Published in December 2014 issue

While going through some old albums recently, I came across Saturday Night Fever, a classic that conjured up many memories of a Cyprus contract during the late 1970s. The title of the album is more than appropriate here, as it evokes many nights dancing in Cypriot discotheques, along with memories of mid-summer exhaustion, flying in the 120F degree heat with full passenger loads. Herein lies a tale.

Story by Nuala Galbari and Gary Winstead

I stood on the apron at Ercan, Northern Cyprus and on a steamy July afternoon, pondering my decision to leave London. My chocolate-brown polyester uniform blouse was soaked through; in fact, I thought it might disintegrate. Sweat raced down my temples to my chin, dripping rhythmically onto my blouse. Walking to the air terminal – a small thatched hut that served as such – I considered the welcome passengers would face as I hoisted my soaking apparition up the airstairs of the Boeing 720 to begin duty. Boarding the aircraft, the situation worsened by degrees (no pun intended). The only air-conditioning was provided to the cockpit via a large tube that had been attached to the auxiliary power unit and pulled up the airstairs. There was no air conditioning in the cabin. The flight engineer stood at the cockpit door. I looked up at a disarmingly handsome face, dark hair, brown eyes and a smile that could only be American. I was so hot I could barely return the smile. “I know,” he said, sympathetically, “it’s even worse in the back.” And then he added, “Wait until the passengers board, then you’ll really be cooking!”

While going through the cabin to perform our pre-flight checks, I passed George, our ever-cheerful technician. The air vents blew torturous air into the cabin. “Cheer up, it’s better to have hot, moving air, than no air,” he said, in a northern English accent, and then he added, “Think cool!” My mood was not improving and I returned to the forward cabin door to await 149 passengers who were poised to race toward the airplane.

About two weeks before this event, I had met a few fellow crew members at Selfridges, in Oxford Street, London, for afternoon tea. Seated in the deep comfortable chairs, surrounded by gold silk cushions, pressed white linens and a scrumptious afternoon tea, I could not have imagined that a contract call by the airline agency could have resulted in such discomfort two weeks later. I stood in the galley of this old battleaxe of an aircraft, opening small tins of juice to place on the trolley. The galley had that familiar scent of eons of overcooked airline dinners from the aircraft’s twenty-five years of service – its oven interiors as encrusted as artifacts from an archaeological dig, its seat covers faded and almost threadbare. The old crate’s interior was rather like a WWII battleship – gray and bare. The cleaning crews’ attempts to spruce up the cabin by adding white headrest covers fell somewhat short; yet, surprisingly, the bathrooms had been freshly painted and were in respectable condition.

The gate agent alerted us that boarding was imminent, and 149 overheated guests arrived, settling into seat cushions that had lost much of their stuffing. As we rattled out onto the taxiway, I wondered how long it would be before someone passed out.

The contract was signed for about six months, initially; after two weeks, I was ready to return to London; yet the high drama, eclectic airport management and staff, constantly rotating flight crews, entertaining passengers and a particularly zany group of British expats made for a great adventure, heat aside.

But I digress. The contract had originally begun on July 16, 1977, when our initial cockpit crew ferried N731T, a Boeing 720B, from Cairo International airport to Ben Gurion International airport, Tel Aviv. Flight Engineer Gary Winstead explains, “In those days, you could not fly directly from Cairo to Tel Aviv. We filed the flight plan CAI-IST (Cairo to Istanbul), then over the Turkish coast, abeam MUT, we cancelled our IFR clearance and refiled in the air to TLV (Tel Aviv). The leased aircraft had Egypt Air livery and interior and, upon arrival in Tel Aviv late at night, our aircraft – expected by the Israeli army – had a tug attached and was towed into the BEDEK hangar. The hangar doors were promptly closed behind us.” Gary continues, “Within minutes, the army had covered the Egyptian logos on the fuselage and tail, invaded the cabin and removed all passenger and galley items marked Egypt Air – safety cards, napkins, coffee supplies, toilet tissue, everything. I had barely completed the shutdown checklist, when two men entered the cockpit, clearing it of marked items, including my coffee cup; the checklist was taken out of my hand.

Following seven days in Israel, on July 24th, our flight crew, while positioning from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Cyprus (ECN), was again required to follow the same procedure, flying to Istanbul (IST), canceling the flight plan in the air and then re-filing for Ercan. The airline was labeled ‘The illegal airline operating from the illegal airport’. (Ercan was not recognized internationally by any country except Turkey.)

What would have been a forty-five minute flight duration from TLV to ECN, became a 3 hr. 25 min. flight.”

