Today started very early in Salzburg, Austria. Not only were there two long legs on the schedule, but our refueling stop at Ankara, Turkey, was time constrained–we had to be there and on the ground before the airport closed temporarily because of flight restrictions for a military demonstration over the city in celebration of Turkey’s Independence Day. First, we had to refuel in Salzburg–we had not on arrival, and most MU-2 owners will tell you that they hang around for refueling if the fuelers are not familiar with the airplane (more about this later). We had a few anxious moments but the fuel truck did arrive, allowing us to take off when the airport opened to noncommercial flights at 7 a.m. First up: A flight of about 1,000 nm to Ankara.
The sun has risen beyond the eastern mountains, striking taller peaks to the west but leaving the valley with the airport in shadow. We’re the first to taxi out, passing four parked Cessna 150/152s and a Diamond that apparently belong to a local flight school, as pilots preflight jets being tugged from hangars. As we taxi for departure from Runway 33, the multifunction display’s synthetic vision shows imposing terrain ahead. The center of the runway, and the Red Bulls’ Hangar 7 and 8, are still in shadow as we roll for takeoff, although the arrival and departure ends bask in bright sunshine. Climbing into the still morning air, we turn over brilliant green valleys, most filled with fog. In the low morning light villages of dark-roofed, white-walled houses are as sharp as etchings from 11,000 feet.
Today is the first day MU-2 owner Mike Laver and I wear captains’ uniforms. There are parts of the world where appearances are important, and it’s important that pilots look like airline captains–even if their airplane for the day is a Cessna 172. Uniforms convey a sense of authority and purpose that can be very helpful in getting through customs, immigration, and other stops in the terminal process–and if it might save us time, it’s something we should do. We’re handed off to Bucharest and we’re immediately cleared to TEGRI, an intersection on our flight plan that lets us skip past three or four others. “Look, they’ve cleared us all the way across Hungary,” Mike observes. I think it’s all because of the uniforms.
Our timing is almost perfect. We cross Hungary, and similarly we’re given a fix that takes us all the way across Romania–more than 250 nm. We’ve seen a couple of contrails above, but otherwise we seem to have the sky to ourselves. Below, a couple of cloud layers make it hard to see any surface details, but our GPS displays indicate the terrain is rising. In southwest Romania, near the Serbian border, we do get a glimpse of some beautiful mountains through a hole in the clouds. Ahead and to the left, weather appears to be building–it’s off our route but we’ll encounter some later today. The controllers in Bucharest and Budapest are excellent, easy to understand, and sign off with a distinctive “bye bye” instead of the “good day” pilots often hear in the United States. Sofia Control hands us off to Ankara over the Black Sea, and we’re in Turkish airspace. We’re assigned a circling approach to Runway 3 Left, which confuses us–there is no such approach in the GPS database or the paper charts we were carrying (all were current). We can tell by the pilot’s voice over the radio that an airplane behind us is similarly surprised. We worked everything out and landed with time to spare before the airspace restriction went into effect. The leg takes 3.9 hours of flying.
Our handler in Turkey is great. He’s waiting with the fuel truck when we taxi onto a massive cargo ramp, used at night by military and civilian cargo aircraft but deserted on Independence Day. Our handler has been working with general aviation aircraft since 1996, and has never seen an MU-2. “I told all the guys, come out and see this airplane,” he said. Several ask if it’s a new model, not knowing that the 50th anniversary of its first flight comes in just over two weeks. One asks if he can photograph the airplane, and then, handing me his camera, asks if I’d take a photo of him with it.
Since they’ve never seen one, they had to be coached through the process. There’s a tip tank on each wing that holds 90 gallons of fuel–that’s 603 pounds of fuel on the end of each wing (yes, the wings are strong). Balance becomes important when fueling this aircraft. First the main tanks, closer to the center of the aircraft, are filled. Then one tip tank is filled about halfway–45 gallons or, say, 200 liters. Then the other tip tank is filled completely–and finally, the fueler comes back to the first tank and tops it off. Ladder placement is important, too, because the airplane leans to one side, then the other, during this process. A ladder in the wrong place can have a fuel tank land on it, which is not good for either the ladder or the airplane.
By the time we’re done, the airport has been closed temporarily, and we have to cool our heels for 45 minutes. Our handler graciously brings us hot tea, and we adjourn to a gazebo beside an administration building. Some airport workers are there, and others come out. They’re gracious, interested in our trip, and a good group to hang around with. We learn the browns that permeate the color exist pretty much year round–and that winter is not the best time to visit Ankara. They show why the Turkish people have a reputation for being so hospitable, and welcome us to return soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are now following the blog.
Before leaving, I had to take a photo of this airport services building, sporting–like many other buildings on the airport–the national flag. Turkey celebrates its independence from Europe each year.
Soon we’re on the way to Kuwait, 1,138 miles distant–planned at 4:21. The brown soil of Turkey begins to disappear into the haze, and below building clouds. Our route of flight is southeast, staying north of Syria, then south-southeast across Iraq to Kuwait. Cruising at Flight Level 270 (around 27,000 feet), we see cloud buildups taller than our altitude to the left, and to the right. Eventually, there’s one right in front of us. We’re about to enter Iraq airspace, which offers a narrow corridor between Iran, to the left, and Syria to the right. Violence has escalated in Syria, and I saw a news report that some 1,500 people were killed there today. So we deviated to the left around one particularly nasty looking cell; the Baghdad Center controller was very helpful and we managed to avoid causing any international incidents.
In the United States, it’s seldom difficult for pilots to deviate around weather–challenging, sometimes, when there’s a lot of weather that every pilot wants to circumnavigate–or if that weather is in busy terminal airspace. But anything like that can be worked out by controllers much more easily than an excursion into airspace belonging to a country like Syria or Iran.
A couple of terminology notes for you pilots: In much of Europe and into the Middle East, controllers prefer to say “identified” instead of “radar contact.” We do note that Baghdad Control uses the more familiar “good day” when handing a flight off to the next controller, instead of “bye bye.” Could this be a U.S. influence? Our route takes us east of Baghdad but we can’t see the city through the haze, which comes almost up to our altitude of 27,000 feet. One controller with an American-sounding voice asks us where our flight originated, and Mike mentioned our around the world journey. Wonder if, like that controller back in the States so many days ago, he’s been reading up on us?
After 4.3 hours we touch down in Kuwait–another airport with acres upon acres of cargo ramps–and follow a Follow Me truck to our parking space. We open the door and step out into what feels like a blast furnace, relatively speaking. It must be 100 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe higher; the day’s high was more than 110. Our third refueling of the day is completed just as the sun sets; after some paperwork, it’s off to the hotel. Tomorrow: One leg, to Muscat, Oman. Access the tracking map online.