(The RTA Training Contract)
It was a Sunday morning and the coffee was still brewing as I glanced at the headlines on the New York Times. Now, I know it may be strange to be reading the NY Times, as a resident of Miami, but my neighbor was on vacation so I was gathering up his newspapers, and his mail, so I was hoping to find something different on the editorial page than what I was use to from the Herald – I was wrong. Same bullshit, I mean content, with a different name claiming to be the subject matter authority for all issues social and political; however, what we need to talk about is the phone call I received and not the editorial page.
The phone rang, I allowed the answering machine to pick up and advise the party on the other end to leave a message after the beep, and then I heard a familiar voice say, “Pick up the phone I need to talk with you.” That voice belonged to my friend Charlie, who never calls unless he needs help flying airplanes, so I grabbed the phone and said, “Charlie, do you know it’s seven AM on a Sunday morning and you and I both should be sleeping?” Charlie chuckled and advised that he had just finished sleeping eight hours on the flight from Bangkok to Dulles and he was trying to get a hold of me before the new week began. I need you to go to Wichita and work with two Royal Thai Army aircrews as they go through simulator training and then ride with them when they take their B-200 back to Bangkok.
I thought for a few moments and then asked the most important question of all – “Is this a new airplane or an old airplane you have had modified for special tasks with the RTA?” Charlie knew I hated dealing with new airplanes, and all the problems they normally have, and this would especially be true if we were going to go half way around the world. By the way Charlie, “Is this airplane in Oklahoma City?” There was a pause in the conversation on Charlie’s end and then I heard “How did you know that?” I met a guy in Oklahoma City, about a year ago now, that had just brought an airplane in from Thailand. He had advised me that he was going to ferry that airplane back via the Pacific. Charlie then told me that it was the same airplane, but the people who were working the contract ended up under investigation, because of financial improprieties, and now he and his company have the contract. That is great Charlie but I do not want to go back via the Pacific with six people and ferry tanks. Charlie then advised I could go the long way but the real question he had was – Can you do it? My response was quick.
“If you are running the program Charlie you know you can count me in.”
Charlie advised he would be back with me by Wednesday of the following week and I should be prepared to be in Wichita the following Monday. No problem but I will need lots of money for all of this. Charlie responded by saying, “You mean you are going to get to fly an airplane to Thailand, have a mini vacation in Bangkok, and you want money too.” Charlie did not give me time to respond and simply said “I will fax you a contract” as he hung up the phone.
OK, time to advise all concerned here in Miami that I would be off-line for a few weeks and then start thinking about packing a bag. I guess it is time to add a few more rocking chair memories to the book “Life of an Aviator.”
The trip back to Bangkok, and the simulator training, should have taken a little over three weeks but because of delays in Oklahoma City I was gone for almost six weeks. This caused a little bit of a problem with the two groups I worked with in Miami but as a contract guy I reminded them both that I ask for no financial guarantees from them and I would be back as quick as I could. They complained, as was expected, because they pay for my FSI recurrent contract. However, when I said I would introduce them to some of my contacts they agreed to relax, and wait patiently for my return. The reason I mention this point now is that this trip has multiple stories that I would like to tell; however, for today’s story we are only going to talk about my stops in Alexandria and Cairo.
So, let’s talk about Alexandria and Queen Cleopatra………………
(The Unplanned Stop)
The stop in Alexandria had been unplanned. We left Athens, Greece that morning going to Cairo but something happened in Cairo that caused Egyptian ATC to put is in a hold over Alexandria and after an hour I opted to land at Alexandria. I had already called Jeppeson, on a HF phone patch, and they had a handler standing by who would meet the airplane and handle all of our requirements. After landing, we were advised that ATC wanted us to remain on the ground until they could approve our arrival in to Cairo. That having been said I told the handler we would stay the night assuming he could get us out early the following day. The ground handler responded with “No problem – Inshallah.” Yes, Inshallah, and we were off to the Meridian hotel and some food. For those unfamiliar with the phrase Inshallah, Muslims commonly use this and it means If Allah/God wills it so.
The driver of the crew bus did not have many US aircrews to talk with, he spoke perfect English, and he was ready to practice his language skills. I proceeded to ask the normal questions. Where are the best places to eat, the best places to visit, and how safe are the streets and the taxi drivers? The driver responded by saying that he would be our taxi, since he also ran a tour company, and he would show us his city. “Great, but how much will we pay for all of this?” I asked. Up to you sir…..business has been slow.
Now, we did get our money’s worth out of our new friend, whose name was Mohammad, but instead of detailing all of the stops we made I want to take you back to the time of Cleopatra and talk a little history.
