Cairo International Airport | Thanksgiving in August

August 1978


When I departed the American Embassy Cairo after my third visit I felt good about my situation. It had been nine months since the Pakistani Air flight had touched down at Karachi where I would be assigned for two years. The RCO (Regional Communications Office) there had been a big challenge but I felt I had contributed well.

I hadn’t been very talkative this morning. The embassy driver saw my bleary eyes in the rear view. When he accidently bumped into a car at Cairo International departure I banged my head on the back of the passenger seat. The driver, visibly upset, apologized profusely. The car he bumped into was unoccupied. I grabbed my piece of luggage and told him to leave a note on the windshield of the other car.

 Looking back later that day, I should have construed the accident as a bad omen, but it didn’t occur to me at the time…

 Pakistani Air Flight to Karachi

I checked in early for the flight to Karachi. I found a quiet seat in the back of the departure lounge and pulled out John D. MacDonald’s, “Pale Gray for Guilt.” When hero Travis McGee’s friend Tush Bannon dies suddenly he learns that Bannon had refused to sell his waterfront property to developers. Travis becomes mighty suspicious, mighty quick.

<feature photo PIA courtesy

When they called for the departure of my flight I closed my book and hurried to the gate. My diplomatic passport didn’t promise first class seating, but it got me on the plane before the hoard of frantic Arabs whose lives apparently depended on getting on this flight.

As I stood out on the tarmac waiting to board the plane airport maintenance technicians worked on one of the engines. Fluid had leaked onto the tarmac. I thought I saw an Arab technician shake his head, but over here that might be a signal that things were just fine.

I always choose an aisle seat.  I couldn’t see aft and to the starboard side where the maintenance guys were working on that engine. As always, I looked around for the nearest exit should an evacuation ever became necessary. The Arabs soon came rushing onto the plane like their seat would be forfeited if they didn’t claim it soon enough.

Two older Egyptian women smiled at me. I got up to let them sit in the two seats beside me. They wore perfume that competed with an incense concoction of Frankincense and myrrh. I was wrong, they were Ethiopians. Having lived in the Asmara for two years in the military I could detect the women’s unique speech. This flight stopped in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where they would likely change planes for the capital, Addis Ababa.

Two Egyptian gentlemen sitting across from me hoisted cigars, but the stewardess explained to them in Egyptian that they’d have to wait to light up at thirty thousand feet so we could all join in with their smoke fest.

The passengers had finally gotten seated. A Pakistani crewmember wearing an aviation suit with the silver wings–the pilot?–hurried down the aisle. He stopped behind me and gazed over the starboard side for a full thirty seconds. I think he was looking at that suspect engine the maintenance techs had been working on. When he turned around and headed back to the flight deck the look I saw on his face was of concern.

Right when I half expected for them to cancel the flight the stewardess began her departure spiel over the intercom. I absently tightened my seatbelt.

The familiar pre-flight banter and the activities of the stewardesses scampering down the aisles served to allay my concerns. They weren’t going to allow this plane to take off unless they were a hundred percent sure it was fit to fly. Were they?

Everything seemed normal as the jet aircraft lumbered down the auxiliary runway to get in line for take off. Ten minutes later it was our turn. The pilot gunned the engines before he headed down the runway, slowly gathering speed.

As the plane gathered more speed I closed my eyes as usual and performed my version of meditation—would Travis McGee be able to escape the evils of corruption and help the wife of his deceased friend Bannon?

A flash starboard off to the aft of the plane startled me. The Ethiopian women next to me gasped. We should have experienced “wheels up” by now…

… The plane’s engines failed to respond. Still, we were hurtling down the runway. The plane wasn’t going to take off—the pilot had aborted the takeoff. I had the same thought as the other passengers. Were we going to crash? Chaos ensued.  Several Arab women shrieked. I glanced to the left. The Arab men looked like they had stopped breathing… I gripped the armrests and prepared for the worst.

We could feel the pilot stomping on the brakes, causing the plane to dovetail slightly. I prayed he didn’t lose control. Was the runway long enough to stop on? The passenger’s fears translated into moans and cries.

It all happened so fast that the stewardesses didn’t have time to give warning. I held my breath as at the last moment the plane turned to the right, presumably to avoid the barrier at the end of the runway. As the plane limped along off the main runway now amid the odor of burned brakes I expected fire trucks to show up and we’d all be asked to jump onto the exit door chute and be whisked away to awaiting emergency vehicles. I didn’t see any fire, or smell smoke, though.

The plane paused before it amble on. The pilot made an announcement for the Egyptians. The passengers, apparently having been spared their lives, began clapping. Above the clamor I heard the pilot say in English, “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret inconvenience. The flight has been canceled. We return to terminal now.”

I joined my two Ethiopian seatmates and smiled.

One Comment Add yours

  1. 53old says:

    There are things worse than a canceled flight. 🙂


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