Pan Am Series – Part XXXII: Technical Assistance Like No Other – 2

Technical Assistance for Tajik Air – 1993

Part Two

Pan Am’s spirit is alive in a unique Technical Assistance Project

Acceptance and Inaugural Flights of Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP

The acceptance flight is a critical part of the delivery process of an aircraft to an airline.  Once the aircraft is accepted and delivered, anything that is discovered wrong with the aircraft becomes the responsibility of the airline.  Inspections and the acceptance flight should ensure that this does not happen.  The Boeing 747SP was flown to London by a United Airlines supervisory pilot and crew.  Upon arrival, Captain Carr and his crew met the aircraft and began the task of inspecting the aircraft and its logs and maintenance records and carrying out the acceptance flight.  The aircraft looked great with a fresh paint job with Tajik Air livery.  Once everything was signed off, and the walk-around inspection complete, the aircraft was pronounced airworthy and Captain Carr and his crew boarded the aircraft to begin the flight.

N149UA-2   747SP at DYU-1

However, once on board, there was a surprise awaiting them:  The aircraft was full of people!  Normally such a flight involves the necessary minimum crew members.  Not this one.  The press was on board, as were Tajik Air officials, the Minister of Aviation of Tajikistan and management staff.  In fact station personnel and baggage handlers were also on board!

From Captain Carr:

“[I had] a quiet conversation with the [Minister of Aviation] to make sure that carrying all these people on a test flight was okay. I learned that wonderful Russian phrase: ‘kharasho’ (‘no problem’).  Since he was the law for our Tajikistan operating certificate, it was like getting the word directly from God. 

“I climbed into my seat in the cockpit. The United pilot looked really nervous and seemed a few shades deeper red than normal. He indicated his concern about all these people on board, and I said ‘kharasho’, took the clip board from him and signed as Pilot in Command. He looked relieved. I reminded him that United was still responsible for any maintenance items until I signed the aircraft acceptance form.  The flight went smoothly, the aircraft was perfect and everyone enjoyed the tour of the English countryside as we put the airplane through its paces. We returned to Heathrow and I made my first landing in a real 747 in about a year and a half. As we came in on final approach, I realized that we had almost all the top brass aboard, the new crew-members and a whole planeload of people who had never been on a 747 before. 

“If you’re are flying a 747 correctly, on speed and according to ‘the book’, it normally makes a very nice landing. Once in a while, when conditions are just right and you are very lucky, the touch down is so smooth that you don’t realize you are on the ground until the speed-brake handle comes up as it automatically reacts to a micro-switch on the landing gear as the wheels touch ground. This was one of those landings. 

“It is a Russian custom to applaud after a landing. But I didn’t think this applause was for landing, rather giving thanks to be alive.   However, during the flight we kept the door open for the bigwigs to view the cockpit and after landing I heard the cheers and applause from behind. Winning an Oscar for an actor couldn’t feel any better than how that landing and applause felt to me.  As we all left the aircraft my new bosses kept congratulating me as though I was the greatest pilot in the world. What could I say?  I just smiled and secretly thanked Boeing.”

Snow Leopard-1a-comp

Gunilla Crawford, having arrived in London to handle flight service, also had a look at the 747SP prior to delivery:

“The day came when we were to see the plane for the first time. It was a rainy overcast day, but there she was as beautiful as ever, sitting on the wet tarmac. We inspected the galleys, the equipment  and planned the last details, now that a few months of training and planning  had come together and the real adventure was to begin. ‘Starving’ for flying since the demise of Pan Am . . .we were all raring to go, as this would be the ‘real’ thing………..or so we thought.”

It was now time to get ready for operations.   Ticket sales and crew scheduling were at the top of the agenda.

With the acceptance flight completed and the aircraft ready to start operations, management and staff got into full gear. Tickets were sold, crews scheduled and plans were made for launch activities.  At the London Headquarters on Kensington High Street, tickets sales in both the Delhi, India and Karachi, Pakistan markets was brisk and flights sold out very quickly. However, ticket sales in the Dushanbe market was slow due to very little western business activity in the country, and what little passenger traffic there was, was largely government in nature. Thus, selling seats in the beyond markets was necessary.  As described in Part One, this “Sixth Freedom” operation enabled a profit on what would have been money losing flights.  In fact, over 90-95% of the booked passengers were booked on flights to Delhi or Karachi.  Deeply discounted advance purchase excursion tickets offered through local travel agents in the ethnic neighborhoods of London resulted in a huge response.

The Kensington High Street Headquarters served as both a ticket office and operations base with constant activity, day and night. This was punctuated with welcome and frequent visits by the Pan Am and Tajik flight crews.

McMillan House-1 Cyrus and Eni    McMillan House-3

McMillan House-2

 

While ticket sales and preparations for the inaugural flight were progressing, Gunilla Crawford and her team of flight attendants set about to organize crew scheduling and rotations.  This was no easy task!

Cabin crew scheduling was a challenge for Gunilla.  With no computers available, some creativity was required:

From Gunilla Crawford:

“We went across the street from the hotel to a gas station and bought four dinosaur-shaped erasers in four different colors.  Each dinosaur represented a crew.   And each crew consisted of two ex-Pan Am flight attendants and the rest Tajik.  On a large poster board we plotted the four destinations, London, Dushanbe, Karachi and New Delhi.  By moving the dinosaurs between the destinations we made sure nobody was scheduled from London, when in fact the crew member was in New Delhi!”

Cabin Crew Sked-2

 

When Gunilla arrived in London, she was in for a surprise.  In addition to heading up the cabin crew, there was another responsibility as well:  Catering.  She handled that in pure Pan Am fashion.

“We made appointments with Catering at Heathrow airport, we picked china for the First Class Service, silver ware, serving dishes, baskets and linens. The ‘old’ Pan Am training came back in force and we would do the service in the name of that classic carrier.” 

The food service to be offered was superb.

In First Class departing London, “Royal Doulton Service” included during the drinks service a choice of Hot Canapes including Chicken Kebab, Mushroom Cream Vol-au-Vent, Spring Roll, Basil Cashew Parmesan Tartlets and Asian Canapes of mixed pakoras and samosas. The Hors d’oeuvres offered a choice of Poached Salmon Medallion on Oakleaf lettuce with Diced Pepper and Cucumber Salad, or a Tomato Cup filled with Mayonnaise Lemon garnish or a Smoked Chicked Breast on Radicchio with Mandarin Orange and Cucumber or a Radish and Mixed Peppers Julienne, all with a Mixed Leaf Salad with Vinaigrette.  For the entree, the choices were Curry Prawn Jalfrezi with fresh chopped Coriander, Rack of Lamb with Herbs and Fresh Rosemary Sprigs or Chicken Shirin Polo accompanied by Basmati Rice with Zereshk or Potato Sesame Croquettes and a choice of vegetables including Broccoli au Gratin Mornay or Steamed Mixed Vegetables with Baby Sweetcorn, Turned Carrots and Mange Tout.

For desert Gateau Chocolate Roulade with Orange Zest was followed by a cheese plate that included Camembert, Port Salut, Feta, Stilton, Brie with black grapes, black and green olives and celery batons.  Ending the meal was a fresh fruit basket.

Prior to landing in Dushanbe the pre-arrival “hot breakfast was just as posh…It was like working the Pan Am Clippers again”, according to Vince Rossi one of the ex-Pan Am flight attendants.

Gunilla Feb 19   Gunilla Feb 12    Gunilla Feb 10-cropped

As the day approached for the first revenue flight from London to Dushanbe and onwards to Karachi, the crews began assembling in London to prepare. For Gunilla, it was a happy reunion with the Tajik flight attendants who greeted their ex-Pan Am counterparts with “squeals and shouts of joy”.  For the inaugural flight four ex-Pan Am were to work the flight, Robert Stewart, Tania Anderson, Linda Morehouse and Linda Oja.  In the flight deck were Captain Ed Olasz, First Officer Jim Donahue and Flight Engineer Carl Meixal.  In addition, two qualified captains were assigned to the flight.

Preparations for departure went into high gear.  Nothing was overlooked.  Everything was covered, from the accuracy of the manuals to training to CRM (crew resources management) with the Tajik flight attendants.   Anything that could possibly happen, even the unpredictable, was discussed and thoroughly prepared for.

The excitement of flying again did not escape the ex-Pan Amers who were taking part in the operation.  The 747SP’s first flight coincided almost to the date of the demise of their beloved Pan Am, some two years prior.

 

From Tania Anderson:

“I happily scribbled away in my diary, gushing about the thrill of flying with my cosmopolitan colleagues again. A few fondly remembered having flown with this particular 747SP before. Some of my co-workers had not flown since Pan Am’s demise. It had been nearly two years to the day that I had been on my last flight, a White House Press Charter, when we learned that we were bankrupt for good. Now as we gathered in the lobby of our London hotel for the first flight to Dushanbe, we all noted the sad anniversary coupled with the excitement of exploring a new airline together.”

At 2215 hrs on the date of the inaugural flight, Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP, designated flight 7J801, departed London Heathrow for Dushanbe. The spirit on board was one of joy and happiness.

From Tania Anderson:

“During the flight, I quickly noted that many of the passengers, who were going onto Karachi, were much less frenetic than the ones we used to fly on Pan Am. They were elated to be going home, either for a visit or permanently, for a reasonably priced airline ticket. One passenger actually asked if he could kiss me, and I reluctantly replied, “Well, Ok, but on my cheek!” I also noted in my diary that we were flying across Russian airspace which may not sound like a big deal but to someone who grew up during the Cold War when the former USSR was our mortal enemy, it was intriguing to me.

“The multi-national crew also bonded quickly. The Tajik flight attendants loved the fact that my name was Tania. Naturally assuming that I was Russian with a name like Tania, one actually commented that I spoke good fluent English for a Russian. Some of the Tajiks were dark with olive skin and Middle Eastern looks. Most were Muslim. Others were the opposite end of the spectrum with white skin and light eyes. They were usually Russian Orthodox.

“Among the Tajik flight attendants, there were three Irenas on the flight.  Any time I said ‘Irena’, all three would whirl around simultaneously to see what I wanted.  The Tajik flight attendants  were absolutely delightful and so easy to get along with. They were also thrilled to have secured a job such as this with the opportunity to explore a bit of the world, especially London. Many of them had no transportation from their homes, so they simply walked miles to the airport to work these extraordinarily long flights. They went out of their way to tell us how their country was still in a lot of upheaval economically. In addition, Afghani insurgents were coming over the border to make trouble, and they wanted none of it. ‘Tania, we just all want peace and to be able to live our lives’, one told me.”

Cabin Crew-2a    Cabin Crew-1a

Crew-1    Cabin Crew-1

After a long flight into the night, the 747SP landed in Dushanbe.

From Tania Anderson:

“It was a cold, wintry, snowy day when we landed in Dushanbe to a zealous reception on the tarmac. After all, we were the first western aircraft to ever land in somewhat remote Tajikistan. I distinctly remember applause in the cabin upon our touchdown, but the local hoopla outside just about had me abandoning my jump-seat.

