Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Great Escape

Note: Some portions of the following story may or may not be true, depending on who reads it and what kind of questions arise. Anything construed as illegal will definitely be denied and was most likely just made up to facilitate the story. Or, maybe, it actually happened just like this….
I have always tried my best to stay on the right side of the law. When it comes to any possibility of paying huge fines or spending time in jail, I am very diligent about making sure I don’t break any laws. So when I found myself deep in the heart of a foreign country, traveling at breakneck speed in a four wheel drive pick up, across some of the roughest terrain you can imagine, with the Jandarma (Turkish military), hot on my tail, you can only imagine my disbelief that this was really happening to me. With my heart about to fly out of my chest, and the truck about to fly off the road, I had visions of spending a very long time in a Turkish prison if these guys were able to catch me…and at that moment, their chances looked pretty good. My chances of ever flying very big balloons in Turkey again were looking very slim. In fact, my prospects for just staying alive weren’t real good at the moment. My only hope was that the guy driving my truck was faster and better than the guys with guns that were chasing us…
It had been a perfectly lovely morning. Although I am still waiting for my “re-validation” before I can start flying again, I decided to go out and watch the Turkish rent-a-pilot fly my balloon. Before daylight at our launch site it was cold. In fact, the coldest day since I’ve been here, 3 degrees Celsius or about 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Driving from Avanos to Goreme in the little jeep with the top off, I could clearly see my breath as I made my way the 6 kilometers down the dark black top road with no lines. I remember looking up as I drove and seeing at least a million stars sparkling in the endless Turkey sky. There was just a sliver of a moon and I remember thinking to myself that it reminded me of the quarter moon depicted on the Turkish flag. It was indeed a beautiful morning with the promise of becoming a beautiful day. I knew that in just a little while, the sun would come over the mountain and start it’s daily ritual of filling the Goreme Valley with brilliant colors of yellow and gold, painting the ancient geological rock formations that has made this place so popular with visitors from all over the world.
The two Alaaddin balloons were already cold packed when I arrived and were about to be heated by the giant burners. After my ride in the jeep, my plan was to stand as close to those burners as I could to try and warm up a bit. As I warmed myself and watched the Turkish pilot do “my” work, I could not help but feel a touch of resentment toward him, although I know it is not his fault that I can not fly. But still, I guess I just could not help myself. The big 210,000 cubic foot balloon stood up tall in response to the huge flames that had been directed through the mouth and into the belly of the envelope. Yokon completed his post inflation checks and motioned for the 12 passengers to climb aboard which they eagerly did with assistance from members of the ground crew. Once on board, Yokon began his standard safety briefing, which in most cases is a bit of a problem. He has very limited usage of the English language. Although there are people that come to fly from all over the world with many different nationalities and languages, most, but not all, can understand at least a little English. But none of them can understand Turkish. That’s one of the reasons the balloon operators like to have English speaking pilots. So, Yokon has a canned speech and really does his best. It goes something like this…”We have rules. Rule number one, no smoking in basket, please. Rule number two, no sit on edge of basket. (Duh!) Most important…landing position…I say landing position, you must face back of balloon, sit little, and hold two hands. All times..landing position….understand”? We can only hope that they do.
I watched as the two Alaaddin balloons slowly lifted off and claimed their place in the early morning Cappadocian sky that would be shared with at least 50 other balloons on this day. And it was a typical day here, which means, that close to 1,000 people would be flying in the balloons to see this spectacular landscape. Fifty balloons, 1,000 people, all sharing one small piece of sky for the next hour. Quite beautiful, but fairly nerve racking for the pilots who are charged with the safety of all 1,000 of them.
As the ground crews scrambled about loading up the fans and readying to begin the chase, Mehmet came over to me and said hello. Mehmet is a nice guy, he has become a good friend. He is just as upset as I am about me not flying for the last 5 weeks. For him, as owner of the company, every day I don’t fly, he loses money, so naturally he would be upset. But I think it is more than that. He knows I came here to fly and understands that for me, it is not about the money. I just want to fly the very big balloons. He explained that there was a second sortie for the 210 this morning. Which means after the first flight, the passengers would be unloaded, new fuel placed on board, and new passengers loaded up for another flight. This is kinda tricky sometimes, due to wind conditions, location of the first landing and just the logistics of getting everything and everybody in the same place in a timely manner. He explained that although there was a second sortie, there were only 5 people scheduled to fly. This meant there was room on board and he asked me if I would go along as a passenger, just some extra needed weight, so to speak. I have say, his request did not make me feel good at all. In my mind, I have gone from being in charge, piloting the very big balloon, to just being some dead weight. I know he didn’t mean it that way , but it did cross my mind. I told him sure because, after all, I did not have anything else to do.
The first sortie went well and Yokon managed to land the 210 in a fairly accessible location to facilitate the passenger transfer. During the chase of the first sortie, I had all but decided that I was not going to ride along. There is something about more than one pilot on board that makes me uncomfortable. I suppose part of it is pride, and the other part is all the stories about accidents occurring while there are two or more pilots in the balloon. Why is that? It is a simple matter of communication. The key is making sure that everybody knows who is pilot in command at all times. It may sound very elementary, but more than one fatality has occurred because each pilot thought the other was flying the aircraft.
