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Disclaimer : The below narrative is based upon a true story but names have been changed, abbreviated or withheld for various reasons. Some details may have been withheld or modified to protect the privacy of individuals and organisations. Any resemblance to actual events or organisations should neither be assumed nor is implied.

Part 1 : Mid-December
Part 2 : Cologne
Part 3 : Christmas
Part 4 : New Year
Part 5 : Togo and Algeria

PART 5 : Togo and Algeria 

We have a fuel shortage brewing. There was a fire at the refinery that supplies our local airport and there have been no Jet A-1 deliveries for some days as a result. All airlines are being rationed to 50% uplift (that's fine for us as we usually tanker 50% of our needs from Europe anyway) but there is a warning that if new deliveries don't arrive by Wednesday afternoon, we will need to make arrangements elsewhere. Our primary option is just down the road in Lome, Togo.

Togo or not Togo, that was the question for most of the day on Wednesday. At 1800z, a new NOTAM comes out advising that the tanks have officially run dry and there is no uplift available till further notice. A few conference calls with our fuel providers and we are set up for a splash-and-dash in Lome. I sign the cash float out yet again. Looks like my hectic January is still going strong. I text Neil and Andy, our pilots tonight, with the info and head home to pick up my overnight bag.

The hop over to Lome takes barely 20 minutes and we're on the ground at Gnassingbe Eyadema International Airport slightly before midnight. TOTAL is waiting for us with a fuel truck and I leave them in the able care of Andy while I head off to the control tower to file our flight plans. There is an unwritten protocol when you operate out of any airport in West Africa. You must take small "gifts" for the guys in the tower. Not that bad things will happen if you don't, but they sure as hell won't help you more than they have to! Today, I have brought cans of Coke and packets of plantain chips from the aircraft. The entire nightshift seems to be hanging around an ancient TV set watching a dubbed Kung-Fu movie, so the snacks are much appreciated. I painstakingly complete the ICAO Flight Plan form (everything is already filed by computer but they still insist on this piece of paper filled out in duplicate with carbon paper). After this, its the ritual of payment of landing and handling fees. US Dollar cash please. Ugh. Extortion to put it mildly. I return to the aircraft $8000 poorer muttering all sorts of unprintable things under my breath. We're all fuelled up and ready to go as soon as I'm on board. A quick dinner and I sleep all the way to London.

Another redeye back on Thursday night finds me working late on Friday evening in the hope of a quiet weekend for a change. There are lots of invoices that have been pending during my week away and its past 9pm by the time I'm finally done for the week. I decide to swing by the airport on the way home just to see how things are going. I run into the outbound pilots there and we chat for a while. Jamie is the captain, having just switched back to the 757 fleet after spending the last few years flying 737s in Iceland. He's paired with Geoff, another veteran captain. We go through the NOTAMs but really nothing of consequence today. We have fuel and the weather at destination is good. Maybe the demons have been exorcised?

The purser today is Sarah and she invites me to sit in on the cabin crew pre-flight. I like to do this from time to time just to keep up with galley gossip. We're a small airline and I'm good friends with most of our crew. There are lots of hugs and inquiries about my knee. As they start with the briefing, Sarah asks me to pick a safety topic for the review. Off the top of my head, I choose NITS Briefings. For those unfamiliar with NITS, it is the acronym for "Nature, Intent, Time, Specials" - the key elements of the communication framework in the event of an emergency. We go in a circle asking and answering questions on the subject and everyone is on top of the material by the time it does the full round. I walk with them to the aircraft and then take their leave. Home before midnight and a nice quiet weekend ahead.

At 358am, my phone rings. It is Jarek at Operations. I hear the scratchy sounds of HF in the background. Jarek's voice is worried. He speaks slowly and deliberately.

"101 has called. They have a hydraulics issue. The signal was very unclear. He is trying to make Ghardaia."

This is the proverbial 4am phonecall that every airline manager dreads. In the next split second I understood the origin of the phrase "sends a chill up your spine". I have a million questions but I know we don't have the answers yet.

"Mayday?", I ask, trying to judge the seriousness of the situation.

"Negative. Pan."

His voice trails off into the unspoken "for now". The HF crackles again in the background. The numbers FOUR and TWO are distinct through the static. Jarek relays.

