tank and didn't want multiple problems at the same time, so I switched to the right wing tank -- one less thing to worry about. Then I saw a ridge through the haze. Like some of the ridges I'd seen in Ethiopia. Then I saw some higher mountains ahead. I started climbing. With the haze I couldn't see very well and with the weight, I couldn't climb very well, so I opted for a 360 degree turn to give me a better view and more time to climb. I didn't like what I saw, mountains, I finally made it to 10,500 but the minimum safe altitude was 11,600, so I kept climbing and looking. After a long, agonizingly slow climb, I was finally looking down on the peaks. As I saw each new peak through the haze, and realized that it was lower than my altitude, I started to relax. Actually, there was less headwind up here and the speed was up to 130k, as least one good result of the climb. Only 25 minutes to the next reporting point and at that point, the minimum safe altitude goes down to 8,000 feet; then I can really relax. I tried calling Asmera to report my altitude change, but couldn't reach them. I tried Khartoum center on HF and VHF with no luck. Oh well, I wasn't going to let it bother me, I was safe at 11,600 and that's what mattered!!
I'm not made for this stuff!! Every time something like this happens, I get a knot in my stomach. I'll be happy to return to the flatlands of Florida and continue flying back and forth to Virginia to visit my Dad (Hi Dad!!). And, I know he'll be happy to have me home again. Sniff, sniff. Time to wipe the tears away and get back to the flying.
As I got closer, I tried Port Sudan tower on VHF and a nice controller answered. He took all the information to relay my position report. No problem -- much better than I'd anticipated. Later he called back and asked me to descend to 10,500 for the direction I was flying. The minimum altitude was 10,000 so I descended. The wind was still weaker and the speed was higher.
The back tank is going great, every ounce I can squeeze out of there will make the decision to continue to Greece easier. I knew I had at least 5 hrs in the back, possibly up to 6hrs. Back in Ndola, Zambia, I'd filled up all tanks. Knowing that Addis didn't have avgas and Djibouti used drums for dispensing, I wasn't sure if they had a regular fuel line (in which case I could fill the rear tank) or if they'd hand pump out of the barrel into containers and then into the wing tanks (as we did in India, in which case I couldn't refill the rear tank). With that little knowledge, I'd only used 2 hours on the rear tank on the leg to Addis Ababa, just in case I couldn't fill the rear tank. So, I'd flown mainly on the wing tanks. In Djibouti, I had to buy gas by the drum, so I either had 400 litres or 600 litres. I'd opted for 400 as that plus 5 hours in the rear tank would give me 17 hours endurance, sufficient to fly to Greece with mild headwinds. After I'd filled the wings, I put the remainder of the second drum in the rear tank. That's why I don't know exactly how much is there. I'm over 5.5 hrs and averaging 128k, except for when I go over mountain ridges, when it drops to 115k. Looks like I should be able to make Greece today.
I'm not yet talking with Cairo control, but another plane starts relaying. They are asking for my permit number. I relay the answer. After a few relays and some waiting time, I receive the relay, from the poor Russian Asimov pilot going between me and Cairo, that I'm required to stop at Luxor. I'm starting to hear Cairo directly, so I thank the pilot and talk directly to Cairo. They want to know the name of my agent in Cairo, I said that I don't know it, I received the permit info from a company in Denmark that worked through the agent. I didn't know the name. He insists that I am required to stop at Luxor. With my potential gas problem, I think this won't be all bad as I can gas up with cheep gas and continue on to Iraklion tomorrow. Others who have done this trip had even recommended that I make a stop as the gas is so much less expensive in Egypt than the $12/gallon rip-off in Greece. So, not having much choice, I said that I would follow orders and stop.
It's the following morning in the hotel in Luxor and I'm not looking forward to today if it's anything like yesterday afternoon -- it was exceedingly frustrating as well as unbelievable to be faced with extortion for another flight permit. I don't know if I can adequately explain the events, but I'll try.
Upon landing and parking I was asked for my papers and to proceed to the tower (by the man who I later learned was the person trying to make all the money out of me). I gathered my papers and permits and went with them to the tower. It was extremely hot and I was already tired after getting up at 4am and flying for 9 hours 23 minutes. The "nice" person said that this would only take half an hour and I'd be on my way.
