PART TWO – THE FUN BEGINS
So Jack Wiegand had arrived at October Airport, 30km west of Cairo in Egypt. This was his first proper stop in a country that could not be classed as part of the Western World and for the young pilot it probably held many forebodings; in fact a few days before his arrival there had been an attack on an American in Cairo that had created extra worries for Jack as people back home were concerned about his choice of Egypt as a destination. We at G.A.S.E. had always tried to allay his fears and promised that his safety would be foremost in our minds.
But as we sat in General Badran’s office, sipping ice cold drinks, you could see that Jack’s preconceptions of Egypt were already melting away. The post-arrival rest in General Badran’s hangar has become something of a tradition with our incoming pilots as it is a good idea to rehydrate after the heat of the October Airport apron and the exertions of parking the aircraft in the hangar but mainly it gives the pilot(s) a chance to get acquainted with us and other aviators who invariably turn up at the office when a new pilot arrives. Today was no exception as pilots and staff from October airport all came along to see this amazing young pilot and discuss with him all things aviation. A good thing about aviation is that English is the universal language and I think jack was impressed with the level of English being spoken by all these new admirers.
As for myself, I was used to this tradition and held back from the scene, coming back in when my input was needed. My thoughts were mainly on what came next. In a side chat with Waffik I asked what time we would be leaving to get Jack to his hotel and then I heard from him about a couple of surprises that the AeroClub, The AUC and local aviators had in store for Jack. All sounded good but I was concerned about Jack’s energy levels and would be checking with him along the way to make sure he wasn’t getting too tired.
At this point, drinks consumed and tales told, it may have been time to go but we were waiting for one of our sponsors, Dr Alaa Ibrahim from the AUC to arrive. He had phoned to say he was stuck in traffic, which wasn’t unusual for this time of day, and we were quite happy to be in the hangar out of the soaring heat of the Saharan sun. Nevertheless, he arrived soon after and another round of handshakes ensued and photographs taken, always with Jack’s beaming smile taking forefront. Visitors from the airport offices would pass through and stand in awe of this fine young pilot and the people who had helped organise this arrival felt very proud indeed.
Then along came another big surprise. There was a bit of a murmur going around as different people on radios and phones were chattering away. This time they were speaking Arabic and neither I nor Jack had a clue what was going on…until Waffik said to Jack…
“Do you want to go gliding in a motor glider?”
Jack was confused, as was I, and thought he was joking.
Waffik explained to me that a pilot from the AeroClub had been on a training flight and he and his pupil were due to arrive back at the airfield soon and as he had already heard about the arrival of Jack he was happy to take him up for a spin!
About now, things started to happen quickly. Waffik said that we should get in our transport and follow him which we duly did. A small convoy of vehicles sped up the taxiway from the hangar to the airport terminal where we alighted and stood there wondering what was really going on. Jack was still unsure of whether it was true or not and I was more concerned about time and being stuck out here in the heat. But jack is many years younger than most of us stood out on the apron and he was enjoying every minute, even if he wasn’t sure what was going on.
An AeroClub member arrived with a transceiver and let us listen in to the RT with the pilot and tower which showed that he was on approach. We checked the sky and there he was, following the same arrival pattern as Jack did, although at a lot slower speed and with much longer wings! It was one of the Aeroclub’s Dimona TS80 motorgliders’ (Registration SU-214 for all you spotters out there) and after touchdown it taxied straight for our small gathering.
We waited for the engine to be cut and then took the short walk out onto the apron where the two pilots were starting to alight after their training flight.
The instructor, the well respected Captain Ayman, jumped out of the aircraft and rushed to Jack, hand held out and with a massive smile on his face. He had learnt about Jack coming to October and he was really happy that he had made it back to greet Jack personally. Now Captain Ayman is not your traditional looking flight instructor with his long hair tied back in a pony tail; Jack may have wondered whether he was being greeted by a hippy from Woodstock but it soon became obvious that these two guys would become great friends. Captain Ayman also took the time to welcome me as well, a true gent and a great pilot.
Now Jack, who was still wondering if the offer of a flight was genuine or not, started to realise that the basic friendliness of all the people he had met already was because they all genuinely respected Jack and Captain Ayman had no problems in saying to Jack…’Jump in, we are going flying’.
So, following a couple of photos for the family albums Jack was soon strapped into the left hand pilots seat with Captain Ayman taking up the instructors position on the right. We all gathered round and chatted with the two pilots for a minute about the upcoming flight and then we backed away to let them get on with it.
