The final chapter in The Battle of India

Monday, October 28, 2013
Muscat, Oman
We had planned our departure for 7am, an hour before the rest of the group, and an hour before the others were allowed to leave by using the handling agent. By making our own flight plan with the controller the previous day, we could plan as we wanted. It did though mean an early taxi ride in the dark with Imran's brother and before any breakfast.

This day would have two flights, the first to Ahmendabad to clear customs, and the second to Muscat, Oman as our journey westward continued . In order to save time in Ahmendabad, our first stop this morning was the control tower of Udaipur in order to file the flight plan from Ahmendabad to Muscat. We figured this would also help our chances of working the system in Ahmendabad on our own to avoid the handling agents.

After taking care of that, we set off to the terminal for our plane. Security in India is ridiculous and it took a long time for us to get each of our bags stamped and screened and rescreened. At security we saw the smug handling agent from the previous night. He was chagrined when we produced the security clearance cards from the tower, as he surely wanted to get us there to require his expensive help. Instead, after the security hassle we were allowed to go to our aircraft. Off we went, and another $800+ saved!

The flight to Ahmendabad took exactly an hour and was uneventful. The sun was fully up by the time we departed and we were greeted with clear skies but lots of haze . The haze didn’t end for the entire flight so although we could see the ground, we couldn’t see much ahead of us. We were thankful there was an ILS approach, because even in the cloud-free morning we couldn’t make out the airport until we were about 5 miles away.

As we were accustomed to by now in India, it wasn’t until after we landed that the fun began. We were given the furthest parking slot possible on the giant apron. It was desolate out there so I asked the tower repeatedly for a closer spot for our technical stop, but was given non. Security greeted us on the apron and we followed them to where we hoped the immigration process would start. The security guards were noticeably confused that we didn’t want handling and didn’t know what to do with us. Their superior came (to whom they all stood and saluted) and made various calls to various officials. One by one the other planes in our group started arriving even though we’d departed almost an hour before them . Handling agents started showing up and scoffed at us. They knew by now to be on the lookout for the black swans of N231WG. Security guards asked if they would help us, and they barked that they wouldn’t at all. We were saying the same thing to the security guards, that we weren’t interested in their services. It was a classic standoff.

At last a representative from the airport came in a nice air-conditioned car. He explained that, due to the vastness of the Ahmendabad airport and for security reasons, they would take us from one area to the next, but it would cost us the equivalent of $20 per ride. A few rides at $20 sounded a lot better than $800 for handling so we gladly took him up on his offer!

The process then unfolded as follows:

1)    Air traffic control. We would have to do this process in the reverse order of Patna, where we did immigration & customs first, and then the control tower business second . We drove a good 5-7 minutes to the tower complex. Given the size of the airport and with this being an area control zone, we actually took care of things in a neighboring building as opposed to the tower itself (gasp). It was classic, as one man from the handling agent company was there taking care of exactly the same thing: filing flight plans. The agent was friendly enough. A dot-matrix printer, having just started printing papers no one would read, was droning off to the side of the airport control officer’s table. This man explained how the rest of the procedure would unfold and then gave us the bill for landing and parking: $33. So far, so good. He explained that we would have to return to him with a stamped customs form, stamped immigration form, stamped passenger manifest, and stamped gendec before he would issue us a flight clearance. We were taking it all in stride and having fun with it so off we went.

2)    Next stop, the airport manager’s office. Not having a passenger manifest (Maggie only has two seats), we wrote one by hand . Here we were told that our hand-written one wouldn’t cut it. We were told we also need 6 copies of our gendec. Although the man had a giant flat screen tv and was watching music videos, there was no photo copier so we had to complete those copies by hand.

3)    We had to get an official passenger manifest, so were led to the security office. Here 8-10 folks were in a line watching all the various security cameras of the airport. They were particularly interested in the planes of our group, and even had one camera checking on Maggie. We tried to make jokes saying that was our plane, but they weren’t interested. We complete the 4-carbon-copy passenger manifest by writing "nil" on it, and then set off.

4)    Breakfast. Not having yet eaten anything and having walked by a restaurant, we decided now was the time. Our escort from the airport management office was also fine with it, and said for us to take our time . Throughout the entire process, everyone was friendly and everyone involved appreciated the extravagance and bureaucracy of it all. They just all went along with it, so we did too. Breakfast was good and we got a kick out of the fact that we had the opportunity to grab some food. We even ordered some to-go sandwiches for our in-flight meal service.

5)    Back to the airport management office to pay our “taxi” services. I had to go to the ATM to get more money out, as they didn’t take US$ or credit cards. We then had our passenger manifest approved by the airport manager.

6)    Immigration. The airport manager is located in the somewhat busy domestic terminal. We were then driven to the new but absolutely desolate international terminal. After a wait with the confused security guard, we were let through to the immigration officials where we saw some of the rest of our group getting processed. I hate to say it, but we had a bit of schadenfreude that we were all having to go through the same steps, but that we were having an adventure out of the ordeal and also saving some serious money . Immigration went back and forth amongst themselves not knowing who should stamp our gendecs, passenger manifest, and flight plan. In the end, they agreed that it shouldn’t be the person that stamped our passports, but rather another official. All documents, including our passports and the exit card we had to fill out, were diligently stamped.

