Emirates Falcon Operations

Falconry With Emirates

This story begins at the Dubai Air Show of 1991. Originally published in Airways magazine in 2010 it was resurrected from the archives by Roger Thiedeman, who was Assistant Editor at the time. It is also, in part, a tribute to Jim and John;  Jim Jacobs one of the “Falcon 4”, and my colleague for many years who passed away in 2015.  John Wegg the original Editor of Airways, who is also not with us any longer. RIP guys, you are missed.

 Dubai Air Show circa 1991

Both the show and its host city were a far cry from where they are today, over 20 years later. The world has changed so much in the intervening years that it is hard to imagine. The First Gulf War, to drive Saddam Hussein’s invading forces out of Kuwait, was concluded not long ago and Duba – as a city, an aviation hub, and one of the greatest stories of growth in modern times – was beginning to blossom. An integral part of the master plan being brought to fruition by the ruler of Dubai was the growth of Emirates Airline. After a brief hiatus at the height of the military conflict, the airline was forging ahead. Having taken delivery of its ninth aircraft, an Airbus A300B4-600R, Emirates was poised to acquire a new type, the Boeing 777, of which six were on order.

To put things into perspective, the airline now (2010) operates more than 130 aircraft with more than half of these being variants of the 777. ( That comment was made by Airways in 2010. By 2020 Emirates has almost doubled their fleet with 250 aircraft, over 100 B777s and an executive A319 replacing the Falcon)

 But all this was in the distant future; and at the airshow was the airline’s newest venture-a Dassault Falcon 20F twin-engine bizjet (msn 344), acquired from the ruler’s Air Wing, to launch another first for the Gulf: an executive charter arm of Emirates Airline. Visitors wandering the air show precincts, gazing at all the wonderful hardware on display, were pleasantly surprised to discover the Falcon, in Emirates colors and registered A6-EXA, parked behind a Dassault Mirage III of the UAE (United Arab Emirates) Air Force. Appropriately enough, one Emirati spectator taking a keen interest in the airplane had his pet hunting falcon-a national symbol perched on his gloved wrist. Proudly shepherding the bizjet were the Falcon’s four pilots. Two of whom had previously flown the airplane for the Air Wing, while fresh off a flight from their native Canada, were another two experienced Falcon flyers albeit new to Dubai and the Gulf.

A maverick operation

The Falcon had been flown to Dubai from Paris-Le Bourget-where it was refurbished and repainted in Emirates colors-via Athens and Damascus, reaching its destination in time to train the two new guys and prepare the operation for business. While in Le Bourget, when inspecting the aircraft in its new livery, one of the delivery pilots complained to the manager that the Emirates logo was painted upside-down. It wasn’t, of course-they wanted to see the expression on the poor man’s face when given this news.

For the Falcon 20 and the ‘Falcon 4’-as its quartet of pilots was dubbed-this was the beginning of a wonderful adventure that would culminate in the crew-member moving on to fly for the parent company, with one of them now a captain on the Airbus 380.

But in those post-Gulf War times of 1991 all this would have seemed unimaginable. All four pilots were busy putting the executive jet operation together under the benevolent eyes of miscellaneous Emirates officials.

The marketing pitch was that the aircraft was the perfect business tool for executives who needed to travel around the Arabian Peninsula in a hurry. Success was almost immediate, with the first charter being flown to Tehran, Iran, on November 24 that year. More charters followed soon after, to Quetta in Pakistan and Bandar-Abbas, a Gulf port in Iran. In fact Iran, which was itself recovering from a long war with Iraq, proved to be a major destination for the Falcon. In addition to the capital Tehran and Bandar-Abbas, popular Iranian cities flown to were Bushehr (on the Gulf coast) and Iran’s principal port, Ahv-az Ahwaz capital of the Iranian province of Khuzestan near the Iran-Iraq border, and Shiraz in the interior of the country. Other Gulf nations were also high on the Falcon’s ‘agenda’, with many charters flown during following months to Riyadh, Jeddah and Medina inn Saudi Arabia, as well as to Kuwait, Bahrain, Doha -the capital of Qatar-and Ra’s al Khaymah in the UAE.

