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For years, Afghan pilgrims had made their way across the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia by bus, truck . . . and even camel caravan. But a visionary King, Mohammed Zahir Shah, with the dream of leading his people into the twentieth century, blessed the conception of the country's first airline. In 1957, Ariana Afghan Airlines was born. At last, pilgrims could fl y to Jeddah-the staging point for the pilgrimage to Mecca-in hours rather than days or weeks.
Years later, in early May, 1968, Pan American's Captain Richard Vinal, Chief Pilot of Latin America, summoned me to his office in Miami. My reaction was predictable. Chief Pilots were not in the habit of asking you in to inquire about your health. I began to formulate complex denials and thought about calling my union representative. I drove over to the office and sat under the suspicious eye of the Chief Pilot's secretary who, I was convinced, knew of my misdemeanor, whatever it was. At last, I was invited in and asked to sit down. The heavy oak door closed behind me, and I noted with some alarm that Captain Vinal and I were alone.
"Bigelow, how would you like to go to Afghanistan?"
I had a vague idea where Afghanistan was-somewhere in Africa, I thought. Whatever I'd done was about to condemn me to the other side of the world. So I asked my Chief Pilot for some background to his startling question. A little more kindly now, he explained why we were having this conversation.
"Sam Miller, our Vice-President of Flight Operations, called me this morning, wanting to know if I had any young, eager pilots interested in a foreign flight training assignment. He thinks you might be ready for something like this.
"Pan Am owns 49 percent of Ariana Afghan Airlines and we run a Technical Assistance Program (TAP) with the airline. Ariana has just acquired a new Boeing 727. Our Project Director out there thinks they need some help training the Afghan pilots. If you're interested, I'd like you to go up to New York to talk to Sam Miller. They need someone out there right away."
At the time, I'd been with Pan Am for two years and still felt like a new boy. My wife, Mary Lou, and I talked it over. We discovered Afghanistan was not in Africa but a land-locked kingdom in Southwest Asia. To us, it sounded exciting and different, full of adventure and opportunity.
I bought a paperback copy of James Michener's Caravans and began reading it on the way to New York. I was captivated by what I read, spellbound by descriptions of Kandahar, Kabul, and the Hindu Kush. Suddenly, I was very keen to go there.
My interview with the legendary Sam Miller went well. He had been the commander of the first scheduled commercial flight of a Boeing 707 across the Atlantic in 1958-a major milestone in Pan Am's history. Captain Miller was a gracious, quiet-spoken man and, despite his aura, made me feel at ease. He was interested in my pre-Pan Am flying experiences in the Canadian Arctic and Middle East. He had read my personal file and seemed pleased and handed me off to Erskine Rice who headed TAP field operations.
Rice noted, "Were you to accept this assignment, you would be assigned as 'Advisor' to the Chief Pilot, Rahim Nowroz. You would be responsible to him for assessing pilot standards and recommending steps to improve pilot performance. The Afghan pilots have been trained and released by Boeing instructors, but Charlie Bennett, our project director in Kabul, feels there is a need for ongoing monitoring.
"The assignment would be for a year. We need someone out there right away. If you're interested, I need a decision by the end of the day."
I was their man, and I immediately told him so. He got up smiling, walked around his desk, and we shook hands. Erskine Rice became more guarded when the discussion turned to Rahim Nowroz-the man I would be advising in Afghanistan. He said that Nowroz had a reputation for being difficult at times, adding that he was also the King's personal pilot, and-oh yes-rumored to have a fondness for drink.
"John, I'm sure you'll get along just fine out there. Go out there and do the best job you know how. I'm sure we'll all be proud of you."
Now I knew I was being conned. No, he wasn't smiling. He was smirking.
"What am I getting into?" I thought.
I was in Kabul when, early in the morning of January 5, 1969, Ariana's Boeing 727, YA-FAR, crashed three quarters of a mile short of Runway 27 at London's Gatwick airport during an instrument approach in a thick, freezing fog. Our chief of maintenance, Ed Mix, had put his daughter, Karen, on the flight at Kabul. With landing gear and flaps extended, the aircraft briefly y touched down in a muddy field before becoming airborne again. The pilot, none other than Captain Nowroz, aware at last that something was wrong, had jammed open the throttles but, seconds before, ten feet of the Boeing's right wing had been torn away by a large tree. The aircraft began an uncontrolled, climbing roll to the right, and would have become inverted had not a large two-story house stood in its way. The house and most of the aircraft then exploded in a large ball of burning kerosene. The cockpit passed inches above the roof and detached itself at the moment of impact, remaining airborne briefly y before skidding to a halt in the mud.
Sixty-nine of the ninety-eight passengers and cabin crew burned to death. Of those few who survived, most were difficult to recognize as human, even after months of restorative surgery. One of the survivors, a baby girl lying in her bassinette, a toy clutched in her hands, was unharmed in the smoking rubble. Her parents were not so lucky.
The accident could have been prevented. But because of a perverse and persistent aspect of human nature, people had to die before anything would change.