The tower controller explained the problem from the Civil Aviation Authority in Cairo -- he was only the messanger. My permit number was not valid and, if I couldn't tell them who my agent was in Cairo, I'd have to pay for another permit along with landing and all other fees and penalties. The "nice" guy told me this would be about 400 -500 USD and I'd have to pay landing anyway, so I might as well pay. I explained that the person/company getting my permits had done the whole world without a problem and he had the information on the agent in Cairo. I only had my permit number that he'd emailed to me. I didn't have any other information. After much discussion (round and round the same point) the person in Cairo told me over the phone that my plane was grounded until I gave them the Cairo agent's name.
I borrowed/bought a phone card from the "nice" guy and called Bo in Denmark. He wasn't there and wouldn't be back until the next day, but the person answering took the message and said he'd contact him. Bo called back and said the agent in Cairo would dispense an agent in Luxor to come to the tower to handle the case. Thinking that the agent would take a while to get here and that this whole thing would take too long to fly any further today, I asked to go to my plane to get some cloths as I'd be staying the night. We trooped down, got through security, got into the 'follow me' truck and went to the Mooney. Just as we got there, someone was walking around the plane. After a little confusion, it turned out that he was the agent looking for me. Why at the plane instead of the tower? And, how did he get there so quickly? Much later that night, I learned that he, Ahmed, is a ticket agent at the airport, and was on duty, and received a call to help out. He was already at the airport with a ramp pass.
We all trooped back up to the tower. They all talked in Arabic, so I don't know exactly what was said, but the summary was that I had to pay for the permit and penalty, $90, in order to leave. Even the driver of the 'follow me' truck was in on the discussion -- now why should he be involved? I said that Bo, the person in Denmark who got all my permits, had obtained the permit and I wasn't going to pay a second time. I finally reached Bo again; he'd heard from Ahmed's boss. He was as unhappy as I was but said that I should pay or I wouldn't be able to leave. With his okay, I agreed to pay. Anyway, it took so long to get to this point and I was so tired, that I said I'd stay the night. This meant clearing into the country, then out again tomorrow. During this time, the tower people had been checking for avgas all over Egypt. Luxor, the normal stopping place for most small planes doing this trip, didn't have any. They called everywhere and finally found some at 6th October, the GA Airport near Cairo. The problem then being that they didn't have customs and immigration, so I'd have to make a stop at Alexandria to clear out of Egypt. This was going to be a hassle, especially traveling and landing after one hour with full fuel (if I filled all tanks). I made out the flight plans and we finally left the airport at 7pm -- what an afternoon. Ahmed's driver took us to the Hilton. The only good part was that they charged me $25 for the night and $20 for the ride to and from the hotel. They paid the hotel bill, I paid them -- don't ask me what deal was struck here, but I was happy it didn't cost me. The landing, parking, handling and everything else would be adding up to many 100s of dollars. I didn't even want to think about it.
I had a beer with Ahmed and called it a night. He wanted to show me the town and make me feel better. But, knowing I needed an early start, I opted for sleep. I had a pizza left from my flight and ate that. Sleep came quickly.
I'm over the Med and feeling better, only a slight knot in the stomach, maybe the stress of the morning or no food. I'm eating cookies left over from yesterday's flight. Only 2.5 hours to go. Much as I enjoy flying, I just can't wait to get down; this has been a stressful leg.
I felt great when I woke up. Eight hours of good sleep, 2 hot showers in less than 10 hours, Ahmed is in the lobby, ready to go. Let's hope things work out better today. At the airport, clearances are very slow, but we finally get outside to the plane (that's an hour's hassle condensed). Ahmen had convinced immigration and customs to clear me out of Luxor so that I could leave directly from Cairo GA, rather than making an extra stop at Alexandria. I don't know how he figured it out, and I was sure it wouldn't work, but later, I was very happy that he did it.
