Flying "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime"
Air Djibouti and Air Jordan
The year was 1949. The governor of French Somaliland was envious of Ethiopian Air Lines and the British Aden Airways flying in and out of Djibouti with big cargo loads. But French Somaliland had no money, and France gave little encouragement for the country's future. The governor asked John Russell, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) employee then serving as operations manager for Ethiopian Air Lines, if he would form a national airline using the name Air Djibouti.
"We would be the carrier for the country, and this would provide us the necessary reciprocal landing rights in foreign countries," said Russell. "The possibilities of using C-46s for cargo were apparent to lower the ton/mile cost. "Ethiopian Air Lines wasn't interested in using C-46s because they practically had a monopoly with their DC-3s and could charge any price to transport the number one cargo of khat, a fresh green leaf which the Arabs chewed, producing a narcotic effect."
Air Djibouti, C-46
"Bill Pearce, who was with Ethiopian in Addis Ababa, and I decided to look for financing for Air Djibouti. We found a listener in Orvis Nelson of Transocean Air Lines.
"One of the reasons Nelson was willing to proceed was that our government was offering new C-46s, including spares, for $300 a month with the latest Pratt & Whitney engines and three bladed props, not the troublesome Curtiss Electra props previously used. "We started with two aircraft (one had 3.4 hours flying time, the other 4.5 hours) and modified them at Transocean's base at Bradley Field, Connecticut.
"Bill Glenn and I took the second plane over in midwinter. We had an engine change at Goose Bay, Labrador, with two feet of snow on the ground. Glenn, with the help of the military, did the job in less than two days in sub-freezing temperatures, which was an outstanding feat.
"Our next stop was at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, then continued to Shannon, Ireland, and on to Rome, where we picked up my wife and ten-month-old daughter and flew to Asmara, Eritrea, on the Persian Gulf. This was to be our home base as it was under the control of the United Nations and because there was no housing available at Djibouti. "Verne Shrewsbury, who had preceded us with the first C-46, had everything organized on our arrival."
From its headquarters in Asmara, Air Djibouti DC-3s ferried fresh meat and vegetables from the plentiful East African plateau country to the desert outposts of Saudi Arabia, its capital city, Riyadh, and to the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) installations around Dhahran. Air Djibouti airplanes also transported cargo and conducted (in conjunction with Nairobi Air Services of Nairobi, East Africa) big game camera or shooting safaris from Saudi Arabia to the Nairobi area. Brochures advertising the tour service stated that Air Djibouti could fly passengers to "the exciting land of safaris, trout fishing, sailing, surf bathing, underwater fishing, and glamorous evenings in just twelve hours-ten times faster than the old Magic Carpet record."
The year was 1949. The governor of French Somaliland was envious of Ethiopian Air Lines and the British Aden Airways
flying in and out of Djibouti with big cargo loads. But French Somaliland had no money, and France gave little encouragement for the country's future. The governor asked John Russell, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) employee then
serving as operations manager for Ethiopian Air Lines, if he would form a national airline using the name Air Djibouti.
"We would be the carrier for the country, and this would provide us the necessary reciprocal landing rights in foreign
countries," said Russell. "The possibilities of using C-46s for cargo were apparent to lower the ton/mile cost. "Ethiopian Air Lines wasn't interested in using C-46s because they practically had a monopoly with their DC-3s and could
charge any price to transport the number one cargo of khat, a fresh green leaf which the Arabs chewed, producing a narcotic effect."
"A certificate was available in the name of Lebanese International Airlines in Lebanon, and in Jordan an established airline, Air Jordan (owned by His Excellency Ismail Bilbeisi Pasha), was operating in Amman. Afghanistan, where we had established our hajj movements, had been ruled out because of its isolation. "Nelson was extremely interested in the possibility of having a scheduled carrier in the Middle East since Transocean planes carrying the Air-Jordan flag would give the airline easy access to other Middle East countries. This tilted the decision in favor of owner Pasha Bilbeisi's Air Jordan.
"We would use some of Air Djibouti's personnel and as many Arab-speaking employees as possible. Supplies and equipment came from Lebanon, and customs duty had to be paid on supplies shipped into Jordan. As a result, we performed our maintenance in Beirut and kept our offices there, along with other facets of TAL operations that included the export/import division."
Later, Munther Bey Bilbeisi, son of the Pasha, opened a trading office for TAL in Baghdad, capital of Iraq, on the banks of the Tigris River, where merchants in the old covered bazaars traded in carpets, wool, hides, dates, tea, and cotton.
