The daring Silk Road

To ROCKET ROUTE who made this trip possible

Thursday May 23rd 2019

Luxembourg (ELLX) 4h42 Dubrovnik (LDDU)Over the Alps

We actually had planned, Patrice and I, to fly single engine from Luxembourg to Japan. A daunting project certainly, but at least something different. The planned “Silk Road” was to have taken us via Turkey, Oman, Pakistan, India, Thailand and China to the Empire of the Rising Sun. We undertook to lay out our daring project to the Chinese and Japanese Ambassadors… But fate decided differently: the Pakistan/Indian conflict and the unreasonable financial conditions by China had us abort this ambitious project. We fell back to the aeronautically doable part: Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Oxygen cannulas at FL 140 level

We planned two legs for today: Luxembourg-Dubrovnik where we do a fuelling pit-stop then to the Greek Island of Samos on the Turkish border. We leave early, the weather is just beautiful and Langen radar gives us a direct routing to Dinkelsbühl, at the foot of the Austrian Alps. Now we put the oxygen masks on as we have to climb to FL 140. The scenery is fabulous, the mountain tops emerge from the mist of their white crowns. We inhale the oxygen that wonderfully fill our lungs till we reach the Croatian border where we start a long descend to destination along the Dalmatian coast. Air Traffic Control puts us on a holding pattern to let the low- costs jets touch down. We feel so sorry for the people of Dubrovnik as 3 cruise ships lay at the city’s gate while chartered planes were letting out thousands of cheap beer drinkers.

The Austrian Alps in all their splendor

Dubrovnik (LDDU) 3h48 587NM Samos (LGSM) Balkanisation

The route runs via Albania, Makedonia to Greece. Zeus is angry: heavy CBs are inflating over the mountains… We contact “Balkan Radio”: the ATCs of Skopje, Tirana, Makedonia and Thessaloniki are relaying us through this Olympic maze. The airliners are announcing the menu Zeus has prepared for all of us: Air Traffic Controls are being overwhelmed with requests to avoid: 10° here to the left, 20° there to the right, everybody tries to get the hell out of here. Soon at FL 130 we are being encircled by the Olympic giants.

In-between the storms …

We are changing headings so often that we do not even ask for permission anymore which has ATC ask us: “LX-SRD intentions?” West of Thessaloniki we escape the thunderstorms and calm weather takes us to final destination. Now it is Aeolus, God of the Winds that is annoying us by slowing us down with 40knts headwinds. Luckily Patrice knows his plane well. The SR22 cruises at FL110 at 162knts by using 10,9 gallons per hour. Thus, the aircraft has an endurance of 6h30.

Samos is the closest Greek island to Turkey. Therefore, it is the prime destination for migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Welcome to Greece, Calimero! Trouble may start:

-once parked, Control makes us move the aircraft by hand -after half an hour waiting for refueling, we are told the tanker went home for the evening

-after 7h30 hours of solid flying we are looking forward to diving in the hotel pool.  Customs makes us wait long enough to ruin the evening. Schengen has never arrived at Samos.

The grilled Daurade with its bed of olive oil marinated vegetable make us quickly forget the airport’s annoyances.

Samos, the scam island

Friday May 24th 2019

SAMOS (LGSM) 5h32 800NM HURGHADA (HEGN)

As we wanted to take off at 8am, we showed up at the airport at 6.15am to refuel. The Greek adventure continues:

-Nicosia invents a NOTAM and cancels our flight plan

-the tanker makes us again move the plane

-customs never showed up

We took off an hour late according to flight plans. Apart from the delicious food nothing works here properly.

