Published in August 2015 issue

It was supposed to be an easy run: Istanbul to Adana to Dusseldorf.

By Nuala C. Galbari

The first leg, from Istanbul (IST), went as smoothly as could be expected. However, when we landed at ADA—the Great Circle Airport, Adana Sakirpasa—on that hot July afternoon in the early 1980s, strange customs and bizarre occurrences coalesced. We wouldn’t leave for the following 21 hours.

Not that Adana is a bad place to visit. The fourth largest city in Turkey, situated in the middle of the fertile Cucurova Plain, it is thought by some to be named after its mythological founder Adanus, a relative of Zeus. Adana was an important city throughout the ancient world, its prominence dating to the Great Hittite Kingdom (1750—1200 BC). The Hittites, remarkable craftsmen, were among the first peoples to work with bronze and to smelt iron.

But I digress. By the time we arrived, the Hittites had long since decamped.

As we landed into ADA, our crew anticipated a timely takeoff to Dusseldorf and a pleasant evening in that lovely German city.

But then, after our IST passengers had deplaned, the catering staff opened the forward galley door—allowing hot, dry winds and numerous flies to embark. While the catering staff loaded the boxed dinners and placed them in seat pockets (for religious reasons, we were not permitted to handle any food given to the passengers on this flight), I noticed a rather pungent odor drifting into the cabin and wafting past my nostrils as I sat on the crew seat, processing paperwork.

At first, I thought it might be some spicy regional concoction, but something in the aroma was not quite right. I asked a catering staff member why the dinners were not packed in dry ice and I was informed the meals did not require refrigeration. I opened one of the containers and noticed it was some sort of meat dish—so, with outside temperatures in the 90°s (F), and 30 minutes to go before boarding, I sent the entire meal count back.

I called the ground agent and ordered light snacks and sandwiches to be delivered in place of the meals. To my surprise, this was accomplished within 40 minutes, even before fueling had been completed.

With everything now apparently in place, boarding began. The passengers began to funnel through the cabin—just as a gate agent ran up the stairs and advised me that the flight was ‘slightly overbooked’. Our confirmation in the 52-series was 156 seats; I was informed by the gate agent that 178 passengers had been processed through customs and were making their way across the ramp.

“It’s OK, it’s OK – no problem!” said the Turkish agent in a cheerful tone, as I looked at him in disbelief. “Some of them are children and babies.”

I asked the gate agent to hold the next group outside until I had checked the seat availability at this juncture, and informed the other Flight Attendants. When I returned to the forward cabin, all the seats had been taken and, as the gate agent had ignored my request, there were nine passengers standing in the aisle.

Word then reached me via the First Officer that the station manager had been attacked by two passengers and knocked to the ground when he had tried to stop them from leaving the terminal. Customs and Immigration had apparently turned a blind eye to the situation and, in deference to the airport’s security procedures of the time, passengers were not allowed to return to the terminal once they had journeyed to the ramp. A recital of FAA regulations was also ignored by the staff. Young children had to be placed on their parents’ knees to make room for the additional nine passengers. Another eight passengers, whom we had turned off the plane, were sent back to the terminal and held at customs to await the next flight, arriving the following day.

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As if we did not have enough challenges in ensuring that no more than two children occupied laps in each row, a rear portside emergency slide had slipped out of its casing. The flight engineer was summoned to check it; it was repositioned and deemed to be in working order. However, when we attempted to open the aft cabin passenger door, it was quite clear that it was sticking; a technician was brought on board. I returned to the front cabin and was confronted by an inordinate amount of baggage blocking both the aisle and the exits, as our passengers were apparently attempting to bring their entire homes with them to Dusseldorf, where they would reside for two years on contract work assignments.

“Sorry, Miss…” the agent cried, “the cargo is full.” Before I could even respond, the agent handed over the General Declaration, and said, “OK—have a good flight!”

I instructed the Turkish Flight Attendants to remove all the baggage and household belongings sitting in the aisles and exits. To my horror, the airstairs were removed and I heard No. 1 engine start up; I immediately entered the cockpit to advise the Captain of the issues at hand. The No. 1 engine was shut down and the airstairs reappeared—a scene that could have been taken straight out of a Marx Brothers film. Questioning the Turkish Flight Attendants as to why they had permitted the agents to load the baggage into the cabin (while I had been fighting with agent and technician over the jammed door in the aft cabin, which they hadn’t felt was a problem at all), I was advised that the management had instructed the Turkish girls to accept the baggage or lose their jobs.

