Kuwait - Out of the Fog, by Peter Richards (1991)

The first of the more recent wars in the Gulf, which took place in 1991 involved the illegal annexation of Kuwait by Iraq and the combined UN forces overturning this. For obvious reasons, the whole area of around 500 miles radius from Kuwait was closed to civilian aircraft. But when the hostilities ceased, the aftermath of this war was a vast swath of Kuwaiti landmass commercially destroyed, with the oil well infrastructure having being set on fire by the departing Iraqis to deny any rapid recovery by the Kuwaitis, their allies and neighbours. By June of that year, tentative steps were made to re-establish the British Airways flights into Kuwait.

The Tristar crew selected for this ‘exploratory’ mission had already been together a few days in Bahrain and picked up another first officer who had recently joined BA from the RAF, who asked if he could come along and ‘observe’ on this sector.

The briefing was a bit unusual, as there were few, reliably working, precision navigation landing aids and the best approach facility we could expect to use would be the VOR/DME. With this facility, the visibility and cloud base ceiling would need to be much higher in value than would be required if the more usual instrument landing system (ILS) limits, which we would have applied. The problem with this, as we saw it, was that there was no reliable way of establishing these values for visibility and ceiling height with all the oil fires burning around the airport. With these points in mind, we determined to take sufficient fuel to fly from Bahrain to Kuwait and back again, with some ample reserves, just in case we could not in fact land at the very last minute.

We set off in hope and routinely transited north towards Kuwait under the Air Traffic Control of Bahrain. In time, they handed us over to the Kuwait radar controller and we asked him for the latest ‘weather’. Our briefing notes had advised us to expect unpredictable changes in smoke clouds and to not place too much reliability on what the people on the ground could actually tell us. Back came the response, that the surface visibility was more than a kilometre and that the ‘ceiling’ was ‘variably 500-1000ft’. This was just about good enough for the VOR/DME limits in our Arrivals Performance manual and so we elected to press on into Kuwaiti airspace.

As we got nearer to Kuwait, the ATC reports became less and less appealing, with the ceiling in particular going up and down like a yoyo as the wind blew the smoke palls around the airport. The wind was forecast to change direction and so we elected to take up the ‘hold’, as we had ample fuel to do so. The captain briefed that we would remain in the hold until we had copied a series of acceptable limits that would permit us to make an approach and, as the flight engineer, I worked out the time by which we would need to decide what to do next.

Suddenly, the radios captured the call sign of a Middle East Airlines flight, calling up to establish contact with Kuwait from the flight from Beirut. This takes place in Arabic and when this has concluded we call him up and ask in English if he could help us.

“Sure thing, Speedbird. We have been flying in and out for a week now and we’ll tell you what we get after we’ve landed. Hey, you guys look pretty good up there”

We briefly catch sight of him as a flash of sunlight on his wings as he turns beneath us to commence his descent. There are several more ATC exchanges in Arabic and then it all goes very quiet for about five minutes. Then there is a burst of accented English.

“Hey Speedbird. You still up there?”

“Affirmative. Ready to copy. Over”

“OK. The fire clouds of smoke start at around three thousand feet and they vary in density all the way down to around one thousand feet. There are a lot of flames from unburnt crude oil vapour igniting and this is very alarming when it gets close to the windscreen. You break out around one thousand feet and then you can see all the runway lights and you have no problem. Best of luck”

“Many thanks Cedar Jet. See you soon.”

Armed with this PIREP, the captain began his briefing and we requested descent.

As predicted, at three thousand feet, we left the bright blue skies over Kuwait and flew into an initially white, but rapidly grey, dense pall of smoke. As predicted, every few seconds a sheet of flame would streak across the windscreen, with an audible ‘whoosh’ at times from the rapidly changing air density. I noted that the outside air temperature gauge was fluctuating wildly and this was feeding erroneous data into the flight management system controlling the engines, so we took the auto-throttle out and I ‘chased the speed’ as best I could. There was also a readily detectable ‘catch in my throat’ and taste in my mouth from this heavily polluted air we were flying through; additionally distracting. As we passed one thousand feet, we suddenly caught sight of the runway approach lights and then they disappeared again, to reappear a few seconds later after yet another fire ball surged past us.

The mandatory call out at one thousand feet was made and the response ‘Continuing. Man Land I have control’ from the Captain.

We literally bounced through the sky into a world the like of which I had never seen before. All around the airport were the remains of burned out vehicles and their final progress, marked by the hastily repaired scars in the taxiways from the helicopter gun ship cannon fire. The ex RAF first officer who was on the flight deck observing gave me a running commentary about this.

Decision Height came and we were easily within limits to land, from which we cautiously approached the terminal, led by a slow moving ‘Follow Me’ jeep. It was like driving into a film set from the movie “Mad Max”. All the windows in the terminal were shot out, there was litter and debris everywhere and I briefly worried what we might be ingesting into the engines. We shut down and were immediately surrounded by armed guards. Middle East Airlines flight chipped in.

“Hey Speedbird. You made it. Well done. Crazy place huh?”

“Many thanks for your help Cedar Jet. Yes, it was a little crazy up there in the smoke. Take care you guys.”

Double click on his microphone in the standard way we signed off in those days out there.

While on the ground, some of the cabin crew wanted to take photographs of the damage, but the guards weren’t too keen on this. But the donation of a few bars of children’s snacks and passenger’s discarded wash bags distracted them long enough for these to be taken. Alas I didn’t have mine with me. We did a rapid turn-around, I was very relieved to find nothing damaged and we departed back to Bahrain. This was virtually my last trip on the Tristar, as my log book continues on the next page with my conversion training flights on the Boeing 747 Classic and one of the most rewarding phases of my flying career was over.

© Peter Richards

(Editor's note - this story has already been published elsewhere, in the 'Aerospace Professional'

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