For several years the German Air-Events group have been organizing unique aviation tours to Iran. During December (2007) I received their latest newsletter announcing its 5th and last tour to Iran, which would include several flights onboard a Boeing 707 jetliner. The newsletter also revealed that the company operating the 707, Saha Airlines would probably stop flying the classic 707 in the near future! The aviation tours organized by Air-Events are done in conjunction with the Iranian PARS travel agency and they provide the hotel bookings, airport pick ups, logisticsí and cultural trips for the tour.
The last time I flew onboard a 707 was when I travelled from Amsterdam to New York on a charter ticket onboard a Pan American B707. It was my first flight as a young man and I bought the ticket with my own money, the date was August 1974. Saha Airlines is the only company in the world still operating 707s on scheduled passenger flights. The history of the Boeing 707 is in its final chapter and so I did not want to miss out on this unique opportunity and booked myself a seat on the tour.
Finally the day arrived (13 Feb-2008) when it was time to board my KLM A330 flight to Tehran Imam Khomeini International airport (IKA). This airport is located about 30 kmís south of Tehran. It was designed to replace the old Mehrabad International airport (THR), which is now well inside the city limits. IKA which was originally named Ahmadabad but was renamed to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Currently IKA has a single terminal but a second is planned. Construction initially began before the revolution and is still ongoing. The official opening was in May 2004. Only very recently (October 2007) all international flights, except for Damascus, Jeddah & Medina, where officially transferred to the new airport. After a smooth 4:50 hours flight from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, arriving in the middle of the night (02.15 hours local time). I stepped out on the air-stair and felt the cool winter air. Due to the broken down air-bridge an airport bus shuttled us to the terminal. Transiting through security and customs was relative easy. For most Europeans a 7 days tourist visa can be obtained on arrival at IKA. My Pars/Air-Events pick-up was patiently waiting for me at arrivals. Before we left I exchanged some of my euros into the local Iranian rials currency. (50 euros gave me almost 700.000 rials!). My hotel the Karoon Hotel was in the heart of Tehran which was a 50 minutes drive away.
As soon as we left the airport terminal it became pitch black except for strange blue and green ball lights along the highway. 20 minutes from the airport the impressive Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini lit up the skyline! It is the final resting place of Ayatolleh Khomeini, the founder of Iran Islamic Republic. The vast mausoleum complex includes four 91m high towers and a large dome. The whole site was batching in bright blue, green and gold lights. As we raced onwards, the driver was in a hurry as he needed to be back at the airport a few hours later, we came closer to the bright lights of Tehran. Covering an area of 1500 sq kmís, Tehran is nestled along the slopes of the impressive Alborz mountain range. As the nationís capital, with nearly 12 million inhabitants, it is the centre of cultural, economical, political and social activities. Tehran is a sprawling city with an immense network of streets and highways. At times the traffic was a nightmare, as I would find out during the next couple of days. It was 04.00 hours when I got to my hotel room. Feeling extremely exhausted within minutes I was sound asleep!
The following morning I was rudely awoken by the sound of morning prayers emanating from a nearby mosque. I opened up the window shades only to discover a cold and grey morning. This was a free day before the tour and gave me some time to visit the Aerospace Exhibition Centre near Tehran Mehrabad Airport. Via the internet I met up with some of the local aviation enthusiasts and we decided to meet up at my hotel. Iranians are very friendly and they like to meet foreigners and share the aviation hobby.
The following morning I was again rudely awoken, this time by my room-mate who had just arrived from London. This was our first day of the tour and our first flight onboard Saha Air B707 to the holy city of Mashad in the Razavi Khorasan province. It is Iranís second largest city and of one the holiest in the Shiah world. It is located 850 kmís East of Tehran and has a population of almost 3 million people. During breakfast I met up with the other Air-Events tour members and our Pars tour guide Ali. After breakfast we headed straight to the Mehrabad airport navigating through the busy streets. Near the airport we drove past the imposing Azadi monument. The distinctively shaped arch is 45 meters high and was constructed from 25.000 large granite blocks. The 21 meters high archway is representative of the pre-Islamic Sassanid era. The word Azadi means national independence and it was completed in 1971.
The old domestic terminal at Tehran was already very busy and I was transported back in time to the 1960s and 1970s. The terminal has two entrances, one for men and one for women! Inside the scene was already hectic as the month of February is the end of the Iranian year and many people travel within the country. Mehrabad Airport was the primary airport of Tehran. It is located on the western edge of the city. THR is equipped with two parallel runways and the Iranian Air Force is based on the Southside. All training, maintenance and engineering facilities are housed at THR. Fajr Ashian has a big hanger complex adjacent to the main airport grounds. There are 5 terminals at THR. Terminal 4 (domestic) is used by Caspian Air, Eram Air, Iran Air Tours, Iran Aseman Air, Kish Air, Mahan Air, Taban Air and Iran Airlines.
We headed straight for the Saha Airlines check-in counter. Luckily our group was first in line. Above the counter the electronic monitor read: Flight IRZ-160 to Mashad, 08.00 departure. The line was getting busier and busier but we could not check in. Then the news came that all flights to Mashad where delayed due to local bad weather. We waited for about an hour before we finally got the OK to check in. Saha does not have a computerized reservation system and all boarding cards are handed out complete with seat stickers. We then entered the departure area and waited out turn to board the Saha Air bus to the 707.
