Flying in Nepal

January 1974: All flights from Lukla had been canceled because of the oil crisis. That meant we had no way to get back to Kathmandu, except to walk out. We couldn’t go back the way we came in because the passes might be snowed in by the time we get there. The only other way to walk out is to go south down the Dudh Kosi river valley, a very long trip. Our only other option is to try to fly out of Sangpoche airport at the Everest View Hotel.

We headed down the valley and went straight to the Hotel to book a flight out. We were put on the waiting list and had hot chocolate at the hotel. Then we trekked back down the hill to the International Footrest Hotel in to wait.

We expected to wait several days for a flight out. The hotel had a daily flight to bring in supplies and to fly out laundry. The situation was also complicated because three of the four pilots that are qualified to land at Sangpoche had quit.  It snowed the day of our flight and we were delayed for two days until they cleared off the runway.

The legendary Swiss pilot Captain Emil Wick piloted the single-engine Pilatus Porter. He was probably the greatest living mountain pilot. He was known for his outrageous sense of humor and had flown climbers into remote mountain airstrips in Nepal. He had the distinction of being one of only two people to descend an 8000-meter peak without climbing it. This was after he crashed a Porter while delivering supplies to a Dhaulagiri expedition in 1960.

The Pilatus Porter is Swiss made and powered by a single turboprop engine. It was built for landing on glaciers in the Alps. It is much praised for its excellent handling and short take-off and landing capabilities that made it ideal for mountain flying.

At Sangpoche airport, about 11,400 feet in altitude, one must make a landing and take-off in less than 1,000 feet. At the uphill end of the runway is a cliff and at the downhill end of the runway is a 1,500-foot drop down into the valley.

As we are loading up Captain Emil told us about some of his strangest flights. One time he had to fly a Yak out. It took up all of the spare room. Another time he flew out a leopard that was headed to a zoo in Japan. He said the leopard started growling so he gained altitude till it went to sleep in the thin air. Our gear was weighed and carefully loaded the plane because weight is critical at this altitude. We took off down the runway, going airborne about halfway. At the end of the runway he banked right and we were on our way for a spectacular trip back to Kathmandu.

An excerpt from the Iranian Intercept

Tuesday, 19 December: Dudh Kosi Valley, Nepal

Flying in the Himalayas is a fusion of wonder and fear. The awe-inspiring panorama of the high mountains acts as a powerful drug subduing the senses, blocking out the inescapable reality that death awaits those who linger in its spell. The hypnotic trance may lure the unsuspecting to the side of a cliff. Engine failure results in a harrowing decent to the rocks below. Wind shear, an invisible, unexpected, and deadly force, might at any moment, plunge the frail craft into the void.

Following the valley of the Dudh Kosi River, as it closed in narrower and narrower, was akin to flying into the jaws of a mythical monster, the jagged mountains forming its teeth. The small aircraft continued on its way skirting rough walls, pummeled by bursts of turbulence, straining to maintain its course. I searched the valley walls for our destination.

No one spoke. The furious roar of the propeller and the low rumble of the slipstream rushed past the cockpit.

The pilot broke an awkward silence, "Can you see it?"

I pressed forward in the harness, straining to find it. "No, just the mountains."

He pointed. "There at one o'clock, past the village, up the side valley. Namche Bazaar."

"All I see is a small brown spot."

"That's it."

Ahead, a gash on the side of the ridge appeared about three kilometers away. A twinge of anxiety welled up as I awaited the approach and landing on such a tiny speck. Further up the valley, low cloud cover was beginning to form, merging the valley with the white slopes of the mountains.

I was about to seek reassurance from the pilot when the brawny man behind me leaned forward and spoke to the pilot.

"Es ist so klein." I could smell his fear. He asked if it was safe. "Ist es sicher?"

The pilot answered, "Ja Ja, kein Problem." He asked the man if he was okay. "Ist alles in Ordnung?"

"Ni —Nien."

"Machen Sie sich keine Sorgen." He told him not to worry.

"Mir ist schlecht."

He brusquely told him, "Bitte nicht erbrechen," not to throw-up.

"Ich bin krank."

"Hörst du mich — nicht erbrechen."

The pilot leaned towards me. "These guys from the east are not so tough. He says he is sick."

"The east, what do you mean?"

"One of the eastern lands. Can tell from his accent." That simple comment should have set off alarm bells, but the enormity of the spectacle before me short-circuited my internal warning system.

He banked right and changed course up the new valley. Ahead, at 12,500 feet, lay the world's highest airport. Syangboche airstrip, less than 400 yards in length perched on a ledge 1,500 feet above the river below. It would be like landing on an aircraft carrier.

