Almost a quarter century later, that experience—and the lesson it drives home—looms in my memory: when the flight plan places you in such critical airspace, make sure you've properly programmed your aircraft's FMSes with the assigned course—which is generally believed the crew of the KAL 747 failed to do—and have the other pilot check your work. Downloading a flight plan containing an error into the other FMS(es) without an accuracy check, preferably by another crewmember, only compounds the mistake and could lead to disaster.

To the usual risks of intercontinental flight operations — incomplete documentation, AOG in a remote location or sudden passenger illness, say — add the truly life-threatening ones like a trigger-happy MiG pilot, a 17-year-old revolutionary with a shoulder-launched missile and a gang of kidnappers looking to score an executive ransom. Welcome to flight ops into dangerous areas. After all, business goes where there's money to be made, and increasingly, it seems, many of those places are dicey.

In last month's issue, we examined the heightened security planning necessary when preparing a flight to or through a region where there's political, social or economic unrest. This month, we'll share advice from pilots who fly into harm's way as a matter of routine. Their experiences constitute a collection of best practices for surviving operations in dangerous places, a sort of master's class in risk management.

“In my mind, it makes a difference if the corporate flight department operates a single trip [into a hazardous location] or plans to either base there or fly multiple periodic trips,” observed a pilot for a non-government organization (NGO) active in politically unstable areas. (Because of the often sensitive political nature of the countries in which the NGO and government contractor pilots interviewed here operate, they all requested anonymity.)

For the one-off quick trip, risk exposure is reduced, and the crew mostly needs to arrange a ground handler in country ahead of time and be well briefed on country requirements. “By taking the effort to make that ground contact and asking appropriate questions,” the NGO pilot said, “the crew then has the opportunity to confirm that they are prepared for whatever policies or procedures are unique to that destination, especially in the realm of security.”

For overnight visits or extended operations, “it is prudent to know each high-risk environment that you fly in,” he said. “I expect they are all different, as my two exposures, Afghanistan and Sudan, have had different factors to consider.” He condensed his experience into a detailed preflight checklist that accompanies this article, as “Checklist for Survival.”

Another NGO pilot with experience in Afghanistan divided his advice among operational and security issues and self-preparation. Be familiar with local operating regulations, he emphasized. “ICAO regulations are the basis of the regulatory system in any of these countries, and there are some subtle differences between ICAO regs and 14 CFR.”

Operators should especially familiarize themselves with the Aviation Information Publication, or AIP, for the country they will be visiting. It will often provide “the best information available in terms of actual operating procedures, and anyone entering the airspace is expected to be familiar with and abide by the AIP,” he said. “Often the latest version of these documents will be available on line at the country's civil aviation authority website. This is certainly true for Afghanistan; see Some of the African countries may have more limited access and/or less up-to-date material.”

When operating into or within war zones like Afghanistan, operators should be aware they will more than likely encounter a complex network of controlled airspace. “There is usually lots of restricted, prohibited and military operations airspace areas,” the second NGO pilot continued. “The areas of restricted and prohibited airspace will be published — but are ever increasing.” Military operations airspace is “very fluid” and not normally published. “Be prepared to make deviations from your route and/or fly offset routes at the request of ATC.”

In Afghanistan, airways are well defined, and “one is expected to fly the airway centerlines,” he went on. “Because of the tactical military operations being conducted all over the country, one never knows where one will encounter military aircraft. The airway centerline is the safest place to be, so don't fly off airways unless specifically requested to do so by ATC.” He volunteered that pilots at his operation “routinely fly off airway . . . because of the missions we conduct, our longevity working in the country, and the security information to which we have access.” And cautioned, “However, this would certainly not be wise or advisable for corporate operators flying business trips into the country.”

Many countries deemed hazardous impose “special procedures” for entering their airspace. Noted the NGO airman, “Initial call-ups to a particular ATC frequency will need to be accomplished well in advance of entering the airspace [i.e., crossing the FIR] so that authorization to enter can be granted. This will be in addition to the entry authorizations [i.e., permits] that will have been obtained in the trip planning. Again, typically the airspace entry procedures will be spelled out in the AIP.”