At Large

Flying The Rug With Captain Ayad

Taking off from bustling Baghdad International can be the adventure of a lifetime.

By 7.18.05

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When we pulled up to the Baghdad International (BIAP) terminal the temperature was about 125 degrees. After getting out of the SUV we were directed to spread all our belongings on the sidewalk while two dogs jogged up and sniffed. Then they sniffed us and we obviously passed the smell test. That didn't save us, however, from a serious frisking by the Ghurkas who are on patrol at the airport.

Anyone old enough to remember World War II will recall the many stories written about the legendary Ghurkas as they operated in Burma, remorselessly killing the Japanese invaders. They are famous for the wicked-looking Khukris carried in their belts which slit many a Japanese throat.

The first leg of my R&R journey back to the U.S. will be a two-hour flight to Beirut on the improbably named Flying Carpet airline. It consists of one plane, a Metro 227, which flies the Baghdad to Beirut round trip on Mondays and Thursdays. The reason for flying The Rug, as it's also called, is to avoid flying through Amman, Jordan, and the lengthy delays usually encountered there. The plane also flies occasionally to Erbil in northern Iraq but no one, including the airline's Baghdad agent, knows if the flight will do that today. Only Captain Ayad, the plane's legendary 6 foot 6 inch pilot (legendary at least here), knows where he is going and, apparently, he hasn't told anyone yet.

The Beirut flight was advertised to go "wheels up" out of Baghdad at noon. It actually took off almost four hours later, and, for most of that time, no one, including Captain Ayad, knew the location of the aircraft.

The area outside the terminal showed evidence that things have changed here even in the six weeks since I was last here. There are lots of red caps (they wear blue jackets here) and many baggage carts. Neither were to be seen a few weeks ago.

As soon as I stepped into the terminal it was obvious that Iraq has changed dramatically! The air-conditioning was working at about 60% of capacity. Six weeks ago it didn't work at all and the place was a steam box -- an absolutely empty steam box. Someone, some place, is producing all this electricity that no one seems to have heard about.

The real change is that the airport is mobbed! People are everywhere. Long lines lead up to many of the 50 gates, ticket counters, and information desks. Public address announcements are made every few minutes. Babies are crying. Kids are running around and screaming. A small mosque is doing a land office business right next to the main entrance to the terminal. There are 16 pairs of shoes neatly laid out right by the door to the mosque. Baggage carts piled six feet high with baggage are on the move all over the airport and the red caps seem grateful they aren't oil wildcatters, even with $60 oil! The Gardenia Port Cafe is serving up a steady stream of Cokes and cookies.

I had no idea! I am a news junkie! I watch the news when there is no news to watch! Where are all these vaunted, high priced, over-coiffed panderers of news to the left? Where is Christiane Amanpour and her head scarf? I heard that commercial airline service had resumed between Baghdad and Basrah from one of our employees whose mother lives next to the airport and saw the flights take off and land. I heard President Bush mention it during his news conference with Premier Al Jafari. But even W. has no clue as to how busy this airport really is and how well the Iraqi economy must be doing!

When the outside temperature is 125 degrees you are advised -- in fact, you are ordered -- to drink lots of water. I hate water but have done my best to drink some. This means an occasional visit to the men's room. The men's room at Baghdad International Airport has a new uniformed attendant who hands out towels, brushes off the shoulders of your polo shirt, and turns on the faucets! A few weeks ago when I started to sense a bit of a pick-up in the tempo of life in Baghdad I noticed that the Al Rasheed Hotel had hired a new attendant for its men's room. I am now convinced we have a new index of economic activity here.

How have the media missed this story so badly? How do they continue to miss it? If they avert their eyes long enough, of course, they will never notice what is going on in Iraq. Their policy of being consciously misinformed is precisely the objective of their Iraq news coverage. They dread the day they might have to confront reality and acknowledge that the situation in Iraq has gotten better and the improvement continues to gain momentum. What will become of their "Iraq is an unmitigated disaster" falsehood then? Every night the media paint a picture of an economy and a country that are both terminally ill. It's a picture of everything going down, down, down. That is simply not true!