The pilot, a confident and cheerful Swiss, a legendary mountain flyer, tracked the edge of the cliff to our right as he fought the turbulence.

"The clouds are closing in. I must take off again as soon as we load up. Hope the bastards are ready for me. I do not stay for long."

The small plane trembled as turbulent air threatened to drive it into the rugged cliff looming above. The single engine Pilatus Porter banked to the left to begin the final approach. A fierce gust shook the small craft causing it to slide away from the postage stamp sized landing strip. We drifted straight towards a rocky ridge. He dipped the nose, eased the throttle forward, gained speed, tracked right, and then left again. The aircraft was back on course. We would land on an up-hill grade that ended at a jumble of rocks below a small cliff.

Another wind shear shook the craft as he eased the throttle back to idle, deployed the large flaps, and brought the nose up for landing. The aircraft shuddered as it decelerated below forty-five knots and gently touched down with a slight thud. With full brakes and reverse thrust, the Porter achieved a remarkably short rollout after landing, with plenty room to spare. The brawny man let out an audible sigh of relief.

December - This Month in the Cold War

8 December 1987 - President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Russia's General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty eliminating all intermediate-range and shorter-range nuclear missiles.

8 December 1991 - The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. The leaders of Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine signed an agreement creating the Commonwealth of Independent States.

21 December 1972 - East and West Germany established diplomatic ties, paving the way for international recognition of East Germany

21 December 1993 - The KGB (Soviet Secret Police) organization was abolished by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

24 December 1979 - Soviet troops invade Afghanistan.

25 December 1989 – Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed following a popular uprising. A pro-democracy coalition took control of the country.

November - This Month in the Cold War

2 November 1962 - President John F. Kennedy announced, "the Soviet bases in Cuba are being dismantled, their missiles and related equipment being crated, and the fixed installations at these sites are being destroyed."

3 November 1957 – The Soviet Union launched the world's first space capsule, Sputnik II, containing a dog named Laika.

4 November 1956 - Soviet troops moved in to crush an uprising in Hungary.

4 November 1979 - Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, Iran, and took 90 hostages, including 52 Americans. The hostage crisis lasted 444 days.

6 November 1951 - A US Navy P2V Neptune was shot down by Soviet fighters over international waters about 20 miles from Vladivostok.

11 November 1954 – A US Air Force B-29 was shot down by Soviet fighters about 10 miles from the Soviet-controlled Kurile Islands.

9 November 1989 - The Berlin Wall was opened after 28 years.

19 November 1951 - A US Air Force C-47 was shot down by either Hungarian or Romanian antiaircraft fire near the Yugoslav frontier. The aircraft was en route from Munich to Belgrade. The crew survived and were released.

20 November 1990 - The Cold War came to an end during a summit in Paris as leaders of NATO and the Warsaw Pact signed a Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.

20 November 1962 - The Cuban Missile Crisis concluded. President John F. Kennedy lifted the U.S. Naval blockade of Cuba stating, "the evidence to date indicates that all known offensive missile sites in Cuba have been dismantled."

22 November 1963 - President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas.

October - This Month in the Cold War

October 6, 1973 - The Yom Kippur War started as Egypt and Syria launched attacks on Israeli positions on the East Bank of the Suez and the Golan Heights.

October 6, 1978 - Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini was granted asylum in France after being expelled from Iran for his opposition to the Shah.

October 6, 1981 - Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Cairo by Muslim fundamentalists while watching a military parade. He had signed an American-sponsored peace accord with Israel but had been denounced by other Arab leaders.

October 7, 1949 - The German Democratic Republic came into existence in East Germany. Dominated by Soviet Russia, it lasted until German reunification in 1990.

October 10, 1954 - Ho Chi Minh entered Hanoi, Vietnam, after the withdrawal of French troops, in accordance with armistice terms ending the seven-year struggle between Communist Vietnamese and the French.

October 15, 1964 - Soviet Russia's leader Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

October 16, 1964 - China detonated its first nuclear bomb at the Lop Nor test site in Sinkiang.

October 22, 1962 - President John F. Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans of the existence of Russian missiles in Cuba. The President demanded their removal and announced a naval "quarantine" of Cuba. Six days later, the Russians announced they would remove the weapons. In return, the U.S. later removed missiles from Turkey.

October 23, 1956 - A Hungarian uprising against Communist rule began with students and workers demonstrating in Budapest. Soviet Russians responded by sending in tanks and put down the revolt after several days of bitter fighting.

October 23, 1983 - Terrorists drove a truck loaded with TNT into the U.S. and French headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, exploding it and killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French paratroopers.

