Friday, April 07, 2006

A Day at the Airport

The evening after Leptis Magna, as we bussed back to the hotel, we were told to rise at the crack of dawn so we could get quickly to the airport. We had a domestic flight to Labraq (east of Benghazi) at 9am. So we all checked out early, retrieved our passports (The hotels always took our passports there.) piled on the busses and headed out. We drove straight past the domestic airport (the old US military base) and people were confused. We drove to the international airport, and people speculated as to whether we'd actually come to the right place. But one of our local guides, Nadir, seemed confident, and said, "Just bring your bags over here, and relax. I will check us all in."

There was no one there at the check-in counter, so I'm not sure how he intended to do this, but we all stood around and waited:




A bit more than an hour later, approaching 9am, the sign containing the scheduled flights changed the flight to Labraq to "Delayed" and we were told to just relax, and they'd know more in about an hour. We found the local Libyan newspaper that's translated into English once every other week or something, and found some better seating:



Another hour and a half later we're told that there was something wrong with the plane, and we need to wait for the other plane to return from Benghazi (that flight had left about 20 minutes before) and we'd take that one. This is Libyan Arab Airlines again. We decide they must have a fleet of two planes. We're getting desperate and have to use the bathrooms. A ceramic hole-in-the-floor squat toilet, not especially clean. No toilet paper, but Lennart was equipped with spare kleenexes. The upshot of that was that you don't actually have to touch anything. "That's the whole idea with those toilets," says Lennart smugly. We wait:



Another couple of hours go by. Meanwhile, the number of cigarettes we've passively smoked approaches ten thousand or so. (Smoking sections or the concept of non-smoking don't exist here, which led to one night-time asthma attack in one hotel room. I'm guessing smoking wasn't around during Muhammed's time, or he'd have banned that along with drinking alcohol. My lungs would have preferred it the other way around.) We continue to wait:



After a few more hours, our luggage is finally accepted and we are shuffled into another part of the airport. (We've had to use the bathrooms another time or two.) Another tour group arrives, seemingly preparing for the same flight. How did they know it would be delayed? After another hour, we're finally boarding the plane! Wait, what's this? We recognize this plane! Why it's the same one we flew on from Tunis. Yes...same crooked decal on the bulkhead row...same pipes and wires showing in the same overhead luggage compartments. Yep, same plane!

The flight to Labraq was fairly uneventful until I started feeling really nauseous. It felt like we were going back and forth, up and down a little. Not turbulence. It's a bit misty out the window, and dark. Lennart says he feels like something's wrong. Gear goes down...descending...rapid ascent...gear goes up. Fly above the cloud level...make some turns...fly below the cloud level...gear goes down. Descending...descending...about 100 feet off the groud, the plane makes a SHARP bank to the right and I about lose my lunch, everybody gasps, some oxygen masks in the back drop down, and we make a bumpy landing.

Before landing, a pilot in our tour group said to his girlfriend, "Don't be alarmed, but we're coming in at an angle to the airstrip, but I think we'll be able to correct."

He said that two approaches were made (the gear down twice thing) and the first was probably a visual approach (typical here). Labraq is a new, and very small airport, unprepared for nighttime landings, and with no real ground equipment to speak of. And the plane has no gps or other kind of equipment now required for landing in Europe, which is why this airline isn't permitted to fly there. But we made it, and when we landed, the Flight Crew Purser said something LONG in Arabic, and the locals on the flight clapped and cheered. Then in English he said, "It was very bad weather, but a good plane and a good pilot."

The pilot in our group said that he probably WAS a good pilot to have finally landed, but that had it been ANY other major airline, he would have been fired anyway since it is just too easy to scrape the wing doing a turn so low like that.

Lennart and I just breathed a sigh of relief to be alive (Lennart probably also breathed a sigh of relief that I'd let his knee loose from the vice-grip I'd had it in during the landing) and gratefully got on the busses to the next hotel. The ride to the hotel was uneventful for us, because we weren't in the bus that broke down. ;)

More tomorrow from Apollonia!

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