For centuries, Alexandria has stood at the crossroads of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Alexandria was the Greek successor of Athens. Founded and named for the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, Alexandria was built by the Ptolemies after Alexander died. The first Ptolemy, Alexander’s general Alexander Soter – Alexander the Savior – buried the Macedonian leader in his new city.
Now, in plain English, what occurred was that after Alexander the Great died the territories he had conquered were divided up between his generals and it was one of these generals who took over political control of Egypt, Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula. This marked the end of the ruling Egyptian Pharaohs and the beginnings of Alexandria becoming the scientific, and cultural center of the world. This new era, dynasty, would remain in place until Rome annexed the area in 30BC; however, the most interesting part of this development was the fact that Cleopatra VII, who is the Cleopatra historians talk about most, was probably a Greek.
All of the Cleopatras of Egypt, this name was commonly used by the Queens during this time, were members of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty; and it was the famous Cleopatra VII who ruled from 51-30 BC. She ended the dynasty by allying herself with the Roman Marc Anthony and then committing suicide when the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar invaded her city. Her suicide essentially turned over the keys of the Egyptian civilization to the Roman Empire.
Alexandria was indeed a cultural and scientific center for the advancement of sciences. It was during this time that Greek geographers, and mathematicians, brought forth the following facts:
The list of accomplishments far exceed that which I have listed but for now I think it can be said that maybe we who inhabit the new world, the western hemisphere, should probably realize, and confess, that we owe our intellectual success to the great minds of the eastern hemisphere.
Enough about history I need to be talking about my visit with Cleopatra?
We had lunch on the coast overlooking the port of Alexandria and it was after the meal that Mohammad told us that we were actually looking out at the palace of Cleopatra. “We are?” I said. Mohammad reached in to his book bag, brought at a well-worn book of Egyptian history, and proceeded to show us how the coast city of Alexandria looked before the earthquakes, and tidal wave, destroyed the palaces, the lighthouse, and other treasures. Now, I was not well versed in the history he spoke of, and based on their blank stares from the Thai aircrews I think they were very confused, so he immediately launched in to a 30-minute presentation on the way it was.
Turns out most Egyptians believe that Cleopatra’s legacy, including her grave, was destroyed by a series of earthquakes and the resulting tidal waves that washed ashore. This, Mohammad explained is why no one has ever been able to find evidence of her dynasty and legacy. Initially I was not a believer but then Mohammad produced a newspaper that detailed the work of renowned archaeologist Frank Goddio, and his team, who had discovered Cleopatra’s sunken city just off the coast of Alexandria. I looked at the date on the paper and much to my surprise this project was happening at this very moment.
I asked Mohammad if the research vessels were here now, and he advised that we were going down to the docks to see – great, let’s go. To say that the Thai aircrews were not very excited about their tour of Alexandria is an understatement; however, I told them to bear with me and tomorrow we would be riding camels at the pyramids. The senior pilot, a Colonel, smiled and said, “This is what I want to do and see.”
The research vessels were in port but the only people around was two police officers with AK-47s. I guess this means we do not get to see any treasures on this trip but to know that history was being rewritten under our noses was good enough.
I have since seen, in photos, most of what the research team has brought up. The only thing that is missing is evidence of the Queen remains. This may happen and if it does, I hope Charlie has another need to move an airplane through Egypt. I am ready to find an answer to the age-old question of, was Cleopatra Egyptian or Greek?
(The Cairo Museum)
The next morning we were off to Cairo and before I knew it, the Thai aircrew had me at a Thai restaurant having lunch. The big question I had was how did they know this restaurant was there? The Colonel smiled and said, “I have connections with Cleopatra.” OK, fair enough – let’s eat. The food was good, not exactly true Thai noodles and spices, but the Thai’s were happy. We mapped out our plan for the next day and then headed off to the National Museum to see a few mummies and the Rosetta Stone.
The museum was great, the mummies were mummies, and the Rosetta Stone was a copy of the real thing. Turns out the British have the real one in their museum in London. Something about that is not right. I am in Cairo, land of the Pharaohs, and all they have is a copy of their Rosetta Stone. How is that possible? One day I will write a story about the number of Egyptian treasures that are not in Egypt. Some were stolen, and sold on the black market, but most were carried home by the colonial powers.
As we were about to conclude our tour the Museum went on lock down. OK, this is interesting – we must have another representative of a colonial power trying to sneak out a few more treasures. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I will let the British newspaper, The Independent, tell the story:
After a lull of almost 18 months, Islamic militants have struck again in Cairo, killing ten people, including six German tourists. The dead were among a party on a bus outside the popular Egyptian Museum. The militants aim to damage the government by damaging the economy – and they do that by driving out the tourists.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, in which at least nine people were wounded, but Egyptian security sources said police had arrested three suspected militants and were looking for two more.
