My Great Escape
leaving the” Wind, Sand and Stars” behind
I was sitting in the airliner cockpit when the armed security policeman stuck his head inside the door. He looked us all over carefully, nodded and then backed his way out of the cramped quarters. It was only then that I could exhale, he hadn’t recognized me. The aircraft was a stretched DC-8 belonging to Overseas National Airways (ONA), one of the many airlines contracted each year to fly Hajj pilgrims visiting Mecca, from (and back to) their native countries. How I came to be there, sitting in the jump seat behind the Captain, is the story of my Great Escape.
My dream job had ended in the mid 1970’s along with my marriage. I decided, by way of encouragement from a dear friend, to finish my art education by attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. But, my formal education in the art world came to a screeching halt in early 1977. I should have seen the head-on collision coming. My GI Bill and unemployment benefits had dried up. I had alimony and child support obligations to uphold; all without hope of making a wage in my alter ego’s fantasy world. Fortunately, I had more than one fantasy… be it Airline Pilot or Artist; one, left brain driven and the other right. I came to the fork in the road and as Yogi Berra instructed us to do; I took it. I needed a paycheck. Dreams don’t have a time stamp on them so I set the right brained idea aside.
The ad in the help wanted section of the San Francisco Chronicle read; Airline Pilots Wanted, Career Opportunity with fast growing international flag carrier. Call Ahmed.
I needed a job and had international flying experience. I myself spent seven years previously employed with Overseas National Airways, prior to being furloughed in 1976. I called Ahmed and was hired on the spot to fly the Boeing 707 for Saudia, the national airline, the flag carrier of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I would be based in Jeddah on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.
The meager belongings from my studio apartment on Stockton Street in San Francisco were packed up and stored and promised to be shipped to Jeddah, once I arrived there. I then flew to Kansas City where I was trained by Trans World Airlines (TWA) to fly the Boeing 707. The training was good but uneventful; I was looking forward to having a paying job once again.
I arrived in Jeddah in the spring of 1977, an eight hour flight from London. The trips I flew in the 707 were mostly to Europe; London, Paris, and occasionally to Rome, Italy. Cairo was big on the schedule as well. There were day trips to Amman, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, Khartoum, Sanaa in Yemen, and to the east as far as Karachi and Bombay. I did them all.
As you might expect it was a hot summer in the desert. My household effects shipment hadn’t arrived and our promised accommodations didn’t materialize. It wasn’t a deceit on the airlines part as much as it was a factor of their growing pains and inability to construct the housing needed in a timely manner; not to mention the difficulty in my acclimating to the culture. It wasn’t unusual to fly a scheduled trip to Rome for example and return to the airport the next morning to find members of the Royal Family had acquired the airplane for their personal use. We would then fly them to Morocco, Paris or wherever they desired; a fine way to run a scheduled airline. The saving grace… the royal family members were always generous with tipping… it was called baksheesh.
I soon realized there wasn’t a desired future for me in Saudi Arabia and began communicating with fellow pilot friends back in the United States. It wasn’t long before I learned of a cargo airline starting up in Miami using Lockheed Electra’s, a popular four engine turboprop well suited for the purpose. I had been an Electra Captain at ONA and was rated in the aircraft and was offered the job. But, the kicker was, I needed to get there soon. I had signed an employment contract with Saudia but they hadn’t delivered on their housing promise and the prospect of getting it anytime soon wasn’t looking good. So I wasn’t feeling any guilt and the planning for My Great Escape began in earnest.
An escape was necessary because, upon arrival in the Kingdom, your passport is confiscated until leaving for your next trip. Getting my passport back could be problematic if I wanted to leave on my schedule and not theirs. It was fortunate for me to need to leave during the season of the Hajj. There were many international carriers contracted to fly Hajj pilgrims in and out of Saudi Arabia. The remnants of my former airline ONA, was one of the carriers contracted for the 1977 Hajj. They had a few airplanes and crew still operating across North Africa.
The gathering during Hajj is considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world. An annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey. The numbers of people making the pilgrimage each year has grown substantially, especially since the advent of air travel. For example in 1920 there were slightly over 58,000 making the journey mostly arriving by steamship. In 2013 there were over 3 million. In recent years, because of the numbers of deaths due to stampedes, the number allowed on the pilgrimage has been reduced to nearer 2 million. Even with the restrictions in place in 2015 there were 769 deaths attributed to the Hajji stampedes. They’re working on it.
I was able to locate and make contact with old friends, the ONA crews I used to work with that were still employed working the Hajj and now laying over in Jeddah. They were operating trips to and from Dakar, the capital of Senegal located on the west coast of Africa. One crew was leaving again the next morning and I asked if I could ride in their cockpit jump seat to Dakar. I needed to be placed on the manifest as an ONA crew member and they agreed to do it. Fortunately, I still possessed my old ONA ID card and had it with me in Jeddah. I also borrowed a pair of ONA uniform epaulettes to change into once on board the aircraft. On a fairly regular basis there would be ferry flights positioning back to New York’s Kennedy Airport, the airlines home base. I was going try and make that connection once I got to Dakar.
Getting past immigration in Jeddah while purloining my passport could possibly get tricky. The plan was to suit up in my Saudia pilot uniform and go through customs and immigration, picking up my passport and proceed as usual to a ramp shuttle bus just like I was heading for Saudia’s flight operations. However, I would remain on the shuttle and get off at the ONA airplane parked further out on the ramp. The tricky part would be when the loading agent presented the passenger count to the cockpit and got a glimpse of me in the jump seat. He may, and hopefully wouldn’t, recognize me as a Saudia pilot and create a little foo-faa there in the cockpit. A foo-faa in Saudi isn’t a pretty sight; it could involve gnashing of teeth and very sharp blades being tossed about. The last hurdle of the three, as I saw it, would be the final check by the security police. That would be the guy with the gun.
A good bit of luck is involved here; I am happy to report all went as planned and off into the sunset I rode to live happily ever after back to the culture of which I was born. All of the faces in the picture below, as far as I know, are alive and well and still smiling. It is a picture of me (on the far right) with an ONA cabin crew dressed in their Hajj adapted work uniforms, taken some weeks before my escape. The smart looking blonde girl standing to the right of me is Christine whom I married the following year. We took our vows standing in Harrah’s parking lot, on the California side; at State line South Lake Tahoe. We have been together now for 38 years. On the right is another picture of Christine(circa 1976) in her everyday ONA Flight Attendant uniform. I was, and still remain, a lucky man… wouldn’t you say?