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readers' submissions


Planes and Desires

By Sven

In June 2004 I was sent by my Government to work for several weeks in Herat, the Capital of the Herat Province in the western part of Afghanistan. The city itself, famous for its Blue Mosque and its ancient fortress, is in much better shape than many other provincial capitals, having suffered only very little wartime and Taliban-induced damage.

What I would like to write about is not the place itself but delights of flying there.

If one is clever (or experienced) one chooses the UNHAS operated flights over the local Airlines. If only for the reason that the planes are newer and check-in is accomplished in less than half an hour instead of the customary 2-4 hours one waits with Ariana. I had not yet learned the tricks of getting through all the counters and Passport Checks in Kabul Airport so it was about an hour before I finally reached the waiting area. A crowded, none too clean place made bearable, however, by a working Airconditioner. With about two Dollars worth of small change that feat can be accomplished in less than 20 minutes as I found out on later occasions.

So there I was, waiting for my flight among hundreds of local people and a sprinkling of Westerners traveling to and fro on behalf of one relief organization or the other. The flight was duly called, the luggage once again checked and identified by the passengers and soon we sat inside a 16 seater beechcraft with two huge and grinning Danes in the pilots seats.

A short speech about the aircraft, an ominous remark about the fun we would have when landing and off we were into the dusty skies above Kabul. The flight was quiet, one rocky, sunbleached hill after the other slipping by underneath the plane. We reached the position of Herat still flying at some 18.000 ft. The Danes in front turned once, grinned, and then pulled the plane into the tight spiral of what I learned is called a falling leaf landing. The craft seemed to be screaming and tearing at its seams.

Having enjoyed the somewhat dubious but nonetheless rugged pleasures of being flown around the world in military aircraft of all shapes and sizes I was able to relax and to watch my fellow passengers. My friend and travel companion simply stretched his legs a little more and grinned, while some of the other guys started to turn decidedly pale or even green. Just the place to take pictures of clenched muscles and white knuckles if one was so inclined.

The first stall-warning came and went, the Danes still laughing, but we did level out eventually to find ourselves above the single runway at Herat airport. The next sight that inched into the Perspex was enough to jolt even my own travel hardened heart ­ a huge pit full of broken down or downright shredded aircraft, the metal still shining because there is hardly any rust in this dry and dusty climate.

Well, we made it to the ground safe and sound, with nothing but our confidence shaken.

Later I had the pleasure of visiting Herat Tower, an adventure in itself. Making do with two ancient radio sets, a loudhailer and a mechanical telephone the chief manages about 1-3 flights on any working day. The loudhailer is needed to elicit enough noise from the ancient speaker-system in order to drive soldiers (a tent city sits next to the runway), goats and the occasional visitor from the tarmac in case a plane should actually want to land. The electronic noises and sirens are an added bonus and as such are used for many minutes long before any vapor trail appears in the sky.

Then there is the heartwarming conversation between tower an pilot:

“Deeerrrrrr Captn, Deeerrrr Captn,” is the universal callsign for any incoming traffic. But true to international standards the selection of the proper runway is made with great deliberation. “Deeeerrrrrrr Captn, pleeeeeze take Numberrrrr …………. (imagine a hard and onerous thinking process) …. One!” One can practically hear the beaming smile through the radio waves at the accomplishment of choosing runway one out of one.

Then there is the grave matter of fire hazard, addressed properly by the airports fire-department. As Herat is not the wealthiest of airports, however, a few concessions had to be made. The fire department therefore consists of one able fireman pushing a 30 lb extinguisher sitting on a trolley, which is painted a bright fire-engine red.

Despite the adventurous conditions hundreds of people fly in and out of Herat every week and the people do try hard to make travelers comfortable as best as they can. Homecoming expatriates are always willing to help with any translation problems and the officials are reasonably polite, at least most of the time.

I must admit that traveling in Afghanistan might be a little easier for a German such as myself than it is for an American, most of whom are not responsible for their countries foreign policies. I would go back any day, and I will, come spring :-)

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