A New Transatlantic Challenge for a Nostalgic Aircraft - Powered by Iran Air
By Manuel Kliese June 28, 2007
In an effort to strengthen relations between Iran and Venezuela, Iran Air announced last year that it would begin a new transatlantic route from Tehran and Caracas. Manuel Kliese takes us on the historic first journey of that route, which was performed on an old bird - the 747SP!
When I read the headlines published by the Iranian News Agency (IRNA) and in the German newspapers in late 2006, I could hardly believe that what was written there was going to become true: nearly 30 years after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the cessation of Iran Air’s transatlantic connection to New York’s JFK Airport, a new route “across the pond” was to be opened. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez had decided to strengthen relations between their two countries, and decided that a direct flight route between Tehran and Caracas would be the appropriate step to show Uncle Sam that they can cope without him quite well – even transatlantic style. To complete the political puzzle, a stop in the Syrian capital of Damascus would create a proper “axis” and also generate enough payload to make this route economically feasible, as there is quite a diaspora of Syrians living in Venezuela.
Of course, this quickly reminded me of the Soviet-era “political flying,” operated by Aeroflot and travelling to some remote allied states in Africa and even across the Atlantic to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Would such a political route make sense in the world of 2007? I was sceptical that the route would be inaugurated at all, and if it was, wondered if Iran Air would be flying to Caracas more than just the first time, to create the impressive headlines in the newspapers.
Anyhow – if the proposed route became a reality, it sounded like a big adventure, as Iran Air´s only aircraft able to fly the route would be one of their ancient Boeing 747SPs! Since it was announced that the Venezuelan quasi-governmental carrier Conviasa should take over that route very soon after the inaugural flight and use second-hand Airbus A340 equipment, my decision was made – I had to take the once in a lifetime chance to fly the good old SP jumbo jet on the ultra long-haul route it was constructed for – across the Middle East, Europe and the Atlantic!
My first attempt to get tickets for the maiden flight to Caracas on 03 Mar ‘07 did not work out – that hot ticket was just not bookable, and the plane was likely to have been packed with officials from both Iran and Syria. But after not giving up the search and double-checking the Amadeus system to be sure the Conviasa A340 didn’t suddenly pop-up to operate that route, I was more than happy to finally hold a ticket for IR744, code share VO3744 for 18 May ‘07 in my hands! My first and probably last 747SP trip, promising to live up to what that vintage jumbo was constructed for – a very long-range route – was going to become a reality!
After enjoying a calm and quite comfortable A310 flight from Cologne to dusky Tehran on 17 May ‘07, I landed at Tehran’s old city airport Mehrabad, which has been quite an historic destination since receiving the head of the Iranian Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, in an Air France 747 in 1979. Thursday nights in Iran can be compared to Saturday nights in the West and although nightclubs and alcohol are absent nowadays, it was time to go out and enjoy a bright evening with a traditional Iranian dinner and live music downtown with some Tehrani friends. The night was not long enough to get lots of sleep – at 3:00 am, my journey of a lifetime would begin!
Terribly tired, I got myself to the 1970s style, worn out Mehrabad International Terminal again. Check-in was starting well in time and I found myself queing along with dozens of men holding Iraqi passports and a Pakistani family of 30 persons. This could definitely not be the check-in for a Southern American destination, I was sure! Shortly afterwards, I found out that most passengers were leaving the flight again in Damascus. After asking the check-in staff a couple of times, I was granted economy class upper deck seat 72A. Usually the upper deck in 747 aircraft operated by Iran Air are not available for passengers, and are only used for Iranian flight security guards and Iran Air crewmembers.
After passing a very relaxed security control with litres of liquids in my carry-on luggage, the loud and impressive morning prayer began yelling in Mehrabad’s gate area – the sun was just about to dawn on the longest day I would ever experience, on my westbound flight from the Middle East to South America! But of course, things didn’t go exactly as planned, and the aircraft originally prepared to take us on that 18 hour flight, EP-IAD, had some technical difficulties that day and a back-up aircraft had to be prepared for that very long haul. All this happened before boarding.
Once getting onboard, I found myself more than happy, having the complete upper deck plus a friendly female flight attendant (of course veiled in her Muslim “Hijab”) to myself. The cockpit door was not closed and I could well follow our flightdeck crew preparing to start engines for the first leg to the Syrian capital Damascus. The waypoints for the complete route to CCS were just quickly transferred to the flight management system, the long-range HF radio system double-checked and less than an hour behind schedule IR744 finally taxied towards Mehrabad’s runway 29R. Passing by a typical ‘70s apron with a 727, a Tu-154, a A300B2, and ancient service vehicles in motion, the setting had the pure power of a time-machine, beaming me to days before I was even born!