“With a dramatic back drop of steep snow-encrusted mountains, dozens of well-wishers had gathered on the tarmac in their traditional brightly-colored clothes. There was a band playing Russian instruments complete with long-nosed horns and big drums. Tajik national TV was there with their ancient equipment to record every single minute of the ceremonies and our arrival.”

DYU Reception-2

Gunilla Feb 03    Gunilla Feb 01    Gunilla Feb 02

From Tania Anderson:

“Once on the blocks, the ground people enthusiastically boarded the plane, not only to welcome us, but to ask for a quick tour of the 747SP. Descending the spiral staircase, our pilots were given handsome home-made colorful robes to wear over their uniforms. Now that the door was open, I could observe the entire scene. Our pilots were quickly ushered down the stairs and off to the terminal for a reception including some local culinary treats whose identity was left to the imagination. Later one of them told me that the Tajiks had insisted that they shoot some vodka—maybe local moonshine—to celebrate the day. A bit horrified, our pilots made certain that the officials knew we still had another leg to fly to Karachi, but the general response was like, ‘So what?’

“Linda Oja and I stayed on the plane watching everything from L-1. Then something happened I shall never forget. As Linda squealed, ‘Oh, No!’ I saw some Tajiks dragging a sheep across the tarmac towards the Snow Leopard. It struggled the entire way, right up to the staircase, just as if it knew something lousy was about to occur. As they do in many countries, they sacrificed the sheep at the bottom of our stairs, directing the blood from his neck into a bowl. In the west we christen ships and airplanes with champagne, but now we were half way around the world in a land with customs very different than our own.

“Not long afterwards, the entire crew along with the ground people gathered in front of the aircraft for a memorable photo. Each of us was festooned with garlands of deep red-colored roses. They were velvet to the touch and their fragrance was heavenly, even against the cold blast of mid-winter.

“Standing there on that frosty winter day, I felt a true sense of pride about our latest “operation.” In true Pan Am fashion, we had pulled ourselves up after the bankruptcy and were on the other side of the planet helping the struggling Tajiks with their burgeoning airline, begun with one beautiful 747SP.

“Flying on [Tajik Air’s 747SP] was another wonderful Pan Amigo adventure to add to my memoirs.”

Inaugural at DYU-1

When the flight arrived at Dushanbe that morning, Tajikistan was in the midst of an economic crisis along with a civil war.  Bread was being rationed but at the same time the country was trying to turn the page into a new chapter of their existence, emerging from the era of Soviet rule to an independent and free nation.  The arrival of this beautiful 747SP representing their national airline stoked both great pride and happiness among its citizens.

This unique “Technical Assistance”, from the beginning, was the story of a revolutionary idea that should have been hugely successful. Who would have thought that a remote country in the former Soviet Union would have a Boeing 747 operation linking it with the West?  It actually happened – and it could have continued.  Unfortunately the fates would not allow that and countless hours of devotion to a noble project went to waste. If there is blame, it is not worth dwelling on.  Everyone wanted the right outcome.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

The timing was just not perfect for starting such an operation. The infrastructure within Tajikistan’s Civil Aviation Authority had not matured enough to take on the financial and political burden of a complex Sixth Freedom operation, requiring bilateral agreements not only with the United Kingdom, but with India and Pakistan as well. Thanks to the London management, the UK agreement and slots at Heathrow were secured.  Unfortunately, the negotiations to secure the agreements with India were still incomplete when the operation started and that presented barriers and resultant revenue losses. Had the start of the operation been delayed until the negotiations were completed there might have been a different result.  That will never be known.  However, the Boeing 747SP operation proved that it could be done, and for four short months, Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP proudly flew the skies between London, Dushanbe and Delhi/Karachi.

N149UA-1a     N540PA-1

Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP, Manufacturer’s Serial Number 21649, Serial 373 was first delivered to Pan American World Airways on May 11, 1979 registered as N540PA and named Clipper White Falcon.  It was renamed Clipper Flying Arrow on August 1, 1979 and later renamed Clipper Star of the Union on January 1, 1980. One year later, on January 1, 1981, the aircraft became China Clipper.

On February 12, 1986, as part of Pan Am’s sale of its Pacific Routes, N540PA was acquired by United Airlines.  The registration was changed to N149UA on June 1, 1986.  It was under this registration that the aircraft operated for Tajik Air. After the aircraft was repossessed by United Airlines, it was bought by the Brunei Government and re-registered as V8-JBB. It was then bought by the Government of Bahrain on December 24, 1998 and registered as A9C-HMH. Today the aircraft is owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, registered as VQ-BMS. She is still in operation.

EVENT REMINDERS:

Aircraft Accident Workshop, 31 May 2014 in San Francisco.

Click here for info or registration.

Pan Am’s Worldwide Family Reunion

31 July – 3 August  2014

New York/Long Island City

Click here for info and registration.

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the puFor additional information about Pan American World Airways:blisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pan Am Series – Part XXXI – Technical Assistance Like No Other

Technical Assistance for Tajik Air – 1993

Part One

Pan Am’s spirit is alive in a unique Technical Assistance Project

Even though Pan American World Airways ceased operations on 4 December 1991, those of the flying staff who remained to the end continued flying in whatever assignment they could get. Some flew on Hajj charters; some went overseas to teach Korean pilots and others took any job so long as it involved flying. The possibility of ever joining together again as a team seemed like a remote possibility. However, the “Pan American Spirit” remained in the hearts of many Pan Amers and manifested itself in late 1993.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990 was the breakup of its national airline, Aeroflot. The once behemoth was divided up among the newly independent republics who immediately set out to form their own national airlines. One airline was formed in the new Republic of Tajikistan, “Tajik Air”. Its fleet consisted largely of old Soviet TU-154s that were operated to points within the old Soviet Union. The idea of operating long-haul intercontinental flights was nothing more than a dream.

TU-154s   Tajik_Air_Tupolev_Tu-154M_Dvurekov

Tajik Air TU-154s (Photo on left by Gunilla Crawford; on right by Igor Dvurekov)

Then something profound happened. A group of businessmen in London, England saw the potential of doing business in Tajikistan and formed the Tajikistan Development Agency, headquartered in London. The group came to a quick realization that there was a serious lack of air transportation between the UK (or anywhere in Europe) and Tajikistan. Then came an idea: Why not expand the operations of Tajik Air so that it can offer flights between London and Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan?

Starting a new service in any market requires a great deal of research and planning.  There must be a suitable aircraft.  Government approvals must be in place.  Airport access, slots (if required), ground handling services and airport facilities (check-in desks, etc) must be obtained.  On the commercial side, the new service needs to be marketed, publicized and tickets sold.  Other details include setting up the ticket and operations offices, arranging catering, publishing an In-Flight magazine and printing safety information cards, timetables, paper tickets, baggage tickets, promotional materials and stationary.

For Tajik Air, however, there was one very important requirement missing: an operating base in London and sufficient infrastructure to crew and maintain an aircraft operating the long-haul route between Dushanbe and London.  That presented a huge problem as the civil aviation structure of Tajikistan was completely inexperienced in intercontinental operations. Setting up a London base would seem impossible to achieve given the limited resources of Tajikistan.  However, through the foresight and creativeness of a few airline experts in London, a unique solution to the problem was hatched: Establish a third-party UK management company to operate the route.

After much discussion with Tajikistan’s civil aviation authority, a contract was signed and Tajik Air Limited was formed. It would build the the necessary infrastructure and operate flights to/from London on behalf of Tajik Air.  The company would obtain and maintain the aircraft and crew, organize the marketing and selling of the flights and essentially operate the flights.  This would be accomplished using Tajikistan’s Air Operator’s Certificate and Tajik Air’s call-sign and airline code.   Tajikistan committed to funding the new service and also obtaining the required government permissions for the operation.

How would this operation be viable and profitable?  The route of primary interest to Tajik Air was the London (Heathrow) (“LHR”)-Dushanbe (“DYU”) sector.  Operating that sector as an Origin-Destination route presented problems in that there was little, if any, traffic between the two points.  The question was how to fill the aircraft?  The answer:  Offer service between LHR and points beyond DYU.  The beyond points selected were Delhi, India (“DEL”) and Karachi, Pakistan (“KHI”).  This was to be accomplished using rights under the Sixth Freedom of the Air, made possible by Tajik Air using Tajikistan’s Third and Fourth Freedom rights under agreements with the UK, India and Pakistan.  DYU would be the “hub” for traffic between LHR and DEL/KHI.

The schedule would work like this:  Tajik Air departs from LHR with a planeload of passengers on a Fourth Freedom flight to DYU.  Upon arrival in DYU, those few passengers destined for DYU disembark and the rest stay on board.  The flight then departs DYU with a new flight number on a Third Freedom flight for DEL or KHI.  Upon turning around in DEL/KHI, with a new planeload of passengers, the flight becomes a Fourth Freedom to DYU and from DYU, with another flight number, Third Freedom to LHR.  By operating this schedule, Tajik Air could fill the seats of the aircraft, and compete in a highly competitive market by offering good service with low fares.

The next question was what type of aircraft and this is where the spirit of Pan American first came on the scene: The selection of the Boeing 747SP for the operation. The aircraft acquired was first delivered to Pan American on May 11, 1979 registered as N540PA and named Clipper White Falcon.  It was renamed Clipper Flying Arrow on August 1, 1979 and later renamed Clipper Star of the Union on January 1, 1980. One year later, on January 1, 1981, the aircraft became China Clipper.

On February 12, 1986, as part of Pan Am’s sale of its Pacific Routes, N540PA was acquired by United Airlines.  The registration was changed to N149UA on June 1, 1986.  It was under this registration that the aircraft operated for Tajik Air, pictured below:

747SP Snow Leopard-cropped

Once the 747SP was secured, a call went out for crews to operate it. This was the second instance of the Pan American spirit in the new operation: The selection of former Pan Am crews to operate the service.

Because of the aircraft choice and their availability, it was decided to hire former pilots of Pan American.  The decision was perfectly logical in that Pan Am pilots had many hours of experience in the 747SP – some had actually flown the aircraft when it was with Pan Am – had experience operating in the geographic area of the intended operation, and had the savvy and know-how in dealing with unexpected circumstances or conditions inherent in such an operation.

Captain Sherman Carr, an experienced Pan Am pilot was one who received a call from a former colleague about an opportunity to be “an aviation pioneer again”.  According to Carr, the offer was to operate a new 747 service for the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan.  He was told the route to be flown and that the pay would be minimal but with generous per diem and off-time.  After some research he made his decision.  He learned that Tajikistan

“. . .is magnificently beautiful with a major fertile valley with a mild climate that grows cotton  surrounded by majestic peaks rising 18 to 20 thousand feet and populated by their national symbol, the snow leopard. I also learned that (the capital) Dushanbe is on the old “Silk Road” route used by Marco Polo when he brought the secrets of making spaghetti from China to Italy. The neighboring cities of Tashkent and Samarkand conjured up images of wondrous bazaars and really old world treasures of the Mongol Empire and kabobs made from Yak. I was hooked. Like the line from the Clint Eastwood movie: “do you feel lucky?” I did. I called back and signed up”

It was the same for all the pilots who received “the call”.  A chance to be an aviation pioneer was too great an opportunity to turn down.