I am PIC this morning. We quickly climb to FL 110 and Aeolus; the infamous wind god blows another

40 knots headwind that slows our march to the land of the Pharaohs. We put on our Mae Wests as we are basically crossing the whole Mediterranean, a 4-hour maritime crossing. Thank God the engine does not know. Patrice bought a 4-seater SEAGO Life raft. This raft is covered and equipped with the most essential life-saving equipment: knife, emergency rockets, survival kit, under water stabilizers… We mentally practise the aircraft water evacuation, by the other side of which the parachute has come down. We several times practice a dry procedure…

On the way via Cairo to Hurghada

Our route flies past Rhodes, then between Cyprus and Crete. 3 hours later we coast Egyptian land. Finally ground! Sand haze stops us from seeing Alexandria, but soon we reach Cairo and its life sustainable artery the river Nile. We even briefly can make out the Gizeh Pyramids before heading for the Gulf of Suez. We can distinguish the Sinai, a place we want to avoid overflying since some Jihadists groups have acquired ground to air missiles that can reach at the altitude we are flying. The landscape is biblical. The heat is brewing heavy turbulences over the mountains. Hurghada ATC vectors us in over the sea to avoid these. I softly put down the SR22 on the 34R runway with 20knts of tailwind.

Refueling by the military

Hurghada welcomes us with 40°C shade temperature! The heat knocks us down, we are drained. Patrice agrees that it is enough for today. We will fly to Kuwait tomorrow so we can cool down in the Marriott’s pool and in the Suez Gulf’s lagoon.

Saturday May 25th 2019 HURGHADA (HEGN) 5h20 850NM KOWEIT (OKBK)“Inch Allah “

From the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf

After a good night’s sleep, we get up at dawn for a 7am departure. At 6am we seem to be the first guests at the airport and quickly clear customs. At 6.30am we are at our aircraft, a first! At 7.04am Patrice starts the engine, at 7.25 we are rotating and at 8.20am we coast Saudi Arabia. Jeddah Control has taken over ATC and all instructions concluded with “Inch Allah”, if God will! We are established at FL 110 for a 5h20 flight. A sea of sand lies under our wings, a lunar landscape without shade… the thought of an emergency landing in hostile territory sends shivers down our spines… And again, headwinds are slowing us down… we are burning precious fuel at an alarming rate. Not too bad at the beginning at 7 to 8 knots the headwind increases to 21 knots at Ornil. We closely monitor the EMS which indicates 16 gallons left upon arrival.

Agriculture fields in the Saudi desert

That’s enough, if nothing else goes wrong, no more margin! We are passing the non-return point, as an alternate we only have the Haf Al Batin airfield left, which does not answer our radio calls. Fortunately, as we were getting worried with the lack of radio communication, the Saudi military call us on the “on guard” emergency frequency to advise to call Kuwait Approach. This time it is for us to say, “Inch Allah”. Wouaah!

Approaching Kuwait City

Now we are in good hands for the last 45 minutes to destination. Running the last numbers, we have 1h15 minutes left upon touch down. We are leaving 13°c coolness at flight level 110 to descend to runway 15 left in use where 44°Care baking Kuwaiti ground.

Long final to OKBK Farwaniya Kuwait International Airport

Sunday May 26st 2019

A day of rest, visit of Kuwait-City

After a good night’s sleep, we visit the city. Ahmed our guide takes through what are the things to be seen. Kuwait is a dry city state. There is no booze, not even in the international hotels. Furthermore, we are in the midst of Ramadan and we have to hide when we drink a sip of water. All restaurants are closed till sunset when the fasting ends. A true paradise for people on a diet and looking for a retreat. I think the Old age pensioner’s home of my mother in Howald has more activity than the whole of Kuwait City. A heaven of peace for the lucky ones of this Emirate where about 2 million people live of which a little more than half are expatriates. The oil curse is everywhere! We visit the Tariq Jarabe Museum, a former Prime Minister. This private collection gathered by his British wife of Brazilian origin is definitely magnificent and is a must to for every traveler. The collection gathers in the former Statesman’s residence, the rich history of Islamic culture from the 9th century onwards. It prouds works of art from the Afghan, Turkoman, Omanite, Moroccan, Tunisian and Syrian Islam that shows the diversity of this varied culture.

We end the day on the beaches of the Persian Gulf where I start writing the first impressions of our trip. We also indulge swimming in the too hot water which ends with light burns on the arms by jellyfish. These are infesting not only these Persian waters but also the Mediterranean and even our Northern lake in Luxembourg…

Monday May 27th 2019

Kuwait (OKBK) 3h15 479NM Abu Dhabi Al Bateen (OMAD) – The grip of oil

I am PIC today. The departure procedures are not too complicated. We fueled a barrel of 200 liters which should be enough to reach the Emirates. 30 liters are missing for a full fill-up but to do so would have meant opening a new 200 liters to be paid in full… at $6,- a liter!

