A GAGGLE OF GOGGLE-EYED GOOD OL’ boys, bubbas over the world, Innocents Abroad in the broadest sense, set off to fly around the world in twenty-five days. And in a way few travelers ever see it. Not from the perspective of the international jet-setter, but as products of the much more local and everyday American culture.
They saw it not from the top, but from the broad American middle. Eight light aircraft carrying a Dallas-led team of American, Canadian, and German fliers roared out of Addison Airport on June 11, 1986, headed for Addison Airport-with stops in Australia, Sri Lanka, Bombay, and about fifteen other places, on their way to establish a new world record for east to west formation-flying circumnavigation. When Garland orthopedic surgeon Howard Wisner and Dallas bakery contractor Frank Haile announced the plan, it probably sounded like the damnedest fool thing ever attempted-except to them. They’d done it before; the first time was during a trip from west to east nine years ago. Wisner and Haile are believed to be the only private, small-craft pilots in the world who have circled the globe twice.
If you were hoping for some kind of first-person account of this deal, well, so was yours truly. I upped and quit a job that paid literally dozens of dollars ever week in anticipation of a seat on the plane owned by John Keller, counting heavily on the lucrative book deal that would no doubt follow. I was planning to spend the next few years telling women in bars, “Hi, I’m a global type of guy and a famous arthur working on my next book. You wanna be Chapter 13?” But my plane was grounded by mechanical problems. We got no farther than romantic, exotic, mysterious El Paso, and nobody wants to read about that. In retrospect, however, I count myself perhaps among the lucky, because the trip wasn’t any cakewalk.
The planes each carry a whopping 25( gallons of excess fuel. Some pilots, such a; Wisner, distribute it more or less evenly around the interior of the craft. Aeronuts lite Haile, however, carry the fuel in hundred gallon tanks attached to each wing. The weight of the tanks wouldn’t be a problem in the air, Wisner said, but “on the ground, if you were to roll over a marble, maybe the wing would fall off. Hit a hard bump, and both wings might fall off. A thump could set ’em off and they’d bum for a week. The only good thing is that you wouldn’t feel much of anything for very long.” Well, that’s not an inviting scenario. And spend up to fourteen hours a day in the hot, noisy, crowded cockpit of a single-engine [ lane and see how you smell.
There were, of course, many other problems, among them mechanical difficulties: Wayne Collins of Mineola was forced back to land twice. Once, he had to come back from 700 miles out of (Honolulu-a long stretch of water in a small plane that’s not in flying form.
And there were the usual minor pleasures and mundane traveler’s hassles. For instance, Wisner’s log holds notations like these. “Janice [Sullivan, librarian at Jesuit High and his copilot] gets madder and madder and bitchier and bitchier. Too hot, too windy, too everything. She is really getting hard to get along with, Frank has probably raced on ahead. Guadalcanal to Brisbane. Off at 8:09 a.m., flew 1,250 miles, arrived at 7:59. They had a thirty -eight-dollar landing fee at Henderson Field. Hotel Men-dana. We had kingfish, cauliflower, pate, hearts of palm.”
But there were also some hair-raising adventures, serious outbreaks of Ugly Americanism, and hilarity aplenty. Herewith, an account of what really happened during those twenty-five days around the world.
Majuro, Jane 14:
Speaking of ugly, ears must be burning on the Micronesian island of Majuro-and the ears are probably funny-looking, at that. Howard Wisner does not give the natives rave reviews. “The people look like some kind of Cro-Magnon throwback. Somebody hit them with the ugly stick. They are grotesque, Unusually heavy pockmarked skin. Big ol’ fat hairy-legged wimmen, and God. it’s just hell. They must’ve sent the leper colony over to Majuro. Must have culled every ugly native in the Pacific; and sent ’em over to Majuro.” It may be the diet, he thinks. Micronesians eat fruit bats and eels and yams. Or maybe the economic burden they have to carry is showing on them: they traditionally use stone wheels the size of millstones for money. Of course, they’ll be real happy to take outside currency, because, Wisner says, while they may be ugly they’re not stupid. The governmjent requires an alcoholic beverage permit)-not to sell it, to drink it. And if everybody looks like Wisner says, you’ll wind up paying the fee just to get blind drunk.
For further information about Majuro, contact your travel agent. But don’t look for Playboy to run “The Girls of Majuro” anytime soon.
