A rather different first post in my new blog than I had intended, but made for an interesting time.
As well as carrying out work in the UK, the company I work for also carries out work abroad, including in Egypt. This does not always go as smoothly as one would hope, but is full of variety and is a great experience.
The heat and congestion in Cairo makes for some pretty exhausting flying, especially as our aircraft does not have air conditioning. The airwaves are full to capacity a lot of the time and it can be a struggle to get a word in. The language barrier can also be quite challenging, especially as we are carrying out work on radio navigation aids which means some non standard movement around the sky. A brief with Air Traffic Control (ATC) before the flight usually ensures some sort of understanding but of course controllers change shifts and then one is back to trying to get information across in as succint a fashion as possible. Due to the nature of our work, we are also in the way a lot of the time.
Cairo has three parallel runways, so this is even more exacerbated than usual.
The bonus is that we often get to hold for clearance to start a run at low level and on one run we managed to get to hold over the pyramids for a birds eye view.
Other times we get to fly formation with an airliner as he takes off or lands, which is quite a thrill. Our approaches are done at a relatively high speed (for our type of aircraft) and this allowed me to match a Boeing 777 for climb rate and airspeed, albeit for only around 15 seconds, as he climbed away from Runway 05 Centre, with us on Runway 05 Right. Of course we are at a high workload, so no camera is ever pointed out of the window for these moments, but the memories remain etched in the brain forever of these scenarios.
We are also often cleared off away from the airport to hold at low level (1000′ or less) and some of the things you get to see are often eye opening. Bearing in mind the political unrest at the present time in Egypt it would be unwise to say too much, but we have seen all kinds of bunkers, SAM stores and other things at far lower a level than intended. We are very careful not to point cameras out of the windows at these sorts of things, instead just retaining them in the brain in the “Life Experiences” folder.
Then there is the problem of things kicking off on the ground, totally unrelated to our job, but affecting us pretty much instantly.
We had glimpsed smoke rising over the city through the haze for a while but had been given authorisation to carry out our work as planned. All authorisation for aviating is through the military regardless in Egypt, so is essential before launching.
The air traffic controller had been sounding a little more stressed as the time went on that morning, but a lot of the talk is in Arabic so just the occasional word is caught. Much like the way the French switch between English (the assumed language of aviation) and French, it does little to aid ones situational awareness.
I had established on an inbound level run from some distance away towards the airport, on a runway direction that meant we were pointing at the city on the overshoot, for a couple of minutes. To cut down on noise from the others communicating vital numerical information I had taken control of one radio, whilst they spoke to the engineers on the ground on another frequency on the second radio.
The radio was suddenly filled with a harsh guttural voice, speaking in Arabic but clearly not the usual airline captain style transmission. The controller changed instantly to a more aggressive style, clearly under pressure, but also in Arabic. One gets to know what a military style transmission is like and it was very noisy in the background too. “Possibly a helicopter” I thought to myself. This continued for about 30 seconds, some of the more modern and technical words in English, as is usual when there is no ancient derivation of the word – not many ILS approaches about when language was formed!
A sudden message addressed to me, filled with urgency “emergency, emergency, turn right NOW, NOW, traffic just ahead, acknowledge!”
I am not sure the rest of the crew knew what had hit them as I turned right as hard and steeply as I dared; I normally get poked in the back of the head with a pen by the flight inspector if I make any sort of move like that on a go around…
The traffic was a Chinook. It later transpired that the conversation was along the lines of we are landing at your airport now, I don’t care who is on final approach, or that they are of non deviating status, we are the military; they had flown directly in front of us hence the call from the controller.
I was put on radar vectors, then held, then ordered to land immediately. Not one to argue that sort of command I did just that, especially as they allowed us to land on the runway that had been closed all morning for the use of military only.
In the half an hour held on the taxiway after landing we had a pretty good idea it had all kicked off in Cairo – the rest is history as they say and has been well reported in the news.