We have no more oxygen either. We asked for a refill upon our arrival 2 days ago. But we were billed $75,- by handling for the service. The oxygen people came by the day after our request but never told us so… and without paying, no take-off clearance. Arguing is vain… While climbing to FL 110, we cross the Saudi border. The track runs along Dammam where 25 years ago I negotiated for Guardian with the Al-Zamil industrial group a float line project.

From Bahrain  overflying Qatar to the Strait of Hormuz

Soon thereafter we take an easterly course towards Bahreïn. The causeway, the mythical bridge that binds the island to Saudi Arabia, is commonly used by the Saudis on weekends to seek a little bit of common pleasures. Then we cross Qatar, the rejected, that Saudi Arabia wants to cut off from the mainland by a canal. Saudi Arabia fears Qatar’s pro-Iranian’s stance.

Actually, Doha Control wants confirmation of our call-sign. They don’t deal too often with Luxembourg based single engine planes… 48 minutes inbound to destination we switch over to Emirate control which vectors us straight into Al Bateen.

The “Chics” between the Sheikhs

We covered today Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar till Abu Dhabi! But we are here also disappointed: the maintenance company refuses to fill our oxygen bottle! We typically fly between flight levels 100 and 120 (3.000 to 4.000 meters). After 3 hours into the flight we start feeling the lack of oxygen. A 6-hour flight affects the reaction capacities.

Tuesday May 28th, 2019

Discovering Abu Dhabi

We visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a grandiose white marvel whose domes and minarets are gold plated. This house of prayer offers room for 35.000 worshippers.

20.000 tourists like ourselves visit the Mosque every day. We are in the midst of Ramadan: tonight 30.000 will come to pray and celebrate the Iftar, the end of the day’s fasting. Everybody is welcome, Muslims and others to whom the Ruler will serve a warm meal when the sun has set down. Across the street there is the Wahat Al Kamara, a museum- monument in memory of all the heroes that have since 1971 sacrificed their lives for the Emirates

Then we pay a visit to the Abu Dhabi Louvre. Another architectural piece of art, a temple of high culture. 

The Curator is a genius. For having 7 years ago set up the FLIEGERMUSEE in Mondorf-les- Bains, Luxembourg’s one and only Air Museum, I know what showing less thus presenting more means. In this Louvre off- spring the visitor is being led from the Bronze Age to Gauguin. France’s greatest museums have works of art on loan here which shows this country’s greatness, a country impoverished by taxes.

The Orsay Museum, the Orangerie, the Museum of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, the Arts Asiatiques-Guimet Museum, the French National Library, le Grand Palais, Versailles, the Cluny & Rodin Museums, Fontainebleau, Chambord made France the “Grande Nation” it is. A truly 3-star museum that deserves a dedicated visit. I have specially kept in my mind is one of Leonardo da Vinci other grand masterpiece called “La Belle Ferronnière”.

More than 1000 years separate the above mask from North China’s Abu Dhabi Louvres and the car below in Yas Ferrari World.

We close the day by driving around Yas Island which portrays the Emirate in the 21st century. The Formula I track and Ferrari World are… out of this world.

… or the marina which houses “PELORUS”, The Magnificent, the yacht of the Emir …

Wednesday May 29th, 2019

The beaten paths of Dubai

Dubai epitomizes the incredible, the over-dimensioned, a mixture between magic and megalomania, a Disney wold, a forest of high rise buildings one surpassing the other in height and beauty, intertwined by giant malls and their thousands of shops… the marina must come from another planet, tiny in the midst of the giants, further and further from the sea reclaimed as a Sheikh might find it necessary to have his sea-view .

The highest Bulding in the world: the Burj Dubai, 828 meters tall with 162 floors…

Thursday May 30th, 2019

Diplomacy

Panoramic view from Luxembourg onto Abu Dhabi.

