After a heartwarming week of Rotary celebrations and welcome parties, I departed Ambala for Kolkata on July 27th. Once again, the staff of Air Officer Commanding, L.K. Chawla was extremely gracious in helping me get ready for departure. They helped refuel the plane, get the weather briefing and the clearances necessary to depart from an Air Force Base. Due to strong headwinds, the flight from Ambala to Kolkata turned out to be the longest duration flight of the trip to date and I was pretty tired by the time I reached Kolkata. I was received by Sanjay Choudhry, the brother of my close friend Dr. Ajay Chaudhry. The hospitality bestowed on me by Sanjay and his family was par excellent. Thanks Sanjay, it was a delight to visit with you and your family.
But as the saying goes, all good things must end, the departure from Kolkata was entirely a different experience. Kolkata in my opinion is the red tape capital of the world. Avgas is normally not used at this airport and clearance from many departments was required before refueling. Any and all things, no matter how irrelevant, were turned into most important, as your life depended on it. Re-fueling only a barrel of Avgas required five hours. Similar goes for filing flight plan, every little detail had to be perfect and three original signed copies had to be submitted. I was about to start the engine, when the flight service station asked me to come to their office and sign the flight plan. The flight service station unbeknown to me was outside the sterile area of the airport. I had stepped out without taking my identification papers and so was not permitted to come back in. It took two hours of pleading with various authorities before I could get back in. I had reached Kolkata Airport at 7:30 AM, but by the time I finally departed it was 5:00 PM. The flight from Kolkata to Pattaya was 950 NM, longest of the trip with most of it over Bay of Bengal. Normally, I would not fly over Open Ocean during night time, but since the weather was good and I was just so frustrated, I decided not to take a chance on next day and carried on with the flight in the night.
Next stop U-Tapao, Thailand!
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In an incredible act of grace and generosity towards me, Rotarians and Citizens of Ambala Cantt, Air Officer Commanding L .K. Chawla granted me the very rare, if ever granted, permission to land and park my plane at the Air Force Base. Not only did he grant me the permission, he also along with his staff, Chief Administrative Officer N. K. Singh and Chief Operating Officer A. Srivastava, greeted me to the base. I thank them all and Wing Commander Rahul Monga from the bottom of my heart for helping my dream come true.
After the reception at the base, I was driven with police escort to my home. Then later, I was invited by the Rotarians in Ambala as Guest of Honor to their installation meeting. The next morning I was invited as Chief Guest to the Annual prize distribution function at the Taneja Public school. I am extremely humbled by the reception accorded to me their native son, by Ambala Rotarians and Citizens. I am simply overwhelmed.
Mission continues, next stop Kolkata!
After sitting in stifling heat from desert sun for half an hour, while taxing and waiting for clearance, I was more than ready for takeoff from Muscat. It was the last leg of my flight to India and my heart was racing. So, as soon as the tower cleared me for takeoff, I full throttled the plane and climbed to my assigned FL 150, headed over the Arabian Sea. After flying for four hours, the Pakistani controller handed me over to the Indian controller. This controller must have been handling at least twenty flights at a time. I have never experienced such a busy controller. This controller had extraordinary talent to calmly handle so many flights at one time, the instructions were coming like bullets from an AK 47. Very professional, very impressive. He vectored me for an Instrument approach to RWY 23 and I landed. My first landing in India!
I really hope the civil aviation authorities get some more help for these poor controllers in India, working at such fast pace continuously is just not humanly possible.
The welcome given to me after landing in Ahmadabad was incredible. Representatives of Aggarwal Samaj, received me at the airport and took me to the reception they had especially arranged for me. All the major local and national papers and TV channels covered my story.
So, far my flight has gone smoothly, much better than expected. The main reason for this I believe is the incredible great work done by my logistics support team at G.A.S.E. (General Aviation Support Service Egypt). They arranged all my overflight and landing permits, ground handling services, prepared and filed all my flight plans, arranged for Avgas and hotel stays. They even continuously tracked my flight and communicated with me during flight, beaming METARS and helping me pick out flight levels where the winds were more favorable.
