Flying "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime"

Hajj Airlift

The first large contract Transocean was awarded in the Middle East was flying the hajj in 1948. The pilgrimage to Mecca that every Moslem is expected to make once in his or her lifetime is known as the hajj. It has been an annual religious rite for more than 1,300 years with some devout pilgrims crossing mountain passes as high as 19,000 feet and crossing hundreds of miles of desert once marked by the footprints of their forefathers.Cooperating with Iranian Air Lines, Transocean flew a few flights during the hajj season in 1947, but 1948 saw air transportation play a major role in the pilgrimage. The airline used three C-46s and two DC-4s in the ferry operation between Tehran and Jeddah.


Because non-Moslems are not allowed to see or enter Mecca, Transocean planes landed at the Jeddah airport, thirty miles from Mecca. There, busses transported the pilgrims to within ten miles of the holy city. From that point they were required to walk to the Kaaba, the sacred Moslem shrine toward which all Moslems turn when they pray, then continue their hajj to "Arafa," a place on the Hill of Mercy on the road from Mecca to Taif. Every Moslem who is able is bound, once in his life, to
fulfill the "stand at Arafa" or to engage a substitute to fulfill it for him.


The pilgrims came aboard the modern DC-4s garbed in flowing robes and carrying prayer rugs, praying stones (replicas of the black stone in the Kaaba in the center of the holy city), small cooking pots and braziers, and black umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching desert sun. Their ways were strange to the crews. Some of the passengers spat on the seats, floor and walls. They also built camel-dung fires on the cabin floor to cook their meals, which, when discovered, were immediately extinguished by crew members amid much shouting and shaking of fists by the hajiis.


On the return trips, flight crews had to remove forcibly the heavy packages of souvenir sand the pilgrims were attempting to carry home from Mecca. None of the passengers understood English nor were they able to comprehend that the aircraft could not take off with the excessive weight of the sand on board.

    

But among the aggravations of the heat and inability to communicate were a few lighter moments. One of these moments occurred when a pilgrim plane landed for the night for refueling in preparation for the next day's flight. The passengers deplaned to kneel in rows on the runway to pray. The navigator noticed that they were not facing east, as was their custom, and tried to point this out to one of the men by gesturing toward the stars. Then organized confusion reigned as one
by one they realized their mistake and turned to face the cast. They appeared to be saying to one another, "Hey! Turn around-we're facing the wrong way. Pass it on!"


On another trip the pilot had difficulty holding a steady course as from time to time the plane would dip unexpectedly for no apparent reason. Nothing seemed to be wrong mechanically. The crew was puzzled until it was discovered that the reason for the mysterious movement was the Moslems shifting the weight as they knelt to pray. As the devout Moslems did their five daily prayers, the crews learned to expect the aircraft's respectful dip. Captain Bill Keating was in trouble from the first day he flew the hajj.   One of the Transocean airplanes flying the run to Jeddah had lost an engine on takeoff at Teheran and had returned to the airport for repairs. The necessary work could not be accomplished for several hours and so the evening flight to Jeddah was canceled. Meanwhile, a large group of pilgrims with tickets to Jeddah rushed the plane, trying to get on board, and nearly caused a riot when they were denied access. To them, the trip was the dream of their lifetime-and they wanted to depart immediately.

Hadjus descending a vertical ladder at Jeddah after a flight via Transocean. They are making their holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the Holy City, and carry portable cooking braziers, and the ever-present black umbrellas  for protection from the intense desert heat. Most of the Hadjiis had never flown in an airplane before, and attempted to build fires on the cabin floor to cook their meals.
photo:  Ralph Lewis

The police were called but were unable to control the crowd. Finally, Keating and TAL's Jack Ullner, who was in Iran handling the accounting for the hajj, boarded the aircraft and let the pilgrims file in until the plane was filled. Then Keating started the engines and taxied to the end of the runway where he conducted preflight procedures, then quickly flicked off the switches on the outboard engines-causing them to backfire and shoot long tongues of flame past the cabin. After the had done this a couple of times he swung the plane around and taxied back to the terminal. This action convinced the pilgrims that the plane couldn't take off. But they refused to disembark, staying on board until the morning departure.


Transocean's participation in the hajj continued for ten years. One year they flew the two thousand members of the royal household of Saudi Arabia's last reigning monarch, colorful King Ibn Saud, from the thousand-room winter palace at Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, to his summer palace at Taif. A fleet of twenty airplanes were required to complete the operation by flying a total of sixty flights over a two-day period.


The number of Moslems flown by Transocean and other airlines during the hajj numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Exact figures are not known because of the many different points from which the operation was conducted. But the number of pilgrims visiting Mecca during the hajj of 1948 was said to have exceeded five hundred thousand.