Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
July 1991 Kuwait
Aviation International News
Back in eighth grade, in the God-fearing American Midwest, Sister Mary Catherine Thomas, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, insured that I carried the mental image of hell for the rest of my life. It probably had something to do with my behavior patterns back then. Nonetheless, I never expected to encounter the vision she so vividly described until my own personal judgment day.
When the request to move VIPs from Cairo to Kuwait came in, I was selected as part of the crew on the Falcon 900. At last, a chance for my own personal observation of the devastation wreaked upon Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. Our flying had been heavily curtailed during the conflict, a couple of flights to airports near the Kuwait border and a few to Riyadh.
A temporary airway over the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia was our access to Egypt during the hostilities. The extent of my personal experience during this period was sighting, on a night flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo along this airway, the flashes of Patriot intercepts in the sky over both Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
I’ve been seeing the smoke coverage from cruising altitude ever since the oil fields were torched. The smoke covers most of Eastern Saudi Arabia, virtually all of the Gulf States, the Arabian Gulf and a goodly portion of Western Iran. The exact geographical coverage of course, depends on recent wind conditions.
Hundreds of miles away, the base of the smoke varies around twelve thousand and then tops around eighteen thousand feet.
From the ground, again hundreds of miles away from the source, it appears as an unusually hazy day. It’s only when you climb through the top of it and see the clear, blue sky again, that you realize how dark it is below. Saddam Hussein’s legacy, not only to his Arab brethren, but to the entire world, is a disgusting, swirling smear on all humanity.
Since the airport at Kuwait is open for daylight only operations we were scurrying to beat the onset of dusk. Over Saudi Arabia airspace, we were cleared for a SELEG 2B arrival at Kuwait. Below us, now virtually at the source of the corruption, the smoke billowed and rolled like a layer of cumulus clouds moving toward the South under the influence of a light, Northerly wind.
We entered the thick, oily mess at around twelve thousand feet and noted the time, density and duration in compliance with the requests of various airframe and engine manufacturers still unsure of the effect the smoke is having on their assorted products.
The environmental system of the 900 filtered all of the smoke and virtually all of the smell but it was still faintly noticeable as we dropped into the unnatural darkness. We intercepted the localizer for 33R at two thousand feet, still in the smoke, and started down the glide slope.
The first erie ground contact brought Sister Mary Catherine Thomas to mind at about fifteen hundred feet. The fires glowed evily yellow through the blackness and, as our altitude decreased, they appeared to flare with obscene intensity. Seeing the reflections of the hundreds of fires on the lakes of wasted oil pooling in the desert below, it was hard to concentrate on the approach as we slid from the bottom of the smoke.
Just like it says in the NOTAMS and Jeppesen notices on Kuwait, we cleared the smoke about four miles South of the airport with good visibility for landing. With the wind from the South the entire airport would be covered with the foulness and approach would probably be made to minimums.
An opinion, attributed to Red Adair in a recent Arabian Gulf newspaper, states that at the present rate, it’s possible all the fires in Kuwait will not be out for at least five years. Slightly more than a hundred of the easy ones have been extinguished leaving around five hundred to go. Those remaining are the tough ones. Some of the flaming wells are expected to have undetonated explosives on them. Others are nearly inaccessible due to surrounding pools of sticky goo up to six feet deep, some of it covering mine fields.
A vivid contrast to the devastation I see to our atmosphere, on the ground in Kuwait, and the continuing chaos in Iraq, is the jubilation of the victory parade in New York. Good bless the guys and gals. I agree, they all did a wonderful job but, as I look around here in the Middle East, I wonder if the fat lady has really sung.