Departure from London was uneventful, but enroute the weather buildups were, if nothing else, spectacular. The cumulonimbus went up to about 45,000 feet and then there was the question of cumulogranite (the Alps) upto about 15,000. That meant we had to find an altitude higher than cumulogranite but less than our service ceiling of 25,000 feet. We opted for 21,000 and pushed on.
Arrival in Rome was also uneventful except that in locking the rear part of the plane and entering the front to allow a tug to park the plane, I managed to lose the keys. Now that would have been quite a disaster as I had replaced all the locks on the plane in preparation for this trip. The old locks could be easily opened with any old key but the new ones were specialty locks that you could not even get keys for except from the OEM (original equipment manufacturer). I looked all around and then saw a small piece sticking out from within the seat cushion. Relief….. the next day we went around Rome and saw the Coloseum, Fontana de Trevi and a bunch of other places that we could not pronounce. Most places were scaffolded up and under repairs that placed a damper on our spirits a little bit…..
Things had been going well, maybe too well…. So the following day we arrive at the airport for our departure promptly at 7:00 AM to make sure we get to Egypt in time to get our visa stamped at the arrival airport and then to travel to our hosts airport some 200 nm away. The lazy Italian handler showed up and informed us that the fuel truck would be over in 15 minutes. I waited for 25 minutes and then asked him to find out that the fuel truck could not be started. Another 30 minutes went by and no fuel truck. By this time I was quite agitated and no longer wanted to deal with the lazy/slacker Italian and asked him where I could find fuel. There was an airport about 8 miles but first I must cancel my existing flight plan to Egypt then fly to the refueling airport on a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) approved plan to get fuel. After much discussion with the Air Traffic Controllers, we were allowed to depart to the Urba airport to get fuel. We flew to Urba and got the fuel, then we had to file the Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan with the Italians, which must also be accepted by Eurocontrol (that has jurisdiction over the whole of the European air space) and should also be somehow acceptable to the Egyptians. After filing our flight plan with 18 interim intersections, VORS and way points, it was submitted to Eurocontrol with instructions for us to call back in 10 minutes. We had shut down our plane and were just parked on the side at the airport. Ten minutes later we called to find out that Eurocontrol had rejected our flight plan….well they accepted it the last time I filed exactly that same flight plan…what gives ? Well, that was from a different airport and we must have at least another way point identified. Another ten minutes went by as the controllers struggled to find an appropriate way point. Our flight plan was resubmitted to Eurocontrol and in about 30 minutes we had an approved flight plan, but with the caveat that we must maintain 15,000 MSL altitude. We figured we had oxygen, we could do it. We launched and were told to climb VFR to 13,000 to pick up our IFR clearance. With the looming hills and cloud buildups we dodged both and climbed to the assigned altitude. I had already strung out the oxygen lines and we donned our cannulas only to find out that the guage on the oxygen cylinder suddenly decided to go lower. Not a good surprise at 15,000 when we were both sucking oxygen. We decided to push on but immediately pulled up the enroute chart on the iPad to see where we needed to stay at that altitude. There was a mountain on the Island of Crete where we had to stay above 10,500 and the rest required a clearance to about 2000 feet. We decided that when we ran out of Oxygen, we will request a lower altitude and this technique always works. As we crossed the Greek Island of Crete, we requested the controllers to give us a lower altitude as we had run out of Oxygen. Our request was granted.
We were now approaching Egypt where the airspace is fully controlled by maintaining pre-determined flight paths thus keeping the airspace a little clearer and more manageable. The Greek controllers informed us that Egypt will not accept our Eurocontrol approved clearance and they will issue a new clearance. By this time the Greek radio was getting weaker and we could not get to the Egyptian radio and their controllers. Interesting predicament….either turn back to Greece or keep going and risk being shot down. With several repeated transmissions we were finally able to copy the Egyptian clearance. We requested a Lufthansa flight to relay our message to Egyptian controllers informing them that we were entering their airspace and that we were following the last clearance given to us. The Egyptian response was muffled at best. So, we next requested a Qatar airlines flight to relay our message again, as we really did not like the idea of getting shot down into the Mediterranean. The Egyptian controllers acknowledged and we breathed a sigh of relief. Our new clearance added another 45 minutes to our travel time and with the gumby suits on, our movements were seriously restricted, we were both getting very tired. The 6.5 hour trip had now turned into a 7.5 hour trip. While all of this was going on, our engine monitor indicated that number 5 cylinder had lost its temperature. I immediately looked at our speed, which had not dropped. I followed that by doing a mag check, which turned out OK for all cylinders except the #5. I changed the mixture settings and could see some flicker on the #5. I concluded that we had a bad probe in the #5 cylinder that must be addressed at some later point in time. These findings were confirmed when we changed our power settings in preparation for landing, the temperature indication came back for #5 cylinder. In aviation things can get interesting with weak radio transmissions to re-routed clearances to running out of oxygen to engine behaving erratically, things do get exciting for a while….
As we arrived at Mursa Matruh air field, the controller gave us an approach to fly and Haris got right down to setting up the approach after consulting the approach plate on the IPad, while I handled the radios. About 10 miles out we had visual contact with the air field and we requested a visual approach to cut down the extra 10-15 minutes it would have taken us to execute the full instrument approach. Our request was granted and we landed.
Upon landing, as we taxied to the ramp a circus like atmosphere took over for the locals who showed up in strength. We were both tired and wanted to get out of the Gumby suits but some of the locals were demanding passports, someone wanted to know how much fuel we wanted and another one was pointedly and objectively informing us that every transaction would be in cash and demanded to know if we actually had cash. As this circus was in full swing with about 30 people milling around and some taking pictures, I called up our Dispatchers, Eddie and Ahmed in Cairo. They asked me not to pay anyone anything until they talk to the individual personally. I was taking it all in-stride, but Haris had never seen anything quite like it and was in awe. I had been trying to prepare him for this and he had been quite skeptical, but now I saw him turning into a believer…..I know for a fact he will listen to me more intently from here on out.
That night Eddie informed us that the clocks will pull back an hour in preparation for Ramadan…a very valuable piece of information. In the morning we got breakfast and headed to the airport with the Egypt Air people who had been our hosts and guardians at Mersa Matruh. They helped our departure clearances, flight plans and everything else and got us into the air for the 1.5 hour flight to October 6 airport where Eddie and Ahmed were waiting for us. We were vectored around and asked to report over the field at 7000 feet. We were both a little frustrated about that but later found out that the air traffic controllers there did not have radar coverage and there is a lot of flight training at the airport and most of the separation is done with vectors and visual separation. That made sense and we got over our initial frustration….. time to meet Eddie and Ahmed….