Flash back to 1988, and I am a guest-observer hunched over the turbaned gentleman occupying the flight engineer's chair in the surprisingly cramped cockpit of a -300. Some 12 hours out of Los Angeles, en route to Singapore-Changi International Airport (where I will attend the first Asian Aerospace exposition), the big plies the Kamchatka coastline, working its way southwest at FL410.
It is the height of the Cold War, and we are about to fly abeam some very dangerous airspace. Only a few years earlier not far from this very waypoint, a747 that blundered over the border was shot out of the nighttime sky by a Russian Air Force MiG interceptor with the loss of all aboard the airliner—a case of mistaken identity, or so we were later told. As I gaze through the 747's large cockpit windows, musing on that unfortunate incident and the sensitivity of our present position, a contrail suddenly materializes several thousand feet below, its tip moving extremely fast from right to left.
“What's that?” another flight deck guest and I ask simultaneously.
The Sikh flight engineer shifts in his chair to get a better look and casually replies, “Oh…that's a Russian fighter, probably a MiG 25. They patrol their side of the border all the time.” And then he goes back to his paperwork.
Living in a World of Extremes
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 www.motca.gov.af. 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.”
‘Meet My Little Friend . . .’
On the ground “be prepared to see lots of weapons,” he warned, “especially assault rifles and both light and heavy machine guns. This becomes commonplace to us [flight crews], but it can potentially raise the stress levels of the uninitiated.”
Follow the recommendations of your host, hotel management, and theor Foreign Office when it comes to travel around the city (or into the interior) by vehicle. The most likely scenario for getting hurt is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, the pilot adds, it isn't advisable to give information regarding lodging, movements on the ground or travel plans to strangers, even in an attempt to be friendly. Oh, and if your business takes you to Lagos, Nigeria, “do not walk anywhere at night,” he admonished. “If one needs to go somewhere at night, even a short distance, always take a vehicle.”
A third NGO pilot who has done most of his flying in Africa, said, “The countries I've worked in — Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo — have been somewhat less of a security threat but have been — and are — high on the hassle list.” He added, “I cannot emphasize enough about the importance of having a reliable local contact with which to work — a person who knows the ins and outs, knows what's legitimate or not, and has enough favors and relationships built up with the authorities to get out of an otherwise awkward situation.”
He says he prefers to ask other organizations working in the country for which he's destined about their recommendations before trusting embassy or State Department recommendations “because of all the political and military baggage they have to manage. The relationships they have aren't necessarily the ones I want to have. Of course, a business might not trust a competitor's advice either, but competing flight departments often get along better than the parent companies do. Fortunately, that's not so much of a factor in our case.”
Be “very aware” of current exchange rates ahead of time and do the math with airport charges to make sure the sums come out right. “And,” he added, ”don't act or look American. I often cringe when observing loud, arrogant, pushy Americans in action. We often collectively deserve what we get.”
Finally, a fourth NGO pilot reminded operators to “Always keep in mind that the English of the controllers may leave a lot to be desired. So when given a directive, always where possible, back it up with your own verifications, especially regarding navigating over unknown terrain: positions, elevations, location of towers, and so forth.”
Dan Manningham, a former BCA contributing editor, agrees with that advice. Since retiring from, Manningham has flown King Air 200s for NGOs in Afghanistan and elsewhere and has written about the experience. He says, “Most of these areas are where controllers will use heavily accented English — so be absolutely certain what they're saying. Clarify any misunderstandings. Be kind and patient, as the controllers are really trying to help you. In the worst possible case, you push the throttles forward and climb out of there — never be unsure about your ATC instructions.” (And always have an alternate and enough fuel to get there and fly an instrument approach.)