Somewhere over Guadalcanal, June 15:
The pilots, to keep things cheerful, chat back and forth over the radios, just to keep the air full. Several of these pilots are old enough to remember World War II, and they know they’re flying over a big chunk of history. Below is Ironbottom Bay, where there are said to be more dead ships and dead sailors than anywhere else on earth. The equivalent of two entire fleets, Japanese and U.S., were sunk there at different times. The island itself, home of fabled Henderson Field and scene of some of the most horrible and prolonged fighting of the war, is like an open-air museum. The natives have little interest in dismantling the disabled tanks and smashed airplanes strewn through the hills- P-38s, Zeroes, B-29s, overgrown and rusty but sometimes tail-up, like they’d crashed day before yesterday.
The pilots are chatting on the radios back and forth and one of them asks, “Who owns Guadalcanal?” None of the other pilots seems to know.
Down below, some unseen serviceman cuts in on their channel and says quietly, indisputably: “The 2nd Marine Division.”
Central Australia. June 16:
It is so desolate.
Even the airlines’ cheerleader-publications urging you to visit will refer to Alice Springs as “the parched heart of the continent,” and admit that the most remarkable thing about Alice Springs is that it’s still there. An Aero Club at Alice Springs has a plaque on the door, “in memory of Frank and Alice, June 3, 1984.”
What happened to Frank and Alice?
Well, mate, they just flew out one fine die and they ditn’t ever come beck, y’know wot I mean?
Did you find them?
We ditn’t ayven look. It woulda been pointless, mate, wot with all that stuff out there t’get lost in. Prolly crashed and were dead any way.
Tan me hide when I’m died, Clyde, and nail me plaque on the door.
Ayers Rock, to hear Wisner tell it, is only slightly more good-lookin’ than your Ma-juran, “I thought when we were flying across the ranches, that was the outback. It’s not. The outback is the most God-awful desolate place I’ve ever been to in my life. It makes the Arabian desert look like Malibu Beach. There’s not a single solitary living thing out there. At least in Arabia, you’ll see some bedouins.”
The Gulf of Oman, June 27:
Two ships belonging to the Arab emirates have been steaming along. Well, gosh, somebody comes along and sinks them- but the Arabs aren’t sure who. Let’s see, they say to themselves in Arabic, Iran’s right across the big ditch, and then there’s them Iraquis. . .what’s this?
Here comes all these unannounced American planes off the Gulf of Oman.
Dubai, a little later:
They arrive in a blinding, howling sandstorm, make an instrument approach, and start calling Dubai control. The very nice British controller (the emirates have the best equipment and the best people in the world; they can afford it) says, in a very nice British way, “You’re coming to Dubai? Didn’t you know that you need prior permission?”
“Our agent called y’all.”
The Britisher said he had nothing regarding their arrival. “I’ll have to call the supervisor.” He calls back a moment later and says, “I have your permission to land. We have all the petrol you’ll need.”
Of course, the Arabs are understandably very anxious to meet anybody happening along right after their ships were sunk. Wisner recalls innocently listening to the nice Britisher over the headset and looking at the runway that looked like it went all the way through the dust to New York and thinking, “Isn’t that neat?’’ Wisner hops out with his video camera and gets some nice touristy shots of Frank, with the Dubai tower in the. background. Some real nice young boys come up and ask, how may we serve you, O winged ones?
So they started gassing up the planes. Then a couple of real mean-looking Arab soldiers come up, start screaming and yelling and raising hell with these boys, screaming and yelling for gassing us up. One of the kids comes over and says, “He’s mad because you’ve been taking pictures of a military field.” Soldiers storm over, start yelling at Wisner and Haile. Wisner takes the cassette out of the video camera and hands it to the soldier, figuring that’ll be the end of it.
The soldier barks at the entire party: “Come with me!”
They are under arrest, and it’s nothing like back home. The Dubai equivalent of the Miranda warning is, You wanna call your lawyer? We’ll arrange a long personal visit with Allah instead.
“They put us in a room and told us to wait” Wisner remembers. “In a little while, they come and take me before the head of the police for the air force and tell him I’ve been taking pictures of the airport. It was turning bad pretty quickly. I couldn’t believe they were serious about this, but they were.” Wisner began to wish he was back having another helping of fruit bat. “I couldn’t get back with the rest of the group. I kept asking to get back with the rest and they kept saying no no no. This bunch of damned A-rabs seemed to belong to a group of about eight. They kept trailing each other around like a bunch of camels, all behind a little short guy who was causing all the trouble.”
The Arabs shuttled them around, interrogated them, hassled them, and were generally low on manners.
The mean little one came to them and said: “We have decided that you must leave. You cannot spend the night in Dubai.”
“It was thirty minutes till dark,” Wisner recalls. “Think about it: six planes flying right up the Persian Gulf, at night. We wouldn’t have lasted twenty minutes. The Iranians would have thought we were the Iraquis. The Iraquis would have thought we were Iranian. The Saudis would have thought we were the Israelis, so everybody in hell’d be out there shooting at us. If we could have put our planes down quickly enough, we would have seen the biggest air battle on earth when they all ran together, but we were likely to be the object of their affections.”