"ETA Oh Four Four Two Zulu".

I sit in the darkness of my bedroom with my head in my hands. I have never felt so helpless in my life. There are 133 people's lives at stake here. Every instinct tells me that I need to do something but there is nothing I can do now other than pray that Jamie and Geoff can pull off something that they have trained for years to do. My mind wanders to the rest of the crew. I can picture them bustling around preparing the cabin. Sarah will be delivering the NITS briefing. My God, I hope I didn't jinx them by bringing that up tonight. ENOUGH. FOCUS. They have their jobs to do and I have to do mine. I pull on a T-shirt and stumble to the desk where my laptop awaits.

First step is to pull up the database and see where exactly Ghardaia is and what they might find there. It's not promising. If you take a dart and threw it into the middle of the Sahara, chances are you will wind up pretty close to Ghardaia. Scheduled flights are virtually non-existent and they all go to Algiers anyway. Handling is Air Algerie, fuel is NAFTAL, Jet A-1 is available. Runway is 10000 feet so they will have plenty of room to play with. Thank God for small mercies. Hotel rooms are scarce, definitely not enough for the 133 passengers. Rescue flight will need to be a priority. Information control is the next step. I call the CEO. She answers groggily and I give her a quick situation brief. She will brief managers and media on a need-to-know basis until more information is available.

As a small airline, we don't have the luxury of spare aircraft sitting around for eventualities like this. Our wonderful aircraft lessors though offer us access to a pool of backup aircraft that we can call upon on extremely short notice in case things go pear shaped. I wake up our account manager and he gives me a green light to requisition anything we need. I scan the fleet list and find a dormant 737 in Italy and a 757 in Bournemouth that meet our needs. The 737 will ferry to Algeria to pick up the passengers and the 757 will ferry to Gatwick to operate the return segment to minimise disruption.

I call Jarek again. He's been busy. Nothing works better than purposeful activity to take your mind off the fact that a dozen of your friends and over a hundred of your customers are five miles up in a metal tube leaking hydraulic fluid onto the Sahara desert. He's got poor Daryl from Engineering out of bed as well and on standby to troubleshoot once we're on the ground. Now it's a waiting game. No news is good news until ETA. I email Jarek a possible recovery schedule to start working on crewing and permits. Tick tock tick tock. The minutes drag by excrutiatingly slowly.

At 0448z Jarek calls back. He keeps it brief. "Down safe." Thank God for that. I relay the news to the CEO. Just as I'm hanging up there, I see Jamie's number pop up on caller waiting. He sounds very much in command of the situation.

"Great job Jamie. I knew you'd pull it off!"
"Thanks. Any plans for the passengers yet?"
"We've got Juliet (Ed Note : "Juliet" is the last letter of the replacement 737's registration) coming out of Bergamo in a few hours to pick you guys up, but we need to get them into a terminal or something in the meanwhile."
"There really isn't much here. I can see maybe two buildings and a control tower, but thats about it for miles around. Tower says we need to wait a while until they can get people in to open things up. Another couple hours till daylight at least."
"How's the aircraft holding up?"
"She'll be fine so long as we just sit here. We've been running off center hydraulic system (Ed Note : The 757 has three hydraulic systems so there is redundancy built in to safely operate even with multiple failures), but its all shut down now. Still on the runway but APU power only. No other traffic scheduled for the rest of the day it seems!"
"Any pax issues?"
"None yet, but give it time!"
"How are the girls taking it?"
"Shaken but solid. Sarah wants to have a word if you don't mind?"

He passes the phone to Sarah. I can sense the relief in her voice.

"I don't know whether to love you or hate you for bringing up NITS tonight!!!"
"Haha. Call it an unlucky coincidence that worked out well. How are you guys doing?"
"We're hanging in there. You know how it goes."
"How are the passengers?"
"One guy is going ballistic and getting aggressive. I've got Francis dealing with him. A few others are a bit shaken. Gloria is handling them. The rest are just glad to be down safe."
"Good enough. How are we doing with catering? We may not be able to get anything on the ground for a while."
"Nearly everyone ate dinner. Only a handful of trays unused. Breakfast service is still waiting. Bars are fine but a little low on Diet Coke. (Ed Note : Sarah and I are both Diet Coke addicts and have an inside joke about our worst fear being an imagined shortage on a long flight!)."
"Ok, take all the alcohol and seal it in a single cart. I don't know what kind of regulations they have about alcohol down there but lets not take the chance of offending local sensibilities. Co-ordinate with Jamie as to when they are going to be able to put you in the terminal. Try to do the breakfast service about an hour before that and take all remaining drinks into the terminal with you. Assume that nothing will be available."
"Gotcha. Don't worry about us, we'll manage."
"It's my job to worry! Stay safe and I'll see you guys later."

