All those Wonderful Stories

First Air Travelers to Mecca

From the Journal of Captain Frank Kennedy, November 26, 1988

On returning from Mecca with a load of passengers bound for Teheran, I had to stop at Abaddan for fuel.  Abaddan is an Iranian port city on the Persian Gulf, about half way between Mecca and Teheran. It had a fairly good airport for that part of the world, one we had helped the Iranians construct during WW II. The airport was in a good location for our operation in the Middle East and we used it many times. Matt Kornell was my copilot and had been with me on several trips. He knew that part of the Middle East well from having ferried military planes to Russia through Iran during WW II. He was very capable and I appreciated having him along. Matt must have been a hyperactive child for he could never let anything slip by if some action could be taken to correct or improve it. Looking back on those times, I don't know how I managed to keep my cool, but I usually kept Matt's energies funneled in the right direction and we got along pretty well.

 

It was late on a dark night when we landed and pulled up to the terminal at Abaddan. All of our passengers were Muslims from far out in the rural area of northern Iran. They wore robes and turbans and all carried unusual items with them, under their robes - such items as small cook stoves, food, knives and other equipment. These people were very stern and unsmiling and seemed to view us with suspicion.  We tried to overlook any unusual activity and get by with as little friction as possible.

 

Our Muslim passangers wanted to take advantage of the stop at Abaddan to fulfill one of their five daily prayer obligations. They left the plane as soon as the ramp was in place and the door opened and each put down his prayer rug on the nearest open space at the bottom of the ramp. By the time the crew was ready to leave the plane, all of the available space between the plane and terminal was covered by our praying passengers. We had to carefully step between them as we made our way to the -terminal.  

 

As we made our way past the last few worshippers Matt stopped me. "Frank, he said "They're praying in the wrong direction." I tried to keep him walking with my hand on his arm but he pulled away from me and went to the nearest worshipper. He put a hand on the man's shoulder as he was kneeling on his rug. I expected the worst, for here was an "infidel" interrupting the prayers of a faithful one.

 

 couldn't hear the conversation but Matt pointed to the southwest, making a cutting motion with his hand. "Mecca, Mecca" I heard him say several times. It was almost directly opposite from the direction all were facing. The man shook his head in doubt but looked up at the night sky where Matt was pointing out the location of several prominent stars.

He could see immediately that Matt was right and bowed in a thanking gesture to him. The man interrupted the prayers of several others nearby and they all turned their rugs around as the word traveled through the crowd.

When these passengers had come off the plane, the first ones to begin their prayers had lined up with the plane - in the direction the tail was pointing - and the others had followed their lead without checking. Matt had correctly assumed that their prayer direction was important to them. When our fueling and other business had been taken care of and we were returning to the plane to continue the flight, the prayers were over and the man thanked Matt again. I never knew why Matt felt compelled to correct them but I suspected that he just wanted to know first-hand if the direction in which they prayed was really all that important to them.

Above:  Captain Frank Kennedy at Transocean Airlines Operations Office, Jiddah