Flying in Saudi airspace should offer few surprises for newcomers, but operating on the ground poses surprises and challenges.
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‘Hot, Damn Hot!’
Operating over and in a desert climate brings its own challenges, so as always, weather is a factor in preflight planning. Warnick said that he's “gone for as long as four weeks without seeing as much as a cloud or raindrop.” Heavy rains and thunderstorms do occur, however, and when it does rain, roads and sidewalks often flood, “making the normally chaotic driving even more challenging.” When the winds pick up, Warnick warned, be ready for reduced visibility due to blowing dust and sand. “I have not yet experienced a full-blown sandstorm but hear they are amazing to behold,” he said. Visibility at times can be hazy.
And, of course, it gets hot on the Arabian Peninsula from about April through October. “Like Adrian Cronauer says in 'Good Morning Vietnam,'” Warnick quipped, “'Hot, damn hot!'” So it goes without saying that operators must always be aware of density altitude restrictions due to high ambient temperatures. “If you are traveling here in the summer months,” Keiswetter said, “you can experience temperatures that put the aircraft on the edge of positive performance. Riyadh is only 2,000 ft. above sea level, but during the summer when temperatures are hitting 45C [113F], a condition that is very common, our Hawker 900XP is limited on both passengers and fuel to meet our climb performance [numbers].”
There are four designated ports of entry (POEs) in Saudi Arabia where incoming aircraft must land: Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam and Medina. Along with Mecca, these also are the most popular destinations within the country. But the capital and largest city Riyadh (population 4.725 million) and seaport Jeddah on the Red Sea attract the most air traffic, with the airway between them the busiest in the country. “We are probably working one or two flights a day between them, as much of our handling represents Saudi nationals,” O'Carroll at Jeppesen said. There are no cabotage issues in Saudi Arabia; however, for a domestic flight to a smaller airport, an amendment to the operator's permit will be necessary for visiting (i.e., non-based) aircraft.
Saudi Arabia hosts 217 airports within its borders, 81 with paved runways, including 33 more than 10,000 ft. in length (obviously to accommodate the high summer temperatures for the heavy iron), 15 between 8,000 and 10,000 ft., and 27 between 5,000 and 8,000 ft. The airports that business jets will more than likely use are all equipped with terminal radar and instrument approaches, generally ILSes. (Saudi Arabia has yet to commission any GPS approaches.) Also important for business aviation operators is that, while classic executive FBOs may not exist in Saudi Arabia, every major airport has a handsome, often new, general aviation terminal with executive lounges, handler offices, customs and immigration, flight-planning facilities, a dedicated ramp with plenty of parking adjacent to the building, and by all accounts, excellent security.
“The two airports I've flown to are Riyadh King Khalid International [OERK] and Dammam King Fahd International [OEDF],” George Rowland, captain for the Part 91 flight department cited earlier, said. “The airports are modern, well maintained and huge. The equipment is all great, their ATC is up to modern standards, they all speak English with a reasonable accent using standard ICAO phraseology and have radar service. So it's like flying anywhere in the developed world and even easier than many places.” Handler Wynand Meyer at Jeppesen described the major airports as “behemoths - you can taxi for up to 30 min. just to reach the runway. You may have to cool your brakes before takeoff!”
Other than seemingly endless construction, “sort of like at Teterboro,” Dan Warnick sees “no real problems” at Saudi's airports. “The airports are big and the runways are long,” he said. The fields are busiest between midnight and about 0400, perhaps because of the ambient temperatures or due to the flow of traffic aligning with European connections. “One safety issue I see is the amount of rubber buildup in the touchdown zones of the runways,” Warnick pointed out. “When your landing lights hit the area at night it looks just like you are about to touch down on black ice. I would like to see that stuff scraped off a bit more often than they seem to do it. Fortunately, rain is rare and the runways seem to be well crowned.”