The sources said all of those who died were inside the bus parked outside the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square, one of Cairo’s busiest areas.
An Interior Ministry statement identified one gunman as Saber Farahat Abu el- Ela, who was put in a mental hospital after he fired on tourists at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo four years go.
Ela’s brother Mahmoud was also arrested after the attack, the statement said. Security sources said the third gunman was shot in the head and was in a critical condition. Security sources said one of the gunmen climbed aboard the bus, reported to be carrying 33 German tourists, and started spraying the interior with gunfire.
When he saw several tourists escaping through the rear exit, the gunman threw a petrol bomb inside. He then ran out and put a second bomb under the bus.
Other gunmen fired at three or more buses parked near the museum, security sources said.
Thousands of tourists visit the Egyptian Museum every day. The sprawling building houses more than 100,000 ancient relics, the most outstanding being the tomb and gold mask of Tutankhamun.
Security sources suspect the gunmen were Muslim militants who have been seeking to topple the government since 1992.
The attack was the first major militant operation in the capital since April 1996, when suspected militants shot dead 18 Greek tourists and wounded 14 outside a hotel.
It was one of the bloodiest attacks against the Egyptian tourism industry since militants began sporadically targeting tourists in 1992 as a way to damage the country’s economy in their fight against the government.
Before yesterday, Muslim militants had killed 26 foreigners and wounded 73.
The German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, expressed horror at the bomb attack, saying it was the third disaster to hit Germans abroad this week.
To say that things were a bit chaotic was a true statement but the real chaos was outside the museum. When they finally opened the doors for everyone to leave the events outside were the most difficult to deal with. The security forces were using canes to chase away the pedestrians and when that did not work, they started firing randomly in the air with their AK-47s. Time to get inside out of the way so I grabbed the Colonel and said everyone needs to follow me, who in turn grabbed his guys and pulled them along. We ducked inside the Hilton, went to the bar, celebrated life with a few beers, a thick steak, and waited for the guys with the AK-47s to go home.
We finally made it back to our hotel around six in the afternoon and everyone agreed to meet at the bar around nine or so. This was good for me because I needed a shower, a power nap, and some quiet time. The designated hour arrived and as I entered the bar, I did not see the Thais but I have to admit I was looking for a table with four guys of Asian descent. Then, as I surveyed the room, I identified the four heads I was looking for but they were with four young ladies of Egyptian descent. OK, they are big boys so who am I to judge and for all I know they could be getting a lesson on Egyptian history. As I approached the table the Colonel stood up and introduced their new friends, they all spoke perfect English by the way, and then pulled up a chair for me. As I sat down I had to make one comment to the Colonel before the small talk began and I turned I spoke quietly in to his ear, “I see you have been talking to Cleopatra’s friends again.” He smiled and said, “Not exactly.” We both smiled and as my beer arrived to the table the Colonel offered up a toast. “To Egypt, home of Cleopatra, and to the beautiful ladies who have honored us with their presence – Cheers.” OK, I can see where this is going so I need to plan my escape.
I finished my beer, while making small talk with the Thais and their new friends, and then I asked the Colonel if I could have a few words with him at the bar. Once we were away from the table I advised that he and his men appeared to be in good hands so I was going to have a quiet dinner in my room and a good night’s sleep. He encouraged me to stay with them but when I insisted no, he yielded to my request with a smile and a handshake. I will see you at nine for breakfast, the pyramid tour is at ten, and please offer my apologies to everyone for my having to leave early. The Colonel responded with roger that sir and I will see you tomorrow.
Breakfast at nine arrived but not the Thais. I waited until ten before I called the Colonel and just as I was picking up the house phone, I spied four Thais, with pillow hair, headed for the restaurant. Wow, I think they had a late night but that’s OK. They were supposed to be having fun – orders from Charlie.
Breakfast was quick, the Thais had their pictures taken at the base of the Pyramids, then riding on the camels, and standing in front of the Sphinx. Life was good but they were all ready for a nap. Between having a late night, I think, and the hot desert sun, they were finished. At the hotel, they headed for their rooms and I opted for the pool and a beer. Life was good and tomorrow we were off to Bahrain where many believe that the Garden of Eden is located. Maybe we will find evidence of Adam and Eve. Sounds like another good story for the series, “Life of an Aviator.”
(Short Stories by Robert Novell – Volume Two)