Thursday, 28 January 2010

Italy to Marrakesh - Part 4 - Almost There

The next day, we really, really needed and wanted to be in Marrakesh. We file a plan to Casablanca, which (yet again) is pretty much at the limit of our fuel endurance. By missing out Tangiers, we could make do with one fuel stop. I simply didn’t believe that if we had 2 fuel stops in the Kafkaesque world that is aviation in foreign countries, we’d ever make it to Marrakesh in one day.

So off we go, down the coast, in torrential rain heading towards Gibraltar. There was no chance of heading out to sea in the rain – we could hardly see the coast, and we didn’t want to hit one of the many thunderstorms somewhere over the Med.

We talk to Gibraltar Control. It’s quite weird hearing the Queen’s English again on the radio after so long. There’s some kind of evacuation going on there, and they are not the slightest bit interested in us. We are cleared to cross their airspace and they say goodbye.

We have to fly at less than 500 feet over the sea to make any sensible progress. Black clouds, pounding rain and lousy visibility. So not much change there. The turbulence around the Rock was extreme, as you would expect in a storm at the junction of the Atlantic and the Med with a huge bit of granite towering above us on the windward side. But I’ve been in these types of conditions before, and I know just how strong the R44 is. Fulvio isn’t so sure!

As if by magic, as we strike out towards Africa, the rain stops, the sun comes out and we have a clear view of the coast on the other side.

We contact Tangiers, which is where the fun begins. First, Fulvio tries in French, but neither he nor I can grasp the accent, so we switch to English.

The lady tells us that we must land at Tangiers. It’s Fulvio’s turn to be PIC, and he’s not keen. One of Fulvio’s most endearing characteristics is that he is incapable of doing what he’s told, even by a Moroccan Air Traffic Controller. This strong-will is infuriating at times, but it is also very useful. He gets into a “you must” “no I won’t” conversation with her (in between the Ryanair transmissions) and eventually the lady reads me out the co-ordinates for the approved VFR routing.

I’ll admit to being very stressed by all this, and at one point I lost my temper, which really doesn’t happen very often. Fulvio took everything in his stride, totally unperturbed by the constant badgering from the ground control and my anger in the cabin.

I couldn’t make the GPS accept the co-ordinates, so I had to revert to plotting the co-ordinates on the map – it was SO like the stuff I have to do for the championships. I knew it would come in useful one day.......

Having plotted the course, which was designed to take us away from the many prohibited military areas, we settled down and started to take a look at the scenery. Vast rolling landscapes, with some spectacular hills, and a lot of topsoil. Everywhere people were eking out a living – almost certainly it was a hand-to mouth situation - and such a contrast from the affluent Spanish communities we’d been flying over just a few minutes before.

We have to change controllers to a chap based at Rabat. If we though the previous lady was hard work, this guy must have been her master-class instructor.

He kept demanding our estimates to the next reporting point and then would ask us again in (literally) 5 minutes. (The next reporting point was roughly 45 minutes away.)The constant demands from the ground really were a distraction to safe flying, and I would pity a low-houred VFR pilot trying to learn to fly and having to cope with this barracking.

Not content with refusing to land at just one Moroccan airfield, Fulvio also refused to land at the main airport at Casablanca. It was, yet again a “you must land here”, “no I won’t land there” conversation that I was extremely uncomfortable with. However, right was on our side – we’d filed a flight plan to the smaller airfield (which has been accepted and lodged with Air Traffic Control) and we couldn’t get any fuel at the main airport.

After at least 20 minutes of arguing with various different controllers, Fulvio switched frequencies to our intended destination. Again, the (nice) lady there said we had to go to Mohammed V. Fulvio explained that we had not enough fuel to get to Mohammed V first and then come to them to re-fuel with them.

There was a pause, and the a different lady’s voice came over the radio.

“Are you declaring a fuel emergency” she asks. “Yes” says Fulvio, “Cleared to land” says she, “Thank you” I say.

When we get on the ground, we are greeted by various policemen, the re-fueler and the lady who gave us the permission to land. All of them could not have been more polite and helpful, especially the lady, Amina Farhane. She turns out to be the Director of the airfield, and a pilot, and very much on our side. I can recommend her airfield,

We do the minimum of paperwork, re-fuel, pay in Euros, and head off to Marrakesh. Easy, and pleasant.

We now have the map marked with the VFR routes, and spend the final hour and a half heading south in reasonably good weather taking pictures of the shepherds tending their flocks. The prospect of actually getting to our destination is rather strange, after all this time!

There’s one ridge of hills left between us and Marrakesh, and we climb to go over the top. We’ve been in touch with Marrakesh ATC for some while, as has a Ryanair pilot who is gently trying to persuade the Controller to let him come in a bit quicker. We are the only other aircraft around, and I make it quite clear that we are miles and miles away, and in any event just a few hundred feet above the ground. But the controller is having none of it and the poor chap from Ryanair has to do the whole hold and extended circuit. Then it’s our turn, and to our surprise we get cleared straight in to land. We’ve landed at the airport before the Ryanair is on the stand!

Then, the final bit of mar-mar. We cannot get permission to cross the runway to get to where the exhibition is! We have to shut down. Half an hour later and many exchanges over the radio, we get permission to start up and cross the runway. Other than the half hour passing, nothing was different, nothing had changed, but this is the way things are over here, and I’m getting used to it.

A few minutes later, our helicopter is in position by our stand.

We have arrived! It’s taken nearly 25 hours flying time from Blackpool to get here, about 10 times longer than or flight, and a lot more than 10 times more expensive!

But is has been a hell of a trip, and as usual, I’ve learnt a lot. In particular this trip has been as much about CRM (cockpit resource management) as is has been about flying in terrible weather. CRM is one of those bullshit phrases invented by business people. What is really all about is coping with each others’ egos, and making sure that the whole crew get on and make the best of their strengths and compensate, or accommodate, each others’ weaknesses. I’m quite confident that neither of us flew in conditions beyond the capability of either pilot, but I’d say it came close on one or two occasions.

So for now, we are going to concentrate on selling helicopters and making contacts here in Marrakesh. Here’s to a successful trip back!


  1. very well written and well flown to both of you. Captain Hepworth

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