At this point, two of the British cabin crew had yet to arrive; myself and a fourth F/A with whom I would fly out from London to Istanbul. We had met in Selfridges to discuss the contract and do some shopping before we left, although we had been given almost no details, except that we would be based in Northern Cyprus. The single cockpit crew had already been operating flights for over one week by the time we arrived, working from dawn until late night with no breaks, no relief crew in sight and requests for a second crew ignored. Challenges with ground operations and general confusion at the beginning of the contract caused a myriad of delays at the outset. Operating the initial flight from ECN to IST and back, our crews were confronted with problems at Turkish customs and there followed a bomb threat – the first of many we received each time we prepared to depart IST. The somewhat disquieting first day meant we did not reach the Cyprus hotel until almost 0200 hours the following morning; the next scheduled flight was at 0600 hours the same day to Ankara (ESB).

The following day, our scheduled flight arrived back in ECN after midnight and there followed a forty-five minute drive over the mountains before reaching the hotel. After several days of the same pattern, the pilots were seriously lacking in sleep. While there were two cabin crews, one cockpit crew still struggled to cover all flights while appeals were sent to the home base of Berlin, requesting three more pilots.

On the morning of July 28th, with a 0600 departure, the Captain instructed the station manager that the aircraft would remain parked until a relief crew arrived. However, the Cypriot airline management continued to insist that only one cockpit crew was required and our flights operated until after midnight, once again. Gary Winstead reports, “The 29th dawned and, at 0600 hours, further delays occurred along with bomb threats. We completed the morning sector and the afternoon flights, and then spent a few hours sleeping in airport chairs as we had no time to return to the hotel before our 1800 hr departure. By the time our night flight departed, we had almost no reserves of energy and we continued to 2300 hours, finally returning to the hotel. The captain now dispatched telexes to Berlin citing the urgent need for a relief crew—a request that was apparently met with annoyance and budgetary complaints at the other end. Thus, on the 30th, after 3.5 hours of sleep, we set off again for our four morning sectors, ECN-ADA-ECN, and ECN-IST-ECN.”

On the ECN-IST leg at mid-day, all pilots were now encountering difficulties staying awake. Coffee was no longer having the desired effect and the application of wet towels and cold water to the pilots’ faces was equally ineffectual.

Somewhere after reaching cruise altitude, Gary reports he dozed off, briefly. “I awakened, startled, to see the First Officer’s head propped against the side window. The F/O was snoring and the Captain’s head was tilted downward in sleep mode. I quickly scanned the cockpit instruments and began shaking the F/O’s shoulder. I saw IST directly below, but the aircraft was at 370. I am not sure how long we were asleep.”

Suddenly, ATC SELCAL and radio blasts filled the cockpit:

“Yankee Kilo zero zero nine, Where are you going?”

The Captain immediately responded, “We have navigation and radio problems, we are now VFR, requesting descent.”

Landing safely in Istanbul, the Captain instructed the pilots to collect their belongings; the return flight to ECN was cancelled.

Gary notes, “None of us remembered the trip from the airport to the Sheraton hotel; we slept for over 13 hours. Following a 36-hour rest period, we resumed our schedule and the airline management considered that we would continue as before. But after one day’s operation, the Captain sent a telex to our boss advising that the crew would commence 24-hour rest periods every other day in Istanbul, until a second crew arrived. A relief crew flew in from Berlin the following day.”

We do not know what transpired with the FAA and CAA as a result of this incident, but fortunately the schedule improved when the second crew began operation.

A few weeks after this occurrence, our replacement crew was positioning another aircraft from IST to ECN, while N731T was in Berlin for a maintenance check. We had no passengers and the aircraft—a Boeing 707—was carrying only contractrelated equipment. Mid-flight, as I was making a cup of tea for the other F/A, the aircraft began to shake rather violently for about 15-20 seconds (although it seemed longer). The other F/A walked unsteadily to the rear of the aircraft to check the galley was secure. My immediate response was to walk as best I could toward the forward cabin. If we were going down, I wanted to be at the front with the pilots. As I proceeded to the forward galley, the aircraft dropped several hundred feet. I momentarily blacked out. The vibrations suddenly ceased and all was again calm. Upon landing, I asked the Captain what had caused the vibration and the sudden descent; he looked at me for a moment, but did not respond. I did not press the issue; the silence between flight crew members en-route back to the hotel suggested that there may have been some cockpit resource management issues.

I recall, at this point, the words of my RAF safety and survival instructor with British Caledonian, who had once told us, “Nothing much can happen in the air —it’s the takeoffs and landings that are critical.” Flying with this airline, much of the drama did indeed occur at altitude, including some rather hair-raising lightning strikes.

I am grateful to the battleaxes—the Boeing 707s and 720s—for their resilience. Even in their senior years, the old crates could withstand much of what fate had thrown in their direction—near-stalls, extreme weather, excessive passenger loads, an unscheduled trip off the end of the runway and across an obliging field on one occasion, and—albeit rarely—airport overruns on automatic pilot.

Small wonder, then, that we danced hard to Saturday Night Fever, celebrating each glorious day’s end on terra firma.