So Wisner refused to go.
The Arab didn’t know what to do about that. “They all left in a trail again. They ranged up one notch to see what the hell to do, and on the next level up, they hit a sheik. This guy came flying down with his bed-sheet on, but it was all silk and satin. This guy was the Wheel, for sure. But he was nice. You could tell he was much more intelligent than those run-of-the-mill types.”
And this guy says, “My God, I didn’t know you were down here. Of course you can stay. I will have you a hotel in ten minutes.”
“We could have stayed forever,” Wisner says. “The city is beautiful; it looks like it was built yesterday. And it was. We stayed in the Hilton International Dubai. It was somethin’ else.”
“I don’t dislike ethnic groups, but I do dislike some individuals. I find many people just thoroughly disgusting, and an unreasonable amount of Arabs were that way,” Wisner says. In fairness, it must be mentioned that Wisner met most of them at a time when they’d be least likely to be in good humor: smack-dab in the middle of a major OPEC confab at Cairo’s Ramses Hilton. It was an all-out OPEC blowout, with dancing girls brought in from all over the Middle East to show their bellybuttons and hide their faces from every tired, aggravated, and homesick oil minister in the oil-producing world, each under pressure to bring home the biggest slice of the pie for the Home Team.
“They were obnoxious, treating the hotel people terrible. I overheard the complaints. They were so trivial you wouldn’t believe. The bed wasn’t turned down. The suites were never large enough for them. They just weren’t being treated like the high-umpty-umpty potentates they so obviously were.”
While in the hotel he picked up bits and pieces of what was happening in the OPEC meetings. You probably read about it in the papers, but not in language like this: “They came to the usual determination that they couldn’t possibly agree. They all knew that they wanted to bomb somethin; but they couldn’t agree on a target.”
While Wisner lectures on Arab manners, there’s doubtless an Arab air traffic controller or two who’d be glad to lecture on his. On leaving Cairo, the tower assigned the Americans to 6,000 feet, for their safety and the safety of everybody in the area. “We left right at the crack of dawn-and realized the runway was pointing right at the Pyramids. Air was clear as a bell. So the minute we got off the ground, we radioed that we were clear to 6,000-there’s an altitude reporter on the plane that sends a radar report of your height, but you can turn it off,” he says.
“We turned it off and headed as straight for the Pyramids as you can go, and went past them at about 100 feet. Janice was taking pictures and said. ’You’re too close.’ I said, ’You’ll never be here to see this again, and we started circling, snapping pictures.”
The conversation between Wisner and the Cairo tower went like this:
Tower: What are you doing? What is your altitude?
Wisner: 6,000 feet
Tower: You’re flying over a highly restricted area.
Wisner: Whatever it is we can’t see it from 6,000.
Tower: It looks like you’re circling. What’s going on?
Wisner: Uh, look: like we got a fuel-transfer problem.
Tower: You declaring an emergency? And what’s your altitude?
Wisner: 6,000 feed dammit.
Tower: Confirm 6,000.
Wisner: Yep, we’re twelve miles out at 6,000, Uh, looks like we got the problem worked out.
Says Wisner, “By that time we’d circled three times, then went between them a couple of times, and then headed for the coast, going out to Alexandria. We were right next to Libya. We had intended to fly right off the coast of Libya and on up the Mediterranean, but by the time we got there we found on the chart that the Libyans mad reserved a large volume of airspace-nothing to do with the Libyan conflict; it had been preassigned for a long time. It was a legitimate airspace, not the Line of Death. If it’d just been that, we’d have gone right on through it. But to avoid trouble with the Libyans and everyone else, we deviated north toward Crete.”
But as long as they were in the neighborhood: “As I passed the coast of Libya I called Benghazi control tower just to talk to them. They wouldn’t answer. The N in my identification number told them I was an American plane, and they wouldn’t talk to me.” That little call may have triggered the last major incident of the trip.
A few miles later, with the planes spread out in a long formation twenty minutes off Malta, the wife of one of the other pilots suddenly came on the radio. “She was just screaming at the top of her lungs, We thought somebody’d crashed, that there’d been a big catastrophe. She was screaming and yelling over the air for some time, then finally got enough control to say they were being buzzed by two jets, getting closer and closer. They were making extremely close passes, and they made no attempt to contact their plane. It just demoralized her. They finally made several more passes and left.”
Whether it was Libyans, angry at Americans in general, or Egyptians, ticked at these particular Americans for buzzing the pyramids, is unknown.
And fair’s fair: the Americans had prettymuch buzzed the whole world,