Jan Koppen (1995)
Beirut, the true capital of the Levant, is also the last stronghold of Boeing 707s still operating in the passenger-carrying role. In order to be able to fly in one of these aging classics, my friend and colleague Ronald Aker and I headed to the strange capital of Lebanon. During our stay in this war-torn city, we were astonished by the insanity of the civil war which ravaged the city and country for more than a decade. Due to the large number of Syrian occupation forces, the Beirut situation is today reasonably calm but, in this area of the world peace is of a fragile nature.
Besides taking a casual stroll through the centre of the city, we also visited the headquarters of Middle East Airlines and Trans Mediterranean Airways where we enjoyed their style of operations. Unfortunately, our interest in 707 operations was clearly not appreciated by MEA – they were trying hard to cover up the fact that MEA was still operating these classics in the mid-1990s. The fact that I was going to write a article about the 707s was not befitting the ‘image’ which MEA wished to project to the public. If one examines the MEA timetable for winter 1995, it is clear why the airline was not happy about the article. In the table, all aircraft sub types are specified – except for the Boeing 707 flight. These flights are simply listed as “Boeing”. Unfortunately for MEA, the venerable 707 is still the backbone of their fleet!
We had planned our long-awaited 707 flight for the last day of our stay. We decided to head for the airport early in order to allow sufficient time for the anticipated stringent security procedures. We wanted to purchase two one-way tickets with Middle East Airlines for flight ME261 to Larnaca, Cyprus, departing Beirut at 12:30 and arriving at Larnaca at 13:10 local time. We left our hotel at 08:00 and flagged a taxi. A heavily damaged piece of junk which resembled a Mercedes Benz stopped at our feet and the driver shouted for us to enter. After a short wrangle in true Lebanese style, we agreed on a bottom price of $10. Speeding along the Middle East Riviera Boulevard, I noticed the former grand hotels were now reduced to concrete skeletons riddled with grenade and bullet holes from top to bottom. Heading south through the Sabra and Shatila quarters, we rode through dusty streets where so many innocent Palestinians meaninglessly died during the Israeli siege in September 1982. While looking out of the window, I saw a large billboard with the image of Ayatollah Khomeini while, in the background, the snow-covered peaks of the Shoef mountain range came into view.
As we entered the airport vicinity, a well-known screeching sound of Pratt & Whitney turbofans became evident, as a Boeing 707, flaps in full down position, came in for final approach. As the four-engine jetliner roared over out taxi, I spotted the distinguishing Cedar Jet logo adorning the 707’s vertical fin. We had arrived safely at Beirut International Airport.
By European standards, the purchase of a flight ticket takes only a matter of minutes but, in occupied Lebanon, buying a ticket is a major achievement. As we entered the terminal building, we were stopped immediately outside the building by heavily armed Syrian guards. With the help of several unidentified officials, we were guided, by hand signals, to a nearby military barracks. Inside, we were saluted by Saddam Hussein look-a-likes. After a 20-minute wait, wait, still not knowing our fate, a high-ranking official handed us a piece of paper covered in unreadable Arabic lettering which turned out to be our “terminal-clearance”. Finally, we were allowed to enter the pre-war 1970s-style airport building. It was here that the security charade really started. We had to unpack our hand luggage several times and show our passports to almost every uniformed official. After all that, we endured a rude and humiliating body search – after which we finally made it to the dilapidated MEA ticket desk.
Our reservation agent turned out to be a good-looking brown-haired voluptuous female dressed in a tight black MEA uniform. With a soft voice, she asked our intentions! Tickets were issued by hand in a professional and efficient manner. Even credit card payment of the $149 one-way fare wasn’t a problem. Unfortunately only my request for an MEA schedule could not be fulfilled, despite all efforts of the complete MEA reservation staff. After wishing us a pleasant flight, we thanked this Lebanese beauty and joined the long queue waiting for the immigration inspectors.
As we entered the shabby departure hall, in which a dozen or more billboard pictures of Syrian president Hafez Assad smiled down at us in a paternal manner, a glorious view of the ramp awaited us. Seven of MEA’s classic Boeing 707 intercontinental Fanjets were lined up together along the terminal building.