Captain Carr also had this is to say about the 747SP:

“The airplane that was to be used for this operation was a Boeing 747SP.  The SP stands for special performance. The plane was originally developed for Pan Am to be able to operate non-stop from the U.S. to Hong Kong and be able to stay aloft for over 15 hours. It was actually a regular 747 with upstairs lounge seating but shortened by about 48 feet to make it lighter and additional fuel tanks for longer range. If it’s not loaded with full fuel for extended range flights, the aircraft actually scoots like a hot rod and will outperform any WWII or Korean conflict fighter aircraft and is a lot of fun to fly. It will roll or loop or do most of the maneuvers you see at an airshow but of course this is not authorized so no pilot would ever tell you he had done those things. For Dushanbe, surrounded by mountains in all directions, it was the perfect choice due to its ability to climb quickly, safely and be on its way in a timely manner and still carry about 260 people with an extended first class.”

Once the group was assembled, refresher training began at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Miami, Florida.  Most of the Pan American pilots were over 60 years of age.  While that would present a problem in the United States, it did not for Tajikistan.  And as is well known, pilots over the age of 60 have a near zero accident rate.

 

PAIFA exterior

At the academy was a 747SP simulator and the pilots were put through training that brought them up to speed on changes to the aircraft, flight rules and also fined-tuned their instrument piloting skills.  At the same time, flight attendants from Tajik Air were undergoing training for the 747SP.  These flight attendants were supposedly the “cream of the crop” from Tajik Air but with experience limited to smaller aircraft such as the TU-154.

While the pilots were progressing well in the refresher training, it was not the case for the flight attendants.

A former Pan Am purser, Gunilla Crawford, was working in contracts at the Flight Academy when she heard that Tajik Air flight attendants were to receive training on the 747SP.  Upon their arrival, she immediately discovered a serious problem:  their English speaking ability was extremely limited!  :

“I had created a training program for the Tajik flight attendants and we started with the 747SP aircraft:  the doors, how to arm, disarm, open and close in normal and emergency mode. The first day was spent studying the manual; the second day in the mock- up; the third day back in the classroom.  But I soon realized it would take five days to learn the doors and it would take months to teach procedures.

 “Nothing I tried worked with the students, mainly because of the language barrier, and partly because of the size of the aircraft. The 747 SP had two aisles vs. the TU-154 single aisle; oxygen masks in the overhead on the 747SP vs. two 5 foot tall oxygen tanks standing in the aft of the TU-154 cabin!”

A flight academy employee who spoke Russian eventually acted as an interpreter, but it became painfully clear that this group would not be able to staff a 747SP.  Although kind, interested and friendly, they were overwhelmed by the size of the 747SP.

This problem was not only a concern to Crawford, but also to the pilots who were undergoing refresher training and who had observed the Tajik flight attendants first hand.  A solution to the problem was needed, and after consultations with Tajik officials present, it was decided to hire some “real” flight attendants from the former Pan Am.  Crawford, was in contact with a group of “experienced and adventurous” former colleagues, and very soon a lot of familiar faces began appearing at the Flight Academy.

Training went into full swing for all concerned and soon it was finished.  For the cabin crew, it was decided that two or three experienced Pan Am flight attendants would be assigned to each flight.  The remaining cabin crew positions would be filled by the Tajik Air flight attendants as “trainees”.  The goal, under the supervision and direction of the Pan Am crew, was the Tajik crew to become qualified on a 747SP.

However, there was one more thing:  Teamwork

From Captain Carr:

Being on a flight crew is a wonderful thing. It is a team effort. Pan Am had always encouraged working as a team. That teamwork was designed to save lives. Although the duties of the cabin staff is the care of passengers, their real job is to save lives in an emergency. They operate the emergency equipment and are trained to get people out of the aircraft as quickly as possible. Good communication is essential. As a pilot, I always appreciated the job the flight attendants do and made sure they knew it”.

 In observing the training of the Tajik flight attendants, good communication was non-existent.  To alleviate this problem, Captain Carr suggested the Tajiks should see more of America other than their hotel and the flight academy and invited them and his fellow pilots to a luncheon at his home.  During the luncheon he made a very important observation:

“[At] almost any cookout in America, guests would pitch in to help with the food and drinks and have a party. Not so with the Tajiks. It became apparent that the concept of initiative did not exist in their culture. They would smile and do anything we asked of them but took no initiative. In an airplane emergency, this can be deadly so we proceeded to see what we could do about it. This was the first chance the pilots and cabin staff had the opportunity to talk in an informal setting. We encouraged them to help themselves and to pass things along to their fellow crew members.

 “We also found out why they didn’t talk to each other. They were all from Tajikistan but some were from various mountain tribes that were at odds with each other. Others were Russian, or Iranian or Tajik valley people. Apparently they had been chosen not because of their good English or flying experience but because they were related to government officials.  This was also meant to be a representative group of the Tajik population. While I thought this was a very democratic move, I later learned this diversity was meant to make it less likely that a jealous faction would [cause problems with the operation].

 “The lunch went very well and the English phrases, “more beer”, “more vodka” were pronounced much better. I also chartered a water taxi for a cruise to see the Bahia Mar Yachting Center and also homes along the waterway.  At the end of the tour and before returning to Miami, the Tajiks stopped by our home to thank us. Much to my relief they were all smiling and talking to each other and acting like a flight crew. That lunch was one of the best investments I ever made.

With the training finished and the Tajiks fresh from their team-building experience, everyone began leaving Miami for London to start the operation.  Captain Carr was asked to make the “acceptance flight” of Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP.  He accepted.

END OF PART ONE

Stay tuned for Part Two: The acceptance flight and applying the “Pan Am Experience” to the first flights of Tajik Air.

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

The Story of Snow Leopard – Part 5: A Postscript

Snow Leopard at Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Snow Leopard at Dushanbe, Tajikistan

 

A Postscript to the Story of Snow Leopard

Some new photographs have emerged about Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP operation told in “The Story of Snow Leopard” previously posted on this blog site. The images illustrate the spirit of cooperation between the Tajiks and the ex-Pan Am crew who were enthusiastically and selflessly working to give Tajik Air a name for itself in Central Asia. Many thanks to Purser Gunilla Crawford for providing the photographs.

The first set of images includes scenes at Dushanbe Airport with airport staff and security guards. They all were very happy to come on board the “giant” airplane and enjoy the buffet laid out for them by the flight crew.  Also are pictures of TU-154s at the airport and a photo taken from Snow Leopard while flying over the Pamir mountains. There is also a photograph taken by one of the Snow Leopard pilots from the ground in Dushanbe of a mysterious flying object. They were told: “They never saw anything! No Explanation!”

The next series of images shows the level of meal service enjoyed by the First Class passengers on Snow Leopard. As the cabin crew were former Pan American World Airways pursers, the service replicated Pan Am’s iconic “Seven Cart” gourmet meals.

This short-lived Boeing 747SP operation gave Tajik Civil Aviation an all too brief “shining moment” that for two short months gave Central Asia a glimpse of what could be done in commercial flight. It is gone for now, but the memories remain, thanks to the ex-Pan Am cabin crew and pilots who shared their photographs and memories to make “The Story of Snow Leopard” possible.

The Story of Snow Leopard – Part Four: What Could Have Been

Snow Leopard "blocking" at Delhi

Snow Leopard “blocking” at Delhi

The Story of Snow Leopard from the beginning was the story of a revolutionary idea that should have been hugely successful. Unfortunately the fates would not allow that and countless hours of devotion to a noble project went to waste. If there is blame, it is not worth dwelling on.  Everyone wanted the right outcome.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Nevertheless, the London staff, pilots and cabin crew worked their mightiest to make this project work, using initiative and self-sacrifice to get over what eventually became an insurmountable problem.

Once the regular schedule was established and operating, the flights still presented a challenge to everyone involved and it goes without saying they were up to it.  The Pan Am culture in which the pilots and flight attendants grew up lent itself to innovation and decisiveness in dealing with the everyday issues they confronted while operating Snow Leopard.  A case in point is the first trip of Captain Sherman Carr, who encountered his share of challenges during his first trip as Pilot-in-Command on Snow Leopard.

Flying Snow Leopard to Delhi and Back

Captain Carr, who flew the acceptance flight, arrived in London for his first revenue trip and met with the rest of the flight crews at his hotel who briefed him on the operation.  He also learned that the flights for the next two months were full, “which was a relief to me as I was anxious for my new employers to succeed”.  That evening, he reported with his crew to London’s Heathrow Airport for his trip to Delhi with a short stop in Dushanbe. While completing pre-flight, which included verifying the flight plan, the weather, the fuel load, the passenger load, weight and balance and reviewing the current Notice to Airmen, he learned that the flight was being handled by United Airlines Dispatch in Chicago.

From Captain Carr:

“I reported to the aircraft with my crew and was greeted warmly by the Tajik Air Station Manager and his wife. I briefed the flight service team about our flight time (6 1/2 hours to Dushanbe; 2 1/2 hours to Delhi) and conducted a review of emergency procedures. I checked with catering and baggage handling to ensure things were progressing for an on time departure. All was well. So far.

“The cockpit of a 747 is on the top deck making it difficult to observe the loading progress. So one relies on clues such as all doors closing but one, or the tug getting ready for push-back. As our departure time neared, these things weren’t happening. I could see through the window into the boarding area and saw a huddle of ground personnel talking on cell phones. I contacted flight-ops by radio and found that the United Airlines Dispatch Center had not sent the final weight and balance figures. I said: ‘So what. We have the figures here, we can finish it.’ ‘That’s not the way we do it’, said the United London ops man. We waited at the gate 45 minutes until someone in Chicago sent us our final weight and balance based on the numbers we sent them. I said ‘hmmnnn’ and made a couple of notes.”

The flight was finally cleared and took off for Dushanbe.  For Captain Carr, it was “great to be flying again”.  The route took Snow Leopard over Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia and across the former Soviet Union.  In the flight deck, the pilots were busy with position reports, weather updates and programming the way-points on the route into the Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) on the aircraft.  This system directs the flight as it moves along its route.  Connected to autopilot, it makes piloting the flight effortless.  Except in the former Soviet Union.

From Captain Carr:

“The airways in the USSR were established when airplanes flew about 100 mph with reporting points very close together and in zig zag courses that were established by radio beacons installed along winding roads or rivers that were only accessible by mule or boat. The result was that we found ourselves barely able to stay ahead of the aircraft progress while loading the many way points. We asked the Russian ground controllers if we could fly a straighter route and report every hundred miles or so but this was 1993 and they were still very strict about enforcing their old ways.

