Captain Ike’s, Vesco’s Silver Phyllis & The Perils of Cairo
“GIVE ME A STORY”
That’s what the originator of the blog “JRHAFERAVIATIONBLOG.COM” asked me a few days ago. I write for this blog and in searching for what he wanted he replied, “write about your forced landing in Cairo.” “It’s in my bestselling book THE FLYING CARPETBAGGER starting on page 201,” I told him. “Yeah,” he said, “but give me what you didn’t write about in your book. The readers want more about VESCO as only you know.” Now I knew what he was after. He wanted an inside story. And, that is what I can do best because I am not a writer, I am a STORY TELLER. I use all the letters in the alphabet, the words and phrases common to most readers then tell my story from experience, not imagination. This is about the kind of guy Robert Lee Vesco really was. But, this won’t be a simple blog about one of my adventures; it will also be a commentary on several things that I learned about him to make him what he was. He wasn’t unique in any single trait that would make him stand out in the crowd except for his ability to focus on a goal and didn’t need crutches to help him communicate his desires to any audience…like notes or a tele-prompter. Something Obama couldn’t live without. Or even Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts who yesterday made a fool out of himself stuttering and rambling on about the firing of famous quarterback Peyton Manning. Rather than simply saying, “we decided to let Peyton go because we couldn’t afford the 23 million bonus we owed him, and it was just business.” This wasn’t Vesco’s style. When a push came to a shove, he shoved. Many times it didn’t go down well with me, but I always knew where we stood with each other. And when he said, “land and take your chances, it will only hurt for a little while,” I landed. Here’s the story JR asked for. Enjoy.
Robert Lee Vesco was the infamous boy genious corporate raider, he “owned” and controled politicians, kings and corporations but lost grip on reality and greed made him the Scoundrel who allegedly bilked many millions from investors all over the world, who lived “high off the hog” owning the first privately owned Boeing 707 modified and customized flying country club (Flown by Captain A. L. “Ike Eisenhauer). After years of fraud the rogue financier fled the United States to evade arrest in 1973 after allegedly looting $224 million from a mutual fund (and after illegally donating $200,000 to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign). Vesco initially went to Costa Rica but eventually wound up in Cuba, where he was thrown in jail in 1995 for a plot to defraud that country’s pharmaceutical industry. But only Captain Ike knows the whole story. There are only two places you will read about it. This is one of those places.
by, Captain A.L. “Ike” Eisenhauer
The date was December 28, 1971. “Silver Phyllis” (Vesco’s Boeing 707 ) was in Beirut, Lebanon with the crew on stand-by for departure details. He wanted to take a breather from his rigorous business schedule. His idea of a break was to go to Nairobi, Kenya and shoot some lions and tigers. Not with a gun, but with a camera at Kenya’s game preserve. Something he thought would be exciting and new for him and his family. Getting there in the first place would prove to be exciting. Not necessarily for him, but a frustrated flight crew who got screwed and threatened from many sides.
He tried many times, but he never caught me. I was always one step ahead of him because I had been his personal pilot for many years and you get to learn the quirks of your boss. “Ike,” he would often say, “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go to X instead of Y. C’mon, you can do it, let’s do it.”
Silver Phyllis could carry a lot of fuel, much more than the Gulfstream. She could fly for more than eleven hours and cover a hell of a lot of ground in that air time. Knowing this, he would never catch me short. I was always prepared for his last minute change of plans. It almost became a game between us: a game of one up man ship. When he said, “let’s go to Nairobi” I was way ahead of him. I had already put the flight plan on file. A flight plan I will never forget because of all the advance preparations that went into it and all the failings of the participants that eventually could have caused a disaster.
My original plan was to keep it simple. Take the shortest route from Beirut to Nairobi yet cover my ass with plenty of fuel just in case. When we got ready to depart Beirut we had our clearance just like it was filed. We would pass over Cairo and then go south over Khartoum to Nairobi and have a few days off while Vesco was shooting his lions and tigers. It never happened! To keep it short, read the details in THE FLYING CARPETBAGGER. But, I will try and be brief so hang in there with me.
Coming up on Cairo at 37,000 feet, they suddenly changed the rules of the game. Cairo air traffic control issued instructions, “Sky one two eight, descend to 22,000 feet.” I questioned the instructions and was advised, “you are landing at Cairo.” Bullshit, was my first thought, I’m cruising at 37,000 on an international flight plan.No sovereign nation, regardless of their current political structure, can arbitrarily interfere with the rules of the road governing international air traffic control. ICAO is the club every nation belongs to, and Egypt was a member. The sudden shock of the change in my flight plan demanded by Cairo traffic control caught my entire crew off guard. “What the hell is going on,” we thought. We imagined that perhaps a war had broken out since were departed Beirut. These rag heads were radicals and could start shooting at each other with the drop of a hat. Could we be walking into the O.K. Corral without warning? Because the delaying tactics I usedto attempt to get my ducks in a row, the exchange between us lasted for several hours and all I did was fly in circles eating up tons of fuel. I had no choice until Vesco issued his edict, “land at Cairo.” Silver Phyllis was heavy but during the long delay I managed to get her weight down to legal maximum landing weight without the risk of dumping fuel. Something the Egyptians didn’t give a rat’s ass about. They had their own agenda. “Either land or we will take appropriate action.” In plain talk it could have been, “get your ass on the ground now or we’ll blow you out of the sky.” With all the SAMS I knew were in their arsenal, you decide the thoughts that were going through my head.