We saw them taxi out onto the long runway and then after a short run they rose majestically into the desert sky. They reached altitude and turned south to fly to the training area around Lake Fayoum whilst we, the envious onlookers made our way back to the hangar. I went with Mr. Waffik and left our driver at the terminal. I forgot to mention that Jack had been asked for his passport when we arrived at the terminal Hamada would wait there for it to be returned and then he would bring it back to Jack.
We all sat patiently in the General’s office, drinking cold drinks to stave off dehydration and because the hangar is quite a way from the runway we listened in to the ATC to follow Jack and Captain Ayman’s progress. Nearly an hour later we heard them land and we knew they would taxi back to the hangar, so we all proceeded outside to welcome them back.
ON his return Jack was grinning from ear to ear and he quickly recounted what he had been doing. This included a great flight out over the desert as well as some actual un-powered flight (Jack is an expert glider pilot) as well as some mild aerobatics. He also had humble praise for Captain Ayman who was himself also grinning from ear to ear.
We then all posed for photographs in the hangar with his Mooney again but this time with Captain Ayman included. Jack was still excited about the fact that he had been gliding over the Sahara and Captain Ayman asked him if he would like to see the Aeroclub’s hangar where they kept the gliders. I did at this point take Jack to one side to make sure he was up to doing a tour of the hangar, seeing the time was moving on and Jack had flown from Crete earlier and had been on the go for many hours. Jack replied that he was fine (oh to be young again) and was definitely up for it.
We crossed the taxiway to the other side of this area of the airport where another hangar braved the shifting sands on its own. Captain Ayman proudly took Jack inside the hangar where you could see Jack’s eyes light up with joy as he took in the sight of a number of gliders of all shapes, sizes and age as well as a few powered aircraft that shared their space.
A full tour ensued in the capable hands of Captain Ayman and Jack was shown all the different types and they discussed the various merits and performances of each aircraft. There was even an Apollo Fox that had been used as a glider tug!
Then Captain Ayman opened up a Polish built PW-6 glider and invited Jack to sit in it. Jack didn’t need asking twice and in no time was ensconced in the front seat. The canopy was closed and the smile on Jack’s face showed publicly his delight in being given the opportunity to sample Egyptian Aviation hospitality.
The aircraft that Jack had recently been flying in with Captain Ayman was brought up to the hangar ready to be put away for the evening and for Jack to have a last look around it and then we checked out what appeared to be a derelict Cessna 206/7 which we were reliably informed was being brought back to life and actually had a zero hour engine fitted!
But, I could see Jack was now looking a bit tired, as we all were and I started to suggest that we needed to get Jack to his hotel so he could freshen up and maybe have a rest. Although we all agreed it was time to leave the airport Dr Alaa had one more surprise for Jack. He was going to take us for dinner at a restaurant in 6th October City, a new district of Cairo that we would pass on our way back to the hotel. Jack was fine with this so we said goodbye to General Badran who was closing his hangar for the night; the Mooney safely tucked away; and after finding Hamada our driver, who had returned with Jack’s passport, we all set off in convoy for an early evening dinner.
The journey to October City impressed Jack in many ways. The desolation of the desert road, the unbelievably straight railway line we crossed that went on and on forever, disappearing into the Sahara’s horizon and the sudden joining of the desert road with the manic roads that Cairo is famous for. But in no time at all we pulled up at ‘The Mall of Arabia’, a massive shopping mall, newly constructed in this, the newest of cities.
We alighted from out vehicles and followed Dr Alaa into the complex and Jack was amazed by how modern it was and by how many western stores and eateries lined the mall’s avenues. I think both of us were also amazed by the facilities for the children, including the hire of ‘walking horses’ and child size Segways which were buzzing around the large open central area. This central area was also the main restaurant area and Dr. Alaa asked Jack what kind of cuisine he would prefer and game for anything, Jack went for Egyptian!
Finding a suitable Egyptian restaurant we chose to sit outside as it was a balmy evening and the kids playing on their Segways and ‘weird’ automaton horses made for some unexpected entertainment.
I was able to translate the menu for Jack (OK, it was in English but the names of the food in it were new to our plucky pilot) and he chose a platter of various finger foods, included fried Romy cheese in breadcrumbs, squid kebabs, crispy chicken in a spiced batter, chicken shish tawook and a number of Middle Eastern dips as well as ice cold water and soft drinks. Jack really enjoyed this feast although I think we both weren’t sure about the rubbery squid!