Thank you Eddie and Ahmed, I could not have done it without your help. You both are my incredible partners in flight, I feel like you are always sitting next to me while flying. Exemplary service!
Next stop AMBALA CANTT !
By now I should better get used to outrageous handling and fuel charges. The handling at Bahrain was $710 and the barrel of Avgas $1000. Only good thing, I did not have to pump the gas from the barrel myself. They brought an air compressor and a pump to the plane. As for handling charges and cost of gas, I don’t care anymore, it is what it is. I am just too excited to get to India.
Flying in the desert is a new experience for me. I don’t have air conditioning in my plane. While cruising at any reasonable altitude it is cold enough and the plane is very comfortable, but on the ground while checking things out after startup and waiting for clearances from ATC, it is just unbearably hot. I probably loose a pound of sweat in 10-15 min that I am on the ground. Moreover, even though it is sunny all the time the visibility and ceilings are extremely low due to lots of sand dust in the air. I would classify the landings to be in low IFR range. While landing in Bahrain, I did not see the runway until I was about to touch down. Same was true today in Muscat!
Met Mr. Sulaiman Al Mufargi, a wannabe Earthrounder, who has been communicating with me and following my flight for a while. He picked me up at the airport and drove me to Hyatt, my hotel. The drive to the hotel went through most of Muscat, it really is a beautiful town. Even has a Buffalo Wing Restaurant. Checked in at Hyatt. This Hyatt is built like a Castle, really fabulous. Probably, the best I have ever stayed at.
But with all that said, after staying in Buffalo for 40 years, I don’t think I can ever get used to the desert. I miss the snow already!!
Next stop Ahmadabad, India!
Amman is a bustling and beautiful city. Spent the night at the really nice and inexpensive ($80/night) Century Park hotel. In the morning, the ground handler for my plane came to pick me up. Before starting from the hotel he wanted me to settle the bill (no credit card but cash only). The invoice was for $1200 (excluding hotel and fuel), most of the charges I did not understand but what stood out was a $200 charge for transporting me to the hotel and back. The hotel was only 6 KM away from the airport. Not much I could do but to pay the invoice. Feeling a bit ripped off I headed for the Airport.
The Marka Internationals Airport is one of the two International airports in Amman. Queen Alia being the main one. Marka is not much in use and I was the only one passing through this morning. With lots of security people around, I had to go through three separate security check stations with metal detector doors and x-ray machines. These security checkpoints were within 10 yards of each other. It was hard to understand why I and my luggage had to go through metal detectors and x-ray machines three times and swabbed, but they cleared me and I am ready to leave for Bahrain.
It was an 875 NM long flight. As I reached at my assigned altitude of 17,000 feet, I encountered head winds. With these headwinds I was barely going to make it to Bahrain, not a comforting thought. I texted the situation to my logistic company in Egypt. They checked weather information available to them and determined that if I climbed to 19000 feet I would have tail winds instead of headwinds. It is hard to believe but sure enough when I climbed to 19000 feet, the headwinds became tailwinds (I probably caught the jet stream prevalent due to easterly rotation of the Earth) and I had no problem making it to Bahrain comfortably. All of my flight was over Saudi desert. There was nothing I could see except a line in the sand that is the highway crossing the desert. I wondered how the Bedouins ever crossed such a vast desert on camels!
It is sunny and over 100 degrees. The desert heat in Bahrain is stifling and I am happy to be at the hotel.
Next stop Muscat, Oman!
The strict Air Traffic Control at Crete gave me 25 minutes slot to depart. If I did not leave with in that slot, I will have to file a delayed flight plan and wait for a slot to open up.