The flight, however, made good progress and was on its way for an on-time arrival.  Then there was a problem:  Fluid loss in one of the hydraulic systems that required an alternative procedure to lower the landing gear and made the nose wheel steering inoperative.  This was “no big whoop” to Captain Carr.  These were things pilots were trained to deal with.  The landing in Dushanbe was routine and Captain Carr requested a tug to tow the aircraft to the gate.

From Captain Carr:

“’What tug?’ the tower responded. It turns out there was no tug at Dushanbe capable of moving a 747. The book says you can’t taxi a 747 without the # 1 hydraulic system which is the one we lost, but, as an old Navy Pilot used to a carrier aircraft that didn’t have nose wheel steering anyway, we just went back to basics. Using differential brakes and forward thrust on one side and idle reverse on the other we swung right around and taxied up to the terminal. ‘Kharasho’ (‘no problem’). The Dushanbe passengers deplaned and we asked everyone else to stay on board while we examined the situation.”

After examining the landing gear, the source of the leak was identified and capped.  Repairs would be done in Delhi. The crew determined that the aircraft could continue to Delhi with the landing gear locked down adding about 45 minutes to the flight plan, arriving in Delhi a little late. Communications in Dushanbe, however, was quite primitive, and after several unsuccessful attempts by the operations office to contact London and Chicago, Captain Carr finally reached Chicago by HF frequency from the aircraft.  He explained the situation and got his first taste of United Corporate Culture.

From Captain Carr:

“‘You can’t do that,’ said the United dispatcher in Chicago. ‘We don’t have any such procedure for gear down flights with passengers.’ I explained we had such procedures and that our operating certificate was based on using Pan Am manuals, flight procedures and techniques and the manuals permitted safe operation with the gear down. We had been doing it since the introduction of the first 747. I asked him: ‘Don’t you realize that every flight operates with the gear down at the beginning and end? We were just going to have it down longer.’ He said he didn’t care, he had checked with his bosses and if we attempted to fly with the gear down, they would repossess the aircraft. I had to give the bad news to the local Tajik Air people and two managers from London who were with us. We had to come up with plan B”.

The next problem for Captain Carr was dealing with the passengers still on board going to Delhi. There were no hotels available to put them up overnight. Also, the aircraft heating and electricity was being powered by an on-board auxiliary power unit (APU) that used up fuel and there was no fuel available in Dushanbe. If the APU was kept running, there would not be enough fuel for the flight to Delhi. In addition, the airport was closing and airport personnel were going home.

From Captain Carr:

“The local Tajik Air managers came up with the idea of using one of their Tupolev 154s, which could carry our passengers but not their luggage. The Tupolev crew was called to the airport, their airplane readied, and I was told all we had to do was transfer our passengers to the other aircraft. I learned that wasn’t going to be so easy.

“In London, the BBC had been reporting on the theft of airline baggage. Most of the passengers were Indian Nationals, many of whom carrying as many VCRs, portable TVs and other small appliances as their luggage would bear. When I told them that they would be continuing to Delhi on the Tupolev, but could not take their luggage, there was a near riot. A few began wagging their fingers in my face. I asked the Hindi speaking members of our crew to translate for me so there would be no misunderstanding. I explained there were no hotel rooms, that we had to shut down our aircraft and if they tried to stay, they would freeze to death. I told them we had made arrangements to get them to their destination and their luggage would be arriving the next morning. Their response was underwhelming. To emphasize our security arrangements, I had our guards come aboard the airplane and hold their Kalishnikov machine guns over their heads to show our passengers that their luggage would be well protected. These were not ordinary airport security guards but members of the élite Russian Spetsnaz. I was very glad to see them providing security. And having them behind me to back up my promise to protect the passengers luggage worked very well. Also, no one else wagged a finger in my face.

The Tupolev was brought along side and the passengers began filing from one aircraft to the other in the dark.  Once the transfer was complete I went to the Tupolev to meet the cockpit crew and wish our passengers a bon voyage. I introduced myself to the Captain and his crew. We chatted a bit and their Captain smiled and said: ‘Don’t worry Captain, we’ll take good care of your passengers and crew.’ I was grateful for his recognizing my concern and addressing it. I was very impressed. I thanked him, and went though the cabin thanking all the passengers for their cooperation. I also thanked all our flight service team for all their hard work during a difficult time. They were terrific.”

After spending the night at a hotel in Dushanbe, Captain Carr and his crew returned to Dushanbe Airport to find a “pile of papers that truly impressed me” and that “United in Chicago. . .had come to the conclusion” that he was right and released the aircraft for a ferry flight to Delhi with gear down.

From Captain Carr:

“We boarded the airplane and took off. It was a beautiful day and even with the gear down the SP climbed easily to cross the Hindu Kush and surrounding peaks that rose to about 24,000 feet. We were enjoying the scenery as we cruised at 29,000 feet entering Pakistan. We made our position report to the Pakistan air controller who asked us to confirm our country of registration. No one could believe that Tajikistan had a 747. He asked us for our overflight permit number. Before take-off we had received our en-route clearance but no one had said anything about an overflight permit number. I hadn’t heard of this before and in my years of flying with Pan Am, had never been asked for one. The three of us in the cockpit began searching through the paper work. I began reading the controller numbers we found but they were not the number he wanted. He sounded very unhappy and eventually his supervisor radioed: ‘Tajik Air 801, you have entered Pakistani airspace illegally and are directed to land at Lahore Airport immediately.’ I explained that we were a ferry flight because of a mechanical difficulty and that it would be dangerous to divert and could not comply. He said: ‘You must land immediately.’ I again explained that I am using my authority as Captain for the safety of my aircraft and crew to proceed.  We only had about 5 more minutes until we were out of Pakistan Airspace. I pushed the throttles up as much as I dared and we kept looking out both sides and hoped that if they scrambled fighters, that they would at least do one fly-by before shooting at us. We reached the Indian/Pakistan border and I thanked the Pakistan air controller for his ‘cooperation’.

“We landed at Delhi and taxied to the gate where I could see the smiling passengers looking out the big windows as they waited to get their luggage. Entering the terminal, I spoke with our Senior Purser and mentioned again how glad I was to have thought of the idea of having the Spetsnaz show off their weapons to assure the passengers that their belongings would be well protected. She said: ‘Oh no Captain. They didn’t get off the plane because they thought your were protecting their luggage. They got off because they thought you were going to shoot them.’ I had wondered why the passengers moved so quickly out of my way as I walked down the ramp.”

Pamir Mountains as seen from Snow Leopard.

Captain Carr and his crew stayed in Delhi for a three day layover, during which Snow Leopard made a London-Karachi rotation through Dushanbe.  When Snow Leopard returned to Delhi, he and his crew would take it back to London. At Delhi Airport, he learned that the weather in Dushanbe was “iffy”, adding the requirement of planning a fuel load so that they would be light enough to land in Dushanbe yet have enough to make it to London if they had to bypass Tajikistan. This was resolved by using a “re-dispatch” flight plan that provided for a fuel stop at an alternative airport if necessary.

From Captain Carr:

“We took off on schedule with a full load of passengers, fortunately none bound for Tajikistan, because as we approached Dushanbe, we learned that it was snowing heavily and the runway could not be cleared. We were then informed that we had to deviate north of Azerbaijan due to ‘military activities’. All I could think of was, ‘uh-oh, there goes our fuel and our on-time arrival in London’. The distance from Delhi to London is normally not a problem for a 747SP, but, because we had to limit the amount of fuel we could carry, we had the minimum amount to make it to London and now had to worry about using up our reserves. However, our calculations indicated that we would still have the proper amount of reserve fuel.

“As we progressed west, the weather reports for London kept getting worse.  We were advised by Maastricht Control,(Netherlands), that there were delays for aircraft inbound to Heathrow. We had now been airborne for almost nine hours and were getting close to the minimum fuel that would let us safely proceed to our alternate airport. We were told to enter the holding pattern at Lamborne, less than 20 miles from London’s Heathrow Airport. I knew it could take up to an hour or more to cover those last 20 miles. We were flying in ovals on a specific flight path at a specific altitude separated by 1000 feet from the aircraft above and below.  We were still at 16,000 feet and since the approach normally is not begun until we have worked our way down through the “stack” to 8,000 feet I knew we were going to be doing this for a while and it was quite possible that we would reach our “bingo” fuel, the minimum amount left for us to proceed to our alternate airport. I excused myself and went aft for a stretch and briefed the senior purser that we might have to divert to Stansted Airport.

“When I returned to the cockpit I was glad to see we had worked our way down to 12,000 feet. We had also been in continuous contact with our Flight Ops to check on Stansted weather. It was okay and the winds were favorable to get there. Nevertheless, I had to tell London Control that we could only make two more turns in the pattern and would then have to divert. At the very last moment, we had worked our way down and were cleared for an approach. The weather had gotten worse and we were faced with zero ceiling and zero visibility, called a ‘zero-zero landing’.

“A 747 can make zero-zero landing if the aircraft and airport are properly equipped, which they were. We committed to making a zero-zero landing, requiring an instrument approach. The aircraft flies where you want it to go with just a caress of the controls. For this landing I decided to make a ‘coupled approach’, on the auto pilot. Even though the autopilot is flying the airplane, the pilot still must follow all the instruments as though flying manually and keep hands on the controls to override just in case. I let the autopilot make the actual touch down and apply the brakes.

“One strange thing about a zero-zero landing is that after you land is when it gets dicey. The trick is to slow the aircraft and keep it on the runway that still can’t be seen. Fortunately, on the runway are ‘center line lights’ embedded in the concrete. But though they are very bright, in low visibility, one can only see a couple at a time and the trick is to run over them with the nose wheel.  Otherwise, if one loses sight of the lights, there is no way to tell if the aircraft is to the right or left, other than instinct, until it runs off the runway.

“Once the aircraft was slow enough, we used the “lead-in lights” to our gate. Following the green lights embedded in the taxi ways and stopping when they turn red is all there is to it. Just before the last red stop light, we saw the bricks of the terminal. We had arrived.”

Dushanbe Airport

The flight attendants also had interesting experiences.  Vince Rossi recalls making “care” packages from the inbound catering overages for the pilots laying over in Dushanbe.  The flight attendants would also set up a buffet for the ground staff and soldiers there.   It was a big event whenever Snow Leopard arrived at Dushanbe.  According to Rossi, “in spite of the bitter winter cold, there were often people watching from the terminal and nearby the airport”.