October 23, 1989 - Hungary declared itself a republic, 33 years after Soviet Russian troops crushed a popular revolt against Communist rule.

October 23, 1990 - Ukrainian Prime Minister Vitaly Masol resigned after mass protests by students, becoming the first Soviet official of that rank to quit under public pressure.

October 25, 1955 - Austria reassumed its sovereignty with the departure of the last Allied forces. The country had been occupied by the Nazis from 1938-45. After World War II, it was divided into four occupation zones by the U.S., Russia, Britain and France.

27 October 1962 - A U-2F, piloted by USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, was shot down by a S-75 Dvina (NATO designation SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missile launched from Cuba. Anderson was killed.

28 October 1962 - The Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the announcement by Soviet Russia's leader Nikita Khrushchev that his Soviet government was halting construction of missile bases in Cuba and would remove the offensive missiles. President Kennedy accepted the offer then lifted the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba.

30 October 1956 - A joint British and French force invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal which had been nationalised by the Egyptian leader Nasser. The British and French were forced to withdraw and a UN peace keeping force was sent to establish order.

Iran 1973

End of October 1973, near Esendere, Turkey. The border was less than a mile away. We stopped by a stream to clean up before entering Iran. Little did I know that less than six years later, this would be the site of a dramatic escape from revolutionary Iran by employees of EDS, Ross Perot's computer services company. That story was chronicled in Ken Follett's book, On Wings of Eagles. Naturally, it had to serve as a location in the Raven-One Team thriller, The Caspian Intercept, to be released later in 2018.

I did not go to Tehran, we headed south to Isfahan and Shiraz before crossing the desert to Afghanistan. There was a great contrast between the cities and the countryside in Iran. People in villages live in mud huts, while people in the city were much better off. Iran seemed almost modern compared to Eastern Turkey. Some of the roads were dirt, but they were building new asphalt highways. Premium gasoline cost only 25 cents a gallon. The road signs were in Persian script and only a few signs in English. Even the road numbers were different but not hard to learn. The bread was cooked in a round flat shape like a pizza. A good meal cost about a dollar.

Isfahan was modern, except for the open sewers running between the streets and sidewalks, but at least they are concrete lined. One big treat was milk shakes. A young man had a blender set up on a stool on the sidewalk and you could have a banana shake in a minute. The big movie in town was Duel with Dennis Weaver. The one about the big truck. We camped at the YMCA across the street from a mosque.

Traffic in Isfahan was congested and wild. Taxi rides were seven cents. Took a taxi ride to a market and the driver didn’t slow down for speed bumps and ignored traffic signals and the police. At one major intersection there was lights, a traffic officer on a pedestal in the center of the street. No one including the cop paid attention to the lights, and the drivers completely ignored his directions. Somehow, everyone made it through alive.

The main bazaar in Isfahan was interesting. It was about a mile long and had just about everything one would need. Lots of stuff from China, including hand painted thermos bottles with pandas and rural scenes. One of these plays a major role in The Caspian Intercept. Isfahan was a beautiful city.

The Yom Kippur War had been over only a few weeks before and I still didn't know what had happened. The English language newspaper, The Tehran Times, was available and provided an abbreviated account of the aftermath. The paper always seemed to have a front-page story about the Shah or his family. I was told it was required.

Every town had a traffic circle with a bust of the Shah in the center. Another strange thing was a picture of the Shah emerging from a cloud, placed over almost every exit in buildings. The military had a strange combination of Soviet and American equipment. My favorite was the Soviet Gaz-69 jeep-like vehicle. It is featured in The Iranian Intercept and The Caspian Intercept.

I also visited Shiraz and the ruins of an old Persian Palace at Persepolis, just north of the city. It was 2,500 years old and parts had been restored. The sound and light show was impressive.

Kerman was something of a disappointment. I had expected to see what had described as the last preindustrial city, but since he had been there it had been seen some progress. Lots of traffic. Later. In Herat, Afghanistan, I was able to visit a real pre-industrial city.

We left Kerman and headed north into the Dasht-e Lut desert, a large salt desert, one of the hottest and driest places on earth during the summer. Since it was late fall, it was cold at night and I purchased a crude cotton stuffed quilt in a village market.

I liked Iran, the people were friendly and there was evidence of economic progress, but beneath the surface, I sensed the days of the Shah's reign were numbered. I figured the military would eventually take over. I was wrong.

Desert Caravan

Desert Caravan

Shiraz Old Friday Mosque

Shiraz Old Friday Mosque

Persepolis

Persepolis

Kerman

Kerman

Isfahan

Isfahan