Published in February 2016 issue

Once every year, in the spring, one of the most unique and challenging exercises in air transport takes place, one in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims make their once-in-alifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

By John Marshall

They come from every corner of the Islamic world, from Indonesia to West Africa, from the republics of the former Soviet Union to the desert emirates scattered around the Persian Gulf. The Hajj presents a logistical problem of immense proportions. That so many thousands of people are transported every year with relatively few glitches and delays is a tribute to the organizational capabilities and ingenuity of each of the many agencies involved.

Large wide-body aircraft are assembled from a great variety of sources to carry the devout. Some are chartered from the world’s premier carriers, such as Lufthansa (LH) and Singapore Airlines (SQ); others from a long list of slightly lesser lights, the Evergreens and Tower Airs of the world. There is also a motley collection of heavy iron sourced from the back tarmacs and desert storage depots that exist in every country, in every part of the world. Enlisted specifically for the purpose, they are flown and maintained by soldiers of fortune who thrive on the unusual and extraordinary.

For a brief, exhilarating period a few summers ago, I was a small part of this exclusive club.

The Hajj lasts approximately 10 weeks and is divided into two roughly equal segments, which can be called over and back. The terms are selfexplanatory. The first month is devoted to the round-the-clock carriage of pilgrims to Jeddah airport (JED), the gateway to Mecca, 30 miles (50km) away; and the last is spent returning them whence they came. Each pilgrim’s sojourn in the holy city varies in duration but, in all cases, the two middle weeks are a stand-down period for the airplanes and crews, an eagerly awaited time to rest the weary equipment and carry out any deferred maintenance.

Our aircraft was an ancient ex-Continental (CO) 747, née Qantas (QF), which had been enjoying an extended desert vacation. A group of shadowy investors had managed to procure a coveted contract from the Indonesian government with untraceable money, and was now busily putting together an operational team to make it all work. On the operating side was a group of recently idled Pan Am (PA) flight, maintenance, and operations personnel, gathered together in eager anticipation of actually doing useful work in the airplane we knew so well. Being able to participate in such an exotic adventure was an added bonus.

Our enterprise got off to an ignominious beginning. On the ferry flight across the Pacific to Indonesia, our venerable jumbo had to make an emergency landing at Biak Island off the coast of Irin Jaya in West Papua. The airplane made gentle circles on three engines over the darkened sea, waiting for sunup and the opening of the control tower. It was probably the first and only 747 to land at Biak; we learned later that the strip was not approved for the big Boeing.

Once safely arrived in Jakarta, our aircraft’s white tail was anointed with the blue and lavender plumage of the garuda, symbol of the national airline; the legend GARUDA INDONESIAN AIRLINES was painted on the fuselage and we were ready to roll. There was a subtle irony in the garuda being the mythical bird that pulled the heavenly chariot of the Hindu god Vishnu, and would now be carrying Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.

The schedule was an arduous one, calling for the airplane to be in nearly continuous flight; making one round trip after another between Jakarta’s Halim Airport (HLP) and the immense JED airdrome, with an operational stop at Abu Dhabi (AUH) for fuel. Turnaround time was minimal; the empty aircraft returned nonstop, only to be turned round again and repeat the cycle. Flying time was 10 hours each way, necessitating the crews to overnight at Jeddah, another eye-opener.

We were all venerable veterans of Pan Am and of the skies and airports of the world, but, for many of us, this was the first experience of operating outside that airline’s protective umbrella. Pan Am’s vast network of agents and operational personnel was no longer there to smooth our way, to see that transport and hotels were waiting, to provide flight plans and weight and balance, to see to fueling and maintenance and to the hundreds of other details that attend an international flight operation. We learned a lot, and we learned fast.

There is no such thing as a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia and, naturally, no tourist infrastructure. There are no renowned attractions, no resorts with beckoning sun-splashed beaches. The predominant colors of Saudi Arabia are brown—as in dust—and green—as in money. The self-appointed guardian of Islam’s holiest shrine, that xenophobic kingdom only reluctantly gives permission for the yearly invasion of hundreds of foreign aircraft flown by crews of infidels. The Saudis treat the whole exercise as a necessary evil aimed at serving the Hajj. The Saudi government agency that oversees this extravaganza goes by the inaccurate, over-blown title of the State Department of Travel and Tourism. If the whole thing weren’t taken so seriously, it would be amusing, but there is little room for humor in the Kingdom. Unsmiling keffiyeh-clad functionaries, swarthy and black-bearded, attended each crew as it arrived. They carefully counted noses and collected passports, noting each on a great volume of papers spread out across a massive desk in the office of the chief immigration inspector. I am never happy about giving up my passport into the hands of developing-country bureaucrats, whatever their nationality.

