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Corkscrew Landings

Flying into Baghdad is always an iffy proposition.

By 8.8.05

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BAGHDAD -- After three weeks of R&R, I recently returned to Iraq. Needless to say, flying back to Baghdad is always an iffy proposition. One can do it "in style" with 19 other passengers aboard The Flying Carpet piloted by the legendary Captain Sammy Ayad. This gives the whole process a bit of a Baron von Richthofen aura, and makes one feel as if present at the dawn of aviation. But the problem is that Sammy makes the round trip journey from Beirut to Baghdad only twice a week, and he wasn't in business the day I was returning.

The alternative to flying The Rug is to take a practically unmarked white Royal Jordanian Airlines Fokker 28 jet. The airline's identity is painted in pale gold on the white background, as if using any more contrast would run the danger of making the company's name legible. This plane flies from Amman to Baghdad daily, carrying about 50 passengers and a crew of South African ex-pats at the controls.

When the bus carrying the passengers arrived at the foot of the stairs, I looked up and noticed that the Fokker 28 has oval windows. I have never trusted planes with oval windows. Those of us old enough to remember such aviation arcana, will recall that the Vickers Viscounts flown by Capital Airlines in the late 1950s and early 1960s had oval windows. For quite a while these turboprop planes were hailed as the cutting edge of aviation. Then one day they mysteriously started dropping out of the sky in alarming numbers onto the Maryland countryside; seems there was a problem with metal fatigue around the edges of the oval windows. I have usually avoided flying oval-windowed aircraft, but in the case of getting to Baghdad you fly what is available.

Every flight into Baghdad is exciting simply because there are guys down below with shoulder-fired missiles who would love nothing better than to cut several dozen notches in their belts by shooting one of these passenger jets out of the sky. Most of my fellow passengers seem to be guys such as myself: Americans motivated by a thousand different reasons -- some noble, some not -- to help Iraq rebuild itself. The rebuilding itself is taking place at the same time as a bunch of despicable madmen try to abort the process by carrying in their favorite past time of engaging in suicide attacks and detonating car bombs.

In spite of the many possible bad outcomes, none of the passengers appears anxious or nervous. Most are veterans of these flights and are used to the Baghdad landing approach, which resembles that of a dive-bomber flying in a very tight, left-turning corkscrew. Having gone through this before myself, I've noticed that the only part of the twisting descent that makes me nervous is wondering if the pilot will get his left wing back into a horizontal position in time to avoid its hitting the runway an instant before touchdown. I have this vision of a Fokker slicing its left wing into the ground and cart-wheeling the rest of the way to the terminal.

THE FLIGHT FROM AMMAN to Baghdad takes a bit over an hour. Fortunately, on this flight I have a window seat and can look down 30,000 feet to the incredibly barren, ugly and forbidding countryside of Western Iraq. There is no visible sign of life on the ground, although the U.S. Marines who, for weeks, have been locked in combat with the terrorists out here, would loudly argue that their presence is very visible indeed.

Once RJA Flight 404 is directly over Baghdad International, it's time for Captain Tienhoven to show why he may have piloted a Stuka dive bomber in an earlier life. We go into corkscrew mode and very, very rapidly descend in a combination of a tight left hand turn and free-fall. In no time at all we drop from 30,000 feet and pull out at what seems to be barely 100 feet off the ground. The left wing straightens out and we make a very soft landing. On any other flight the pilot would have received a standing ovation from grateful passengers for his feat of airmanship. On RJA 404 his skill is greeted with a collective yawn.

When the cabin door is opened there is a blast of heat from the outside air, which is at 133 degrees. We make our way down the gangway and the heat is painful. I don't know how the Ghurka security guards who spend the entire day on these runways don't just collapse in a heap and die!

Once we're inside the terminal, I notice the air-conditioning is still purring along at about the same 60% level of effectiveness it was on the outward-bound trip. We get into various lines for immigration requirements and I find that once again my DoD badge moved me to the head of the line. I am mystified by the power of my little badge to earn me this entitlement. In the whole scheme of things, there is not a bit of urgency to my entering Iraq even if the process threatens to take a whole week. I don't object, however, when I'm directed to a new window that has been opened just for me.

In Customs, one of the inspectors instructs me to open my large suitcase, which is locked with a padlock whose combination I can never remember. It's either my birthday or the number of the building in which I worked for many years on Fifth Avenue. I invariably guess wrong, as I do this time. When I finally get everything unraveled and my bag is open, the inspector comes over but never looks inside. He closes the top, smiles, and makes an obscene gesture with a finger. He seems very pleased to have having inconvenienced one American.

When I get out to the passenger pick up area I am pleased myself to notice the crowds are still pretty big and things are busy, just as they were three weeks ago when I came through. As I walk toward the car picking me up, I notice that, sitting on the sidewalk right outside BIAP, are some 15 or 20 enormous packages wrapped in very heavy duty plastic. It doesn't take long to realize from the shape of the packages that they contain the frames for the airport escalators that will connect the two active floors of this 50-gate airport.

I'm delighted to see this further evidence of a country in mid-turnaround. It seems a sign of good things to come when they are about to install escalators at the airport.

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