THE EGYPTIAN SANDSTORM
Our B-29 night flight across most of the Sahara Desert from Marrakech, Morocco, to Payne Field, Cairo, Egypt, was uneventful. Navigator Herb Hirschfeld and Bombardier Chuck Biehle used celestial navigation techniques to hit the Cairo DF (direction finder) homer dead on close to their ETA (estimated time of arrival). As we approached Cairo, we were flying at 11,000 feet clear of all clouds, but we could not see the ground, and we could not see the sun at sunrise. The problem was caused by a sandstorm that was raging across the desert far below us.
While descending to our destination at Payne Field, we entered the storm, and when visibility went to zero, I started to fly by IFR (instrument flight rules). Buffeting winds made our ride very uncomfortable. Static on the Homer radio frequency nearly drowned out the station signals that were critical to guide us to the runway. The approach control operator issued this weather report: "Ceiling obscured by dust. Surface winds 50 miles per hour. Visibility one mile."
We were on our final approach completing the before-landing check list, when the airplane that had just landed called the tower stating he could not see the Follow Me vehicle that should lead him after he turned off the runway. We almost pulled up for a missed approach because we did not know if the runway was clear for our landing. The Pilot who had just landed, called the tower to report that he was on the taxiway, and was clear of the runway. He said he was going to park there until visibility improved.
We resumed our approach. The runway lights became visible soon enough for me to line up with the center line, but a strong crosswind from the left forced me to lower the left wing and "crab" into the wind (steer to the left) to counteract the drift. We touched down hard on the left gear with the left wing still down a little. When the right gear touched the pavement, the tail acted like a weather vane, and the plane veered to the left. I applied full right rudder and full power to the #1 (left outboard) engine to keep the plane on the runway. Before we came to the end of the runway, the tower operator called and said he could not see our plane or the taxiway. He added this sage but unnecessary advice, "Use caution, field obscured by blowing sand."
As the sand and dust swirled around us, we saw the taxiway and could see that the parked airplane was far enough from the runway for our B-29 to park safely behind him. As we taxied away from the runway, wind gusts hit us like a tornado. Bombardier Chuck Biehle called out a warning that sheets of tin roofing and other debris was flying straight toward our plane. Flight Engineer Louie Grace quickly stopped the engines, and turned off all electrical switches as I locked the parking brakes.
Fortunately, the props stopped rotating before flying debris hit the left wing and #1 and #2 props. The plane sustained only minor dents and scratches during the hour that we sat inside the plane with all windows and hatches closed. When the wind subsided, the first vehicle we saw was a road grader with its blade down, shoving sand from the taxiway. A Follow Me jeep arrived, and led the plane in front of us to the parking ramp. We started our engines, and followed them. Our encounter with an Egyptian sandstorm was an event we would not forget.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *