The Iran Adventure
By Harvey Benefield
I call this the Iran Adventure. Perhaps some background is in order. During the winter of 1978-79 the Shah of Iran abdicated. The new ruler and spiritual leader, Ayatolah Khomeni had yet to arrive and the entire country was in a state of turmoil. Some of the masses of Iranian people had broken into the armory and stolen all the weapons. Many, if not all of the people were armed. For the most part law and order had broken down. In addition to this, air traffic control at the airport and airspace was almost nonexistent.
In order to keep air traffic flowing, particularly our own, Pan Am operations representatives had been sent from our New York headquarters to Tehran to set up some sort of interim or VFR air traffic system to get the aircraft in and out of the area safely. However when they arrived the situation was so bad that they were unable to do as much as they desired. They were trapped in one of the hotels, as were other American citizens and foreign nationals. They were desperate to leave while they could. I guess this is where and how I got involved.
During January 1979 I was on vacation. I was out of the loop as regards what was going on in the world of aviation. My daughter Laura and I had gone to Colorado to ski during January. When we returned Pan Am Crew Scheduling office in NY called and assigned me a charter trip. I was to operate a B707 ferry flight from NY to Bermuda. We were to layover there, then operate a Bermuda – Brussels charter. After a layover at Brussels, I/we were to deadhead to Frankfurt and operate Frankfurt – New York, or await further assignment.. The first part of the trip was uneventful.
In Brussels, after supper and upon returning to my room, I received a phone call from Pan Am Flight Operations office in NY. It seems that some of our flight operations people were in Tehran and they couldn’t leave because a revolution had started. They asked us, me and the First Officer Paul Franz and the Flight Engineer Al Bekebrede to ferry a plane to Bahrain and wait there for further instructions regarding an evacuation flight from Tehran. The proposed flight was to operate ferry flight TE453 from Brussels to Bahrain. After that we were to wait for further instructions regarding departure times, etc. and then to operate flight E453 from Bahrain to Tehran for the evacuation, then to Istanbul if a fuel stop was necessary then on to Frankfurt. Bahrain is a small island country in the Persian Gulf, 22 miles east of Saudi Arabia. A crew of five flight attendants joined us in Bahrain. They were pursers Betty Carter and Bob Reinke and flight attendants Laddy Chorwat, Tavi Renzoni and Joyce Horton.
After arriving in Bahrain we were told to wait for further orders, as expected. We were told that they, NY Flight Operations, couldn’t contact the people in Tehran directly. The time wasn’t right and poor communications. During that time the local TV station was showing pictures of the revolution that was taking place there. During the next three days or so I contacted NY Operations on more than one occasion. Not much to do except to wait another day. I then tried and used the local telephone and called the “crew hotel” in Tehran and talked to one of the people there. They told us of their troubles in the hotel and the continuing revolution in the city. They said they were anxiously awaiting us. We didn’t know what to expect in Tehran.
The next few days in Bahrain weren’t too hard to take. Bahrain is an island nation in the Persian Gulf, just 22 miles from the Saudi Arabian coast. The place was full of the old and the new. There were some sumptuous new hotels and buildings and a lot of the old and ancient places, bazaars and such. Our only problem was waiting around for the time to be “just right”. As I said before, we received daily briefings from NY about what was going on in Iran, and then we turned on the local TV and got another story. They, NY operations were unable to get through to the stranded people in Tehran by any means, and yet we were able to pick up the hotel phone and call them in their rooms. Strange.
After about four days we were given the word to go. Early in the morning I went to the Operations office at the airport and was given whatever weather briefing was available. The weather was forecast to be good, however that was little more than a guess. The only weather charts were satellite photos showing no cloud cover. We fueled for our destination, Tehran, and as much extra fuel we could carry. We had enough fuel to make a few approaches at Tehran then proceed to Istanbul, our first alternate. We were properly dispatched and were given a route that would take us to the Iranian airspace, then on into Tehran. In my possession I had a letter in teletype form from the Prime Minister of Iran. I can’t remember the name now but is was recognizable then. This was to be used in the event we had trouble with the Iranian authorities.
After takeoff we had an uneventful trip until we arrived at the point of entry into the Iranian airspace at a point over the Persian Gulf. Local VHF communication with Iran was not effective. We then entered into a holding pattern at 29,000 feet and tried to contact the air traffic controllers using HF. I think that was when we made contact. We were denied entree to their airspace. I read to them the letter from the Prime Minister and after a lengthy delay, about a half hour, or so, was asked to read the letter. This was done, reading every word and phrase. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes, we were told that our entry was approved, however VFR or Visual Flight Rules was all that was available. We proceeded to the destination VFR and were out of range of any communication until nearing Tehran. Fortunately we were visual all the way. We made position reports “in the blind” frequently. The only two frequencies that were available to us were the AA beacon, which was the outer marker at Merhabad airport and 131.4 which was the local PanOp (Pan Am’s operations) frequency. We maintained VFR and descended to the local airport operating altitude. After we called PanOp and told them of our arrival and that we were unable to contact the tower, they relayed most of the information we needed. We were told that the airport was closed and they would try to open it as soon as they were able, because the runway was deliberately littered with trucks and buses. We stayed in the low level holding pattern, southeast of the airport, while the local people tried to remove the vehicles. This was no little problem because the people that parked the vehicles didn’t leave the keys. After a long period of time, or so we thought, the runway was finally cleared. The Pan Am Operations manager told us that the runway looked clear and that he had driven his car the full length and it was clear.
After holding for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than 30 minutes or so, we were cleared to land. During the holding period, Al, the flight engineer said that he was picking up the sound of “acquisition” radar. I was told that that meant that someone had his or her weapons locked onto us. For the uneducated about military terminology, a weapons radar system was trying to get a target for their weapons, and that target was us.