I got to the airport in plenty of time, at least so I thought, but Crete airport is a fairly large international airport teeming with tourists and is pretty busy. By the time I cleared customs, fueled up the plane, paid my bills and got ready to go, I had less than 10 min left in my slotted time. Again, somehow I manged to take off in the allotted time. But It is only after take off I got the real surprise when ATC radioed me an amended routing to Amman. It was even more crooked than what I had earlier. This long and winding route had me flying around Israel and crossing way points that were really not on the way to Amman. The total distance turned out to be over 1050 NM. The straight distance from Crete to Amman is only 577 NM!
I had really no choice but to carry on. Unlike yesterday, when I had dream tail winds that I did not want, today I really needed tailwinds, but had headwinds or no winds all the way. it took over six hours to reach Amman. Moreover, all of my flight was either over the water or the desert, there was nothing really to look at. As I crossed the Mediterranean and entered Egypt, it felt like I was about to enter a sand storm. Fortunately, I was pretty high and had no problems. Tired but happy to be in Amman.
Next stop Bahrain
Had my plane serviced in Bologna, so while flying to Crete, the first order of business was to map out the performance of the plane and all relevant temperatures at various power levels to make sure all was OK. It was a relief to find that all is OK and I can continue as planned.
I had pilot’s dream tail winds today and plane was going real fast. However, for landing in Crete I had been allotted a 30 min slot. If I got there early, I would be put on a hold somewhere near the airport, if late there could be a fine. So to make it on time, I had to deliberately try to slow my plane down. Goes to show, sometime a good thing is not a good thing. I did all I could, even flew the plane at 40 % power, the lowest I have ever flown it in cruise mode, still the speed was too fast. Somehow, I managed to get appropriate speed and landed at Crete exactly at 13:30 UTC my ETA as filed. Felt real proud of my time management accomplishment.
Flew past Greek Islands, including Santorini, my most favorite one. But due to haze, could not take decent pictures. Sorry!
Tomorrow I fly to Amman, Jordan. The direct route to Amman is only 580 NM, but the flight route provided by Air Traffic Control, does not to go over Israel but around it instead. So, I must fly 900 NM. Go figure !
After a great stay with my friends Qutub/Mubeen (they were wonderful hosts indeed) in Liverpool, I flew over France, Switzerland and the breathtaking peaks/valleys of Alps to Bologna, Italy. Giuseppe Berardo, my fellow International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians (IFFR) member, received me at the airport and drove me to the dinner meeting of Bologna Rotarians. My welcome by Bologna Rotarians was simply incredible and elegant. Bologna TV then came out to the airport for an interview this morning. I will just let the picture and news video tell the story.
Bologna is also one of my planned service/maintenance stops for the trip. After getting the oil changed and a problematic temperature probe fixed, I test flew the airplane. All seems fine and ready to go for tomorrow.
Next stop Crete, Greece.
Landed at John Lennon Airport in Liverpool. As a lifelong Beatles fan, I can still hear Lennon singing to the world, “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need” So, true!
It is the love for our fellow beings and “Service above Self” that makes this world a better place for all. But friends, I am falling behind in achieving my goal. With 20% of my journey completed, I have not reached 20% of my goal to raise $750,000.
As Lennon would probably sing “Help me if you can I am falling behind. And I do appreciate you being around. Help me get my mission back turned around. Won’t you please, please help me“. I am counting on you friends to not fail me now. Please continue to donate,
I have crossed the deepest oceans, I am now ready to cross the highest mountains. Next stop across the Alps, Bologna, Italy!
Did not get any angry tweets from the POTUS, I guess he does not read my blogs!
Walked around Reykjavik yesterday. What can I say, it is simply a gorgeous place to visit. Took the Golden Circle bus tour today. Lava fields, hot springs, geysers, active volcanoes, shrinking glaciers and North America-Eurasia tectonic plates tearing apart, it is all there to see. Iceland is a Geological wonder of Nature!
People of Iceland are proud people, they built a museum wholly dedicated to their penis (The Icelandic Phallological Museum). I am not kidding! It is the only museum of its kind in the world. All you macho men out there, come see, you will be humbled!
Well, back to reality, I now have to focus on my longest over water flight ever tomorrow, Reykjavik to Liverpool (900 NM)!