Saha Air Lines (IRZ) currently (Feb-2008) operates a single Boeing B707-3J9C (EP-SHK) msn: 21128 (delivery date 19 November 1976) on domestic flights. Saha was established in 1990 as a transport wing from the Iranian Air Force. It started domestic passenger services with a fleet of 3 veteran Boeing B707s. Currently it operates a twice weekly (Friday and Sunday) run to Mashad and a daily late afternoon charter to Kish Island. The 707 also makes regular visits to the cities of Assouleyeh and Shiraz. They are rarely seen outside the country. Saha Airlines operated a fourth 707 EP-SHE, but this a/c was lost during a landing incident on the 20th April 2005 at Mehrabad airport. While landing in the dark on runway 29L, the 707 suffered unspecific gear problems, which caused the a/c to loose control. EP-SHE skidded off the side of the runway and ran partly into a river. Of the 12 crew and 157 passengers onboard, only three passengers where killed in the subsequent evacuation, when they drowned in the river.
Saha Airís other fleet members are EP-SHU (21126) and EP-SHV (21125) which were both inside the Mahan hanger for heavy maintenance check. Both will be operational soon. We also did not see the mysterious 4th airframe, which was recently photographed (albeit without registration visible). The Saha 707 fleet are part of an original order by the Shahís Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) from 1974 to 1978, for a total of 14 Boeing 707-3J9Cís. The first six 707s were delivered as boom tankers/transports with three in passenger configuration. Two years later 6 more a/c where delivered and featured the Beech model 1080 wingtip mounted refuelling stores in addition to the aft fuselage refuelling boom. The 13th 707 was delivered in a VIP configuration and was registered EP-NHA. (The IIAF 707 tail codes were 5-8301 to 5-8314).
The departure lounge in the domestic terminal is just one big room with several gates leading to the busses. Some of the earlier flights to Mashad were boarding so we were confident that our flight was going ahead. After about 15 minutes it was our turn to enter one of the vintage Saha coaches which almost certainly was as old as the 707! As we drove to the active ramp I was transported back in time yet again. Several A300s, B727s and Tu-154s littered the ramp. Our Saha 707 was not to been seen? Our bus driver drove past the line-up and parked near the only open spot and awaited the arrival of our a/c. A couple of minutes later the familiar high pitch whine of the Pratt & Whitney JT3D turbofan engines filled the air. EP-SHK taxied slowly into position and shut down her engines.
As soon as the air-stair had docked into the forward entrance door we were cleared for boarding. Always a gentlemen, I stayed on the ramp and let the young and elderly passengers board first. This way I could relish the moment. As I entered the forward cabin I noticed the Spartan interior linings including the old 1960s hat-racks. The cabin layout was in an all 160 seat economy configuration. Up front on the LH side there was a 4 seat lounge which was used by the loadmaster and the security guards. On the RH it featured a stowage and full galley. My seat was 9F (RH) which was just in front of the mighty engines. With the last passengers boarding both right hand engines began running. As soon as the Fwd door closed both left hand engines were fired up. I guess the crew were in a hurry because no sooner then the air-stair was pushed away, the 707 inched forward on to the taxi way.
The crew welcomed the passengers onboard the 707 both in Farsi and in English. A short demonstration of the seatbelt and oxygen dropout mask was given. We taxied into position and as I looked out my window a Caspian Airlines Tupolev TU-154 followed us. The parking brakes were set and all four JT3D turbofan engines roared into life. For a moment the 707 was shaking but after brake release we started thundering down the runway. After what seemed a very long time we slowly rotated and lifted off into the cool air. Climbing out we made a shallow turn and entered the cloud base. 30 minutes later at our cruising altitude the cabin crew served a full hot breakfast and tea. All the service items where branded with the Saha tittles and logo. Onboard the Saha Airlines 707 there were no magazines to read and no in-flight entertainment to listen to. The only thing you can do is enjoy the window view and the sound of the JT3D engines! Below we cleared the cloud base and the barren snow covered desolate moon landscape came into view.
Moments later we began our descent. Some dramatic scenery, unfolded beneath the 707 massive wing. I started hearing the whine of the turbofan engines again as the 707 started to slow down. We approached the airport from the north-west and commenced a long and wide approach pattern. There was still plenty of snow on the ground. The weather had cleared with clear blue skies overhead. We touched down at MHD 1 hour 20 minutes behind schedule and we taxied to a remote parking spot. Two Saha Air coaches where already waiting. We disembarked onto the ramp and headed straight to the arrival terminal.
The whole tour group ran towards the Saha check in counter, which already had a chaotic crowd in front of it. Our Air Events tour leader managed to squeeze him-self to one of the Saha Air ground staff and handed over all our tickets. This seemed to work as within a couple of minutes we all received our boarding passes and seat numbers. Then the race was on through the security gate and departure lounge. The lounge was under construction but featured big open windows with full view on the ramp. As always the scene was a bit hectic. We soon discovered we had to wait again as our beloved 707 was having some minor hydraulic problems on engine #2. It was repaired within the hour and we were soon onboard the EP-SHK for our flight back to Mehrabad airport.
PS: In order to read up on Iran knowledge, I bought a Dominicus Iran Travel guide. Under the practical travel information it says: it is not aloud to take pictures at airports and military locations. For the most part taking pictures on the streets and museum is OK.
Source: Boeing 707 & Awacs - In Detail and Scale Ė Alwyn T Lloyd (1987)
Wikipedia.org and my travel companion Andre van Loon.