Full thrust of all four mighty Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7AW turbofans took EP-IAB into the skies of the Iranian megapolis Tehran rather quickly, despite a full load of 302 passengers. Anyhow, only 41 tons of Jet A1 fuel were kept in the aircraft’s tanks, so there was no problem performing a sovereign climb towards the mighty Alborz mountain range!
EP-IAB with cn 20999 is one of the oldest Boeing 747SPs still in service! Her first take-off was on 22 Apr ‘76 – more than 31 years, of which more than 20 years were under dangerous sanctions preventing Iran to receive appropriate US-made spare parts for their fleet. Later, she should take me on this demanding trip, flying hours across ETOPS180 areas and all in all more than eight hours over the ocean. Anyhow, EP-IAB, named “Khorasan” for the eastern Iranian province, had only flown 57.777 hours and cannot be called a high-time airframe. EP-IAB was grounded at THR and out of service from early 2005 until 19 Dec ‘06, according to what Iran Air captains say, mostly due to guzzling just too much fuel and not being really necessary to keep Iran Air’s route network across Europe and some Asian destinations running. During that time, she was D-checked, re-painted and overhauled – a treatment, which could easily be seen upon boarding this fantastic, classic 747!
The aircraft looked practically new, both in and outside – just the interior design and spacious inside dimensions seemed not to fit into the image compared to today’s airframes, usually being tight and uncomfortable like a tin! It is really remarkable that such an old aircraft has simply been kept and overhauled so well. It was easy to recognize it as a very classic machine, as it was in such a good shape – just magic!
18 May ’07, at 05.58 local Iranian time, IR744 finally took off from runway 29R at Mehrabad International Aiport (THR/OIII) for the first leg to the Syrian capital of Damascus. Due to the insecure situation in Iraq, Iran Air does not dare to take the direct route from Tehran to Damascus which would lead directly across the war-torn country, right north of its capital Baghdad, but instead heads northbound towards Turkey and then southbound again towards DAM, completing an arch. After an uneventful flight with a nice hot “halal” breakfast, consisting of Iranian turkey sausage, a “fake” bacon substitute made from veal, and a mushroom omelette (as well as some sleep in the quiet, comfy upper deck), we went in for a more thrilling approach into DAM 2h20m later. The world’s oldest continuously inhabited city was hiding well behind thick, rainy clouds and mist – one would never guess they were flying over one of the driest and hottest areas of the northern hemisphere! After obviously searching for the destination, DAM/OSDI was visually approached.
Last corrections were very impressive, and just meters above some rooftops we performed a sharp bank to the left and a soft and entertaining crosswind landing on runway 23R. The thrust reverse sprayed enormous amounts of rainwater on the runway – for sure an unusual experience at Damascus International. After landing, I had the chance to chat with the captain flying us on that first short leg of our long trip to the Southwest: the ILS of the operative runway was out of order and we faced weather conditions with fog, adverse rain and 30-40 knots of gusting crosswinds seldom appearing at DAM, so we had to “dive” for the runway. Just at decision height, the runway lights appeared! Shortly thereafter, our captain was returning back to Mehrabad again…
In Damascus, the complete crew changed and an extended crew with 16 instead of 13 flight attendants and 3 instead of 1 complete flightdeck crew met EP-IAB on a busy Damascus apron. The main challenge was now straight in front of us and the crew was extraordinarily busy preparing for the longest and most challenging flight within Iran Air’s route network. Captain Amirhoushang Javadinejad made a detailed, accurate walk-around while Ground Engineer Yari Saki assisted with the fuelling process of 143 tons of Jet A1!
The cabin staff was relaxed enough to take care of an angry Venezuelan businesswoman claiming to have booked C-class who had been seated in Y. After a while, our senior female Purser Elahe Behzadi discovered me seated in the upper deck and, hearing about my purpose to enjoy this unusual flight as an aviation enthusiast (I was the only Western passenger on the flight), I gut an upgrade to seat 1A in ‘Homa Class.” For economy class passengers the view was quite different – after double checking the load sheet and trim plan, Captain Javadinejad gave the order to seat all passengers as far back into the aft coach as possible – including their carry on luggage, and regardless of what their boarding passes indicated.