The biggest fear in going into politically unstable areas or outright war zones is the presence of small arms fire or shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles. According to the aviation manager of a U.S. government contractor active in more than 30 countries, military aircraft are equipped with aviation survivability equipment (ASE), packages varying according to the threat, e.g., heat-seeking (infrared, or IR) missiles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) or small arms fire. “We have a suite of ASE on our aircraft,” he said, “including flare dispensers and IR suppressors on the helicopters. But business aircraft will not have access to that equipment [and would probably need an expensive and time-consuming STC to get it tested and installed]. If you take Afghanistan, for example, the airlines operate there without it.”
But concern about the presence of rebels and troops armed with “man-portable air defense systems,” called “manpads,” is not without warrant. In 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when theFalcon 50 in which they were riding was shot down near Kigali International Airport, struck apparently by a ground-launched missile.
A decade earlier, a Hawker 125-700 operated by the Botswana government was fired on over Angola by a MiG and the right-hand TFE731 engine was blown completely off the airframe by a heat-seeking missile. Despite the damage, the flight crew was able to make a successful landing.
“Brief on ICAO intercept procedures, just in case you wind up with a couple MiGs hanging off your wing,” advised Geoff Tyler, a base manager and Falcon 2000 captain for Executive Jet Aviation. Tyler had his own hellish experience in Angola in 1981 when he had to put the single-engine light plane he was delivering to South Africa down on a jungle road and was seized by rebel troops — as detailed in “Dangerous Destinations Part 1 (March 2012, page 44).
Between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and early 2004, three aircraft operating into or out of Baghdad International Airport were struck by shoulder-launched IR-seeking missiles, a DHLcivilian freighter and U.S. Air Force and C-5A airlifters. All three aircraft were able to make successful landings with no injuries to occupants; however, the DHL Airbus received extensive damage. The U.S. Army units responsible for airport security responded by extending the security buffer outward and engaging the insurgent missile teams, chasing one into downtown Baghdad. Among defensive measures instituted for aircraft at siege fields like Baghdad are military “high-key” maneuvers to keep the aircraft as much as possible always operating within the boundaries of the airport. Come in high, spiral down fast; max-performance climb going back out. BCA contributor and former U.S Air Force F-4/C-5A pilot Ross Detwiler details the maneuver as “High-Key 101.”
“If you are worried about manpads, make sure the crew is trained to do evasive maneuvers, maximum-performance takeoffs, and high-key approaches,” security consultant John Sullivan of Welsh-Sullivan Group in Dallas recommended.
So, before heading into harm's way, ask your training provider if they can provide that kind of instruction.
“At Kabul, I never had to do a high-key approach,” Manningham said, referring to his King Air experience there. “We went straight in. It's always wise to stay as high as possible for as long as possible if ATC will allow it. It was fairly straightforward when I was operating there five years ago.”
Kabul is located in a bowl surrounded by mountains, the av manager for the government contractor explained, “and you come in over the mountains and make a normal straight-in approach. To date, there hasn't been anyone shot down. RPGs can be a threat, but there are no heat-seekers in Afghanistan today — so far. If there were a missile threat, the high-key approach would be recommended and we would do it.” Safi Airways, with headquarters in Kabul and Dubai, now provides daily scheduled service between those two cities using an Airbusand .
At Baghdad, Irbil and Basara in Iraq, there also is not a threat today, the contractor said, and airlines serve all three cities. “Now that the military is being pulled out, there is a concern about security of contractors' employees,” he went on. “The Iraqis are flexing their sovereignty. There has been some harassment of contractors — but not pilots — however, most of the threat is sectarian. There is some trouble at checkpoints and going through customs, and occasionally some graft.”
Gryphon Airlines operates in Iraq as a sort of “business airline,” or regional commuter service, the contractor said. It also flies to Kandahar and Bagram, Afghanistan, using the military facilities there.
In case your destination is Kandahar as well, be advised that ramp space is limited, and operators may be assigned a time limit on the ground before being required to move the aircraft. That move could be to another country altogether. If that does occur, you can rest there assured of one thing: Your passengers will be delighted to see you upon your return. BCA