My first instinct was to get the hell out of there, fast. I called for “takeoff power” on all four engines and laid the heavy Boeing on its side making a quick one hundred and eighty degree turn reversing my course. I wanted the safety of the Med and international air space to think about my next move. This abrupt move got Vesco’s attention. He came forward to the flight deck to check on what was going on. He knew Nairobi was that way, not this way. He listened to my radio conversation with a BOAC flight. Its Captain knew that Egyptians were trying to pull a fast one me and suggested I contact a “friendly”, El-Al (Israeli International Air Line) on their discreet company frequency, (which he gave to me.) When I contacted El-Al they were aware of what was going on and a suggestion was made I could request fighter escort from over the Med via the Sinai south to Khartoum then to Nairobi staying well clear of Egyptian airspace. But another problem came up. Trying to change my flight plan Beirut got into the act and lowered the boom with a threat that if I accepted any assistance from the Israeli Air Force, future landing rights at Beirut would be denied. Vesco went ballistic. His future plans centered around being able to continue to use Beirut as a base of operation. It was too important to him.
“You heard what’s going on, Bob,” I said. “What’s your call?” It didn’t take him long for his answer. “Land at Cairo and take your chances. It will only hurt for a little while. I want to go to Nairobi!” He had assumed his typical board room authority and left the flight deck abruptly leaving a stunned flight crew in his wake. I headed back to Cairo.
On short final approach to the Cairo International airport we saw the SAMS pointed toward the sky. Fortunately none had our names on them this day. As soon as we rolled to a stop we were surrounded by jeeps (probably a gift from us in the first place.) They were full of armed soldiers as we taxied to our parking spot. The first one to enter the Boeing was an Egyptian officer who asked for the Captain. We met each other then he demanded that I accompany him. He didn’t even give me the courtesy to explain anything to my crew. He just gave me an order. I went with him to the terminal building. I didn’t speak the native language. Fortunately for me, another man in uniform appeared. He was a TWA representative in Cairo who spoke English. He stayed with me for the entire ordeal and acted as an interpreter. God bless him! He told me he had received a message from the company that something strange was going on and was instructed to meet with me and assist the Captain of the private Boeing 707 arriving shortly. Thanks TWA.
As I entered an office on the second floor of the terminal building I saw that it was a dingy, dusty cubicle lined by benches against the wall with several men who were represented as controllers who had spoken to me during the previous hours of radio communication in which I was accused of ignoring instructions. So, what else can they fabricate? A fat little shit entered the room and everybody stood up. Probably the boss. He tried to intimidate me. It didn’t work. A chair was placed in front of the desk he sat down at and he motioned for me to sit down. I did. He pulled out a file and started on his accusations. The TWA rep told me what I was accused of. It was pure bullshit. I just listened until he said I would have to pay a fine or go to prison. That got my attention. When he finished his tirade I asked my TWA interpreter what he said. The bottom line, he wanted the fine paid immediately in good old US dollars. I put my brief case on the desk. The case with the cash in it. He saw the American flag on one side and laughed with a dismissive gesture of insult. I opened it and pulled out the cash and counted out what he wanted as my fine. He was in his glory as he spoke to the controllers in their language knowing full well that the international language that controls people and governments then and now is MONEY, Vesco’s source of power. Little fat man wanted a piece of it. Probably the whole Egyptian government was in on the rip off. They had to know from the get- go that the private Boeing belonged to the infamous “Bobby.”
When he got up to leave I asked the TWA rep if he was certain the big shot couldn’t understand English. He assured me. That’s when I called him every name I could think of in English. The controllers, who by international law, had to speak and understand English, cringed in their seats when they heard my compliments to their boss. I thought they would stand up and cheer. But they would probably be shot. Then the boss shook my hand, thinking I was giving him a compliment and he left the room. The controllers gave me a thumbs up, indicating they understood I had really gotten screwed. After all, we’re really aviation men and that is stronger than politics.
As far as Vesco was concerned, he did what he wanted to. I landed, took the punishment and paid the fine. It was his money and his decision. I still understood his decision. He wanted to go to Nairobi. Nothing else mattered. That was the other side of Vesco the business world never learned. He was ruthless!
“Had I landed in jail, he would have hired another pilot and continued on his journey. Perhaps he would have hired a local attorney for me…maybe not.”
If you are one of the few of the younger generation who may have not heard of Captain “Ike” Eisenhauer, it’s time you did, this is a Real history lesson, so standby to learn folks…Captain A.L. “IKE” Eisenhauer, is a World famous author, known to aviators worldwide, to be the one who flew the privately owned multi-million customized Boeing 707 all over the globe for renegade genius financier Robert L. Vesco back in the 1960s and 70s . Famed world movers and shakers like Richard M. Nixon, Juan Tripp, Howard Hughes, Arthur Godfrey, King Juan Carlos of Spain were no strangers to “Ike” and the “Silver Phyllis” (the moniker Ike hung on the 707). I recommend you read his bestselling book “The Flying Carpetbagger”… Now my friends gather around and sit down and let this fine story teller tell his tale I promise you when he is finished you will be back waiting for his next one with a big grin and wide-eyed anticipation… SEE BOOK REVIEW PAGE for full review of the Flying Carpetbaggers. Captain Ike also writes for: