G.A.S.E. Review and Potted History
Part Two – 2011 – Revolutions and Resolutions
The year started with us co-ordinating with Sam Rutherford on his ‘Flying Safari’; a group flight down to South Africa and back from the UK. Although they were not coming to October we were working on their permits and handling at the airports they would be arriving at. They were due to arrive in Egypt during the first week in February 2011…ooops! They couldn’t have picked a worse time to arrive as the Egyptian revolution started on January the 25th and lasted until President Mubarak stepped down from power on the 11th of February.
It was a scary time for all Egyptians and also for any foreigner still in the country. The state media was blaming foreigners and as is the way of propaganda, the uneducated would listen to what the state wanted them to hear and take it as the truth…ergo, me and Anthea spent two weeks barricaded in our apartment, a small arsenal of homemade weapons at the ready, provisions stocked up and with our teeth gritted prepared to last out a siege. We did witness some violence, especially when the police disappeared of the streets, but the worst thing to happen to us and to G.A.S.E. was when the government shut the internet and phones off.
This meant we had no contact with Sam Rutherford and his ‘safari’ and he had no idea what was happening to us. So, after the immediate euphoria following the end of the revolution we contacted Sam to see what had happened. Luckily they had re-routed their flight just in time and had flown via Jordan and Saudi Arabia instead. Not a good start to the GASE year!
We were able to continue working with Norman Surpluswho had called a halt to his circumnavigation in the autumn of 2010 whilst in the Philippines because of problems with bureaucracy meant that he would not get across Siberia and the Bering Sea before winter, but as the spring approached we were back on the job (running his social media sites) as he returned to the Philippines to resume his journey.
Also at this time we were contacted by a couple, Thom and Merle from South Africa who were doing a long distance flight in a pair of microlights from South Africa to the Netherlands. They would be coming through Egypt and needed assistance with routing, permits and handling. We accepted the task and set about getting them ‘out of Africa’. But this is where we started to really learn our trade.
Because they were flying a microlight each and each microlight was packed to overflowing with equipment, they straight away had a problem with range. A 400 mile range in this region can be a problem because of the lack of airports that supply avgas. They had reached Kenya and were at a halt because they couldn’t find a route that would suit their range and allow them to land at entry airfields with enough fuel on board to reach avgas available fields.
Ethiopia and Sudan were the problems but we came up with an answer. If they flew to Port Sudan then they could enter Saudi Arabia at Jeddah where, at that time, Avgas was available, and then they could reach one of the coastal airports in Egypt before continuing to either Luxor or October to refuel with Avgas.
So the paperwork was sent to the appropriate offices and then we hit another problem…Thom and Merle were not married and therefore Saudi Arabia wouldn’t let Merle in as a single woman! I know it sounds crazy but that is the rules of that country and there is little we could do about it.
New ideas were suggested, including trucking the microlights from Dongola across Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel and then flying off from there – or – shipping the microlights from Port Sudan to Suez in a container and then trucking them to October. Both ideas fell foul of the importation of goods laws and the import tax would have been crippling. In the end they decided to turn around and do a tour of Madagascar instead, promising to try again as soon as they get married 🙂
Anyone who follows our stories and photos on our Facebook page will know about the pilots we look after at October Airport and in Cairo if they stay for any length of time, but what most people don’t see are the many pilots who contact us for overflight help and handling and permit allocation at other Egyptian airfields. This was very true about the months following the revolution when following a number of posts on the Pprune pilot’s forum we started to get interest from many aviators heading this way. They would start off asking about how safe it was to fly here and then after we had introduced ourselves and offered our services would take advantage of what we could offer.
So whilst we were waiting to greet our next visitors to Cairo we were actually very busy dealing with at least 20 pilots who we wouldn’t meet personally! But in this ‘viral’ world, all the work done in those first months of 2011 became our calling card to the outside aviation world as each of the pilots passed on the word that there was something ‘new’ happening in Egypt.
Ahmed and I started to have regular meetings to discuss what direction we were going to go in and after a number of variations to our acronym, the words General Aviation Support Egypt were decided on. The first acronym had the S stand for services, but this caused consternation with established companies who would think we were an unauthorised business trespassing on their turf. So we changed that S to Society to give it a ‘club’ type feel and this is how we became know during the first half of 2011 (some links to our website still appear with the word society in the address bar!).
How we changed the S to support will be explained later on.
Our first ‘true’ arrival came about via another call from Peter Kelsey. This time he informed us of a microlight pilot who was flying from Rufforth in Yorkshire, England, all the way to Sydney in Australia. Quite a flight for a solo microlighter but what made this even more incredible was the fact that the pilot, Dave Sykes, was a paraplegic; paralysed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident a number of years ago!
Now here I should make clear what we call the pilots we look after. The word ‘customer’ comes to mind but seeing we don’t charge for our services we prefer to use the word ‘Client’ which nearly every time gets changed to ‘Friend’ after we have said goodbye to them.