I have not seen or heard a word about what is happening at BIAP and what that might represent for this country. I realized as I walked around the airport a couple of days ago that I will be anxious to get back here in three weeks, not only to help with the rebuilding, but to see how this country, with our help, continues to pull itself up by its bootstraps.

ONE CAN ALWAYS TELL The Rug is about to fly when you see Captain Ayad mosey out onto the middle of the terminal floor. The Captain can't be missed. At six foot six he hardly fits in the plane's cockpit. He is known far and wide in these parts as the guy who steers The Flying Carpet.

The Captain is Lebanese and speaks flawless English. He is always surrounded by lovely women, each more anxious than the next to tell him how terrified she is at the prospect of taking off from BIAP. The Captain then turns on his million-dollar smile and, all of a sudden, the women's fears melt away. The Flying Carpet check-in counter is wherever Captain Ayad is standing.

Around 3:30 p.m., The Rug finally showed up, but from where I have no idea. It just showed up! I could see it way out on the tarmac and it's very small and has propellers.

Now, I have nothing against propellers. In fact , for the first 15 years that I flew, jets didn't even exist! The first flight I ever took was when my family and I flew from Buenos Aires to New York in a DC-3 in November 1945. That plane carried 21 passengers and made the flight in 96 hours!

The first thing I noticed about The Rug's check-in routine is that this is one airline on which the combined weight of passenger and luggage seems to matter. The Captain told us we would have to pay $2 for each kilogram over our allowance of 17 kilos. He made it very clear that he would carefully track the aggregate weight we were about to put aboard against the plane's certified maximum allowable takeoff weight.

That seemed reasonable enough, but what happened next was not. As the passengers and bags got weighed, some were inevitably overweight and some underweight. What ensued was a lively and impromptu market in "overs and unders," just like the big auto companies do with their fleet emission standards. Passengers who were under the weight limit started to sell their "credits" to other passengers who were over. What I knew for sure was that absolutely no one was keeping track of the aggregate effect of all the "overs-and-unders" on the plane's takeoff weight.

Finally, it was time to board the plane. We got on a bus and started to head for the tiny plane in the distance. Midway through the ride, Captain Ayad realized he had forgotten to get the doctor he had parked in the VIP lounge. Back we went and collected her. Her baggage was never weighed at all!

The Metro 227 carries 20 passenegers in two single rows of ten passengers each. I have no idea where it is made (perhaps Brazil?) and I don't know the age of this aircraft. I do know it's a jet-prop because it says so on each of the engines.

The fear those attractive women had expressed to Captain Ayad about BIAP takeoffs was not a figment of their imagination. It had to do with terrorists who wait outside the perimeter of this huge facility (and it is huge) with shoulder-fired missiles trying to shoot planes down. A couple of years ago they managed to blow a pretty big hole in the wing of a landing FedEx cargo jet, which fortunately touched down the plane safely.

In order to avoid being hit by a deadly shot, all the planes landing and taking off do so in a corkscrew ascent or descent. This enables them to fly inside the perimeter of the protected airport below and not "protrude" over ground where the terrorists are roaming free.

After much to-ing and fro-ing the Captain and his co-pilot got into their seats and started our takeoff roll. And we rolled and rolled and rolled! Thank God, Captain Ayad had decided to use the entire runway. There came a point during the takeoff when I thought that maybe there had been too many luggage trades no one had kept track of. Finally, I felt the Metro lift twice and settle back.

The plane labored to climb and maintain altitude. At one point I felt Ayad was permanently stuck at 300 feet. But he is one cool cookie and knew what he was doing. It took about 25 minutes for him to make five full 360 degree circles inside the airport perimeter and get us up to about 8,000 feet and out of effective missile range. At that altitude Ayad leveled off and we headed northwest toward Beirut.

When the passengers realized the plane was no longer climbing and was in level flight, they broke into a big cheer and gave Ayad a very nice round of applause. He turned and looked back into the cabin and gave them a look of "Aw shucks, folks, it was nothing. Really. It was nothing!"

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