The 20 years I spent with the Royal Flight of Oman are so full of wonderful moments that, as I sit down to write this, I am bewildered how even to begin.
Up until around the middle of the 20th century, the country was physically and culturally separated from the rest of the Arab world to its north by the band of desert of the Empty Quarter and its extension to the East. Thus its people looked out to sea and it became a major sea-faring nation and the cultures of India and Africa are still very much apparent. This mix has given rise to an ambience of politeness, tolerance and huge generosity. There are two expressions one hears time and time again which, to my mind, underscores Omani customs which are: ‘My house is your house’ and ‘more important than the journey is your companion and more important than the house is your neighbour.’
Seven and a half cigarettes
When I arrived both the living accommodation and the helicopter facilities and hangers were still at the building stage. The helicopter section of the organisation consisted of a white Bell 212 helicopter for the Sultan and a Bell 205 for the use of his escort guards.
I was told that wherever the Sultan travelled his helicopter must be immediately available. This was to include his visits to Salalah where the Dhofar war was still in progress. Thus a trip to the South in order to see what facilities were available was necessary. I was flown to the area by a Polish pilot. When I asked him how long would the flight take, he replied ‘Oh, about seven and a half cigarettes.’ He had smoked halfway through his eighth cigarette as we touched down.
The first obvious problem I noted was the colour of the Sultan’s helicopter which clearly advertised itself as a primary target to the Dhofar insurgents. Amongst the weapons with which the opposition were equipped were Sam 7 anti-aircraft missiles so it was clear that something had to be done.
The only solution was to cover the helicopter in camouflage-coloured washable paint whenever it was in the Salalah area and to rinse it off when the helicopter returned to the capital area in the North. Of course, after three or four visits to Salalah the original paintwork was damaged tragically. Added to this problem was that the Bell 212 was very underpowered when it had to operate in a hot and humid environment. Thus it became apparent early on that the helicopter would have to be replaced as soon as it became economically viable.
Muscat to Salalah is approximately 600 miles by road of which only 20 miles or so were tarmacked. Soon after my arrival we were told that the Sultan wished to travel by road to Salalah. We were to escort the convoy of around fifty vehicles to lead the way across the central desert and to provide guidance and an airborne ambulance service if required. The journey was taken at a gentle pace, the Sultan stopping for a couple of days at campsites along the way which enabled the local population to visit him with their requests and petitions.
The Royal Guard provided the ground security and, naturally, their radio communications were in Arabic. This meant that instructions from the ground to the helicopter had to be handled by the Commander of the Royal Guard who was British. On that first journey I realised that it would be a great advantage for me to learn Arabic.
Lost in translation
The first major hurdle was the apparently Sisyphean task of learning to read and write Arabic. I therefore started to try to learn aurally, using language cassettes. This proved to be a huge mistake as the local dialects pronounced the same word quite differently. This was brought home to me with a vengeance after I had been invited by an Omani friend to visit his family in the countryside and to share a lunch with his parents.
I arrived to find that the meal was set on a long carpet under a beautiful arcade of palm trees and we were among 20 or so guests many of whom were elderly local dignitaries. My friend and I sat at the end of the carpet – being the most junior. Although I had resolved to speak some Arabic the whole surroundings were so impressive that I lost confidence. At the end of the meal coffee was served accompanied by a delicious sweet jelly called halwa. I was told by my friend that this was traditional at all Omani meals.
The next time I was invited I was determined to speak and rehearsed and rehearsed a sentence about the halwa which I knew would be served. We arrived to find twice the number of guests which included a governor of a local province. At last the halwa was being passed from guest to guest and my chance had come. “Oh,” I said. Conversation stopped and every face turned to me. “This is delicious” I continued “is it correct that it is made out of honey, sugar and urine?” There was a horrified silence and then the governor started to laugh as did the others. I had no idea what I had said and it was six months later that my friend plucked up the courage to tell me. I had pronounced the word for ‘butter’ with the incorrect vowel.
An inappropriate gift
The performance of helicopters decreases in hot, high or humid conditions. Oman had all three. Although the organisation expanded to three Bell 212s, during the first three years of operation, it became clear that a more powerful helicopter was needed to do the job. The decision was made to buy three Puma helicopters manufactured by the French company Aerospatiale at the Marseilles airport of Marignane. Myself and three other pilots travelled to the factory to be converted onto this new type of helicopter, to air test the helicopters once they came off the production line and, all being well, to ferry them to Oman.
All went according to plan and on the morning of our take-off for Oman we discovered in the back of one of the helicopters twelve bottles of champagne which was a gift from the company to the Sultan. We realised that it would be unacceptable to present such a gift to the Palace. Our route took us from France through Italy, Greece, Rhodes, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Northern Oman. The longest leg of the journey was from Cyprus to Saudi Arabia and fuel might be a little tight should we experience an unusual headwind.
On taxi for take-off from Larnica we were held up by ATC for nearly twenty-five minutes due to an emergency declared by an inbound airliner. All this time we were burning fuel. As we coasted in we experienced a forty-knot headwind. I dread to think the number of times I calculated and re-calculated whether we had enough fuel to make it and I shall never forget the relief we all felt the moment we sighted the first available refuelling aerodrome on the oil pipeline. We had less than ten minutes flying time left.
The aerodrome was run by an oil company and we were welcomed by the few ex-patriate employees, and although we planned to sleep in the helicopter, we were all offered very comfortable and welcomed accommodation. Here was an opportunity to rid ourselves of the champagne. We opened a couple of bottles which we all shared and gave the rest away to our hosts.
Five years later I flew into the same airfield to discover that I had to produce my passport to a Saudi Arabian security officer. We chatted and he was most friendly until he saw my name. To my amazement he told me that I had behaved very badly in that the authorities knew that I had drunk alcohol five years ago in his country. I was very lucky that he was not placing me under arrest.
Except for hitting a violent and very rare snowstorm over Jordan by night, happily the six-day ferry flight was completed without further incident.
A farewell to arms
The 20 years I spent with the Royal Flight passed in a flash and it all came to an end most unexpectedly. We were escorting the Sultan on one of his in-country tours and had arrived at a camp site close to the Saudi Arabian border on the edge of the Empty Quarter. Around two in the morning I woke with a pain across my chest. Luckily the next tent to me was occupied by the Sultan’s doctor. I managed to wake him and he diagnosed a heart problem. I was flown to London in one of Qaboos’s executive jets and underwent successful surgery at the Brompton Hospital. However as a result, lost my commercial flying licence and my employment as a pilot.