I call Luc and give him the news about the diversion. He's already on the M25 en route to Gatwick. He's going to have to handle the families of the passengers as well as coordinate the replacement aircraft for the outbound flight. I have no pity for him. I've got quite enough on my own plate.

Back to Jarek now to see how the recovery plans are going. The news is mixed. He's got a crew lined up now to ferry the replacement 757 out of Bournemouth and the regular scheduled crew will operate it down from Gatwick. Daryl is already busy ordering parts but the problem is how to get everything into Ghardaia. The best bet seems to be to try and do a flag stop on today's scheduled service to drop off engineers, tools, parts and a new crew - but he's not sure they will be ready in time. They could however stage out of Dusseldorf tomorrow, provided we can keep the replacement aircraft through the weekend. The Algerian permits for the rescue flight may be an issue. They are notoriously slow to respond on weekends (Ed Note : Weekend in Algeria is Friday-Saturday). Well, lets file them ASAP and get the ball rolling. Oh, and good job with everything Jarek.

I work the phones as the sun rises. Fuel, slots, handling, catering, etc... all have to be set up for the relief flights. Jamie is texting me regular updates from Algeria. They are off the aircraft around 730am once the guy with the keys to the terminal arrives. The media has the story now and the poor CEO is getting swamped with requests for comment. Slow news day evidently. The 757 from Bournemouth makes it to Gatwick safely. This aircraft is in an all-Economy config so Luc has to sort out a few involuntary downgrades. The passengers are very understanding (they receive a refund of the J->Y fare difference as well as a free upgrade valid on their next flight) and one even comments that he was pleasantly surprised to be flying on time after hearing about the inbound diversion.

The 737 is still being held up from launching from Bergamo as the Algerian permits have not yet come through. That is frustrating as I hoped to have the passengers in London by lunchtime, but now it seems we'll be lucky to get them out of Ghardaia by then. I call Jamie to see how they are holding up. Everyone seems to be ok except for one passenger. This is the same guy that Sarah had mentioned earlier. He's being highly uncooperative and has upset the Algerian gendarmes as well with his attitude. I tell Jamie that he should exercise captain's authority and have them shoot the guy. "Don't tempt me", is the only half-joking answer.

Its almost departure time from Gatwick, but Daryl still hasn't got his hands on all the parts he might need for the repairs. We decide to move to Plan B and run tomorrow's Dusseldorf flight with a Ghardaia pitstop instead. Kate has relieved Jarek on the day shift and she starts working on those logistics. She puts in the request for the Algerian permits for tomorrow and immediately receives a reply covering both that and today's pending request. Our permits have been approved BUT they want US Dollar or Euro cash payment for landing and overflights in Ghardaia. No credit cards or billing accepted. I call Jamie and ask how much he has with him. Alas, 56 pounds and change will not be enough.

I phone the CEO again and she authorises use of the emergency reserve funds. I meet one of the finance managers at the office and sign for $40,000 from the safe. I'm going to fly up to London tonight and continue via Dusseldorf through to Ghardaia with the engineers in the morning. Meanwhile, Jamie advises that the passengers are getting hungry. The airport cafeteria is a tiny hole in the wall with enough supplies to feed barely twenty people. The cafe owner is willing to try and scrounge something together, but he warns that it may not be too fancy being a weekend morning. Well, beggars can't be choosers - especially since he is willing to spend out of his own pocket for the food on what is essentially just Jamie's word and accept payment tomorrow. Turns out that the best he could do was a crate of oranges and 28 loaves of French bread but every little bit is appreciated. The girls scrounge through the used trays from the dinner service and rescue the leftover sealed packets of cheese. There is plenty of fresh coffee though, which is much appreciated by most of the passengers.

