Welcome to Richard's Afghan Diary!

Downtown Mazar - will it ever be on the tourist route?
From left: The Blue Mosque, colourful bazaar, our armed guards and the BAC 1-11.

The Afghanistan Experience...

1 The Journey.
"PETER Fletcher here, are you still looking for a job in aviation?" An early morning shock - I hadn't heard from him for a year. He continued, "I’ve joined a company setting up a new airline and they’ve been let down at the last minute by the operations manager. If you’re interested, I’ll pass you to the boss, Christopher Barrett-Jolley."

Chris said, "If you’d like to join us, can you be at my Southend hotel at nine tomorrow morning and we’ll go and look at the aircraft?" It wasn’t so much an interview as a request to see if I’d go along with the idea.

Next morning I was introduced to his partner Av and we set off to look at the newly repainted BAC1-11 in the livery of Balkh Airlines. He told me very little about the operation - I had to continually prise information from him - but asked if I’d like to join the venture and be ready in two days.

He was all set to say goodbye when I pointed out that if I had to be ready in two days, I ought to know how much to pack. "Is it for days, weeks - a month?" He grinned and said "Six months, we’re off to Ostend in three days - some of the crew are already there". I swallowed this little bombshell and went home to pack and await his call.

"Ostend? You must be joking, it's Afghanistan!"

On Thursday Chris called again to tell me that Ostend hotels were full and he would ring me again on Sunday to give more details of an expected Easter Monday departure. On the Friday Peter Fletcher called to tell me more about the project than I’d heard to date. I said, "Does England figure in the schedule from Ostend?" He laughed and said,"Ostend? You must be joking. No, nor does Europe! We'll be flying to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Moscow, Dubai and we will be based at Mazar-i-Sharif in North Afghanistan!"

Without knowing anything about the climate I packed six pullovers. Wrong move, I should have packed sun tan lotion. I met a friend, Jocelyn and after shopping for the trip, she promised a lift in her van to Ramsgate to catch the jetfoil. I sat in the back wedged in a racing tyre - different but in keeping with the rest of the surrealistic saga.

The jetfoil trip was fast over the hazy smooth Channel and cut the normal ferry time in half. I went straight to the hotel and met some of the crew. Peter introduced me to the engineer, Tom Nichol, Aberdeen stewardess Carmin Corcoza, younger stewardess Clare Almond and first officer Alan Williams. I had previously met the large, stout and abrupt chief pilot ‘Bunny’ Somerville; he nodded to me as he went through reception. As the day progressed I met first officer James Miles, stewardess Jill Chatters and eventually chief stewardess and cabin crew trainer Sheila Johnstone. The mood was one of fun and adventure, the wisecracking quick, the laughter fastflowing. I strolled round Ostend with Peter and found somewhere to eat. It was so late, we could only get bread and chicken but made up for it with extra lager!

Chris phoned to say that he would be flying in at about 2pm. We waited in the restaurant where I met John Meadows, described as the ‘cargo man’ but with wider ranging duties. He was linked to a British company with Afghanistan connections but appeared to be a middle man for us too.

Moet to celebrate...

We took off on time and immediately shared some bottles of Moet to celebrate. This became something of a ritual for every take off and landing with copious amounts of vodka and brandy filling in the gaps! It struck me that I must be coming over as easygoing when Clare, young attractive stewardess, flicked the back of my head. When I turned round she pulled a face and stuck her tongue out at me... Humour played a large part in the early days of getting to know one another. First stop was Bourgas in Bulgaria where we stayed overnight.

The room was shabby with food to match. Nothing daunted our mood so we went down to the bar and persuaded the barmen to stay open - by buying him a bottle. It only seemed moments before the bedside alarm sounded and we straggled out to the taxis, slumped in the seats and after take off were revived by a hair of the dog and a packet of crisps.

The idea was that we would make a short stop for fuel at Baku and press on to Mazar the same day. Wrong. The president of Azerbaijan was coming in so they closed the airport and we were forced to "endure" the hardship of staying in the Regency Hyatt - the best hotel in Baku! Before hearing about the president, we were waiting at the aircraft in the hope of leaving when someone decided we were parked too close to the main taxiway. If only a picture had been taken... The sight of ten semi-sober Englishmen and women - some in uniform, some in jeans - trying to push a 35 ton aircraft was so laughable we drew a crowd. Quickly enlisting their help too we managed to push it clear.

One of the Russian groundcrew came up to me and I thought it was about to be a lot of handwaving, smiles and misunderstanding. As he got closer he said, "Do you play tennis?" It turned out that he was studying English, was a Luton Football Club fan and was dying to throw his English expertise at anyone from the UK. It made me feel guilty that he knew most of our counties and I hadn’t even heard of his country until we landed there!
In the evening Jill and I had a mouthwatering buffet meal in the tall chandeliered restaurant then later joined the others to go to the advertised cabaret and disco. The band didn’t show so we filled in forms and received plastic cards to get membership of the casino. Just as we trooped in to have a flutter it closed for the night... That meant we were forced into having an early night and it was only two o’clock! We got through the meagre packed breakfast, a bottle of water, ham and cheese sandwich and an apple, in the taxi on the way to the airport. The country’s strange flight plan rules meant we could be a day or two at the airport but we had to leave at the same hour and minute as the original flight plan. While waiting for the eternal red tape to be completed, I remembered that I’d left my Camelhair coat in the hotel room wardrobe. With two and a half hours in hand I thought there was plenty of time. It took half an hour to make the control tower office understand that I wanted to ‘phone the hotel.

I eventually got through and they said they’d put it in a taxi. Just as I was about to ring off, James came steaming up to tell me that he’d left his suitcase behind! They said they’d give the case to the taxi driver as well. By this time everyone had gone back to the aircraft while I waited in front of the airport reception. I was accosted by various people wanting to sell me sight-seeing rides, cigarettes and ball point pens emblazoned with the stars and stripes. I waited and waited. With only ten minutes to go before take off the driver appeared, full of broken English apologies. He explained that he’d crashed on the way and showed me the big dent and broken glass to prove it! Shrugging this little delay aside I grabbed the suitcase and found he hadn’t brought the coat... It was too late. No time to wait for another round trip, £300 down the drain - and I still had to give the driver $20 for his ‘trouble’.

We left the ground. More champagne to consume and three hours to get smart for the welcoming committee at Mazar. As we approached I was able to see a range of mountains, a sandy coloured city set in a flat never-ending valley. I didn’t find out until later that John Meadows had gone to the flight deck and pointed out where the Mazar runway was as he was the only person who’d been there before and it had to be a visual approach as there wasn’t even a radio at the airport! We landed and as we turned to backtrack I spotted a couple of bombs at the side of the runway. Welcome to Mazar!
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