All those Wonderful Stories

Holy War

By Arue Szura, Folded Wings: A History of Transocean Air  Lines

Nothing was neutral about Transocean, it seemed, except perhaps its stance of neutrality in the Arab Jewish situation that existed in 1948. Despite this fact, their international relations were sometimes complicated by unusual circumstances.

 

In August of 1948, Transocean contracted with the International Refugee Organization (IRO) for a flight from Paris to Australia with fifty European refugees. The flight plan was complicated because some of the passengers were Jews. This meant that TAL would be unable to take the most direct route and would need to avoid flying over any Arabian countries. The plan called for the aircraft to be routed from Paris over Rome and Athens with the first refueling stop to be Abadan, Iran.

 

Before take off, Captain Galvin "Ace" Sargent was handed a cablegram ostensibly from TAL's office in Shannon, Ireland. Its instructions were for him to continue past Abadan and land at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. The message was received without any suspicion, and Sargent insisted that a confirmation of the new plan had been made en route over Paris.

 

Before the transport's descent over Saudi Arabia and landing at Dhahran, the uneventful flight was forced to deviate from the flight plan. The traffic control tower at Dhahran refused permission to land.

 

In the middle of the Arab world, carrying a charter of Jews, and now low on fuel, the situation looked bleak. Why was the flight plan changed by Shannon and now permission to land denied? wondered Sargent.

 

After many airports in the Persian Gulf refused landing rights to Captain Sargent, the Iraqis across the Gulf at Basra finally granted permission. The tower cleared aircraft to land and refuel.  When it came to a stop near the terminal, it was rushed by soldiers carrying rifles. Even with the propellers still rotating and the cabin door still closed, the crew on deck knew they were hostages in the hands of angry adversaries.

The stairs were rolled into place against the fuselage, and the door opened. The armed guards took physical control of all flight personnel and passengers as well as the aircraft. Bob Glattly, who was the TAL navigator, said that the soldiers threatened to kill everyone as they herded them into a hotel at the airport. It was then that the crew realized the unfortunate political significance of landing Jews in an Arab country.

Now out of radio contact with the world, the Transocean flight was reported as lost and unaccounted for. Immediately, Transocean at Oakland, with the aid of the U.S. government and her allies, tried to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Captain Sargent's plane. Three days later, a pilot flying for an oil company landed at the airport and saw the Transocean plane. After his departure, he reported its location on the ramp at Basra to the airline's Middle East division offices.

Orvis Nelson always believed that this incident was created by a nationalistic or communistic group intent on stirring up international strife. The U.S. State Department, the IRO, and Transocean headquarters negotiated for eighteen days before the aircraft and its passengers were allowed to continue to the destination, Australia.

While it seemed Transocean's fate to fight for everything from route certificates to ramp space, to rescuing its own aircraft, these incidents merely served to highlight the company's ingenuity and corporate vitality.