7)    Customs. Adjacent to immigration but in his own office as the customs official. He couldn’t believe that we didn’t buy anything we wanted to declare, but stamped our gendecs anyway. He begrudgingly stamped our passenger manifest, but much to our annoyance refused to stamp our flight plan. He explained that customs has nothing to do with flight planning, and I can appreciate that, but still we were told we needed a customs stamp on the form. We just wanted to play the game appropriately. He wouldn’t relent, so we left his office.

8)    Air Traffic Control . We found our car waiting for us outside Gate 4 (all gates were vacant, the place was empty, maybe the terminal wasn’t even being used, so it didn’t matter where we walked out really). We were driven again to air traffic control to show them the stamped papers. Once there, unbelievably, the captains of the PC12s and one of the TBMs showed up to clear up discrepancies in their flight plan. Again, I hate to say it, but a bit of schadenfreude. Our friendly air traffic control officer was still listenting to the drone of the dot-matrix printer off to the side of his desk. Over the past couple hours the stack of printed paper had grown considerably to a couple inches high. Judging by the stacks in the corner, there were only a couple more inches needed before the daily print run of whatever it was would be completed. Our papers were analyzed and he was a bit confused that we didn’t have a stamp on our flight plan. We explained the custom offical’s lack of desire to provide his sacred stamp, and all was good. We did though have to pay an additional US$15 because we would be avoiding Pakistany airspace and flying more through Indian air space. Okay, no problem, we paid. At about this time the dot matrix printer started a paper jam. Johannes tried to help, but so much of the printed paper was getting respooled and reprinted. The papers would have to be carved away to get it to work. After a good minute of beeping and everyone pretending to ignore it, Johannes turned off the printer and the man smiled. It took a lot not to laugh. Looking back, it was a classically hilarious scene.

9)    Back to the plane. Having received the blessing from the air traffic controller, we were driven back to Maggie. Baksheesh was given to the driver and his colleague as expected. After preflight we got on our handheld radio to request start-up and our clearance. No answer from the tower. 3 planes from our group got start-up and clearance in the meantime. We thought it was a radio issue so started up regardless. Finally the tower responded saying they were still waiting our clearance. After 20 minutes of sitting there in the heat with our engine at idle, we shut down. Another 10 minutes, and another of group having departed, and we finally got our start-up clearance. Hoorah! The whole time we thought maybe indeed the handling agent through some stones in our path, but it was probably just an airspace coordination problem or because we were flying at such an unusually low altitude for planes on this route.

We started, we taxied, we took off. We'd won. All told, we paid about US$170 in airport fees for all three Indian airports combined. We saved more than US$2300. As good as it would have felt to punch that smug handling official from the previous night in the face, saving all that cash and beating them at their own game felt much better. If any pilot reading this blog ever has any interest in perservering flying a small plane through India, please let me know if I can help before dealing with those useless corrupt bloodsuckers. Most importantly, avoid Freedom Air like the plague. Or at least punch their rep in Udaipur in the jaw and say it was a small gift from N231WG.

The climb out was gradual due to the heat. Even at 14,000’ we had temperatures about 16C. One plane of the group, flown by Herbert and Susanne, waited for us to depart. It was very nice of them to make sure that we too would leave India and the parasitic handling agents behind. Once they were airborne they even had to fly a reroute because our climb was so slow. It wasn’t but a 5-minute delay in the grand scheme of their flight, but I felt a bit bad. We thanked them over the radio. In their fast TBM their flight time was less than half of ours.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, fortunately. This was our last big over-water flight. We had clear skies and smooth sailing throughout. Along the way we even enjoyed our sandwiches. High fives and smiles were also in order.

Night fell as we neared Oman. The controllers though were very professional and gave us vectors to final approach on the ILS approach. We were in radar coverage again! Upon landing there was confusion as to where we should park and how and where we could get avgas. After such a long flight I was frustrated by it, but Johannes put me in my place and I calmed down. We’d made it, we’d won The Battle of India, we’d completed the last of our epically long over-water journeys, and once more we were in a completely different world: that of the Arabian Peninsula.

Routing from Udaipur (VAUD) to Ahmendabad (VAAH): very easy: W13S at 8000’ and a flight time of exactly an hour.

Routing from Ahmendabad to Muscat (OOMS): AAE TAXUN W103 BRAVO DOGET N571 PARAR N767 ELIGO L631 MCT at 14,000’ and a flight time of 6h55m.
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Comments

Caroline
2013-10-29

I'm still unclear on your feelings towards handling agents in India...

Enda
2013-10-30

He is a bit vague, isn't he.

B
2013-10-31

If I had only known...i could have arranged for the Sultan to take you for a spin in his (our) A319...or his 747-400...or his 747-800...or his 747SP...or one of his three g650s.

2021-12-07