At that point, I thought I was in the middle of an unpleasant dream and that I would awaken at any moment and find myself in the calm of my own room. It was not to be the case.

Fearing that the now-lengthy delay would entice passengers to light up their cigarettes, we made a no-smoking announcement and the Flight Attendants checked the cabin and bathrooms.

The Captain advised the ground staff that the flight would not operate until all the excess baggage had been removed. Another hour passed with the ground staff arguing in both Turkish and English, and the gate agent, ‘Harpo’, running in and out of the cockpit. Finally, engine start-up proceeded once again. At that point, the airstairs were again removed and I was summoned to the cockpit; a cargo door light had remained illuminated and caused a further delay.

Problems with excess baggage, catering, overbooked passengers and technical delays had constantly plagued our operation with this airline. It was the next phase of the story that lifted our wings into the realms of the bizarre.

Inevitably, with the varied encumbrances that had been thrown in our direction, our cockpit crew had exceeded duty time. The Captain advised that the flight would not leave that evening. Maintenance (scheduled overnight) included a tire change and work on a port-side flap. At that time, our fleet consisted of three aging DC-8 52-series aircraft and, as the other two planes were operating to Luton and Frankfurt that day, an overnight stay in Adana was unavoidable. I discussed arrangements with the station manager, who assured me that the passengers would be lodged in a nearby hotel.

Flight Dispatch confirmed our departure at 06:00 and we arrived at the hotel just before midnight. Our moods had not improved by the 04:30 pick-up and, upon arrival at the aircraft, we were greeted by several armed guards, their gun barrels pointed in our direction as we climbed the airstairs. To our consternation, we discovered that the passengers had been redirected to the aircraft following our departure the night before. The armed guards had been stationed throughout the aircraft to ensure that no one would leave the plane or smoke. The passengers were permitted to use the bathrooms, but had otherwise been confined to their seats from 23:00 to 05:00. Considering their night of discomfort, the passengers were surprisingly quiet, speaking only in soft murmurs. They seemed overjoyed to see us.


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The Captain stood outside the cockpit door for a moment, looking down the cabin. Then he shook his head and asked me for a cup of strong coffee. As our cabin crew moved through the aisle, the passengers, sleepy but cheerful, burst into applause. The station manager said that they had been given breakfast packets and that the little travelers had received baby food. The agent shook his head from side-to-side, smiling. “Everything is OK?”

Our cabin check confirmed that all passengers were well. The armed guards deplaned, and our flight departed without further incident.

A merry group, seated in the aft cabin, even sang Turkish songs during the three-hour 50-minute flight to Dusseldorf.

I am often inspired by the good nature of the majority of passengers, especially when considering that today’s travelers can often expect little comfort and minimal service—at least when traveling by coach on the average flight. It is further testament to the strength of the human spirit that so many of us can adapt to difficult, even harsh situations when faced with necessity, and that we can choose to do so with humor and a positive attitude.

The people of Adana turned a miserable situation into a musical adventure and, by doing so, lifted our spirits.

As our plane’s wheels embraced the DUS runway, clamorous applause and foot stomping could be heard—even from the cockpit. Our crew now enjoyed the prospect of two days’ rest in the elegant city of Dusseldorf. The aircraft’s interior, already aged and somewhat distressed to start with, required additional attention after that trip. After the superb Dusseldorf crew had completed its assignment on it, we barely recognized the cabin, and the catering on the return trip was scrumptious—German perfection by all accounts.

The winds changed again two days later and our Adana flight was diverted to Ankara for the night. Once again, the passengers demonstrated good humor in the face of disruption.

If you are planning a visit to Turkey, you would be wise to allow some additional travel time for the unexpected. In so doing, you will be rewarded with a fascinating journey. Adana offers unique architecture, outstanding exhibits in its numerous museums, vibrant arts and literary communities, and a worldclass sports and equestrian center. The Adana archaeological museum also merits a visit, as do some of the old cities en route to Iskenderun. The city of Misis stands on the original caravan route from China, India, and Persia. Among the Roman remains is an elegant 4th century A.D. mosaic representing Noah’s Ark. Visitors can enjoy excellent cuisine at a number of restaurants situated along the Seyhan River while they take in the spectacular views, and the city has a vibrant night life.

From the excitement, beauty and spice of Istanbul to the ancient castles and relics of its southern and central cities, visiting Turkey is well worth the sometimes exigent travel experiences. And you will likely meet descendants of the Hittites along the route.