There were other interesting aspects of operating through Dushanbe Airport.  Capitalism flourished!  At the time of the Snow Leopard operation, ground handling was handled by individual “small businesses”, each performing a single function.  Thus the baggage handling was a “small business” and the worker was paid directly for his services. This was also the case for the passenger stairs, blocking, fueling, cleaning the aircraft and other air-side activities.  One interesting observation was the snow removal operation as described by former Pan Am Purser Gunilla Crawford:

“It was becoming cold and one of our concerns was the lack of de-icing equipment. We were the biggest plane they had ever seen in Dushanbe, and all they had was a three rung ladder and a mop!!!!  We questioned the contents of the bucket, and decided it was probably Vodka.  The wings they could reach from the left and right “3” doors inside the plane, but the tail was another issue. It was just way too high.”

Soon, a cherry-picker appeared to take care of the tail, and it, too, was a small business that was paid directly for its services.

Snowbound Dushanbe Airport

Layovers in Exotic Places

One of the attractions of working for an international airline is the opportunity to visit countries all over the world and explore them during layovers.  Layovers are necessary to ensure flight crew members are not “timed out” and are well rested for their next segment.

In the case of Tajik Air, most layovers were in Delhi, where the hotels were plentiful and there were places to visit. Except, of course, when there is a major holiday and the hotels are fully booked.  This happened to Gunilla Crawford and her crew:

“We got to Delhi and decided to go to a hotel in the airport area, but every hotel was full. We agreed that we had indeed a hotel at the airport ourselves, our plane. 9 bathrooms, 3 galleys and plenty of seats, [and] in First Class the seats reclined pretty flat. For three days we stayed, parked in this cargo area, ordered food, walked on the tarmac for exercise and read books. “

Dushanbe was not considered a layover city, but there were times that a layover was necessary due to operational circumstances.  For the most part, due to the political situation in Tajikistan, the flight attendants kindly declined the opportunity to sample Dushanbe.  The pilots, however, did.  Captain Carr’s first layover was the over-nighter, caused by the landing gear problem.  This was his first experience in a former Soviet Republic.

From Captain Carr:

“We watched the Tupolev taxi out and take off, secured our plane, set our departure for about 10 a.m. the next morning, waved goodbye to the guards and got on our bus to the hotel. As tired as I was, I was now looking forward to actually being in Dushanbe. Some of the Spetsnaz came with us on the bus and explained that we would be traveling after curfew and the roads were not necessarily free of problems. Problems? I didn’t ask what problems. I was cool. Speaking of cool, the bus was very similar to an American school bus circa 1950 and if it was +10 F outside the bus, it was -10 inside. We finally made it to the hotel and I was greatly relieved to see that it looked very nice. This was my first USSR hotel. We were greeted by a giant fellow in a caftan of sorts wearing a beautifully decorated hat that was a cross between a fez and a skull-cap. I didn’t know whether to bow to him or shake his hand but he resolved this by taking our luggage. He was the combination bell man , guard and lobby bouncer. We were told the hotel was full but they would make some rooms available for us. I have never liked giving up my passport at a hotel desk but even though we were crew-members and accompanied by the Tajik Air Dushanbe Station Manager, we were told: ‘no passport, no room.’ I gave up my passport. I asked if we could get something to eat. ‘Breakfast’ was the answer. ‘Now?’ I asked, ‘Morning. No food now.’ We received keys to our rooms and proceeded up in an elevator to our floor. I mentioned that the hotel looked nice from the outside. My first impression was that it may have also looked nice on the inside but I wasn’t absolutely sure because it was so dark.”

The next time Captain Carr visited Dushanbe, he had a chance to have a better view of Dushanbe.  This was a city that was affected by the then ongoing civil war and things were quite unstable.  The country was struggling and its economy was to say the least, precarious.

From Captain Carr:

“My next layover in Dushanbe gave me another jolt of realism. We made arrangements with the Station Manager to take a tour of the Dushanbe area. He was able to provide the same bus that took us to and from the hotel. We drove through some areas with some very grand government buildings with surprisingly attractive architecture. We stopped at a beautiful park with some magnificent statuary. It didn’t take us too long to realize though that something was wrong. No people on the streets. No cars on the roads. The only other humans we saw on our drive were local policemen who stopped our bus, asked for our identification, and extracted a small ‘toll’ for passing through their section of road. I don’t believe they received much else in the way of pay. We headed back to the area of our hotel and stopped at a ‘super market.’ It was quite a large store, larger than most in the U.S. but dramatically different. The shelves were all bare except for one corner of the store where a man dispensed potatoes into burlap bags with a shovel. This was the government store. We did finally find a ‘people’s market’ with fresh vegetables and other marketable foods and goods. We were able to buy some tasty snacks and food to carry us through the evening curfew. I also made my one big purchase of a local item that is my one souvenir of my Tajikistan experience.

“On flights, we were all wearing our old Pan Am uniforms without the Pan Am insignia or hats. I thought it would be nice to have a hat with an emblem indicative of Tajikistan. I found the perfect thing on a peddlers cart. It was a pin-on gold medallion of a beautifully crafted snow leopard. I happily purchased it, stuck it on my beret, and it was my contribution to uniform design and a personal trademark thereafter. I took a little kidding at first but then all the other crew-members wanted one as well.

“The next day, the Engineer, First Officer and I decided to walk over to explore another hotel that we had noticed not too far away. The hotel seemed very attractive from the outside. The lobby was very dark and deserted but after we rang a little bell on the main desk, a clerk eventually appeared. I asked if we could look around and see their rooms. ‘Da’. He pointed to a doorway with a flight of stairs. We went up and came to what appeared to be an airport style security check point with a walk-through metal detector and guards with Kalishnikov machine guns. After we got through we ran into a fellow on the upper landing that seemed to be an American. He asked if he could help us and I explained that we were looking for a better hotel and were hoping to see what the rooms were like here. He said: ‘Sure.’ He told us his name was Stan and we followed him into what appeared to be a suite of 10 or 12 rooms that had its own pantry and kitchen. He invited us to the suite’s lounge and offered chips, dip, and sodas.  We explained that we were the crew for the new Tajik airline’s 747. As we were sitting in the lounge, I finally noticed a big emblem on the wall that read ‘U.S. Embassy’. I asked,’Is this the U. S. Embassy?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you work here?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m the Ambassador.’ Stan, the Ambassador, and his charming wife entertained us for the next hour or so as we swapped stories and local intelligence. I asked him about the information I had gotten about local war lords and border positions. He confirmed most of it. The border fighting that was supposedly 150 miles away was now only 80 miles from the city. He explained that he kept a C-130 Hercules airplane on standby 24 hours a day in case it became necessary to evacuate the embassy staff. 

The hotel where the U.S. Embassy was located.

The hotel where the U.S. Embassy was located.

“That night, the aircraft we were scheduled to fly to Karachi and back overflew Dushanbe because of bad weather. The weather stayed bad and it overflew us again on the way back to London. We were stuck here for another 48 hours. My most immediate concern was to call my wife Mary because she was going to meet me in London. Since I obviously wasn’t going to be back in London in time to meet her, I put in the two-hour-to-wait call through Moscow and was relieved when I finally got through and told her to wait two days and come on the next Tajik Air flight out of London. She would then spend one day with me in Dushanbe and we would continue together to New Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal. 

“Two things I hadn’t counted on happened. The airplane had to overfly one more time and there was a fire fight near our hotel between Russian tanks and rebels with Kalishnikovs and mortars. The rapid fire of modern machine guns is really something. The Russians were using the most modern Gatling gun type that sounded more like an air hose used to clean machine parts except instead of air, it was putting out steel projectiles at a ‘zillion’ per second. Everything was snow covered so the sounds of the skirmish were eerily muffled. The rebels would fire their Kalishnikovs, and the Russians would answer.  I called Mary and told her to stay home.”

The Last Layover

As the flights continued it was quickly becoming clear that the operation was encountering some severe financial problems and getting the flight successfully off was becoming a day-to-day affair.  In addition, there was a mechanical problem with one of the aircraft’s engines and it was taken out of service.  Eventually Snow Leopard was repossessed by United Airlines.  Gunilla Crawford and her crew were on the last rotation.  They were in Delhi when the aircraft was repossessed.

From Gunilla Crawford:

“We arrived in New Delhi on a regular flight, and checked in at the Sheraton where we stayed as Pan Am crew.  A couple of days later as we are getting ready to take the inbound flight back to London, our Captain informed us that there is a delay. I believe the message read ‘buy more beer’ or something to that effect.

“We sat by the pool and eventually it became clear that the plane had been impounded and our adventure probably over. It had lasted a little over 4 months. Our Station Manager was stuck with some  500-700 hundred passengers who had booked flights to London. He counted on the crew as pawns for money from London, as we could not leave and our crew visas would run out. We knew how to quietly go to the authorities and extend the visas without his knowledge. The Station Manager’s assistant was helpful. We did not want the hotel to know the dilemma, after all the company was to pay for our rooms. We asked Vince who was in London to fax an explanation to our situation, in Spanish, so the hotel would not find out. They didn’t and we got the information we wanted. Time to plan our ‘escape’.

The crew waiting in Delhi.

“The problem was to book a flight, we had to buy the tickets right away and not at the airport when we left. Through a friend in Miami, who was a travel agent and who made a few phone calls, we were booked on Air France to Paris with a connection to London and we were able to pay the morning of the departure. Our Captain footed the bill on his credit card!! An incredible man!  On the morning we left we all came down to the lobby, paid our incidentals and went to the airport.  We felt an urge to quickly get through security and immigration, and I remember looking around, like the others, to see if the Station Manager would come running to stop us. He didn’t, and we were back in London several hours later.”

Vince Rossi was in London at the time of the repossession of Snow Leopard.  He wanted to provide as much information as possible to the Delhi crew without compromising them given the financial situation.  He did this by sending information by fax, written in Spanish.  In addition, there were Tajik flight attendants laying over in London.  They were faced with a different problem.

From Vince Rossi:

“The Tajik crew laying over in LHR had purchased MANY frozen chickens to bring home. When it became clear we were not flying that night and it was likely we would not ever fly again, the Tajik flight attendants  approached me and expressed concern about the chickens defrosting. It is highly unlikely that the front desk manager from the Sheraton Skyline had ever received the request I was to make. I approached the front desk and asked for a substantial space in the hotel’s kitchen freezer to store quite a large number of frozen chickens. The chickens remained there frozen until the Embassy of Tajikistan arranged for transport of the Tajik crews and the frozen chickens back to Dushanbe some time later.”

Gunilla Crawford remained in London for a short while, hoping that the affair was “just a hiccup, and all would be solved in due time.”  After a few days the sad truth settled in that it was all over and “maybe it had never meant to be more than what it was.”

Who would have thought that a remote country in the former Soviet Union would have a Boeing 747 operation linking it with the West?  It actually happened – and it could have continued but for fate.  The timing was just not perfect for starting such an operation. The infrastructure within Tajikistan’s Civil Aviation Authority had not matured enough to take on the financial and political burden of a complex Sixth Freedom operation, requiring bilateral agreements not only with the United Kingdom, but with India and Pakistan as well. Thanks to the London management, the UK agreement and slots at Heathrow were secured.  Unfortunately, the negotiations to secure the agreements with India were still incomplete when the operation started and that presented barriers and resultant revenue losses. Had the start of the operation been delayed until the negotiations were completed there might have been a different result.  That will never be known.  However, the Snow Leopard operation proved that it could be done, and for four short months, Snow Leopard proudly flew the skies between London, Dushanbe and Delhi/Karachi.