It is today Valérie’s 29th birthday, our third child. She is today in Luxembourg participating in an old-timer rally, in a Saab dating from my youth, around the country. I send her kisses from the Persian Gulf…

We have the privilege this morning to meet with Luxembourg’s Ambassador to the Emirates, Misses Elisabeth Cardoso. She is posted here just over 2 years and being assisted by her DCM Mister Loïc Bertolo, a 3-year veteran of the Emirates. They kindly thoroughly brief us on the region. Abu Dhabi is definitely opening up to the world. Emir Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayan is the U.A.E.’s President

In the magnificent drawing rooms of our Embassy.

The United Arab Emirates are 7. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai is the Prime Minister. Some of the strict clothing regulations particularly for women have been lifted, so have the Ramadan day food restrictions. The government has made of tolerance its “Leitmotiv” by opening the Grand Mosque to the world’s religion in mutual respect. Thus a month ago our Pope Francis celebrated a mass there during his official visit last month. The opening is going step by step says the Ambassador, but with far reaching consequences. This opening is not only political and religious, it is also cultural as shown by the Abu Dhabi Louvre located in an area specifically dedicated to cultural. We also discuss Luxembourg’s economic interests in the region: Cargolux, Arendt & Medernach in Dubai, Guardian à Ras Al Quayman and Dammam in Saudi… fascinating how the world develops…

Friday May 31st 2019

ABU DHABI (OMAD) 3h54 463NM KOWEIT (OKBK) – Return Home

Still without oxygen …

We are now on the home bound track. Today’s final destination is Aqaba, Jordan via Kuwait for a fuel stop. We are cruising at FL 100 still without oxygen. Our route takes us through the middle of the Persian Gulf, leaving Bahrein and Qatar on our left and the coast of Iran on our right. We are on a North/North/Eastern course. Aeolus is holding against us; I probably should not have cursed the Greek as he heavily throws headwinds at us. As we reach the latitude of Bahrein the wind doubles in intensity. We crawl at 118knts ground speed with a plane that cruises in normal conditions at 180knts… also the political tensions of the region are catching up on us. On the “On Guard” frequency 121,5, the emergency frequency, I catch “preceding aircraft, this is Iranian Air Force, identify yourself!”. Holy sh…! Patrice is absorbed with fuel consumption calculation, “what is it?”. The Iranians are intercepting one of ours, or is it meant for us? It is time to get the hell out of here… and Bahrein ATC immediately changes our heading to the Saudi coast. Certainly enough, soon after tankers were attacked, may be some that we saw today?

Fleeing Iranian Air Force…

We will never know who exactly the Iranian Air Force tried to intercept, but we are happy to have now Kuwait in sight. We have to no avail looked out for the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier that President Trump sent to the Hormuz Detroit. But he cannot be too far as this place sucks… I touch down after 3h35 of flight on the 35R of Kuwait City. 46°C in the shade! We try again to have our oxygen bottle filled. The maintenance guys are doing all they can, but they have the wrong adapter although our bottle is FAA and EASA certified. And its Friday, the maintenance shop is closed!

In the meantime the fuel guy arrives and we become again the happy owner of a 200L barrel of Avgas at Kuwaiti Dirham 300, € 890, – or € 4,45 per liter! Pure happiness in the Q8 country that float on crude. The fuel guy asks me to show my credit card, although we fueled here 4 days ago. Too many refuel and don’t pay he answers to my astonishment. And it is difficult to empty the wings tanks… that says it all about payment morality in this paradise. But the oxygen saga is not over. Handling has put $ 700, – on the bill although we have inhaled a single breath of fresh air. Then a Souk carpet dealer discussion starts. When finally settled, the handler calls the Police to let me out onto the tarmac. The Police Officer that showed up shortly after (Patrice is baking with 50°C in the cockpit while I enjoy air-conditioned high-level conversation), must have come out from West Point or even Sandhurst as he asks the handler what am I doing here? Where are my entry and exit visas? Help! The poor lady (Philippine) has to explain him that the Captain (that’s me) is in transit and the only reason he (me) is in her office is to the charity contribution of the landing fees. The brilliant officer grasps the difficulty of the situation quickly. It only takes a few minutes for the information that had entered his ears for them to climb to his brain ersatz. This genius then opened the door to the world’s furnace to let me get baked on the way to our aircraft. Pure joy, particularly the fact that we spent less than 2 hours on the ground cost us $ 900,-  plus fuel, it was cheap stop-over of $ 2.100,- When we finally want to leave this S..hole, the tower in its magnanimity informs us that no flight plan was available. There are 46°C outside and 50°C + inside the cabin. It is after all Friday in the Ramadan week and the lovely Kuwaitis just don’t care. We have to cut the engine and start the flight- planning all over again although it would have taken the controller exactly half a second to push the button for the flight plan activation.

Same Day

Kuwait (OKBK) 5h24 780NM Aqaba (OJAQ) Iraqi border

Along the southern border of Iraq

Finally, airborne. Patrice is PIC 780NM of the most hostile desert territory to cross. Kuwait Departure makes us fly a detour of some 50NM to avoid a military base. Maybe that’s where the USAF has positioned its bombers? But we are burning precious fuel. Now I am convinced that Aeolus, God of the winds is a Kuwaiti. He throws 53knts headwinds at us. The EMS shows -23 gallons upon (non) arrival.

The non-return point is at AJF somewhere in Saudi Arabia. The weather forecast inland is supposed to improve. We take up more what is a gamble than a challenge. We fly just South along the Iraqi border happy to escape the Iranian one where aircraft and ships interception are common. In Iraq, the USAF, at least we reassure ourselves with this conviction, is in control. As we make way we request from Saudi control more westerly headings which ATC grants us with a friendly “Habibi Captain” … As we approach Jordan, strong turbulence’s over the bordering mountains are shaking us throughout. Here King Salomon led his Jewish folk to escape persecution from the Pharaohs to reach the Promised Land. Hence the local acronym “King Salomon Highway”. Turbulence’s are so severe that they disengage the auto-pilot. We are losing altitude at 2.000, -/minute while having full throttle. Patrice dives to pick up speed and fights to gain back lost altitude. Altitude rain shake us as drops that will never reach the ground because of evaporation come and die on our windshield.

Altitude rain

The Red Sea approach is just one of the aeronautically most superb as Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan look like twin cities with literally side by side runways. You just better don’t miss the right one…

The mountains by which King Solomon with his people fled Egypt
In Aqaba short final OJAQ

Sunday June 2nd, 2019

AQABA (OJAQ) 5h18 724NM SINTIA (LGST) – The Suez Canal

From the Gulf of Aqaba to the Suez Canal

It’s still dark when we reach the airport. We got up at 4.30am, a record. You might wonder why we do this to ourselves?  Well we don’t know either… Handling in Aqaba is polite and efficient. At 6h40am I rotate LX-SRD in the first light of dawn. We climb on runway heading 01 at what seems to be millimeter from the Israeli border.

The inhospitality of the Sinai

At 7.000 feet right turn over the King Salomon’s Highway with a 180° turn back to Aqaba. Back over the Red Sea we take a Westerly course to cross the Sinai en route to Cairo (VOR CVO) at FL 120. The Sinai, holy land but so inhospitable, thousand times cut by sharp hills and… no shade. There would be no place for an emergency landing.

Flight over the mouth of the Suez Canal

In case of any serious trouble there would only the parachute to be pulled. 30mns later we already cross the Suez Gulf just south of its famous Canal. It is time for breakfast: this morning for each of us: 1 banana, 1 apple, 1 biscuit and to finish off a chewing gum. The gum is for teeth cleaning but also to activate salivation to facilitate digestion. We don’t dare to drink anything neither before nor during these long flights and dehydration is an issue.

The Nile carving Cairo

Nor do we need to expand on the state of our prostates at our age… Soon we are above Cairo. A village of 20 million people cut in half by the vital lifeline of the Nile

The concentration of the bridges indicates the city centre. We unfortunately cannot locate the Gizeh pyramids nor those of Saqqara.

As we hit the Mediterranean coast, a headwind of 29knts picks us up. The Kuwaiti Aeolus still seems to be very angry…

The Crete approach is quite original. It rains at FL100. A Scandinavian liner precedes us to drop off a full load of holiday makers and Heraklion Radar puts us on a standard 7.000 feet approach followed by a holding pattern before final 23 landing clearance. The “Parker” a young lady batman waives us into parking position. She turns out to be a lady of many trades. She is also the handler and within a record time of 15 mns we clear customs and landing fees so that we can move on to the fueling station. All personnel in the airport is definitely at her “attention”. She barks orders over the terminal. “I am half Italian” she admits which obviously explains her efficiency. The airport closes in 20mns from 1 to 7 pm for some strange reason. If we are not airborne before then, we can spend the time in Heraklion. Till sunset… The fuel man explains that the airport is opened at night and therefore it has to close in the afternoon. Still I have difficulties to grasp the logic of it… Anyway, we are airborne again in less than 45 minutes, a ground rotation exceptional for Greece, a country still full of (positive) surprises.