We landed. We were instructed by PanOp to continue to the end of the runway and taxi to a certain area and wait. We did. Since we were told that we were to pick up personnel for the evacuation, this seemed only reasonable to wait for the evacuees to be brought to us. The two outboard engines were shut down and we waited as instructed.
School type buses approached and we thought they would be the evacuees. We were wrong. When the buses stopped, armed military people unloaded and, upon the direction of a senior military person, someone we later called “the general” directed the troups to surround the airplane. Within a short time, armed militia surrounded the airplane, all with their weapons aimed at the cockpit. If you think this was frightening, you are right. I asked the other cockpit members to show their hands on the cockpit glareshield to show that we were unarmed. The general, I think, gave us the signal to cut the other engines. That was done.
Before long the military people pushed a boarding ladder to the forward entrance door and a group of them rapidly boarded the airplane. They were heavily armed. They searched the airplane. When they were satisfied that the Marines were not on board, we were allowed (ordered) to leave the plane. We stayed as a group under the wing of the plane and were questioned by a senior military officer, one of the two that spoke English. The other spoke only Farsi.
There were many questions about why we were here and what did we want. After much discussion among themselves, they decided that we were to get in one of the buses and go into the city to a police station or other military office. When we asked why, no one seemed to have an answer. That was the last thing we wanted to do. Note: It is to be noted that during a revolution, there appeared to be no leaders. I told the commanding officer that we were a civilian aircraft and we, the crew, were not going off the airport. We were to go to the terminal and pick up passengers. There was a lot of back and forth arguing about our situation. After some hesitation he seemed to agree with us and we were told that we could start only 2 engines to taxi to the terminal and no more. One of the armed militia stayed in the cockpit during the trip to the terminal.
The buses with the militia led and followed us to the terminal. We were told later that one of the buses was a little close to the engines and we must have almost put him on his side, which frightened the crap out of the troups on board the buses.
Upon arrival at the terminal militia once again surrounded the airplane. A set of air stairs was then pulled up to the airplane. The Pan Am passenger service personnel at the terminal were in the process of getting the passenger’s necessary paperwork completed and getting them on the airplane. There was a mix of people. Most were Pan Am personnel, including the flight operations personnel (Chief Pilot types) that we were to pick up, plus a number of others. We had Intercontinental Hotel people (at that time, IHC was a subsidiary of Pan Am Corporation) and a number of other people, including many from the various press corps.
I wanted to check in with the Pan Am Operations people and was told by some armed person at the top of the stairs that I couldn’t get off the airplane. As I said before, during a revolution, every one and no one was in charge. I put on my uniform coat and hat and told the guard that I was the Captain and I was authorized to do whatever I wanted. He seemed to agree. It all turned out to be a worthless exercise. The passenger service personnel were trying to do their best to handle the chaos.
As I mentioned before, radio communications were almost non-existent. We had originally planned to be at the terminal for about an hour but by this time a few hours had expired. I felt that I should tell the company in New York what was happening. In the cockpit a number of radios and radio equipment are available. One that we used was the earpiece and a lip mike. Most observers can’t tell whether we are talking among ourselves or speaking on one of the communication radios. We dialed “Berna” radio, a commercial unit in Europe on the HF band and had them open a line to Pan Am Operations in New York. We spoke to them in a normal voice as if we were speaking to each other and brought them up to date, all the while having some weapon toting person s in the cockpit, looking at us. Sometime during this time, the officer in charge of the militia disappeared and was not a factor, just more of an inconvenience.
Loading the passengers was becoming a problem, as no one seemed to be able to make up his or her mind. First, no Iranians. Then, an American husband with an Iranian wife was OK. After that, an American wife with an Iranian husband was not OK. During all this, a couple of young people of whatever nationality were able to slip on the airplane and sit on the floor in the back, behind seats. I don’t know if they were ever found out or not. Didn’t care, either. All evacuees were searched and all camera film was confiscated. Much was harassment.
As the passengers were arriving in the airplane we recalculated the fuel necessary for the next flight leg and decided to try to fly nonstop to Frankfurt, bypassing Istanbul. Time on the ground at Tehran was in excess of 4 hours. Seemed much longer, maybe an eternity. I was more concerned about departing during daylight hours because of lighting problems on the airport and runway lighting. There was none. We finally received “startup” clearance, (from one of our own operational people, on the ground) but that was rapidly cancelled because some very official people wanted to check the passengers again. The airstairs were rolled out to the airplane and the entry door was re-opened. After another search the doors were closed again and we once again received start-up clearance. Engines were started and we taxied rapidly so as to avoid the chance that someone might change their minds again about us departing. We were almost past sunset. We took off with no Air Traffic Control clearance. We departed VFR and contacted Istanbul on the HF band and received clearance while airborne. After takeoff, the passenger started to applaud. When we passed the Iranian border, an announcement was made to that effect, the Seat Belt sign was extinguished and the celebration really started. The bar was opened. Alcohol helped.
We had plenty of fuel so we cancelled the scheduled Istanbul stop and touched down in Frankfurt 6 hours later. Had a few interviews at the terminal by some news media, then on to the hotel for rest. It had been a long day.
Upon arrival at the hotel, the press and the IHC people had arranged a banquet to which we were invited. In addition, chilled, complimentarily champagne had been delivered to each room.
At the banquet, many stories were told by the evacuees about the past few days of their adventuresome times. Many stories were funny now that were not so funny then. As I said before, alcohol helps. A few speeches later we found out just how happy they were to get out of that place.
After that, the trip home was uneventful. I deadheaded back to New York, then on to Miami. I had been gone from my home for a few days short of two weeks.
This article by Harvey Benefield was originally published in the Clipper Pioneers Newsletter, 2009.