In December 1951 Libya attained its independence as a constitutional monarchy after years of rule by Italy and after the end of World War II by a British mandate. This north African desert country with a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea is inhabited mainly by wandering Bedouin tribesmen. In the extreme south live the veiled Tauregs. Air Jordan was called upon by
Left to right: Pasha Bilbeisi of Air Jordan, TAL's John Russell, Pasha's assistant, TAL Captain John Waterman, TAL Vice President S.L. Wilson
Libya for assistance in its race to develop its oil fields. Its services were used by Mobiloil of Canada, Continental Oil Company, Caltex, Standard Oil of Indiana, and Robert Ray Geophysics, Inc., in addition to ARAMCO. Scheduled flights by Air Jordan provided supplies and services to the desert oil camps. In addition to the cargo, Air Jordan carried oil crews who were given one-week furloughs in Tripoli or Benghazi at the end of every four weeks of work in the desert.
The effect of Air Djibouti and Air Jordan's presence on the oil exploration program was incalculable. Work which would have taken months without Air Jordan's wings took days or weeks. Delays due to equipment breakdown were minimal. Even when no flight was scheduled on the day of an emergency in the oil fields, Air Jordan would rush a special flight, and the needed parts or supplies would arrive in hours.
Operating aircraft in the severe weather and desert terrain of the Middle East was charged with problems unique to the area. The solutions frequently required the most inventive efforts of TAL's ground and flight crews.
Above: TAL-built cradle for aircraft wing being ferried from Cairo, Egypt to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on C-46 aircraft
Below: Air Djibouti. Packing gasoline up a ladder by hand so it can be funneled into the wing tank, Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Above: Captain Frank Kennedy at Transocean Airlines Operations Office, Jiddah
A freak accident with no known cause once occurred on the
ramp at Jeddah. The starboard wing of TAL's 967 exploded. A replacement was shipped from California but was destroyed when it was dropped while being offloaded on the Jeddah docks. (Transocean's Tommy Walker's screams could be heard all the way to Beirut, 883 miles away). A second replacement wing was discovered in Cairo and purchased from the Egyptian Air Force. TAL stripped and modified it for transit, then hung it under the fuselage of TAL 966 in a specially built cradle for the flight to Jeddah.
Refueling in Zahedan, Iran, always presented exceptional problems for the pilots. They first had to circle the tower to signal the gas truck to be ready to refuel. Then they had to go around and buzz the field to disperse camels from the runway in order to land. One unlucky pilot hit a fence while landing and had to remove the 200 feet of barbed wire wrapped around the tail wheel.
Below: Ethiopian Air Lines DC-3, ready to receive gasoline, Port Sudan, Africa
Publicity for Transocean Air Lines often took creative turns as well. For example, Transocean's Dave Gregory
capitalized on the fact that the air route from Cairo to
Jerusalem passed over the Dead Sea at 1000 feet below sea level. Dave founded the "Below Sea Level Flying Club."
Several hundred bright yellow membership cards were
printed with the Air Jordan logo which certified that the
card holder was a qualified member of the exclusive club and had the right to ask: "How low can you get ...and still fly?" The club's cards were the topic of conversation among flight crews and seasoned travelers of other airlines transiting the Middle East. Surprisingly, this club generated considerable business for Air Jordan.
Fierce competition from Arab Airways and Middle East Air Line kept Air Jordan's managers scrambling to maintain profitability. Two events during each year gave Air Jordan its greatest income: the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), and flying U.S. Navy personnel on vacation from Beirut to Jerusalem whenever the Sixth Fleet was
visiting Beirut. It was Stan Kochenderfer, Roland Swanson, and others of TAL's Middle East offices who effectively cut the competition to zero. They went directly to U.S. Naval Headquarters at Barcelona and won for Transocean the contract for all of the Navy's tour business before the fleet's departure for Beirut.
Right: Celebrating new DC-3 flight schedule from Amman, Jordan to Cairo, Egypt, in front of the Shepherd Hotel in Cairo. Top row left: TAL's John Russell, bottom row, second from left: TAL's Ed Ringo, others unidentified.
Below: Air Jordan C-46F, 44-78655, ex N-1668M, Taloa paint scheme. Photo taken at TAL's Hangar 28, Oakland Municipal Airport, Oakland, California