Ankara, Turkey. August 1977.
My brother Hugh and I were in the process of flying a Beech Baron from Calgary in Canada to New Zealand the long way.
It had been a bad start to the day. The prearranged taxi had not turned up on time for our early morning departure and it was a long way from Ankara to our aircraft waiting at Esenboga – an outlying airfield.
The journey into town the previous evening had been hair-raising. Enroute to Ankara, we had encountered a military roadblock and had been forced out of our taxi at bayonet point by some very uptight soldiers. Having our meager carry off flight bags emptied in the dark onto the pavement had not finished the day off well after our excellent flight in from Munich.
Apparently some Kurdish separatists had just staged a daring hit-and-run raid nearby and the government troops had itchy trigger fingers. It’s amazing how polite one gets and who you will call “sir” in such circumstances.
Early the next morning, we returned to the airfield. The Beech Baron sat waiting for us at the airport complete with military guard. Our discrete noting of the door lock position indicated that no one had attempted to enter the aircraft overnight. This was a relief as we had a substantial cache of US dollars hidden on board to purchase fuel and other necessities en route when fuel and credit card facilities were unavailable.
I had done a rough flight plan the night before so it was just a matter of updating details and filing a flight plan once we had a met briefing. Then, after a preflight inspection, we were on our way. The day started to warm up quite quickly as the sun started rising while we taxied for takeoff.
The landscape of Northern Turkey was impressive and reminded me of some of our rugged Central Otago landscape back home, but on a grander scale. There is some very high country in this region. The weather was perfect, but as the day warmed up, the heat haze restricted good forward views even at our cruise altitude. It was mainly by looking down and slightly sideways that an impression of the countryside could be formed.
Flying for over six hours at 16,000 feet without oxygen required extreme concentration and cross checking each other. We kept chat and movement to a minimum to conserve oxygen in our bloodstream. Tasks became quite deliberate and we kept continually looking for signs of anoxia, which could have been debilitating to say the least.
Navigation had to be accurate as we were very close to the Russian border and the en route charts warned that “Straying off airways into Russia may result in being shot down without notice.” Welcome to the real world!
Lakes Van and Estervan slid into view. What huge areas they occupy. Tiny road links were the only indication that this was not a lunar landscape we were flying over but was indeed Northern Turkey. Similar to central Australia, lots and lots of hues of brown! We felt very insignificant in the vastness of the place.
In the Fall, winds at these latitudes are very predictable, track maintenance was easy and the reporting points slid by with relentless monotony. It would be easy to become complacent. Thoughts of home and friends flashed across our minds as we passed over this hostile environment.
As we approached the Iranian border, the accents on the airwaves changed as Tehran controllers took over. The occasional American voice came through the ether. We found out later that Lockheed Corporation and several other American companies were involved with the training of controllers and aircraft operators who had purchased hardware for the government.
As we got closer to Tehran, we were cleared down to 9000 feet. Approaching the airfield, we noted we were about to pass over a small layer of stratocumulous cloud. By this time we were under radar vectors with the approach controller telling us where to fly.
All of a sudden, out of the cloud in front of us, screamed a large four-engine transport aircraft in a climbing right hand turn. We were less than 200 metres away and it was huge in front of our windscreen.
I can’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it was an explicative beginning with F as simultaneously Hugh and I both craned our necks around to follow the disappearing aircraft’s flight path.
I snatched the microphone up: “Tehran approach this is Charlie Fox Sierra Uniform November (CF-SUN was our registration) do you have any other traffic in our sector?”
“Negative,” came back the reply.
“But we’ve just had a near miss with a large four-engine jet aircraft. What the hell’s going on?” I retorted shakily.
“We have no other aircraft in your area” came the flat reply.
We both looked at each other for a moment. I knew what we had both seen. Then the immediacy of a landing took over as the Tower controller gobbled forth landing instructions. The Baron dropped through the cloud and there right in front of us was the runway. At least something was going right. The landing was a non-event, but as we rolled out and taxied in, the heat hit us. It was already over 35 degrees C [95 degrees F] and it was two sweaty, tired aviators that emerged from the aircraft.
The atmosphere around us was supercharged. You could feel something strange was going on. You could feel tension everywhere and not much smiling going on. Nothing seemed to be as it should at an international airport. It was most unusual.
Unbeknownst to us, our arrival was just prior to the overthrow and departure of the Shah of Persia as he used to be known. As it turned out, a radical change to current conditions enjoyed by the population was about to begin. Hence the electric atmosphere.
We refueled. They took a fuel card! Surprise, surprise. After downing a cold Coke, we decided to get on our way to our overnight stop in Zaheden on the Iranian/Pakistan border where a very different reception awaited us. Officialdom prevailed but finally so did we.
That night as we relaxed and reflected on the past 24 hours’ events, it soon became apparent that there is a fine line between timing, luck and sheer oblivion.