Back to Dave Sykes…was he a client or not? I will let you make your mind up, but for now we will call him a client. The vagueness of the last sentence came about because of the run up to his arrival. Following Peter Kelsey’s call for support we contacted Dave Sykes whilst he was still in the preparation stage of his flight, offering our services to him during his time flying through Egypt. His reply was positive and we looked forward to assisting him to the best of our abilities.
As is usual, our first contact includes questionnaires for the incoming pilot about what they would like to do and see whilst staying in Cairo, also a list of questions to do with special needs if any (medical/diet etc). We also stated that we would need the information to apply for permits and overflights as well as document copies needed to arrange handling.
But, as Dave started his flight none of these were forthcoming, except for the questionnaire about what he would like to see and what he would prefer to eat and drink.
So we continued preparing for his arrival and hoped for the important documents to arrive in time. But they never came and whilst he was resting in Malta we finally got in touch with him and he told us that he was being ‘handled’ by another agency and wouldn’t need us for anything.
Oh well, we were sad to lose the job but continued following his flight via his onboard Spot Tracker which gave his position in real time online.
So we watched as he flew a massive open sea leg from Malta to the Greek Islands and then followed him as he stopped off at Cyprus, knowing that he would soon be crossing the Mediterranean to Egypt.
So it was, on the 12th May 2011, we watched as Dave left Cyprus to fly the 300 miles to Alexandria…but then with less than 100 miles to go we saw him suddenly turn back and head to Cyprus! Our fears where that his permits had not been allowed and he was being refused permission to enter Egyptian airspace. But later that day, via his blog, we learnt that his transponder wasn’t working and this meant that he would not be allowed to fly across Egypt, so he had to return! Did I ever mention how bad the rules are in Egypt?
The following day he spent repairing the Transponder and on the 14th he took off again to try and reach Egypt. At almost the same spot over the sea his transponder played up and he was told to return to Cyprus, so he turned around and after about 50 miles it suddenly started working again and he was allowed to turn again and continue to Alexandria.
We found out that he had a seafront hotel that night and that he intended to fly south the next day, stopping for fuel at October before a quick turn around and continuing to Luxor to stay overnight. So we watched him depart Alexandria on the morning of the 15th of May 2011, and a couple of hours later saw him land at October airport via the Spot tracker.
And as we waited for him to take off again, the clock was ticking and as we knew he was flying CVFR and couldn’t fly in the dark we started to wonder if he could make it to Luxor in time.
As the time went on we started to panic and wrote on his email and forum that he will have to get a move on and if someone was in contact with him tell him that there was no hotel or even a town close enough for him to get a taxi to a hotel or anything, and because of prior experience we knew that it was very unlikely that the people in the offices would speak English.
So whilst we were panicking and coming to the realisation that his small Quik Microlight would not make Luxor before sunset, I suddenly got a phone call. It was Dave Sykes, sitting in his aircraft on the apron at October airport! He had decided to stop after all and was having problems making his requests know to the non-English speaking officials at the airport. I quickly phoned Ahmed who phoned the agent dealing with Dave at the airport and we got things sorted. The agent would give Dave a lift back to my apartment and we would ‘host’ him until his departure on the 17th; he couldn’t depart the day after as the airport was shut and he did say that he wanted to see the Pyramids.
So we suddenly had to spring into action…getting his room ready and organising transport for tomorrows sight seeing trip. Obviously we were not ready at this time as we thought we had lost his custom ages ago!
But he arrived at my apartment 2 hours later and the staff from the local pharmacy helped me lift him and his wheelchair out of the car and up to our elevator. The first thing he asked for on arrival was a cold beer, which was duly supplied and after the formalities of greetings and freshening up it was decided to go out for a meal.
Dave likes a beer so our choices were limited. But Ahmed turned up in his car and we spent an enjoyable evening at a local restaurant/bar where the staff was very accommodating, rushing to help Dave get down the stairs to the toilets and making sure we were looked after well.
Returning home, Ahmed helped Dave prepare the flight plans for the next leg to Luxor and then we had an early night ready for the next days excursion.
We were lucky to get the use of the Cairo Airport Shuttle Bus just for our use, and we had the driver and a very comfortable bus for the day. So, on the 16th we all had an early start and set off to show Dave the Pyramids.
It was still close enough to the revolution for the whole Pyramid complex to be nearly empty of tourists. This meant we had unrivalled views of each massive pyramid but also it meant we were the only ‘tourists’ there and the main target for all the hawkers trying to get us to buy souvenirs or go for a camel ride, but how they expected Dave to get up on a camel in his wheelchair I have no idea!
We did mange to get a good photo of Dave, in suitable Arab headgear, sitting next to a very tame camel as well as the obligatory shots of the Pyramids.
After this it was down to the Sphinx but as the area from the car park to the Sphinx was all sand we realised it would be almost impossible to push Dave in his wheelchair that distance. So he settled for the typical tourist shot of him at a distance with his finger tip pretending to touch the top of a Pyramid.
Dave was happy with this trip; he did say that all he wanted was to get a photo of him by the Pyramids…so job done.