It seemed that nothing had changed since the 1970s. We felt that we had travelled back in time and I must state that, when compared to the hectic society in which we currently live, this relaxed atmosphere was a nice change. Passengers in the lounge consisted, besides us, of a few Lebanese businessmen and a dozen Irish UN soldiers. All of us were constantly observed by many uniformed military and secrete police officials. Since I am a fanatic Boeing 707 photographer, the image of that line-up outside the terminal enticed me to take photos. I requested permission from one of the military officials and he responded with a very surprised look. Due to the political upheavals in the area, taking pictures at the airport was the same as signing you own death warrant! Boarding time for ME261 was announced and after passing a metal detector, a body checker, and another hand luggage rummage, we had to show our passports to a sinister-looking character wearing blue jeans and the latest Reeboks. In my sometimes arrogant manner, I asked him who he was and which authority he represented. The man said nothing; he only put his right finger in front of his swollen lips. With everyone in the hall looking at me, with fear in their eyes, I knew I had gone a bit too far. With a friendly and somewhat submissive nod on my part, the atmosphere relaxed.
Boarding started right away and after showing our passports and boarding card for the last time that morning, we and about 50 other passengers were driven in an antique airport bus, which had been converted from a Mercedes Benz truck, to the aircraft. First-class passengers receive a different boarding service. They are picked up from the run-down first-class lounge by the station master’s luxurious Cadillac and personally driven to the aircraft’s boarding ramp. Our assigned flight, ME261, was a Boeing 707-347C registered OD-AGU. Having been delivered new to Western Airlines as N1504W back in 1968, the aircraft joined the MEA 707 fleet in May 1980. Inside the 27-year-old airliner, a new "wide body" interior had been installed – replacing the much hoped for original hat-rack interior. The seats however, were still off 1960s’ fashion. The overall condition of the cabin was good. Due to our early check-in, we took window seats forward of the wings (11 and 12F) to allow a good view of the engines.
Through the open cockpit door we could see the crew busy preparing for engines start up. At the same time, a ground power unit was connected to the 707 starboard wing-root. The ground crew signalled the cockpit for engines start. Soon the engines were whistling away in the 707’s familiar high-pitched howl, a pushback truck was attached to the Boeing nose gear. Meanwhile, one of the MEA ground engineer walked alongside the 707’s nose, ready to report any technical snag to the cockpit. As the sleek jet was positioned with its tail toward the airport building, we felt the tug disconnect.
With a resolute "thumbs up" signal, the engineer indicated that everything was OK and that the Boeing was ready to roll. Moments later, and with an abrupt roar, the four turbofan engines increased power and we rolled onto the taxiway.
As we taxied onwards, the safety briefing was given by the MEA good-looking cabin crew. With the majority of the flight being over water, a quick check under my seat revealed the absence of a life vest! I thought this was strange. (Hopefully we would not have to ditch).
During the long taxi, we passed the remarkable Trans Mediterranean Airways hangar in which TMA Boeing 707, OD-AGY, was being painted in the colors of Kuwait Airways.
We finally reached the holding point for runway 21 and ahead lay 10,000 feet of concrete. After a prolonged wait, we were cleared for takeoff and then the four JT3D-3B turbofans were pushed to maximum thrust settings. The nose climaxed up as the brakes were released and the jet responded to the demands of the engines. In half a minute, 3000 feet had vanished. As we reached our rotation point the Boeing soon roared upwards in the hot afternoon sun.
An audible thud was noticeable as the weight of the airliner was removed from the landing gear. Seconds later, we felt the massive gear retracting. With a sharp right bank, we crossed the nearby Mediterranean shoreline towards the Mediterranean Sea. We were rewarded with a magnificent view of downtown Beirut.
We continued our climb to 22,000 feet via Airway Bleu 15, and quickly proceeded westbound for reporting point Kukla. The passengers in the cabin began to mill around and socialize. The engines noise were convincingly low and could barely be heard in the forward cabin above the rush cold air. The four exquisite uniformed air hostesses were the highlight of our 40-minute flight sector. Unfortunately, in-flight Cedar Jet service was, limited to a fruit juice drink with a straw. With Cyprus in sight, we descended into a grey layer of wispy cirrus clouds which caused the Boeing to slightly buffet. Droplets of condensation formed on the windows, briefly obscuring the view. As OD-AGU approached the outer marker for Larnaca Airport, preparation was made for the final descent and we were able to hear the whine of the engines as the throttles were advanced to counteract the drag of the flaps. Shortly afterwards, the jet’s landing gear was lowered causing the noise level in the cabin to increase. The approach to Runway 22 was breathtaking as the jet streaked low over Larnaca's Kenzy Beach. The landing was far from perfect as the aircraft bounced twice before making more permanent contact. The flight was most impressive, which is a credit to MEA’s longstanding 707 operations.
Gingerly a ramp agent guided ME261 onto its assigned hardstand position and so ended another "routine" Boeing 707 flight. If the leading PR person for MEA is to be believed, the 707 will be retired from service during 1996, being replaced by more modern equipment.