But once the new passengers and fuel were on board, it was obvious that a little more weight was needed. The big 210 is hard to land when under loaded, so I jumped in. Much to my surprise, Mehmet also climbed on board, along with a brand new German pilot. My God, now there were four pilots on this aircraft, almost more pilots than passengers! I decided to try and put that thought out of my mind and just relax and enjoy the flight. And low and behold, I did enjoy it very much. The wind was kind to us, Yokon did a good job and, the passengers were happy, even the three extra pilots managed to enjoy to ride. We managed to fly over Love Valley, which was a real treat for everybody. It is one of the most sought after places to fly because of it’s natural beauty and rather unique towering pinnacles of rock formations. It does not take the first time viewer long to guess why it is called “love” valley. When I am flying, if they don’t quite get it, I just tell them. “think Viagra”. “Oooh yeah”, is the usual response.
We passed over the valley on onto the large open flat land that I call the farm. There are lots of places to land among the many small farms that populate the area. One of the issues when flying a second sortie is time. The passengers pay for a one hour flight and that is what they expect, and rightly so. However, most of them are on a tight schedule to complete the ride and get on to the next event which is usually a bus tour somewhere. There is a lot of pressure from the tour operators to be on time and they want their customers back and ready to go by 9 a. m. This is sometime hard to do, like I said, depending on landing location of the first sortie, wind conditions, etc. More often than not, the second sortie gets shortened by 10-15 minutes and the passengers get slighted out of their after flight champagne ceremony. Such was the case today. We were running a little late and the tour operator was already calling to find out where his passengers were. It looked like again the champagne ceremony would not happen. We would either have to cut the flight short to do the champagne, or fly the hour and skip the after flight ceremony. But then I saw something so cool that it just made me laugh out loud. Yokon was setting up an approach that was taking us to an open area downwind. Mehmet got on the radio and began talking to the crew chief who was waiting there with the rest of the crew. Almost immediately the crew was rushing around and looked like little ants swarming around the chase truck. Before long, two of them were running toward the balloon carrying a bottle of champagne and the wooden box that contains the champagne glasses. Yokon flew the balloon perfectly down to within two feet of the ground below and held it there. We were contour flying like a magic carpet right above the grape vineyards headed straight for the crew. As the balloon drifted slowly toward them, I realized what was happening. Without the balloon ever touching the ground, the crew handed Mehmet and I the champagne and glasses as we silently passed by. We now had the makings of an in flight champagne party! Mehmet popped the cork and I got the glasses ready and Yokon got us a little altitude. With glasses full, as we continued to fly the full allotted hour, we toasted our guests and to there wonderful balloon ride. It was awesome. I was truly glad that I had gone along for the ride.
After a nice gentle landing and getting the passengers onto their waiting bus, on time, I got into the little jeep and headed for Avanos where I planned to cook a little breakfast and have a short nap. I was feeling good about the morning and had for at least a short while, all but forgotten about how miserable I was because of not being able to fly the big balloons. I was enjoying the nice leisurely jeep ride, after all, half the route between Goreme and Avanos is within the boundaries of the Goreme National Historic Park. The stars I had seen on the drive earlier in the morning had given way to clear blue sky and bright warm sunshine. Not to waste such an opportunity, I took a side road that traveled through one of the more scenic areas of the park to take advantage of the morning sun reflecting on the numerous fairy chimneys along the way. This spur of the moment decision could have been a fatal one. The drive itself was nice and uneventful. But the twenty minutes it took to get back on the main road to Avanos was just enough time to be a main ingredient in a recipe for disaster.
That twenty minutes gave Mehmet and crew enough time to get back to the hangar located in Avanos. As I approached the hangar, I saw they had already returned and were busy getting the balloons ready for the next day. I pulled in with intentions of just saying hello for a few minutes and then get on home to breakfast and the nap. I pulled the jeep into the graveled, barbed wire enclosed compound and parked in the one place where a green tarp was making some shade. Even though the morning had been cold, the sun was now heating things up very rapidly. I no sooner got out of the jeep, when Mehmet came from the other end of the compound driving the four wheel drive Mitsubishi pick up truck. A quick glance inside the truck revealed three other people who will remain nameless, but all were Turkish. Barely slowing down, Mehmet says, “come, go with us!” Now I have been around him long enough to know to ask questions, like, where are you going?
“Fishing” he replied with the excitement of a little boy. And in anticipation of my next question, he said “only 30 minutes, come on let’s go!” I also know that Mehmet does nothing in 30 minutes and accepted the fact that breakfast and nap would have to wait.
We drove past town and onto a dirt road that follows the Kizilirmak River. Translated to English it means Red River, which I continue to find quite a coincidence. It is the longest river in Turkey and mysteriously enough has its’ origin and ending at the Black Sea. It runs right through the middle of Avanos and is the main reason for the famous pottery industry in the little town. It seems the mud from the river is ideal for use in making top quality ceramics of all shapes and sizes.