The gold Snow Leopard medallion is still proudly mounted on Captain Carr’s beret.

Snow Leopard lettering

THE END

Acknowledgements:

Writing this story would not have been possible without the contributions of those Pan Am pilots and flight attendants who were so willing to share their experiences. I would like to personally thank former Pan Am Captain Sherman Carr whose story about his experiences with Snow Leopard played a major part in this story (and the operation) and also former Pan Am Pursers Gunilla Crawford and Vince Rossi. I would also like to thank Ben Daneshmand with whom  I worked in London and also for his recollections of the story he shared with me.

The Story of Snow Leopard – Part Three: The Inaugural Flight

Snow Leopard-ground

Part Three:  The Inaugural Flight

Selling Tickets

With the Acceptance Flight completed and the aircraft ready to start operations, management and staff got into full gear. Tickets were sold, crews scheduled and plans were made for launch activities.  At the London Headquarters on Kensington High Street, tickets sales in both the Delhi, India and Karachi, Pakistan markets was brisk and flights sold out very quickly. However, ticket sales in the Dushanbe market was slow due to very little western business activity in the country, and what little passenger traffic there was, was largely government in nature. Thus, selling seats in the beyond markets was necessary.  As described in Part One, this “Sixth Freedom” operation enabled a profit on what would have been money losing flights.  In fact, over 90-95% of the booked passengers were booked on flights to Delhi or Karachi.  Deeply discounted advance purchase excursion tickets offered through local travel agents in the ethnic neighborhoods of London resulted in a huge response.

The Kensington High Street Headquarters served as both a ticket office and operations base with constant activity, day and night.  This was punctuated with welcome and frequent visits by the Pan Am and Tajik flight crews.

McMillan House-1 Cyrus and Eni

   McMillan House-6 Amin   McMillan House-4

Ticket Sales at Kensington High Street Office

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Tajik Staff

McMillan House-2    McMillan House-7 Pilot

Pan Am Flight Crews visiting Kensington High Street Headquarters

Cabin Crew Scheduling

While ticket sales and preparations for the inaugural flight were progressing, Gunilla Crawford and her team of flight attendants set about to organize crew scheduling and rotations.  This was no easy task!

Cabin crew scheduling was a challenge for Gunilla.  With no computers available, some creativity was required:

From Gunilla Crawford:

“We went across the street from the hotel to a gas station and bought four dinosaur-shaped erasers in four different colors.  Each dinosaur represented a crew.   And each crew consisted of two ex-Pan Am flight attendants and the rest Tajik.  On a large poster board we plotted the four destinations, London, Dushanbe, Karachi and New Delhi.  By moving the dinosaurs between the destinations we made sure nobody was scheduled from London, when in fact the crew member was in New Delhi!”

Cabin Crew Sked-2   Cabin Crew Sked-3

Cabin Crew Scheduling.   In the left picture are Gunilla Crawford, Vince Rossi and Debbie Thornburg.  In the right are Gunilla, Linda Morehouse and Vince.  Note the colored dinosaurs!

From Vince Rossi, who worked on crew scheduling:

“Gunilla was responsible for the entire inflight programme. To that end, building and scheduling crews was an important component of her job. Four crews were required to staff the operation, with one or two crews on rotation back home. Each flight would be staffed with two Pan Am Pursers joined in the SP cabin by flight attendants from India for Hindi language as well as the wonderful Tajiks. Some Brazilian and French flight attendants who lived in London also joined.

“For aircraft plotting, crew staffing, scheduling and rest requirements, in the days before laptop computers with Excel spreadsheets, improvisation was needed. A long sheet of plotting paper was procured, along with 4 small rubber toy dinosaurs. Each dinosaur was numbered in pencil: crew/dinosaur 1, crew/dinosaur 2, etc…. An interpretation of a full week of aircraft movements and stations visited was marked on the plotting paper, with lines drawn as the days progressed marking the track of the aircraft from Heathrow through Dushanbe and on to Delhi or Karachi. When Gunilla said it was time to “run the dinosaurs”, we placed the numbered dinosaurs on the plotting paper, each one numbered and representing a crew at their respective locations across the system and ensured that legal rest requirements were met and staffing matched the projected aircraft movements. This method was used for the entire time of the operation.

“Often the dinosaurs were “run” on a coffee table in a dedicated crew lounge provided at our hotel on Bath Road near Heathrow, and crews from other carriers in the lounge would be amused watching the “run of dinosaurs.  This system worked exceptionally well. No aircraft movement was impeded due to cabin staffing or crew rest issues for the entire operation. It is also important to note that the initial “pairings” were established in meetings with the Tajik crewmembers, who also had an idea of how they wanted their work patterns and layover times and points. I may be mistaken but India and Pakistan were potential visa issues for the Tajiks even for layovers.”

 and . . . Catering

When Gunilla arrived in London, she was in for a surprise.  In addition to heading up the cabin crew, there was another responsibility as well:  Catering.  She handled that in pure Pan Am fashion.

“We made appointments with Catering at Heathrow airport, we picked china for the First Class Service, silver ware, serving dishes, baskets and linens. The “old” Pan Am training came back in force and we would do the service in the name of that classic carrier.” 

The food service to be offered was superb.

In First Class departing London, “Royal Doulton Service” included during the drinks service a choice of Hot Canapes including Chicken Kebab, Mushroom Cream Vol-au-Vent, Spring Roll, Basil Cashew Parmesan Tartlets and Asian Canapes of mixed pakoras and samosas. The Hors d’oeuvres offered a choice of Poached Salmon Medallion on Oakleaf lettuce with Diced Pepper and Cucumber Salad, or a Tomato Cup filled with Mayonnaise Lemon garnish or a Smoked Chicked Breast on Radicchio with Mandarin Orange and Cucumber or a Radish and Mixed Peppers Julienne, all with a Mixed Leaf Salad with Vinaigrette.  For the entree, the choices were Curry Prawn Jalfrezi with fresh chopped Coriander, Rack of Lamb with Herbs and Fresh Rosemary Sprigs or Chicken Shirin Polo accompanied by Basmati Rice with Zereshk or Potato Sesame Croquettes and a choice of vegetables including Broccoli au Gratin Mornay or Steamed Mixed Vegetables with Baby Sweetcorn, Turned Carrots and Mange Tout.

For desert  Gateau Chocolate Roulade with Orange Zest was followed by a cheese plate that included Camembert, Port Salut, Feta, Stilton, Brie with black grapes, black and green olives and celery batons.  Ending the meal was a fresh fruit basket.

Prior to landing in Dushanbe the pre-arrival “hot breakfast was just as posh…It was like working the Pan Am Clippers again”, according to Vince Rossi one of the ex-Pan Am flight attendants.

The Inaugural Flight

As the day approached for Snow Leopard’s first revenue flight from London to Dushanbe and onwards to Karachi, the crews began assembling in London to prepare.  For Gunilla, it was a happy reunion with the Tajik flight attendants who greeted their ex-Pan Am counterparts with “squeals and shouts of joy”.  For the inaugural flight four ex-Pan Am were to work the flight, Robert Stewart, Tania Anderson, Linda Morehouse and Linda Oja.  On the flight deck were Captain Ed Olasz, First Officer Jim Donahue and Flight Engineer Carl Meixal.  In addition, two qualified captains were assigned to the flight.

Preparations for departure went into high gear.  Nothing was overlooked.  Everything was covered, from the accuracy of the manuals to training to CRM (crew resources management) with the Tajik flight attendants.   Anything that could possibly happen, even the unpredictable, was discussed and thoroughly prepared for.

The excitement of flying again did not escape the ex-Pan Amers who were taking part in the operation.  Snow Leopard’s first flight coincided almost to the date of the demise of their beloved Pan Am, some two years prior.

From Tania Anderson:

“I happily scribbled away in my diary, gushing about the thrill of flying with my cosmopolitan colleagues again. A few fondly remembered having flown with this particular 747SP before. Some of my co-workers had not flown since Pan Am’s demise. It had been nearly two years to the day that I had been on my last flight, a White House Press Charter, when we learned that we were bankrupt for good. Now as we gathered in the lobby of our London hotel for the first flight to Dushanbe, we all noted the sad anniversary coupled with the excitement of exploring a new airline together.”

At 2215 hrs on the date of the inaugural flight, Snow Leopard, designated 7J801, departed London Heathrow for Dushanbe. The spirit on board was one of joy and happiness.

From Tania Anderson:

“During the flight, I quickly noted that many of the passengers, who were going onto Karachi, were much less frenetic than the ones we used to fly on Pan Am. They were elated to be going home, either for a visit or permanently, for a reasonably priced airline ticket. One passenger actually asked if he could kiss me, and I reluctantly replied, “Well, Ok, but on my cheek!” I also noted in my diary that we were flying across Russian airspace which may not sound like a big deal but to someone who grew up during the Cold War when the former USSR was our mortal enemy, it was intriguing to me.

“The multi-national crew also bonded quickly. The Tajik flight attendants loved the fact that my name was Tania. Naturally assuming that I was Russian with a name like Tania, one actually commented that I spoke good fluent English for a Russian. Some of the Tajiks were dark with olive skin and Middle Eastern looks. Most were Muslim. Others were the opposite end of the spectrum with white skin and light eyes. They were usually Russian Orthodox.

“Among the Tajik flight attendants, there were three Irenas on the flight.  Any time I said ‘Irena’, all three would whirl around simultaneously to see what I wanted.  The Tajik flight attendants  were absolutely delightful and so easy to get along with. They were also thrilled to have secured a job such as this with the opportunity to explore a bit of the world, especially London. Many of them had no transportation from their homes, so they simply walked miles to the airport to work these extraordinarily long flights. They went out of their way to tell us how their country was still in a lot of upheaval economically. In addition, Afghani insurgents were coming over the border to make trouble, and they wanted none of it. ‘Tania, we just all want peace and to be able to live our lives’, one told me.”

Cabin Crew-1

Crew-1   Upper deck SP from Vince

Cabin Crew-2a   Cabin Crew-1a

The Pan Am and Tajik Flight Crews

After a long flight into the night, Snow Leopard landed in Dushanbe.

From Tania Anderson:

“It was a cold, wintry, snowy day when we landed in Dushanbe to a zealous reception on the tarmac. After all, we were the first western aircraft to ever land in somewhat remote Tajikistan. I distinctly remember applause in the cabin upon our touchdown, but the local hoopla outside just about had me abandoning my jump-seat.

“With a dramatic back drop of steep snow-encrusted mountains, dozens of well-wishers had gathered on the tarmac in their traditional brightly-colored clothes. There was a band playing Russian instruments complete with long-nosed horns and big drums. Tajik national TV was there with their ancient equipment to record every single minute of the ceremonies and our arrival.”