The operating environment that prevails in the Middle East in summer is like no other. Ground temperatures routinely reach 120°F, and 130 is not uncommon. Stepping outside onto the baked concrete tarmac was like strolling into a blast furnace. One could almost feel life’s moisture being sucked out from within, lips parching and skin cracking almost instantly in the unrelenting heat. One didn’t venture far without the ubiquitous water bottle, which had become warm in the blink of an eye.

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Not only were the outlandish temperatures hard on human beings used to more temperate climes, but they were hard on the equipment as well. Most of the Middle Eastern runways built since the advent of the jet are at least 12,000 feet long, and many are even longer than that. Because replacing tires and brakes ate into the profits of the aircraft operators, a high priority was placed on babying them as much as possible. Landings were made close to the threshold and the aircraft were allowed to coast all the way to the far end, applying brakes only at the last instant and at the lowest possible speed. Departures in the midday furnace were severely weight-restricted; being loaded with passengers during the eastbound return phase involved not only the obligatory fuel stop at Abu Dhabi but, occasionally, another one at Medan (KNO), in northern Sumatra.

While waiting for one eastbound departure one blazing afternoon, I noticed a baggage cart disappear under the nose of the aircraft, slowly trundling towards the aft cargo compartment. It appeared to be loaded with nothing but plastic jugs. A bit of judicious inquiry revealed that each pilgrim was permitted to take home a gallon of holy water from the well in the square at Mecca. It didn’t take a lot of advanced arithmetic to determine that we were carrying over 4,000 pounds of the sacred elixir.

The pilgrims themselves were unlike any passengers I had ever carried. Mostly middle-aged, they had toiled and scrimped for many years to afford the journey, which was not cheap. Once passage had been booked and purchased, and travel dates determined, each pilgrim was then scheduled into an orientation camp, which was located close to the airport grounds. There, they would spend a day attending a long series of briefings on just what to expect on their arduous journey, including a session on just how to conduct themselves on board the airplane. Watching them moving hesitantly and with great apprehension as their departure neared, I was reminded of prisoners of war, herded into tightly knit groups without complaint, docile and ovine.

Once aboard and aloft, they sat when instructed, only straying from their seats to use the restrooms. Periodically, a mullah would rise and take over the PA system, and we would hear the prayerful chants wafting through the cockpit door. Going west was simple; everyone was already facing Mecca. On the return, the pilgrims were granted a special dispensation that relieved them of the responsibility of doing an about-face in the cramped confines of an Economy airplane seat.

At times, our overworked maintenance crew must have felt as though they literally lived on the airplane. It was our policy to have one of their number aboard for every departure from HLP. Not wishing to deplane and spend even 24 hours in the Jeddah furnace, they elected to stay aboard for the round trip. The question became academic when, after a few weeks, we learned that, not being part of the flight crew, they wouldn’t have been allowed off without a special visa anyway. We jury-rigged a curtained-off space for them in the rearmost row of the upper deck, which however offered little more tan a place to hole up from curious eyes, since the rest of the compartment was occupied by paying passengers. With little opportunity to air out, the tiny space soon took on the not-so-exotic aura of a well-used gymnasium.

The airplane itself gradually assumed the status of a flying mini-corporation. Everything that would normally be stored in an operations or maintenance office was carried aboard; in effect, the airplane was the office. The large area located at the rear of the flight deck, which, on most 747s, was either left empty or used for the storage of crew baggage, was crammed with stacks of manuals of every description. I think we had every Boeing manual ever printed pertaining to the operation of a 747-200, as well as all of Continental’s maintenance and operating manuals (through a bit of legerdemain with the FAA, we were technically operating under Continental’s maintenance program).

Since we were under charter to Garuda and painted in Garuda’s colors, using their flight numbers and Flight Attendants, we also carried a full set of Garuda’s Flight Operations manuals. Spare Jeppesens took what Little space was left. We were a curious potpourri of several different airlines; a flying mélange of manuals, directives, various FARs, and maintenance programs. We used Continental’s flight planning and performance charts, and our own resurrected Pan Am operating checklists.

Operating within the legal parameters of all the various agencies and entities that were represented aboard was sometimes a delicate and challenging task. Midway through the contract, during the standdown, we changed two of the aircraft’s engines, so we operated the final phase with two of one model and two of another. Performance should have legally been downgraded to the lowest common denominator of the four, but the penalties were so great that we Split the difference and blithely soldiered on. We made a lot of takeoffs with fingers crossed.

What made the whole operation work was the incredible experience and dedication of our little band of airmen and support personnel. We knew exactly what we were doing, and knew almost by instinct when we could push the parameters and when we could not.

During the early days of the Hajj, the airplane fought us every step of the way, and it was a rare flight that didn’t suffer from some inflight discrepancy or operational anomaly. Some round-the-clock work put in by our engineers saved us and, over the final four weeks, we finished up with the best record of all the airplanes. It was satisfying and rewarding, unlike any other operation any of us had ever experienced, and we reached the end of the contract with very mixed emotions.

I’ve been asked whether I would ever do it again. Would I? In a heartbeat!