Ed Mix and I traveled to London on Iran Air, a flight that duplicated Pan Am's flight 115, stopping at Tehran, Beirut, Istanbul, Frankfurt, and London. Word of the accident had spread to all of Pan Am's European stations and that Ed and I were en route to London. Ed was well known in Pan Am's world and well regarded. At each stop along our way, I deplaned to get an update, leaving Ed in his seat in the cabin, distraught and alone, but grateful for what I was doing. Pan Am station personnel, waiting for our flight, met me with the latest news: Few survivors, still no news of Karen. At each stop, as we continued up the line to London, I returned to my seat next to Ed: "Nothing yet, no news. But don't give up. Don't give up! You hear me?"
This hard-bitten, cigar-smoking, maintenance manager was now crying. He reached over to hold my hand. "I'm sorry John. I can't help it. I can't stop thinking about Karen. Our beautiful daughter I love so very much . . ."
On the last leg, from Frankfurt to London, Ed wrote me a note in pencil on an airsick bag. It said: "I can't express myself properly with words at the moment. But I will never forget how important it is that you are here with me, or how grateful I am. Your friend, Ed."
I still have the bag.
We were the first off the airplane at Heathrow. Pete Dunstan, Pan Am's maintenance manager in London, and a close friend of Ed's, waited at the head of the jetway. He was tight-lipped, a look of infinite sadness on his face. Ed looked up at him, unable to speak. Pete shook his head and said: "I'm sorry, Ed. Karen didn't make it."
Two days later, he and his wife, Libby, boarded Pan Am's round-the world flight, Clipper One to New York, with their daughter's remains in the belly of the 707.
Ed Mix would never return to Afghanistan."
You will be leaving us soon, won't you?" asked my administrative aide, Captain Gran.
I answered, "It's time. We both know it. What can be worse than a guest who overstays his welcome? My job is done here. Ariana and its pilots now rank with the best in the world. You don't need me anymore."
He answered, "I disagree with you. We-and I speak for all the pilots-want you to stay. We will always need you. You are no longer ferangi. You are part of us; you belong with us."
I said, "Look, Gran. I will always be available, but I must leave Afghanistan. It's the essence of the program. From the beginning, I came here to work my way out of this job and train my Afghan replacement-my replacement, not surprisingly, with whom I'm now having lunch." Maybe I derailed him with that remark. When he regained his composure, he said: "It is strange how events sometimes unfold, isn't it? When I look back four years ago, how different things seemed then . . .
He answered, "We were suspicious of you from the start. I agreed with Rahim - we didn't need you. Boeing had trained us, and we knew what we needed to know. You were yet another example of an unwanted foreign presence. One way or another, the sooner we could get rid of you, the better.
"At first we assumed you would just give up and leave like so many others who, for whatever reason, had come to Afghanistan. But, to Rahim's frustration and, to a lesser extent, mine, you didn't. You were behaving like . . . like an Afghan! You didn't give up. You had the testicles of a goat, and it was driving Rahim crazy!" He paused, took a deep breath, and continued.
"This is the part I find most difficult to admit: I began to see what you were trying to do. But because of my loyalty to Rahim, and because, honestly, I was afraid of him, I did nothing. If I had cooperated with you then, and you had left, Rahim would have made my life unbearable. We are a small country. Never forget: Rahim and I are Pashtun, and blood, as they say, runs thicker than water . . ."
The accident changed everything. Captain Rahim Nowroz, my Chief Pilot, I discovered, had committed a dreadful and unforgivable error. He had killed many people, not the least, the daughter of your friend, Ed Mix. And of course, I knew about his drinking. I was being split down the middle, in an impossible position. I will never forget my first meeting with you in London after the crash. I saw myself on a buzkashi field-the calf fought over and pulled apart by opposing chapandaz. You, Pan Am, and the British on one side, Afghanistan and everything it stands for on the other. I must tell you, John, it was the worst moment of my life."
He continued, "What you did-and this is perhaps the most important aspect of your time with us-was to take our natural inclination to compete and to win at any cost, and to turn this inclination into something positive. No longer could we buy our way into the seat of an airplane. No longer was it a question of whom we knew or how we were related. Only through training, only through passing through the necessary gates could we expect to succeed. We were all now competing with each other to be the best . . .
"We could not figure this out for ourselves; it took a pale-skinned, blue-eyed ferangi to do it for us."
I thought about what Gran had said. I was flattered by his words, but it went beyond the apparent success of this Afghan endeavor. For me, from its outset, it had been born out of failure. In that moment, I saw what I was really doing here: proving to myself I wasn't quite the hopeless screw-up I'd always seemed to be. After so many false starts in my life, I'd needed a win. Maybe, at last, I had one.
I went on, ignoring him. I said to him, "You, my friend, belong in an airplane, not behind a desk. You know it. No one ever was killed by paperwork, only inconvenienced. We'll find someone to fill those administrative duties. I'm recommending that you be appointed Chief Pilot, Training and Check. It's the only reason I can leave Afghanistan and sleep at night".
I still sleep at night; now I am doing the sleeping in Dubai, training pilots at my ripe age of 75. Never will I forget my Afghan Journey, the frustrations and accomplishments. The turbulence and mistrust today, however, cause me to question whether Afghanistan can ever return to the era of serenity and enlightenment which I experienced in the sixties.
May peace overcome.
John Bigelow, Chief Pilot (Berlin) is still at it, training pilots on the A-320 family at CAE in Dubai. Excerpted from the book, Pan American World Airways: Aviation History Through the Words of Its People, courtesy of Jamie Baldwin and Jeff Kriendler. Read about Barmal Gran's documentary project about his father, Captain Inam Gran.