Another regular at Egyptian restaurants is the Shisha pipe (hubbly Bubbly pipe) and Jack was quite eager to try one out. So, on my recommendation an Apple Shisha was ordered and Jack spent a happy half hour puffing away whilst he relaxed after the days exertions.
A big thank you to Dr. Alaa and Mr. Waffik who paid for the meal and even our driver, Hamada, was there to partake in the feast. So with full bellies and our weary legs rested it was time to take Jack back to the hotel, but first…it was mentioned that Jack needed a spare SD card for his camera, a special one at that. Dr Alaa said he knew where to buy one in the mall and so we set off, following Dr Alaa as he navigated through the large circular avenue that run around the inside of the building. I stuck by Jack’s side on this walk and was able to explain various things that his young quizzical mind would ask. Of course, being in a Middle Eastern country for the first time there was a lot of things brand new to Jack as well as many recognizable things and it became my pleasure to explain the various idiosyncrasies that are unique to Egypt.
We did seem to have been walking for a very long time before we actually found the right store and what made us all laugh is that we were only a few yards from where we started. The main avenue being a full circle, if we had turned left when we had come out of the restaurant area meant we would have been at the store in about 30 seconds, but because we turned right we had spent a good half hour touring the ‘Mall of Arabia’! Jack found the SD card he wanted and it was now time to say our farewells, at least until tomorrow when the Aeroclub and AUC had arranged a number of surprises for Jack.
Jack and I boarded our transport as did Mr. Waffik, who had left his car at the airport to come with us and we let Hamada transport us through the very busy roads that led to Mesaken Sheraton on the east side of Cairo. Along the way, Jack was busy taking photos of the various major landmarks, the Pyramids and the River Nile and also of the general things that make Cairo special. The crazy traffic was an eye-opener to Jack, as was the multitude of people going about their everyday business. But our journey was reasonably fast (although Jack may disagree) compared to some of the journeys back from October airport and we eventually reached the Fairmont Towers and Hotel, Heliopolis where Dr. Alaa on behalf of the AUC had booked a room for Jack.
Jack and I jumped out and after making arrangements for the following day with the driver we went in to the hotel lobby; Hamada then drove Mr. Waffik home as he lived just up the road. Formalities seen to at the check-in desk, Jack then went up to his room to drop his stuff off and I waited in the lobby for him to return. We had decided to have a night cap before calling it a day.
Jack returned post-hast and I took him on a short tour of the hotel, a hotel we have used many times before, and Jack was suitably impressed by the grandeur of the complex. The tour took us to the outside pool of the Fairmont Towers side of the hotel, a rather select area, and as was usual the staff ran to greet us. I hadn’t been there for a year as I had been in the UK and all my old friends from the staff were hugging me and shaking my hands as if I was a long lost brother. They were of course amazed when I told them who Jack was and all about his adventure. It doesn’t matter how many times we take long-distance pilots there, they are always in awe of these brave adventurers.
We settled at a poolside table in the cool of the evening and ordered a couple of Sakara’s (the Egyptian lager) and talked about the flight so far. It was whilst we were relaxing with our cold beers that a Qatar Airways Airbus 330 (it could have been a 777 but it was dark) skimmed the top of the hotel. Jack was incredulous until I told him we were within 500 meters of the end of one of Cairo International Airport’s runway! This set Jack to thinking…what if he flew the Mooney back to Cairo International tomorrow afternoon, then he would have the aircraft right on the doorstep of the hotel ready for a quick getaway in 2 days time? It seemed a great idea and all it needed was to re-arrange the flight plan and make sure that the following day’s activities allowed for this, time-wise.
It was now nearing midnight and definitely time for Jack to get some shuteye. I took him back to the elevator in the lobby, said my goodbyes and left him to dream of flying over the desert. I walked back to where I live, only about half a mile away, and then, after making a quick coffee, I started to contact my colleague, Ahmed, to arrange for the change in plans. Ahmed was in Georgia at the time (the old Russian republic of Georgia that is) and time differences were to be a factor but before I went to bed I knew that the change of plan and the processing of it was now in Ahmed’s capable hands.
Little did I know as I fell into my bed was that a genuine mix-up will almost ruin the following day, a day jammed full of adventures and experiences that I am sure jack will remember for the rest of his life!
Find out what happens on day 2 of Jack’s time in Cairo in part 3, coming soon.
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