We followed the shallow river for nearly a mile before turning off the dirt road and taking a small trail to the river’s edge. Two other people, who will also remain nameless, were already standing near the water. Strangely enough I did not see another vehicle. Now there are 7 people gathered at the river. I am the only one who can not speak or understand Turkish, so naturally the conversation that ensued was lost on my ears. I was just there because I was invited and was just along for the ride, so to speak. I did notice there was no fishing gear in sight. On closer inspection I did see a net stretched out into the river. Hmm, I thought to myself, but before I could even complete that thought, things began to happen fast. The casual conversation from a few moments earlier had suddenly turned more serious…and louder. There was a lot of pointing, first from the direction we had just traveled, then the opposite direction and back again. I could tell something was amiss, but had no clue. Mehmet made a motion for everyone to get back in the truck, which we all did without any delay. He drove the truck back out onto the main road and turned in the direction of town. After traveling on a couple of hundred yards he again turned off the main road and down toward the river. Again, we stopped and all got out. Things seemed a little calmer for the moment. Mehmet was on the phone and the rest of us throwing rocks at a can floating by in the river. After a few moments, the two people that were on the river bank came walking down the to the river where we were now parked. I asked Mehmet if there was a problem. “Big problem”, he says. I then remembered the net I had seen in the river. “Mehmet”, I said. “is that net illegal”? He nodded yes as his phone rang again. After a short exchange, Mehmet excitedly started yelling in Turkish and everybody ran to get in the truck. All I could think of is “oh crap” as I found me a place in the back seat of the four door truck. Two of the other folks were not so lucky and had to find a place in the bed of the truck. Mehmet quickly turned the truck in the direction away from town and took off like a shot. I did not want to, but I had to ask the question, “are the police chasing us”? Mehmet’s said “yes..yes”!! And I said, “well drive faster dammit!” (Please remember I have been asking him to slow down ever since I got to Turkey!) At this point I am in total disbelief. Just a few short minutes ago, all was right with the world, well, maybe not ALL, but close enough. Now I was in a truck careening down a dirt road, full of rocks and big holes, and to top it all off, very slick. It had rained the day before for the first time in two months. Oh, and did I mention there were guys in uniforms, with guns, in hot pursuit?
No one in the truck said a word. Mehmet was driving like there was no tomorrow, and maybe that’s what he was afraid of. He was going so fast the truck was all but out of control. The road pretty much followed the river’s every twist and turn. At times, the road rose above the river and became even more narrow. At one point, the road looked to be at least a hundred feet above the river, straight down. The truck bounced and slid, and jumped but Mehmet was not letting up at all. I wanted desperately to put on my seatbelt but I did not dare let go of the side handle that I had a death grip on with both hands. It was so crowded in the back seat of the truck I could not even turn around and see if the good guys were gaining on us.
At one point, the truck suddenly slowed and came to a stop. Dead ahead was a small stream, where yesterday would have been just a dusty ditch. It took Mehmet about 5 seconds to put the truck in 4 wheel drive and back up enough to get a running start. I don’t know much about how the human brain works, but for some reason, right there, at that moment, the scene from “Romancing The Stone” flashed through my head. Yeah, the one where they are in a 4WD truck and are being chased by the bad guys. Except this time, I was pretty sure that there was no ramp that would magically appear to launch our truck over the stream. Mehmet gave it all the little truck had and we went barreling toward the stream like a runaway train. I was thinking, this could be the end. We will either die, or at best get stuck and then caught by the Jandarma. Neither one of those possible outcomes was very appealing to me. It did not look good. But in the face of adversity, they say humor sometimes works, so I yelled as loud as I could, knowing it was the one thing I could say that my Turkish friends would understand…”LANDING POSITION NOW!!!” as the little truck left solid ground and sailed across the water, almost to the other side. The back wheels hit the water and mud and rocks and water exploded under the spinning tires. For the next fifty yards the road was covered in water and suddenly we are mud hogging for real in the middle of a dad-gum desert. About this time, I remembered the two guys in the back of the truck….I managed to get my head turned around to see both of them still there, but just barely. They were truly hanging on for dear life with arms and legs flailing in every direction. I can’t not imagine how they even stayed inside the truck.
We continued down the road for another 10 minutes or so and all the while the road getting rougher and then began to smooth out and get wider. Eventually we came to a hard surfaced road, hung a quick left and in just a few moments were in the middle of downtown Nevshire. With no sign of our would be captors, there was a collective sigh of relief that could be understood in any language.
Not sure how we did it, maybe it was the little stream we jumped or the muddy road, or maybe the Jandarma just have a short attention span. I really don’t care. All I know is I’m very happy to be alive and that I am not going to wake up in a Turkish prison tomorrow. Not sure about Mehmet however. With “Alaaddin Balloons” written all over the Mitsubishi, the Jandarma just might be waiting for him when he gets home.
Mehmet and I will have a little talk about this later, about putting me in that situation. I will scold him good for sure. And then I will compliment him on his driving skills and tell him that I forgive him for all those times he was speeding like a madman on the highway. I now know that it was just practice for the day he would really need to go fast in order to execute “the great escape.”

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