Same Time, Same Place, Same Level – Chapter 20

Loading in the shadows

Controllers and pilots are really a big, worldwide family. True, they have their differences, but then, which family does not? They all serve the   flying  public and they help each other wherever they can, on and off duty alike. They also like to think of the world as a big, free place where airspace is there for all to use and enjoy and for them political borders are mostly just lines on a map…  Flying , this wonderful invention of humanity, is basically a peaceful business and that it is sometimes abused to bring sorrow and destruction to those below is really the shame of some political masters.

That the  flying  people remain friends who respect each other to the bitter end even when pitched against each other is amply demonstrated by numerous events that live on in their common memory. Take for example those  flying  heroes of the First World War, where, after an ace of the Austrian-Hungarian air force had been shot down, the British fighters dropped a wreath of flowers from the clouds when he was being buried. In the present world, torn as it is by strife and enmity, aviation is once again called upon to do its bit. But as you will see, the old spirit lives on…

In the 70s, The airport in Budapest, though busy by Eastern European standards, was often a quiet place with only a few planes parked around. It was also an unlikely candidate for a major arms shipment operation, but may be for this very reason it had been chosen by the powers that be to became the originator of flights carrying ammunition, small arms and heaven knows what else. The aircraft participating in this came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Aeroflot’s IL62-s, arriving at the dead of night for a quick refueling stop, bound for Luanda, could have passed for your old garden variety civilian flight, except for the always dark windows and the guards posted around it, with only the fuel browser allowed anywhere near…

Then, during the crisis in Ethiopia, there were two unmarked Boeing 707-s with US registration permanently stationed at thelittle field. Though these aircraft were always loaded at night, only a blind man could miss the familiar wooden crates, painted that horrid shade of gray-green the military seem to be so fond of the world over. The pilots spoke with a Texas drawl and paid cash for everything from fuel to parking. The load control office had never seen so many greenbacks, before or since, as those guys were wont to carry around. There were also rumors of the black market price of the dollar dropping sharply in the capital during those days as the supply suddenly increased on the streets. I am sure “les pappillons” of Budapest hold many a sweet memory of those days.

With such preliminaries no one was really surprised when the behemoth IL76 cargo planes of Iraqi Airways started paying regular visits, once again exhibiting a peculiar affinity for those wooden crates. What had been surprising, however, was the openness of it all. This ungainly joke of an airplane would be parked right in the middle of its less sinister brethren, with loading being done in plain view of all who cared to look. This was all changed, however, when one nice day the lifting fork operator managed to drop one of the crates and its contents, readily identifiable as brand new automatic rifles, spilled all over the apron. What the crew of the Lufthansa 737 parked next to this spectacle had thought is anybody’s guess…

Once the loading of the IL76 had been moved to a less visible part of the field, things appeared to have returned to normal. Until one day, that is, when the flight plan of an Iranian Boeing 747 arrived, followed by a strict order from operations that this aircraft is to be parked as far away from the terminal as possible and that no one, but absolutely no one was to approach it for any reason whatsoever… Of course nobody had to be told the reasons for these precautions. Controllers were wondering though, what with the Shah of Iran having been elected as an Honorary Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (a pure, friendly gesture, of course, without any sneaky expectation of this having beneficial effects on trade relations…), and now arms being sold to the man who had ousted him. Well, as they say, money has no smell, and the country needed that hard currency real bad, before, and then. With tongue in cheek the advantages of fighting a war where both sides use arms of the same make and caliber was also pointed out. Though at first the IL76 and the Boeing 747 took turns at being on the concrete, employees at the airport could not stop speculating about what would happen if ever they were to drop in together.

As the tempo of the war picked up, so did the frequency of the alternating visits of those adversaries. Things started to get more and more finely cut until one morning the fully loaded departing Ilyushin met the incoming Boeing smack in the middle of the southbound airway. Though they were safely separated from an air traffic control point of view, still controllers held their breath. That they were aware of the purpose of their respective flights they were sure of. As they passed each other, controllers heard a brief exchange of words in a language none of them could understand. Only one thing was clear. Those words were not that of hate, rather they were words of greeting exchanged between long suffering colleagues…

A few weeks later the thing to be avoided at all costs came to pass. The Iraqi IL76 and the Iranair Boeing 747 landed within a few minutes of each other. No one knew how this fatal mistake in diplomatic coordination could have come about, but that it threw the security people into frantic activity was for sure. The two planes were parked prudently at opposite ends of the airport but they would have had to be blind not to see each other, had they not been, anyway, on the same radio frequency for several minutes before landing.

The way things seemed to have gotten out of hand that day, it was not surprising the two crews came into the briefing office to file their return flight plans again within a few minutes of each other. The more faint-hearted briefing officers, convinced that shooting was only seconds away, already started looking for a good place to hide. There was deathly silence as the two groups of uniformed men eyed each other. Then, as if on command from an invisible director, the two four-stripers shook hands with a knowing smile on their faces which could not quite touch their eyes. Yes, their eyes will only smile again when instead of grim, green boxes they will once again be called upon to haul laughing tourists or crates of dates and marmalade.



Source by Steve Zerkowitz