Juliet arrives in Ghardaia and they load her up for Gatwick. With the passengers and crew from the 757, its a very full load. The Algerians do a superb job with the loading and manage to squeeze over 220 bags into the hold. She's finally airborne and I heave a sigh of relief. Then James calls me. Special Branch have been in touch to confirm that a particular passenger is on the aircraft. They want to meet the arrival and pick him up on an outstanding warrant for child abduction. They are waiting on the jetway. He tries to make a run for it when he spots them but there is nowhere to escape. Turns out this is the same guy who has been causing trouble in Ghardaia. As they are putting on the cuffs, he burst into tears. He confesses that he's swallowed two condoms full of cocaine and is worried sick that they might rupture. Bloody hell. No wonder he was so antsy all day!!!

The flight up to Dusseldorf and London that night is relatively uneventful. With no Business Class seats on this aircraft, I stretch out across a row and sleep most of the way. During the Dusseldorf transit, I speak to Jarek (on nightshift again) who informs me that everything is set for the Ghardaia stop later in the day and that Jamie has left the Cafeteria invoices for me at Ops! I ride the crew bus to the Ops office (taking a minute to stop and declare the cash I am carrying to Customs of course!) where I run into the relief crew who will also be riding with us to ferry the aircraft back to the UK.

Our lessor's pilot ranks include a gentleman who just happens to juggle two jobs to earn his living. In addition to his day job as a 757 line captain and ground school instructor, he is the lead singer and frontman for a rather well known heavy metal band that he personally flies around the world in a customised 757 when on tour. He is also an an author of fiction, movie producer, TV/radio presenter and international standard competitive fencer. Today though, he is just "Captain Paul" (he uses his real name rather than his stage name when he is flying) and he will be deadheading with us to Ghardaia to bring the aircraft back.

Jarek has proactively de-rostered Sarah and the crew from having to work today's flight back to Africa, so we have borrowed a UK based cabin crew from our lessors as well. They are headed up by Donna who I've worked with many times before. The other girls are all making their first trip to Africa and are quite excited. The captain is Nick, a former RAF test pilot who has written a book on jungle survival and has the quirky habit of carrying a homemade fruitcake on every flight. We also have a pair of characters named Stew and Spud who comprise the engineering AOG team. It will not be a boring flight today for sure.

Back at the aircraft, I run into Sarah and the girls deadheading home. They are still physically and emotionally drained. It's a big group hug with a few tears of relief from them and many words of praise and gratitude from me for a job well done. Daryl gives me the manifest for the half ton of spares he is sending down to Ghardaia. Given enough time, Stew and Spud can probably build a whole new plane out of that! As we push back en route to Dusseldorf, Donna comes to me in a minor panic. Thanks to the 11 deadheads and the expected load out of Dusseldorf, we are short by ten meals. I kick myself mentally. I should have foreseen this. Ok, leave it with me.

Daniel meets the arrival in Dusseldorf and I quickly confirm the final checked-in load with him. Yep, still a problem. Ok, time to think outside the box. I head down to arrivals where a very surprised Bundespolizei officer is reading his newspaper at a closed immigration desk.

"Hallo, wie gehts?"
"Hi, I need to go through to the landside."
"Why you wish to enter Germany? No crew layover usually for you."
"I need to go to McDonalds for a few minutes."
"You wish to enter Germany to visit McDonalds for a few minutes?"
"Yes, I'm leaving as soon as I've got the food."

Much muttering under his breath about crazy airline people, but he opens the gates and waves me into the country. Wilkommen in Deutschland.

Thankfully there is no line at McDonalds. I order a dozen Big Macs, a dozen McChickens, a dozen fries and two hundred chicken nuggets.

"Please wait, I call my supervisor."
"Is there a problem?"
"My English not so good. I misunderstand you say want twelve Big Mac, twelve McChiken, twelve French Fry and two hundred nugget."
"Ja, zwei hunderd nugget. Das ist Mahlzeit fur die komplette Crew"
"Oh! Bitte schoen."

I head back upstairs to the crew security checkpoint, now carrying a huge box containing 89 Euros worth of arterial obstructions. The box goes through the X-Ray machine but something draws the attention of the guy at the screen. It is pulled aside.

