Same Time, Same Place, Same Level – Chapter 13

VIP – The Very I? Person

Ever wondered what that little red luggage-tag, with “VIP” printed prominently on it, was supposed to signify? Very Idiotic, oh sorry, Important Passenger. There are various ways to earn such distinction and these include   flying  the same line very, very often or making it to Head of State. The former may expect to have his luggage treated with extra care or extra carelessness, depending on the disposition and political convictions of the luggage-handlers, will certainly draw extra smiles and booze from the airline staff and just as certainly he or she will have no influence whatsoever on the workings of air traffic control. They are the little VIP’s, you see. Now the big VIP’s, that is an altogether different kettle of fish. Air Force One (the US president’s flight), or Rainbow (the flight of British Royalty) will certainly not go unnoticed by ATC. Though exactly how much notice they receive is likely to change from place to place. That you cannot be a prophet in your own backyard seems especially true here. Air Force One  flying  over the continental USA is a very different flight from the Air Force One going to Moscow, for instance.

“Big VIP’s” are treated as something really special in some parts of the world, Eastern Europe in the distant past having been a prime example. They closed whole routes and aerodromes to speed the VIP on its way and for lesser VIP’s, as a minimum, double separation from other traffic was provided. Leaders of the truly democratic nations would have probably been acutely embarrassed had they been aware of how much inconvenience the general traveling public was put to on their account in the communist countries. Leaders of these latter didn’t seem to mind, though… When THEY  flew , everything else had to stop. That this could lead to utterly crazy situations, well, read on for proof.

Red VIPs, blue VIPs

Let’s picture a real life situation that came about several times in the past, like the General Secretary of the Hungarian communist party heading West (no, not to stay there, silly!). He rated closure of the airport in Budapest as well as the airway towards Vienna. This airway happened to be one of the busier routes of the European network, so its closure within Hungary meant a big detour for some flights and in-flight holding just in front of the Hungarian border for others.

As you will have guessed by now, Austria, as opposed to Hungary, was not in the habit of closing airways on account of VIP flights, being of the opinion that if their ATC can handle in perfect safety the hundreds of flights coming their way every day, one more, albeit VIP, flight should make no difference. They could do precious little about the neighbor’s action, however, and ended up with flights piling up on the common border, waiting for the “big man” to pass. Well, yes, they would leave one flight level free for this purpose. So, the General Secretary’s aircraft took off from a very quiet aerodrome and for the first 150 miles of its journey it  flew  in majestic solitude. The blokes responsible for the security of the party boss and inventors of this madness looked on with satisfied eyes. They have done their job well. Once the plane passed into Austria, the magic ended of course. Not onlywas there no double separation, but the flight had to pass right through the jam it had created in the first place. It is a pity these “safety experts” were never around to see ATC struggling with the tide of aircraft coming from all directions, once the closed route was reopened…

The reverse of this setup had once led to a completely unexpected complication. Western Heads of State have the disconcerting habit of traveling on state visits using commercial flights. At the same time, pilots of commercial flights are not exactly used to having aerodromes and air routes closed on their account. The reception committee was already on its way to the airport in Budapest, the closure of the field having been made common knowledge days before. The government protocol chief, whose job it was to know everything, was getting definitely worried when his repeated telephone calls to ATC failed to produce an ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) of the flight bringing the VIP. As the normal scheduled arrival time drew near and still there was no sign of the plane (incidentally operated by an airline famous for its punctuality) ATC also started thinking that something funny was taking place.

The puzzle was resolved a few minutes later, when the telex machine started clattering, spitting out an urgent message from the operations office of the airline concerned, cheerfully announcing an estimated time of arrival just a few minutes AFTER the pre-announced airport closure was to end. A telephone call to the airline’s local representative finally cleared up the misunderstanding, letting the pilot know that the airport was indeed closed to all flights, except his…

Danish VIP

History tends to repeat itself, and that is exactly what happened a few years later. Same airport, Budapest, same airline. The Danish prime minister, who had been on a state visit to Hungary, and who had arrived on a regular Finnair flight, was due to leave, again on a regular flight, this time operated by Austrian Airlines. Once again the closure of the airport, as well as the Hungarian section of airway G1 had been announced days before. When Austrian’s shiny MD-81 taxied in, no doubt her pilot wondered why, instead of their usual slot, they were marshalled to park broadside in front of the terminal. As events were to prove, even the presence of a full army band in dress uniform was not enough to raise his suspicions. The fact that his aircraft was serviced with unusual speed must have escaped his attention also.

