An interlude from my Syrian story.
I am on a weekend of flying down in the south of Jordan, doing aerial photography for my job. This is my third trip over here doing this, and we’ve never had a problem before. The Jordanian Airforce guys fly us, because there’s no civilian flying in the middle east really. And its all very professional. But they do fly us in Hueys.
Thats right, Hueys left over from the Vietnam war, and there like 50 years old. I think that would classify for “vintage” in car stakes. Or at least “antique”. Something to be taken out on the weekends only!
Things just wear out. For example, this is one (of the many) Huey Graveyards at the Squadron. These one are gradually being cannabalised for parts.
So we are flying south along the Jordan valley, a long haul of about 80 nautical miles before we get to our first archaeological site to photograph. And all of a sudden I hear panic over the headphone system: looking over to the cockpit, the pilots are pressing a button on the overhead instrument panel, and shouting at each other.
I hear something about ‘hydraulic’ before I surrender my headset to the crewman so he can assist. Then the noise starts: A grinding sound coming from the back of the chopper, where the engine etc. is. The noise comes on for about 10 seconds then goes back to normal, its loud as hell and I have to cup my hands over my ears otherwise it hurts.
So we turn east. Obviously there is a problem, and Im looking at the ground seeing where the guys might land this thing. But they don’t, they just head east. Wondering what the hell is going on, I look at my GPS and see that we are head for the Al-Jafr Air Base, in the desert east of the settled western corridor. It is 30 nautical miles away, a good half-hours flight time, but the nearest of the many airbases.
So its obvious that they are going to try to get the thing to Al-Jafr. I was counting down the distance on the GPS screen and I remember thinking, “right, we’re halfway” etc. I was just sitting upright looking out the window, trying to be calm and open my eyes wide so I could see everything that was going on, and be ready for whatever happened.
To tell the truth I wasn’t really worried at this stage. I spend half my life worrying about little shit, but when theres a real crisis Im usually OK. But the grinding sound was getting more frequent, and louder and louder the whole trip, become a screaming gear crunching noise coming every 30 seconds by the last 2 miles.
Usually they land very slowly and smoothly, but this time we hit the runway running, hard and fast and bouncing off it. A Huey has skids, not wheels, and we were literally bouncing against the tarmac until they could stop the thing. We made a quick exit:
Of course, we didn’t know what had gone wrong, and the pilots were so professional and remained super calm so it never seemed bad. But when we saw a fire truck and an ambulance waiting for us on the tarmac we figured it must have been serious.
Apparently it was: A hose had burst, and we had lost all of the hydraulic fluid. Without this the pilots had to fly the thing by brute strength, holding the controls against 6000 pounds of force. So they could not manoeuvre the thing to land properly, even on a runway, and there was no question of trying before we reached one.
But now we are all in a hotel together in Aqaba, and they just told us over dinner that it was serious, but they do train for it. In training, they will take off, switch off the hydraulics, and then land without them: it all takes about 2 minutes. But our guys flew the thing without hydraulics for 35 minutes, taking turns, and by the time we reached Al-Jafr they said they couldn’t feel their arms or legs.
So they flew us down a replacement chopper from Amman, and we had 2 replacement pilots while our crew rested their muscles, and then had an awesome day of flying with some breathtaking scenery, from sunup to sundown, the kind of stuff that makes you feel lucky to be alive. Hamdolellah!
For the final approach to Aqaba, we entered the Wadi Arabah: this is a wide dry old river bed, with beautiful sand and rock (its also the border between Jordan and Israel). I just sat back and took it all in, and literally felt my spirit lift.
And we landed.