"Was ist das?"
"Just food for the crew."
"There is liquid on the scanner. What liquid is there?"
"No liquids. Just burgers, fries and nuggets."
"Ah, McNuggets. You will have some Sweet and Sour Sauce with that yes? No problem, enjoy!"

We're airborne ahead of schedule with some nice tail winds pushing us to Ghardaia. The deadheads have staked out some empty rows at the back and we pass out the McDonalds discreetly there. I head to the galley to get a Diet Coke and overhear two young passengers arguing as they wait for the lavs. One is wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt.

"I'm telling you its him!"
"What have you been smoking?"
"I think I can recognise my favourite singer!"
"You're crazy. What the heck would he be doing here?"
"I don't know but I'm sure its him!"

I interrupt.

"Sorry, I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. It actually IS him. Go say hello, he doesn't bite."

The look of absolute joy and gratitude on the lad's face was almost scary.

A couple hours later we're on approach into Ghardaia. Nick tries to inject some humour into his pre-arrival announcement by telling us that it's snowing, but nobody laughs. This is one of those places that pretty much everyone on the aircraft will never visit again in their lives, so noses are pressed up against windows to get a look at what the middle of the Sahara desert looks like. It lives up to its stereotype. There is lots of sand. And thats about it. No, seriously. Jamie's description yesterday was right. There is only sand and a couple of buildings visible as we taxi to the ramp. I spot our aircraft parked near the tower in the distance. Two 757s on the ground at the same time here must be a new record.

They are expecting us. Gendarmes and Customs are waiting on the top step when Donna opens the door.

"Bonjour. Salaam aleikum. Welcome to the humble town of Ghardaia."

Oh dear. This looks like one of those times where protocol demands an appropriate response. I rack my brains and try to be creative.

"Waleikum salaam. We are honoured to visit your town where you have extended such wonderful hospitality to our brothers and sisters yesterday."

SCORE! The beaming smile on the face of the Customs inspector gets everything off on a good note. They still want those of us who are disembarking to fill out landing cards, but it is made clear to the minions that we are honored guests that are not to be messed with.

The handlers roll up with a modern-looking belt loader marked for Air Algerie. Stew, Spud and myself scramble around in the hold to ensure we are offloading all the correct containers. Customs opens up a few boxes half heartedly and then wave us along. We have some leftover McDonalds which Donna offers to the young conscripts guarding the aircraft. Their eyes light up even at the sight of a soggy bag from the Golden Arches. One man's leftovers is another man's feast I guess.

A man with a big moustache arrives with a bigger pile of invoices. That's my cue. We head off to the control tower where his office is located. The only other building is the passenger terminal, which looks surprisingly swanky from the outside. I have brought a few gifts with me to help smooth things along. Jamie had told me that he is a huge Premier League football fan, so I have brought him a selection of the British newspapers' Sunday sports sections. He is almost in tears as he excitedly clutches the Sunday Times! He has painstakingly consolidated and handwritten all the receipts for landing, handling, overflight, catering and everything else in anticipation of our arrival so all that remains to be done is to work out the exchange rate and count the cash. It still takes almost half an hour. I finally leave the tower with a half inch stack of receipts for almost $24000. Expensive weekend.

Stew and Spud are already working on the aircraft while the pilots are poking around inside. I have one more visit to make though. Although his invoice has been paid at the tower, I want to meet the Cafeteria owner and thank him for his hospitality in person. The Cafeteria is landside however and there is no immigration officer on duty. No worries. One of the young gendarmes, recently satiated by a soggy Big Mac, opens a side gate and leads me right onto the street outside. Welcome to Algeria I guess! We walk back into the terminal where the Cafeteria manager is sipping coffee with a friend. I introduce myself and hand over a Business Class amenity kit as a thank you gift. He is touched and shakes my hand vigourously.

Back on the ramp, the 757 that brought us in an hour ago is just finishing up refuelling. "Paul" suggests that I head home on that instead of waiting around and flying to London later, only to have to double back the next day. My job here appears to be done, so I'm agreeable if he's cool with it. He promises to text me updates. I climb the stairs where Donna is waiting to close the door behind me. As I settle back into my seat, I see our Algerian friends waving. A minute later we are airborne, climbing steadily into the spectacular Saharan twilight. New days and new challenges await...