Regulations required that in such cases garden variety passengers be boarded first, the purpose being to provide a safely controlled passage for the VIP… This had been done, I am sure much to the satisfaction of the Austrian captain, who promptly radioed the tower for permission to depart 15 minutes early. He did not say it, but his intention had clearly been to avoid the delay associated with the pre-promulgated aerodrome closure. In the end the day was saved by the tower supervisor, who casually asked the pilot if he had the VIP on board. “What VIP?”-came his surprised reply. By this time, fortunately, ground personnel had also realized what was happening, what with the stews preparing to close the doors just when the band started sounding the first tunes of a lively march…

As it turned out, the Danish VIP team had made themselves the most ordinary of reservations, properly mindful of the taxpayers’ money, they were checked in through the computer like everybody else and indeed, should have been on board like everybody else. Not aware of the fussy Hungarian arrangements, the captain had only on concern, to keep his schedule. Well done, Austrian!

What is your flag?

That  flying  protocol chiefs must have a hard time is amply illustrated by the following story. ATC was expecting the chief of some African state, and the controller working the approach position in Budapest heard the pilot radio ahead to ask confirmation that the Hungarian flag was indeed red-white-red, with a double headed eagle in the middle. He was asking, they knew from experience, because it had always been the custom of these VIP aircraft to  fly  the receiving state’s flag in the cockpit window after landing.

What had been completely unexpected in this case was, of course, their total ignorance of the Hungarian national colors, red-white-green. Red-white-red with a double headed eagle could have passed in the times of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, but would have raised a few eyebrows in the early eighties.

Very, very politely (it was rumored the government wanted to do business with them real bad…) controllers appraised the pilot of their ignorance and he acknowledged the news in a choked voice. It was only natural that everyone crowded to the window when the decrepit Boeing 707 taxied to the terminal, to see what kind of flag they had come up with finally. You guessed it, there was no flag…

Korean pipe pipe to

What probably amounts to the most memorable VIP movement in the history of Budapest airport had been provided by a Korean delegation. While the airline of North Korea has had no regular flights to Budapest, they did turn up time and again in their Russian built Tupolev 154. Korean Five Five Two (the call sign they invariably pronounced “Koreean Pipe Pipe To”) became something of a legend and controllers drew lots to decide who would man the approach position when they came. The lucky ones lost… At best it was a nightmare to control the Koreans and so when one day ATC learned they were coming with a VIP delegation on board, most of the guys immediately regretted not having called in sick that morning.

There must have been some mix-up within the protocol department also, for even before ATC got old pipe-pipe-to on the frequency, they revised the stand to be assigned to the aircraft at least three times. The latest revision had called for a parking position right in front of the terminal. To understand the significance of this, one has to know that air bridges were not yet used, so planes were usually parked in a long row about 150 meters from the main building, in plane view of the visitors strolling the observation terrace. There was also a team of marshallers, and it was their responsibility to wave the machines into their proper positions. There was also a fleet of mobile passenger stairs, which could move around under their own steam, using built in batteries. As a nice, rural touch, the marshallers had bicycles to run around on the ramp.

Well, pipe-pipe-to managed to land without major incident and when he reported having the marshaller in sight, the tower let him switch off his radio. The rest would be the ground crew’s responsibility. The Tupolev was peacefully taxiing towards the terminal, where the full complement of marshaller and his bicycle, an electric stair and a long row of black Mercedes’ were waiting for her. We will probably never know what drew the attention of the Koreans away from the marshaller’s signals, but they just came on and on towards the terminal and no amount of frantic waving could make them break the frontal charge. Finally, with just enough space for the wingtips to clear the building, they turned left and lined up nicely parallel with the reception committee, but with the doors facing away from them…

On the shouted command “Turn them around!”-issued by the protocol chief, the poor marshaller grabbed his bicycle and ducking under the wing, he rushed up to the front of the plane, waving to the crew not to cut the engines and to follow. As there was just no space enough to turn the machine around there under its own steam (at least not without blowing everyone on the terrace and the big shots on the tarmac to kingdom come), the marshaller did the only logical thing, leading the crew, with the plane’s engines almost idling, on a wide curving track, down in front of the other parked airplanes towards the far end of the apron, where an as yet empty parking slot would provide a convenient place to make the turn.

The operator of the mobile stair was the first to catch on. Not knowing for sure what was happening, but suspecting one more change in the assigned parking place and wanting to be near the plane when its doors opened, he threw the stair into gear and buzzed off after them. The row of black cars followed suit. In a moment the astonished reception committee could watch a procession of a guy on bicycle, a three engined jet, an electric stair and a bunch of black Mercedes’ parade away from them, receding in the distance. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.

They hardly had time to regain their dignity when the ominous engine noise started increasing again, and to their horror they saw the incredible procession coming back again. True, this time the bicycle was followed by the stair, with the aircraft taking third place, the former having managed to overtake the plane, not least to get out from the hot blast of the jet engines. This time the marshaller succeeded in holding the attention of the crew and in no time at all they were lined up properly, with the doors facing the correct side. Korean Pipe Pipe To and her VIP had arrived…

Source by Steve Zerkowitz