Same Day

SINTIS (LGST) 4h24 595NM Dubrovnik (EDDU) – Giants of the Olympus

Refueling in Sintia

As we fly by the Milos and Santorin islands, wonderful souvenirs of previous fly-out pop up. White clouds ornate the mountains north of Athens. Threatening CBs pretend to block our route. We decide to deviate north of the Peloponnese via the Canal of Corinth. We are not the only one to fear Zeus’s anger: Condor, Lufthansa, Air France and other are asking vectors “to avoid”. Athens control offers us to reroute to another airfield. Never heard of in Greece! We take a Westerly route over the sea over Corfu leaving Tirana to the East leaving the Giants of the Olympic hammer down on this part of the world. We land in Dubrovnik under torrential rain. So bad that the Lufthansa behind us asks for visibility and runway contamination…

Take off from Sintia

we will overnight in a small Inn here. A little walk is reminding us of the privilege we have to live in latitudes where everything is green, flowers blossoming everywhere, birds singing… the paradise of Eden. Spring is filling our souls after the deserts.

Passing the island of Milos
The line of storms that cut the Peloponnese from mainland Greece
Short final in Dubrovnik under heavy rain

Monday June 3rd, 2019

DUBROVNIK (EDDU) 4h40 739NM EGELSBACH (EDFE) 1h06 98NM LUXEMBOURG (ELLX)

We fuelled last night. Croatian handling is brief and efficient. Soon we take to the air for what we thought to be our last leg of the trip. In these early hours the crossing of the Austrian Alps is relatively simple although the first CBs are growing by the minute. We cross Ljubljana, Klagenfurt and Salzburg. The view is just breath taking. The storms and frontal systems of the last days left fresh snow on the mountain’s tops. The road leads via Munich and what an interesting albeit strange feeling to watch the commercial carriers passing below us. We continue towards Saarbrucken when strange cloud formations appeared on the horizon. Langen Control warns “LX- SRB, heavy CB sqwak line from the Swiss border to the North of Frankfurt, we recommend to circumvent, say intentions?” Damn it, so close from final destination.

For a change strong head winds had slowed our progress and the fuel tanks were nearing to emptiness. Patrice and I quickly agreed to take Egelsbach as an alternate, a field we know well. The sky quickly darkens, and the Roeder people kindly offer us to put the aircraft inside as hail is feared. We did well, an incredible strong storm with masses of water pours over Frankfurt. Patrice had checked the weather forecast and predicted that it will be over in an hour and a half. And an hour and an half later we were on our way back to Luxembourg where we landed after 11 days, 48,25  flying hours and a trip of 6.862 nautical miles.

Acknowledgements

My foremost appreciation goes to my friend and co-pilot in this adventure Patrice Deyglun. If we managed to push this adventure to the end it is mainly because of his never tiering perseverance to find a solution when roadblocks appeared. He exchanged with the “conciergerie” of ROCKET ROUTE, a flight planner organization, more than 1000 emails since October 2018 to organize this trip to the latest detail.

We take both the opportunity to thank and congratulate ROCKET ROUTE and particularly their “conciergerie” service for the extraordinary well planning of our trip. They knew how to adapt in the many last-minute changes.

Our deepest appreciation also goes to the maintenance company ROEDER PRAEZISION (Egelsbach) for their financial support in sponsoring a 1oohrs inspection. We had not a single technical issue during our trip although we put the SR22 through extreme conditions.

Finally, a big thank you to Marc Chevènement from HELI LUXEMBOURG who so kindly sponsored a tank of AVGAZ gasoline (300L).

Without them we would not have left… thanks to them we safely came back.

Text :                 Jean Ries

Pictures :           Patrice Deyglun/Jean Ries