I wasn't allowed to take a picture of the plane or background which is unfortunate, because it looked good with 4 armed guards around it and only one other plane on the huge ramp. I did the preflight and got everything ready. Shook Ahmed's hand and got ready to startup. Calling the tower they asked me to stand by. After a while they explained that visibility at Cairo was 2000 meters. A few minutes later it was 1000 meters. I got out, this was going to take time. I asked if we could go to the met office and look at the upper level winds. We drove in the 'follow me' truck over to the tower. The forecast winds were very similar to those forecast the previous day, i.e. 10 to 15k NE crosswind. I didn't know whether to believe them, given yesterday's experience. If they were really like that, I have enough gas to go directly to Iraklion. I asked the met people about Cairo weather. They said that this time of the year, it's always low vis in the morning and it would clear in less than 2 hours. My flight time was 2 hours. We checked the TAF and it showed clearing in 2 to 4 hours. I decided to wait 1/2 and hour, go to the plane and take off. I updated the departure time on the flight plan, now being over an hour late, and I updated the departure for the second flight plan to Iraklion. Being patient for 30 minutes was not easy; but I didn't want to put up with all the inevitable questions if I stayed in the Met or ATC offices, so I thanked them walked outside. Time's up, get in the 'follow me' truck to the plane. Ahmed kindly informed me that I would be paying for each trip in the truck. I said that I would much prefer to walk the very short distance to the plane, but he wouldn't allow me. Off we went again. I called for start up. He made me confirm that I could land with 3000 meters visibility. I confirmed. Start up, clearance, taxi, takeoff, finally, climb to 8,500 feet. At least it's a little cooler up here and away from all the hassles.
On my way to Cairo. As I'm handed off from Luxor to Cairo, Cairo kindly informs me that there is no avgas at the GA airport, my destination. Who to believe, three different people, tower, ATC and Ahmed's boss had confirmed gas at Cairo GA, yesterday. Now this local guy says no gas...... What to believe? The winds had been strong headwinds at the start, over 35 to 40 knots making the ground speed 100 to 105 knots. After an hour, it was consistently down to 15 to 20 knots from the NE, so if I turned on course to Iraklion, it would be more of a crosswind. Based on current speed, I could make Iraklion in just over 4 hours and had 7 hours of fuel left. I asked Cairo if they could amend my flight plan to go to Iraklion. They said that I could stop at Cairo, clear, and proceed to Iraklion afterwards. I explained that I had cleared customs and immigration in Luxor. Luckily, the controller took the time to check with Luxor and approved my flight plan deviation (many thanks Ahmed). I was on my way. I continuously checked the winds and they were steady 10-15 NE; looks like I'll make it. By the way, the weather had cleared over Cairo and vis was over 20 kilometers.
I'm out of VHF radio contact, but have already received a squawk code and the frequencies for Iraklion. Only and hour and I'll be in contact again. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make HF contact, so Georgis, in Iraklion thinks I'll be arriving around 5pm, now it'll be about 2:30pm.
Wow, 3 ships. The Med is a little busier than the Pacific!! The speed keeps dropping little by little; it's down to 130k. But, I'm so close, I can taste it and have plenty of fuel left. Only 1hr 15 min to go. No HF contact, so I'll reel in the trailing wire before I forget it. I haven't forgotten yet, but there may be a first time.
I can see the mountains of Crete - beautiful through the haze. But, right now, any land would be beautiful to me. Getting closer it looks even better. I finally cross land, turn left at the VOR and it's only 50 miles to go. I'm talking with tower and they guide me in. Airport is straight ahead, straight in approach. I'm down, following another 'follow me' truck to the GA parking. Wonderful, tie-downs and all. They leave, but an Olympic truck picks me up and takes me to their office for processing customs, then to arrivals. Through immigration and I'm in Greece. Georgis is busy at work as I'm early, so I find a hotel, on the other side of town, on the beach, take the bus and 30 minutes later I'm swimming in the Med!! It feels GREAT.
The woman at the desk is already taking care of me -- she has put a bottle of Retsina in the fridge to cool. After calling Dad and telling him that I'm okay and about to toast him with Retsina, I call Georgis (VP of the local Aero Club) and we set a time to get together. I return to the pool with a glass of Retsina and a book in hand. Looking over the Med I toast Mum, Dad, brothers and friends and sip Retsina looking over the Med. I'm finally feeling relaxed. It'll take a few days, but I will recover.
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