DYU Reception-2  DYU Reception-1

The Reception at Dushanbe Airport

From Tania Anderson:

“Once on the blocks, the ground people enthusiastically boarded the plane, not only to welcome us, but to ask for a quick tour of the 747SP. Descending the spiral staircase, our pilots were given handsome home-made colorful robes to wear over their uniforms. Now that the door was open, I could observe the entire scene. Our pilots were quickly ushered down the stairs and off to the terminal for a reception including some local culinary treats whose identity was left to the imagination. Later one of them told me that the Tajiks had insisted that they shoot some vodka—maybe local moonshine—to celebrate the day. A bit horrified, our pilots made certain that the officials knew we still had another leg to fly to Karachi, but the general response was like, ‘So what?’

“Linda Oja and I stayed on the plane watching everything from L-1. Then something happened I shall never forget. As Linda squealed, ‘Oh, No!’ I saw some Tajiks dragging a sheep across the tarmac towards the Snow Leopard. It struggled the entire way, right up to the staircase, just as if it knew something lousy was about to occur. As they do in many countries, they sacrificed the sheep at the bottom of our stairs, directing the blood from his neck into a bowl. In the west we christen ships and airplanes with champagne, but now we were half way around the world in a land with customs very different than our own.

“Not long afterwards, the entire crew along with the ground people gathered in front of the aircraft for a memorable photo. Each of us was festooned with garlands of deep red-colored roses. They were velvet to the touch and their fragrance was heavenly, even against the cold blast of mid-winter.”

Crew and Ground Staff in front of Snow Leopard after arrival

Crew and Ground Staff in front of Snow Leopard after arrival.

From Tania Anderson:

“Standing there on that frosty winter day, I felt a true sense of pride about our latest “operation.” In true Pan Am fashion, we had pulled ourselves up after the bankruptcy and were on the other side of the planet helping the struggling Tajiks with their burgeoning airline, begun with one beautiful 747SP.

“Flying on the Snow Leopard was another wonderful Pan Amigo adventure to add to my memoirs.”

When Snow Leopard arrived at Dushanbe that wintery morning, Tajikistan was in the midst of an economic crisis along with a civil war.  Bread was being rationed but at the same time the country was trying to turn the page into a new chapter of their existence, emerging from the era of Soviet rule to an independent and free nation.  The arrival of this beautiful 747SP representing their national airline stoked both great pride and happiness among its citizens.
The story of Snow Leopard continues In the next and final part of this story, with exciting adventures for the Pan Am and Tajik crews and the sad end of the operation.

The Story of Snow Leopard – Part Two: Crew Training and Acceptance Flight

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Part Two:  Crew Training and Acceptance Flight.

Crew Training

The next step in getting Snow Leopard into operation was getting a crew together to fly the Boeing 747SP.  Because of the aircraft selection and their availability, it was decided to hire former pilots of Pan American World Airways.  The decision was perfectly logical in that Pan Am pilots had many hours of experience in the 747SP – some had actually flown the aircraft when it was with Pan Am – had experience operating in the geographic area of the intended operation, and had the savvy and know-how in dealing with unexpected circumstances or conditions that would be inherent in such an operation.

Captain Sherman Carr, a very experienced Pan Am pilot was one who received a call from a former colleague about an opportunity to be “an aviation pioneer again”.  According to Captain Carr, the offer was to operate a new 747 service for the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan.  He was told the route to be flown and that the pay would be minimal but with generous per diem and off-time.  After some research he made his decision.  He learned that Tajikistan

“. . .is magnificently beautiful with a major fertile valley with a mild climate that grows cotton  surrounded by majestic peaks rising 18 to 20 thousand feet and populated by their national symbol, the snow leopard. I also learned that (the capital) Dushanbe is on the old “Silk Road” route used by Marco Polo when he brought back to Italy, the secrets of making spaghetti from China. The neighboring cities of Tashkent and Samarkand conjured up images of wondrous bazaars and really old world treasures of the Mongol Empire and kabobs made from Yak. I was hooked. Like the line from the Clint Eastwood movie: “do you feel lucky?” I did. I called back and signed up”

It was the same for all the pilots who received “the call”.  A chance to be an aviation pioneer was too great an opportunity to turn down.

Once the group was assembled, refresher training was arranged at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Miami, Florida.  The pilots were former Pan Amers and most were over 60 years of age.  While that would present a problem in the United States, it did not for Tajikistan.  And as is well known, pilots over the age of 60 have a near zero accident rate.

Pan Am International Flight Academy

Pan Am International Flight Academy

At the academy was a 747SP simulator and the pilots were put through a rigorous training program that brought them up to speed on changes to the aircraft, flight rules and also fined-tuned their instrument piloting skills.  At the same time, flight attendants from Tajik Air were undergoing training for the 747SP.  These flight attendants were supposedly the “cream of the crop” from Tajik Air but with experience limited to smaller aircraft such as the TU-154 (an old 3-engine aircraft that looked remarkably like at Boeing 727).

Lobby of Flight Academy (Photo by Priyamshah)

Lobby of Flight Academy (Photo by Priyamshah)

Simulator (Photo by Priyamshah)

Simulator
(Photo by Priyamshah)

While the pilots were progressing well in the refresher training, it was not the case for the flight attendants.

A former Pan Am purser, Gunilla Crawford, was working in contracts at the Pan Am Flight Academy when she received word that the Tajik Air flight attendants were to receive training on the 747SP.  Upon their arrival, she immediately discovered a serious problem:  their English speaking ability was extremely limited!  According to Purser Crawford:

“I had created a training program for the Tajik flight attendants and we started with the 747SP aircraft:  the doors, how to arm, disarm, open and close in normal and emergency mode. The first day was spent studying the manual; the second day in the mock- up; the third day back in the classroom.  But I soon realized it would take five days to learn the doors and it would take months to teach procedures.

 “Nothing I tried worked with the students, mainly because of the language barrier, and partly because of the size of the aircraft. The 747 SP had two aisles vs. the TU-154 single aisle; oxygen masks in the overhead on the747SP vs. two 5” tall oxygen tanks in the aft of the TU-154 cabin, held in place on the floor, standing up! (When we had a delay in Dushanbe, I went onboard and saw the difference.)”

A flight academy employee who spoke Russian eventually acted as an interpreter, but it became painfully clear that this group would not be able to staff a 747SP.  Although kind, interested and friendly, they were overwhelmed by the size of the 747SP.

This problem was not only a concern to Purser Crawford, but also to the pilots who were undergoing refresher training at the same time and who had observed the Tajik flight attendants first hand.  A solution to the problem was needed, and  according to Captain Carr, after meeting with aviation officials from Tajikistan who were present, it was decided to hire some “real” flight attendants from the former Pan Am.  Purser Crawford, was in contact with a group of “experienced and adventurous” former cabin crew colleagues, and very soon thereafter, a lot of familiar faces began appearing at the Pan Am Flight Academy.

Training went into full swing for all concerned and soon it was finished.  For the cabin crew, it was decided that two or three experienced Pan Am flight attendants would be assigned to each flight.  The remaining cabin crew positions would be filled by the Tajik Air flight attendants as “trainees”.  The goal, under the supervision and direction of the Pan Am crew, was the Tajik crew to become qualified to “staff and run” a 747SP flight.

However, there was one more thing:  Teamwork

From Captain Carr:

Being on a flight crew is a wonderful thing. It is a team effort. Pan Am had always encouraged working as a team. That teamwork was designed to save lives. Although the duties of the cabin staff are the care and feeding of passengers, their real job is to save lives in an emergency. They operate the emergency equipment and are trained to get people out of the aircraft as quickly as possible.  Good communication is essential. As a pilot, I have always appreciated and respected the job the flight attendants do and made sure they knew it”.

 In observing the training of the Tajik flight attendants, good communication was non-existent.  To alleviate this problem, Captain Carr suggested the Tajiks should see more of America other than their hotel and the flight academy and invited them and his fellow pilots to a luncheon at his home.  During the luncheon he made a very important observation:

“[At] almost any cookout in America, guests would pitch in to help with the food and drinks and have a party. Not so with the Tajiks. It became apparent that the concept of initiative did not exist in their culture. They would smile and do anything we asked of them but took no initiative. In an airplane emergency, this can be deadly so we proceeded to see what we could do about it. This was the first chance the pilots and cabin staff had the opportunity to talk in an informal setting. We encouraged them to help themselves and to pass things along to their fellow crewmembers.

 “We also started to find out why they didn’t talk to each other. They were all from Tajikistan but some were from various mountain tribes that were at odds with each other. Others were Russian, or Iranian or Tajik valley people. Apparently they had been chosen not because of their good English or flying experience but because they were related to government officials.  This was also meant to be a representative group of the Tajik population. While I thought this was a very democratic move, I later learned this diversity was meant to make it less likely that a jealous faction would [cause problems with the operation].

 “The lunch went very well and the English phrases, “more beer”, “more vodka” were pronounced much better. I also made arrangements to charter a water taxi for a cruise to see the Bahia Mar Yachting Center and also homes along the waterway.  [At the end of the tour] and before returning to Miami, the Tajiks stopped by our home to thank us. Much to my relief they were now all smiling and talking to each other and acting like a flight crew. That lunch was one of the best investments I ever made.

With the training finished and the Tajiks fresh from their team-building experience, everyone began leaving Miami for London to start the operation.  Captain Carr was asked to make the “acceptance flight” of Snow Leopard.  He accepted.

Acceptance Flight

The acceptance flight is a critical part of the delivery process of an aircraft to an airline.  Once the aircraft is accepted and delivered, anything that is discovered wrong with the aircraft becomes the responsibility of the airline.  Inspections and the acceptance flight should ensure that this does not happen.  Snow Leopard was flown to London by a United Airlines supervisory pilot and crew.  Upon arrival, Captain Carr and his crew met the aircraft and began the task of inspecting the aircraft and its logs and maintenance records and carrying out the acceptance flight.  The aircraft looked great with a fresh paint job with Tajik Air livery.  Once everything was signed off, and the walk-around inspection complete, the aircraft was pronounced airworthy and Captain Carr and his crew boarded the aircraft to begin the flight.

However, once on board, there was a surprise awaiting them:  The aircraft was full of people!  Normally such a flight involves the necessary minimum crew members.  Not this one.  The press was on board, as were Tajik Air officials, the Minister of Aviation of Tajikistan and management staff.  In fact station personnel and baggage handlers were also on board!

From Captain Carr:

“[I had] a quiet conversation with the [Minister of Aviation] to make sure that carrying all these people on a test flight was okay. I learned that wonderful Russian phrase: ‘kharasho’ (‘no problem’).  Since he was the law for our Tajikistan operating certificate, it was like getting the word directly from God. 

