We had booked two nights in Hurghada, as the stop was sandwiched in between two very long flights. Little did we know that route changes down the line would conspire to make these “long” flights look like warm-up acts! We spent the day doing precisely nothing, other than catching up on some flight planning, and lounging on the beach reading. As I lay on my lounger, a man would occasionally lead a camel up and down the beach; one couldn’t forget that one was in Egypt!
That evening we dispensed with the rather unimpressive free buffet, and ate at the in-hotel Italian restaurant. While not exactly gourmet, it was definitely a step up, and prices were incredibly low! We turned in early that night, as we’d be departing around dawn the next day for a flight of more than 1,000 miles across the Middle East.
We rose well before dawn, with the taxi arriving at 0430am to take us to the airport. We’d be flying heavy, and the limiting factor of the C182 with upgraded “PPonk” engine can be the cooling; it’s trying to get rid of another 40hp worth of heat using the same cowling as the original 230hp engine. So, the cooler the air, the better! Even at this time of day it was still 30 degrees C.
Mohammed met us on arrival at the airport and led us through immigration and security. The security guard got very upset with me when he saw my bottles of water and other liquids, clearly thinking I was an airline passenger with no knowledge of the security restrictions; once Mohammed let him know I was the pilot, he was all smiles. Gavin had changed into his white shirt with three gold bars on the shoulders, and was waved straight through!
After the fueling fiasco 2 days before we thanked our lucky stars that we’d decided to fuel on arrival instead of on departure. There was nothing left to do apart from the pre-flight checks (helpfully, Gavin usually carried these out while I took care of final paperwork and preparation), and to call for start-up and clearance. This, after some back and forth between Hurghada and Cairo controls, was eventually granted and we taxied out and took off on the northerly runway, turning right on track across the Red Sea.
We climbed gradually, at 100kts, to keep the cylinders cool; although as we got higher, we had to reduce speed to 90 kts, and then the “best rate of climb” speed of 81kts in order to keep ascending. At these higher altitudes, with thinner air, the engine produces less power; but at least this also meant that cooling became less of a concern. Eventually we reached our assigned level of 9,000ft and settled into the cruise. As we’d grown accustomed to, our usual tailwinds gave us a helping push as we approached the coast of Saudi Arabia.
My mental picture of the Saudi Arabia crossing had been of oceans of flowing sand dunes stretching out to the horizon. As it turned out, in this part of the country at least, the truth was far more interesting. As we crawled across the vast landscape, the terrain below us shifted from coastal dunes to mountains to rock patterns and back again. Our eyes were permanently directed out the side windows as we fixated on the fascinating countryside below. There was much more settlement than we expected, but we still flew over long sections where no sign of human impact was visible for as far as the eye could see.
As we drew closer to the eastern part of the country, agriculture started to show itself, in the form of huge circular fields supported by artificial irrigation. These were very familiar from the USA where they turn broad swathes of the desert green across Arizona, New Mexico, and other southwestern states. A long irrigation arm on wheels is fed water from a central point; the water irrigates the soil as well as driving the wheels at the appropriate speed for their point on the arm, and it rotates slowly watering the entire field as it turns around.
We were handed over to Bahrain, whose approach controller really didn’t seem to have much of a clue about small aircraft and sent us off on a 100-mile arrival procedure intended for jets. He then made things worse by using radar vectors to turn us even further out. Eventually he realised that at this speed we’d be there all day, and turned us back on to a more sensible approach. His colleague in the tower was rather more bull-headed; despite telling him twice before landing where we’d be parking, and twice again after, he insisted on taxiing us to the complete opposite end of the airport and parking us there, refusing to allow anything different. We had to call our handling agents, wait for half an hour while they argued with the airport, and then wait some more for a “follow-me” car, before they’d give us permission to relocate to where we were supposed to be. We passed the time watching a US military C130 performing training approaches.
Happily our handling agents MENA aviation, organised by GASE, were the opposite of ATC; friendly, helpful, and competent. They pushed us to a parking spot in their vast, empty hangar before driving us over to the main terminal and quickly escorting us through immigration. Off we went, using the Middle East’s version of “Uber” (Careem), to the Crowne Plaza hotel.
We only had a one night stop here in Bahrain; as the next flight was relatively short we’d elected to move on the next day to the UAE. We took a short walk out from the hotel, visiting the Bahrain National Museum and Theater; they were closing for the day, so we just wandered around outside them to admire the buildings themselves and their picturesque location. This done we headed back for dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants. We chose the Indian, and both had one of the best curries we’d ever tasted! I think it would be worth going back just for that.
We’d received bad news for our India stop. The efforts to secure handling, clearance, and fuel had been long and protracted, and it had been determined that there was no fuel on our original route (or rather, the only fuel was controlled by someone who was said to be an awkward business partner). Because of these issues, the time to resolve the problems with the original route was now burned up, and the only practical solution was to make a huge 1,350nm flight to Nagpur instead. GASE was able to pull this together at short notice, as they’d always had it in the back of their mind as the fallback plan. I resolved to keep myself better informed and in the loop in future, to avoid surprises!
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