It was now time to head back, and although we could’ve gone anywhere else as we had plenty of time, Dave requested that we find a place where he could relax and have a drink. So it was back to my apartment and whilst Dave had a cold can of lager me and Ahmed phoned around the local hotels to see if any had a bar area with wheelchair access. We were quite surprised to find that the best option was the Hotel at the bottom of my road; the Fairmont Towers, a luxury 5 star establishment that I had only visited a couple of times. Little did we know as we decided to take Dave there that this would be the start of a long and fruitful relationship with the Fairmont?
I think we were both impressed with the Fairmont Towers (Ahmed had dropped us off at the hotel as he had to go work that night) and Dave was very happy with our choice of venue for a quick drink. Although the quick drink did last about 4 hours. We sat at the poolside bar until it went dark and then went through the hotel to find the basement English pub called Darts where we had a couple more there.
Seeing we were not far from home, Dave decided that he would wheel himself back up the road, not an easy thing to do in Cairo as the sidewalks are not really made for walking on! But he managed it and enjoyed the sights and sounds of a Cairo street at night.
After an early night it was up early the following morning, 17th May, and it was good to see the handling agent, Islam, from AN Aviation arrive on time to pick us up to take Dave back to October Airport.
On arrival, I helped Dave as he readied himself for the next leg to Luxor, and this included holding the microlight securely as he pulled himself into the cockpit (there was quite a wind trying to get under the large fabric wing) and once in we were able to slightly reposition so that the wing could be dropped into the oncoming wind, thus making it safe to carry on loading.
Dave’s chair came apart quite easily with single action bolts to get the wheels off and then another bolt that collapsed the frame. The wheels fitted either side of the cockpit on spindles and the folded frame slotted into a special holder on top of the customised spare fuel tank that was taking up the place where the back seat should have gone. I believe Dave designed both the wheelchair and fuel tank himself.
As we were out at the aircraft Islam was in the terminal sorting out the documents and fees. He then came out to us with the news that Dave would have to fly at 9,500ft all the way to Luxor! Dave was very unhappy and sent me into the terminal to sort it out. It seems that it was the military demanding that he fly at that height, so I made the excuse that because of his health and the fact that he had no oxygen on board it would be dangerous to fly at that altitude…after a few exchanges via phone to the military they agreed to allow him to fly at 8,500ft; still high but the normal level that all GA aircraft must fly at.
Dave was OK with this and was more bothered about getting on his way. Just the fees to be paid now and Islam passed him the invoice…$603!! I could see that Dave was now thinking that deciding to use AN Aviation instead of G.A.S.E. may have been a costly choice, but there was nothing we could do about that.
So after an unreasonably long time sitting on the apron with the engine running Dave was finally given clearance to leave. Even then he had to circle within the airport boundary until he reached 8,500ft and was only then given permission to fly south to Luxor.
Islam was kind enough to give me a lift home and also asked if he could volunteer for us in the future. I said that may be possible, but we haven’t had contact with him since. On arrival home I switched the computer on and followed Dave’s flight on the Spot Tracker all the way to Luxor, noticing that they sent him on a massive dog leg around the Eastern Desert, way off the original flight plan, but he managed to arrive before sunset where the agents from AN Aviation were there to look after him; which brought our part in his journey to an end.
So back to the question…was he a client or not? He certainly took advantage of our hosting package and at a minutes notice. Because of that we have classed him as a client even though he personally never recognised G.A.S.E. as being of any help to him, posting in later blog posts and in his book that it was ‘Eddie and Ahmed’ who helped him out. This was a blow for us as during the journey from my apartment back to the airport on departure day he did ask if he needed to pay us anything for hosting him. I said ‘of course not, our payment is for you to give G.A.S.E. a good mention in any write ups you do’. Which never came about, in fact the first blog he posted from Luxor was more about hating Egypt and that he couldn’t wait to get out of the country. I could say that this was his own fault for not choosing us to do his handling etc, as we worked out that we would have saved him over a thousand dollars during his time in Egypt and probably more if he had decided to use Mogas at October, but seeing we were virtually unknown on the scene I can’t really blame him but instead feel sorry for him and the Egyptian reputation because of the way he was fleeced by the other agencies.
A foot note to this story is the fact that we did carry on following his journey and along with Peter Kelsey did try to use our contacts along his route to help him out at times. He did finish his flight, breaking a number of aviation records but mainly showing that whatever the hardship, anything is possible. A true adventurer, very brave, maybe a bit crazy and certainly worthy of all the awards he received on his return to the UK. We were only sorry that we couldn’t have been of more assistance and maybe have given him a better feeling towards Egypt. On a brighter note, Dave did send us an autographed copy of his book at the start of this year and a fascinating read it is too!
So, as Dave flew on, we at G.A.S.E. started preparing for our next arrivals, due a few weeks later; an arrival that would test our logistical prowess like never before! That story and much more will be in part 3.
Order Dave’s book and read more about him and his flight on his website…Click Here