“I climbed into my seat in the cockpit. The United pilot looked really nervous and seemed a few shades deeper red than normal. He indicated his concern about all these people on board, and I said ‘kharasho’, took the clip board from him and signed as Pilot in Command. He looked relieved. I reminded him that United was still responsible for any maintenance items until I signed the aircraft acceptance form.  The flight went smoothly, the aircraft was perfect and everyone enjoyed the tour of the English countryside as we put the airplane through its paces. We returned to Heathrow and I made my first landing in a real 747 in about a year and a half. As we came in on final approach, I realized that we had almost all the top brass aboard, the new crewmembers and a whole planeload of people who had never been on a 747 before. 

“If you’re are flying a 747 correctly, on speed and according to ‘the book’, it normally makes a very nice landing. Once in a while, when conditions are just right and you are very lucky, the touch down is so smooth that you don’t realize you are on the ground until the speedbrake handle comes up as it automatically reacts to a microswitch on the landing gear as the wheels touch ground. This was one of those landings. 

“It is a Russian custom to applaud after a landing. But I didn’t think this applause was for landing, rather giving thanks to be alive.   However, during the flight we kept the door open for the bigwigs to view the cockpit and after landing I heard the cheers and applause from behind. Winning an Oscar for an actor couldn’t feel any better than how that landing and applause felt to me.  As we all left the aircraft my new bosses kept congratulating me as though I was the greatest pilot in the world. What could I say?  I just smiled and secretly thanked Boeing.”

Gunilla Crawford, having arrived in London to handle flight service, also had a look at Snow Leopard prior to delivery:

“The day came when we were to see the plane for the first time. It was a rainy overcast day, but there she was as beautiful as ever, sitting on the wet tarmac. We inspected the galleys, the equipment  and planned the last details, now that a few months of training and planning  had come together and the real adventure was to begin. “Starving” for flying since the demise of Pan Am . . .we were all raring to go, as this would be the “real” thing………..or so we thought.”

It was now time to get ready for operations.   Ticket sales and crew scheduling were at the top of the agenda. This and stories about some memorable flights by Snow Leopard will be coming in Part Three of the Story of Snow Leopard.

End of Part Two

The Story of Snow Leopard – Part One: The Aircraft and the Operation

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Snow Leopard:  a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia, mainly in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan (photograph by Steve Winter)

Part One:  The Aircraft and the Operation

The Aircraft

This is the story about an aircraft named Snow Leopard, which was a Boeing 747SP that was leased by Tajik Air, the national airline of the Republic of Tajikistan, then a newly independent former Soviet Republic located in Central Asia. The aircraft was operated exclusively on the international routes of Tajik Air and gave that airline a presence in London, UK, Delhi, India and Karachi, Pakistan.  The operation was controlled and managed by a management company in London, Tajik Air Limited.  This is what made this operation unique.  What also made it unique was that Snow Leopard was crewed by former pilots and flight attendants of Pan American World Airways, the former great airline that ceased operations in December, 1991.

The operation started with Snow Leopard’s departure from London for Dushanbe, Tajikistan in December 1993.  It ended in February 1994 when the aircraft was repossessed by United Airlines, the aircraft’s owner and lessor. What happened during these three months are stories of adventure, bravery, comedy, intrigue, loyalty and teamwork.  And they will be told in the following posts by those who were there, the pilots, flight attendants and the London management staff.

As background, the Boeing 747SP is a modified version of the Boeing 747 which was designed for ultra-long-range flights. The “SP” stands for “Special Performance”.  Compared with its predecessor, the 747-100, the 747SP retains its wide-body four-engine layout, along with its double-deck design, but has a shortened fuselage, larger vertical stabilizer, and simplified trailing edge flaps. The weight saved by the shortened fuselage permits longer range and increased speed relative to other 747 configurations.

Known during development as the short-body 747SB, the 747SP was designed to meet a 1973 joint request from Pan Am and Iran Air, who were looking for a high-capacity airliner with sufficient range to cover Pan Am’s New York–Middle Eastern routes and Iran Air’s planned Tehran–New York route. The aircraft also was intended to provide Boeing with a mid-size wide-body airliner to compete with the DC-10 and L-1011.

The 747SP first entered service with Pan Am in 1976. The aircraft was later acquired by VIP and government customers, but sales did not meet the expected 200 units, and production ultimately totaled 45 aircraft.

While in service, the 747SP set several aeronautical performance records, including three record-setting round-the-world flights, two operated by Pan Am and the third by United.

From Captain Sherman Carr, one of the former Pan Am pilots who flew Snow Leopard:

 “The airplane that was to be used for this operation was a Boeing 747SP.  * * *  The plane was originally developed for Pan Am to be able to operate non-stop from the U.S. to Hong Kong and be able to stay aloft for over 15 hours. It was actually a regular 747 with upstairs lounge seating but shortened by about 48 feet to make it lighter and additional fuel tanks for longer range. If it’s not loaded with full fuel for extended range flights, the aircraft actually scoots like a hot rod and will outperform any WWII or Korean conflict fighter aircraft and is a lot of fun to fly.  It will roll or loop or do most of the maneuvers you see at airshows but of course this is not authorized so no pilot would ever tell you he had done those things. For Dushanbe, surrounded by mountains in all directions, it was the perfect choice due to its ability to climb quickly, safely and be on its way in a timely manner and still carry about 260 people with an extended first class.”

Snow Leopard, Manufacturer’s Serial Number 21649, Serial 373 was first delivered to Pan American World Airways on May 11, 1979 registered as N540PA and named Clipper White Falcon.  It was renamed Clipper Flying Arrow on August 1, 1979 and later renamed Clipper Star of the Union on January 1, 1980. One year later, on January 1, 1981, the aircraft became China Clipper.

On February 12, 1986, as part of Pan Am’s sale of its Pacific Routes, N540PA was acquired by United Airlines.  The registration was changed to N149UA on June 1, 1986.  It was under this registration that the aircraft operated for Tajik Air, pictured below:

Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

After the aircraft was repossessed by United Airlines, it was bought by the Brunei Government and re-registered as V8-JBB.  It was then bought by the Government of Bahrain on December 24, 1998 and registered as A9C-HMH (below, left).  Today Snow Leopard is owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, registered as VQ-BMS (below, right, photo by Wong Chi Lam). She is still in operation.

747SP Bahrain Royal Flight     747SP VQ-BMS-Las-Vegas-Sands-Corporation

The Operation

Starting a new service in any market requires a great deal of research and planning.  There must be a suitable aircraft.  Government approvals must be in place.  Airport access, slots (if required), ground handling services and airport facilities (check-in desks, etc) must be obtained.  On the commercial side, the new service needs to be marketed, publicized and tickets sold.  Other details include setting up the ticket and operations offices, arranging catering, publishing an In-Flight magazine and printing safety information cards, timetables, paper tickets, baggage tickets, promotional materials and stationary.

For Tajik Air, however, there was one very important requirement missing: an operating base in London and sufficient infrastructure to crew and maintain a Boeing 747SP aircraft.  That presented a huge problem as the civil aviation structure of Tajkistan was completely inexperienced in intercontinental operations.  In fact, Tajik Air was created by the breaking-up of the Soviet Union and the then national carrier Aeroflot’s leaving of some old Russian-built aircraft (mostly TU-154s) for use by Tajik Air as the new national air carrier of Tajikistan.  Setting up a London base would seem impossible to achieve given the limited resources of Tajikistan.  However, through the foresight and creativeness of a few airline experts in London, the requirement was met.

To establish the necessary infrastructure so that Tajik Air could operate flights to/from London, a third-party UK management company, Tajik Air Limited, was formed.  Its purpose was to operate international flights on behalf of Tajik Air.  The company would obtain and maintain the aircraft and crew, organize the marketing and selling of the flights and essentially operate the flights.  This would be accomplished using Tajikistan’s Air Operator’s Certificate and Tajik Air’s call-sign and airline code.   Tajikistan committed to funding the new service and also obtaining the required government permissions for the operation.

How would this operation be viable and profitable?  The route of primary interest to Tajik Air was the London (Heathrow) (“LHR”)-Dushanbe (“DYU”) sector.  Operating that sector as an Origin-Destination route presented problems in that there was little, if any, traffic between the two points.  The question was how to fill an aircraft with 260 seats?  The answer:  Offer service between LHR and points beyond DYU.  This was to be accomplished using rights under the Sixth Freedom of the Air.

The Freedoms of the Air, established by the Chicago Conference of 1944, are a set of commercial aviation rights granting a country’s airlines the privilege of entering and landing in another country’s airspace.  The table below illustrates these Freedoms of the Air:

airfreedom

In the case of Tajik Air, the Third and Fourth Freedoms were the operative.  The former gives the “Home” (Tajikistan) country the rights to carry commercial traffic (passengers/cargo/mail, etc) to another country; the latter gives the “Home” country the rights to carry commercial traffic from that other country to home.  These rights are generally agreed-to between the “Home” country and the other country in the form of a Bilateral Agreement or an Air Services Agreement.  By using Third and Fourth Freedom rights, a Sixth Freedom operation can be created.  It is similar to a hub operation with the home country being in the middle of the operation between two different countries.

For Tajik Air, the beyond points selected were Delhi, India (“DEL”) and Karachi, Pakistan (“KHI”) due to the large number of Indians and Pakistanis living in the UK.  The schedule would work like this:  Tajik Air departs from LHR with a planeload of passengers on a Fourth Freedom flight to DYU.  Upon arrival in DYU, those few passengers destined for DYU disembark and the rest stay on board.  The flight then departs DYU with a new flight number on a Third Freedom flight for DEL or KHI.  Upon turning around in DEL/KHI, with a new planeload of passengers, the flight becomes a Fourth Freedom to DYU and from DYU, with another flight number, Third Freedom to LHR.  By operating this schedule, Tajik Air could fill the seats of Snow Leopard, and compete in a highly competitive market by offering good service with low fares.  In order to operate this schedule, Bilateral or Air Services agreements were required for scheduled traffic between Tajikistan and India/Pakistan in addition to the UK.

The published timetable shown below illustrates this operation.  Baggage tags are also shown.

Timetable Front     Timetable Inside

Baggage Tags

As outlined above, there were other details necessary for the operation.  For the aircraft, copies of the In-Flight magazine and emergency information cards were printed and are illustrated below:

Inflight Magazine0001     Inflight Magazine0002

Inflight Magazine0003     Inflight Magazine0004

Emergency Card0001comp     Emergency Card0001comp

Additionally, as part of the pre-launch publicity, an article was put in a magazine for business travelers about the new service:

LHR Mag-0001     LHR Mag-0002

For ticket sales, an office was set up in Kensington, London and a general sales agent was appointed in Karachi and Delhi.  In addition a large poster was printed for display at the ticketing offices with an image of Snow Leopard in the air:

Snow Leopard-1a-comp

The next steps in the launch of Tajik Air’s new service to London involved recruiting and training flight crews and taking delivery of the aircraft.  This will be coming in Part Two of the Story of Snow Leopard.

End of Part One