Iran Air has a strict operational limit of around 110 passengers on the route, even though the aircraft has well more than 300 seats available! Honestly, some of the passengers wondered why such an unusual measure of trimming such a large aircraft (seating everyone in the very aft) had to be taken – for me it only increased the joy and fun upon experiencing a thrilling take-off with an old-timer totally filled with nearly 150 tons of highly flammable fuel!
Now, after a nearly two-hour delay, we were ready for take off again on runway 23R of Damascus airport – we were so heavily loaded that the wingtips were hanging half a meter further down than before fueling. The pure weight of EP-IAB made the undercarriage transfer every little bit of unevenness from the tarmac and taxiway. Only a short taxi was necessary to be at the right place for starting a non-stop flight that would last more than 14 hours. “Khorasan” was ready for take-off. A deep roar of our four impressive powerplants now answered the question: could our ancient jumbo jet weighing 303.8 tons of a MTOW of 304 tons take off and traverse the ocean to another continent? Suddenly, the breaks were released while the engines were giving full thrust. The aircraft was hardly accelerating, yet definitely used more than 10,000 of the 11,800-foot long runway to rotate. A small wonder that our old-timer was performing as if she was just delivered a short while ago! Thus, the climbing out of Damascus was much less sovereign than out of Tehran and we struggled through thick cloud layers before Captain Javadinejad felt comfortable enough to switch off the fasten seat belts sign, after half an hour.
Now a long, long cruise lay ahead and we said farewell to Syria at the city of Homs, passed over Northern Lebanon and overflew Tripoli, then Cyprus, Crete, Southern Italy, Sardinia, Malta, Ibiza, Mallorca, Valencia, Southern Spain and then left Europe after getting a perfect view of beautiful Lisbon, cut in two halves by the Tejo river.
Soon we rose to flight level 400 and our 747SP was in her right element – flying as fast and high as possible! During the entire transatlantic crossing we maintained the same flight level and a speed of Mach 0.87, manually regulated through the thrust levers by First Officer Mohammad Ghanbari.
A long in-flight visit in the cockpit and relaxed chat with Captain Fariz-Mahmoud Kaviani (who soon took over after Captain Javadinejad flew out over the Mediterranean Sea), revealed that we would even be flying through US-controlled territory. During two waypoints, New York Oceanic Radio would be leading us through an area of the Atlantic Ocean controlled by the USA – and without worry! US civil aircraft regularly fly over Iran on their way to India, and a Northwest DC-10 even used THR for an emergency landing a short while ago – so you see – aviation is practically bringing the most adverse counterparts together!
Anyhow, the African coast is, in case of an emergency, always much closer than any US-territory – but the captain assured us: an emergency is an emergency, and without a doubt, our Iranian aircraft would be granted landing permission to any US airport in such a case!
I used the time during that extremely calm, non-turbulent flight to enjoy four(!) excellent warm meals, the partially free view on the endless, amazing width of the Atlantic, and a proper Caspian-Iranian Beluga Caviar service about an hour before reaching the first outskirts of the Caribbean – this was travel not only in a ‘70s aircraft, but Iran Air treated their passengers in the style of the great ‘70s as well!
The service was extremely fine, and I was treated to the most joyful and comfortable long-haul with the most service-minded and cordial crew imaginable. This special flight was remarkably special for the crew, too – they filmed, took photos and enjoyed themselves together with the passengers, hardly hiding behind the curtains.
Mid-flight, senior Captain Javadinejad took his time to visit me in row 1 to have a talk while enjoying a non-alcoholic but really refreshing Iranian “Delester” malt beer to give me some interesting insight into Iran Air’s transatlantic operations. The 52-year-old Captain Amirhoushang Javadinejad is no. 6 on Iran Air’s seniority list and has flown 21,000 hours since 1974. He had even flown EP-IAB transatlantic, non-stop from Tehran to New York (JFK), before the Islamic revolution. A commercial airline pilot having the experience of flying one and the same passenger aircraft for nearly 30 years is a phenomenon unknown in the western aviation industry. A man like him is a guarantee why Iran Air, despite strong and dangerous sanctions affecting the security of Iran’s aviation, is still among one of the safest airlines worldwide.
“Especially for a demanding route like this, we work triple-safe. Everything is perfectly prepared, checked, checked and checked again. Money does not matter in our business – if I need the newest data and flight plans, I just order them once more. If I need consultancy by one of our airline partners as e.g. Japan Airlines, to manage the introduction of a new route perfectly, my management just accepts it. With every transatlantic flight from Tehran to Caracas we create a loss of more than 100,000 USD, but get compensation from the government. Safety is never, never compromised. This is Iran Air’s main goal. This is my main goal – otherwise, I would not fly this aircraft. One thing you have to keep in mind. These sanctions may affect some technical performance, potentially – but they do not affect the quality of our human resources. Our planning and working is so accurate, that it levels out any disadvantage caused by the sanctions several times. Of course we put more effort, more working hours into each hour flying, compared to the efficiency of some western airlines – but we reach our goal – a safe operation and an extensive route network. And you see, we have even set up a new transatlantic route with our beloved classic jetliners!”
Iran Air, in close cooperation with Conviasa, is already starting to type-rate cockpit crews for working on the A340, because the 747SP will eventually not operate on this fascinating route any more.
The last real long-range on a 747SP will then be history.
While catching the first views of Venezuela’s tropical mountain ranges at the Caracas coast, Captain Kaviani joined me for a glass of (non-alcoholic of course!) beer and a friendly chat after many hours of work for him. It was a very nice finish of this just amazing flight. A very intimate experience of what the Iranian’s call the “Persian hospitality” – on this flight one really can re-experience how the great times of long-range flying decades ago must have felt – just unforgettably great!
Manuel Kliese became an aviation enthusiast at 25, after living in Longyearbyen, on the remote, Arctic archipelago of Svalbard for a few years. Only connected to the mainland by air, Manuel became fascinated with aviation after flying in tough conditions, rough polar weather and during the polar night. Now living near the Düsseldorf Airport/Germany, he is one of the members of airevents.com, which organizes special flights and aviation tours for other enthusiasts. Manuel was one of the organizers of LT9999, the first Arctic & North Pole Flightseeing tour ever, in an LTU A330-200 on 1 May 2007.
Great article, i know you couldn't make it with Torbjorn & "The Schmitzer".... but your record of the flight makes me feel like i was on it with you. As you know, IAB took me home from THR in Feb, the other choice was a Bmed A321 sitting next door, so that was a real no brainer..... I had the chance to have a good look around her, and i think she came out of the 'D' check in Dec 06, and looks absolutly magnificant inside.... even Boeing would be impressed.
Still trying to get onboard this fantastic flight...Here in the Uk, we have a saying....
Wow, I do not normally post but your article was terriffic. I too love the 747sp and I would love to check out Iran one day. I have many Iranian friends and they have always treated me the way the crew treated you. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for taking the flight and report for the memory of 747SP
It's a fantastic aircraft. My flight on 747SP was on China Airlines Honolulu-Taipei in 1993 and Taipei-Honolulu in 1998 operated by Mandarin Airlines. China Airlines no longer have any SPs left I think. The route is now operated by A340.
Ah yes, the romance of travel in the 70s.
Many thanks again.
When I was in London as a 13-year-old in 1977, I remember seeing an Iran Air advert in the newspaper featuring an Iran Air stewardess alongside her counterparts from Pan Am and British Airways...later saw a Concorde in Iran Air colours in the window of the Iran Air office in London. Since then this airline has always held a fascination for me as one of the world's glamour airlines, associated as it is with a remote and exotic country, the incredible wealth of pre-revolution Iran and of course the beautiful SP. Thanks for a richly detailed and fascinating article.
Wonderful article. It really opens people's eyes and helps to show people the real Iran, but a gracious and hospitable country which is showcased by their airline. The SP looked in immaculate condition! Great pictures and excellent report!.
Congratulations on such a fascinating article! I felt as if I had been on board. I am very nostalgic about old aircraft too. I had the fortune of flying NW's last DC-10 from LGW to MSP (and then to IAH and MEX). It was definitely worth the journey! I would love to fly a 747-SP, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. In November I want to fly to Europe on an MD-11, which is becoming an endangered species, I will have to fly from IAH to JFK to HEL to LHR, but I bet I will enjoy every minute of the JFK-HEL flight.
Wow a really cool article... I really enjoyed a lot reading it...
I never ceases to amaze me how the government can change the fate of people who is so exceptionally friendly and nice...
Thank you for the 747SP adventure.
Glad for this great and generous bird, but sad for the political use and abuse. however . Long life to this sp. The last time i saw one of those was in 1982 at Rome Fiumicino from Pan am.(clipper constitution) i think.