Challenges

The difficulties of this novel offering were also starting to become apparent. Because the vast majority of commercial flying in the region was by scheduled airlines, the aviation system had very little flexibility to offer charter operators. Over-flight clearances were a particular problem, with permission to transit Saudi Arabia’s air space taking as long as a week to process. The situation in Iran was even more difficult, up to ten days’ notice required before a flight could be planned. These proved to be serious obstacles, but the team persevered.

Indeed, a great deal of esprit de corps existed amongst the Falcon 4, the pilots being very much involved in day-today planning of the operation. Regular airline pilots arrive for their flights with all paperwork and planning done behind the scenes beforehand. Not so for Falcon ‘EXA; its pilots were involved in flight planning from the start, as many of the requests were to airfields with little or no airline service-which presented some interesting complications.

Many of the destinations were a long way off the beaten track. Not just Bushehr and Ahvaz, but also Sanaa, Hodeida, and Aden in newly reunited Yemen. (Since torn apart by civil war). Apart from a lack of aeronautical infrastructure at such locations, significant terrain around the airfields was often the norm. Air traffic control (ATC) was also limited and reliable meteorological information hard to obtain, although thankfully weather in the region is usually quite benign.

But complicated routes were normal. The longest charter the Falcon undertook was to Casablanca, Morocco. It went from Dubai via Amman, Jordan, to Heraklion in Crete, where the crew rested overnight. The next morning they flew to Tunis in Tunisia, picked up their passenger, and delivered him to Casablanca in time for the opening of his new business venture. They returned via Saudi Arabia, where the customer disembarked, before the Falcon resumed its homeward journey.

The shortest charter was from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the neighboring state and capital of the UAE, about an hour’s drive away. (This was before Etihad Airways was born). On this occasion a small group of the airline’s top brass had to be there for the launch of a new service, the first Emirates flight from Abu Dhabi to London. The Falcon was pressed into service to rush the officials from their offices in Dubai in time for the inaugural ceremonies, and then whisk them back to complete their busy schedules.

Adventures

Probably the most memorable journey was a venture to the former Soviet Union. This was not long after the ‘iron curtain’ came down, and flying around these regions was something very few Western pilots had experienced. Setting off from Dubai, via a refueling stop in Tabriz, Iran, the Falcon landed in Baku, Azerbaijan, to collect an additional crew-member. A Russian captain came onboard to translate, navigate, and keep an avuncular eye on the foreign aviators. Taking off from Baku, the Falcon flew over the Caucasus Mountains-nearly 6,000m (20,000ft) of snow capped splendor-toward its final destination, Stavropol, which is halfway between Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Rostov, Russia, on the northern side of the mountains. ATC required the Falcon to execute a procedural ILS (instrument landing system) approach to Stavropol, even though VMC (visual meteorological conditions) prevailed. Because Jeppesen charts had not yet penetrated this deep into the former USSR, the Emirates pilots were reliant on charts published by the local authorities. But these were available only in Russian and the Cyrillic script. However, the Russian captain came to the rescue by providing instant translations and onboard radar vectors-“Turn left”; “Stop”; “Go down”; etc-accompanied by hand signals while he gave the crew their instructions. Thankfully, conditions were visual and the pilots were able to see where they were going.

On another occasion a group of businessmen chartered the Falcon to take them from Azerbaijan to Zurich, Switzerland. They came onboard with not much baggage, but each one was clutching a briefcase he obviously had no intention of relinquishing. Overflying Iranian airspace, the crew was informed that the Emirates Falcon was not permitted to enter Turkish airspace, so they were forced to turn back. While one pilot was involved in the complexities of the diversion, the captain was summoned to the cabin to help placate the passengers. For reasons best known to themselves, the customers were extremely agitated and nervous about returning to Baku. Thankfully, there was sufficient fuel onboard to make Dubai, their alternative destination; and after promises were made (and subsequently honored) to ensure they got on the next flight to Zurich, the Falcon’s captain was able to return to his seat. By this time the airplane was on its descent to Dubai, which meant it had been a single-pilot operation for some time.

Cabin service

Whenever the crew had to overnight, they found that hotel standards varied greatly. In Stavropol it was a drab Soviet-era Intourist hotel, while in the remoter parts of Iran they were sometimes billeted at the guesthouse of the businessman they were due to fly out the next day.

Cabin service aboard the Falcon was provided by a handful of Emirates flight attendants, who were trained on the aircraft and seconded when necessary. Used to the much more organized world of scheduled airline flying, the ad hoc and sometimes improvised nature of operating the Falcon was a whole new world to them. While most flights were catered from Dubai, at many destinations the cabin attendants would have to organize the catering themselves in consultation with the chef of the hotel or guesthouse where they were overnighting, because airport flight kitchens were as rare as Category III ILS approaches in those days. Crockery and cutlery would be washed in the hostelry’s kitchen, and the food taken by the crew to the Falcon, then plated onboard. Understandably, the Falcon was not a very popular duty assignment among the cabin crews.

Most passengers were businessmen, usually in the oil industry, who needed to be somewhere fairly quickly. On one occasion a group of Arab ladies hired the Falcon to go to a wedding in a nearby emirate. Another Falcon-load comprised housemaids being sent ahead of a Gulf royal family to prepare accommodation for their employers. On at least one occasion ‘EXA was chosen to carry a head of state on an official visit to a neighboring country.

Limitations

But the more the Falcon flew, the more obvious the complications of its operations became. Planning flights was always a problem because of the exotic destinations and the many over-flight clearances required. The absence of onboard navigation capability was also a limiting factor-the Falcon had only VOR (very-high frequency omnidirectional range) and ADF (automatic direction finder) equipment; no INS (inertial navigation system). (GPS  of course was not available at the time.)

 But the biggest problem was the airplane’s lack of range. The Falcon 20 was not a true long-range intercontinental machine. While it was more than adequate for operations around the Gulf, any flight farther afield meant that a refueling stop was mandatory. With the strong westerly jet streams over the Middle East, long westbound flights were a struggle.

Meanwhile, the parent company was booming. Its wide-body fleet was being doubled every four years, and the airline had established itself as one of the strongest brands in the region. Sadly, the Falcon was a sideshow that was not sufficiently profitable and in danger of being slowly forgotten. The only way the concept would be viable was if a larger, long-range type was acquired. However, with the rapid growth and continued profitability of mainline scheduled operations, this was never likely to happen. So a decision was made at Emirates headquarters that the corporate charter business was a distraction best left to others.

Emirates’s last Falcon charter was flown in August 1993, and 46-EXA made its final flight under the airline’s custodianship the following month, from Dubai to Bournemouth, England, via Amman, Athens, and Basel, Switzerland, for sale to a new owner.

With ‘EXA went a small but significant slice of Emirates history, as the Falcon was a symbol of the freewheeling ‘can do’ culture that made the airline such a force to be reckoned with. The ‘Falcon 4’ were sad to see it go, but they soon secured positions with mainline, where they would spend many more happy years flying the flag for Emirates.

Nevertheless, a corner of their hearts is always reserved for the ‘little white airplane that could’.

Postscript

 After service with Emirates, the Falcon was upgraded from General Electric cF700 engines to AllieSignal (Garrett) TFE731s, and registered in the USA as N227WE, before being sold to an auto rental company.

 Having tried unsuccessfully since 2007 to dispose of the Falcon, now registered N227WL and with some 8,400 hours, that company acquired an EMBRAER Legacy 600 and stored the Falcon at Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2008. It is currently listed as owned by Alliance Air Parts Inc. of Tulsa Oklahoma, but whether it is in airworthy condition cannot be determined.

 

 

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