Transocean Air Lines 1946 - 1960
Around the World With Transocean Air Lines
Air Djibouti & Air Jordan
The year was 1949. The governor of French Somaliland was envious of Ethiopian Air Lines and the British Aden Airways
flying in and out of Djibouti with big cargo loads. But French Somaliland had no money, and France gave little
encouragement for the country's future. The governor asked John Russell, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) employee then
serving as operations manager for Ethiopian Air Lines, if he would form a national airline using the name Air Djibouti.
"We would be the carrier for the country, and this would provide us the necessary reciprocal landing rights in foreign
countries," said Russell. "The possibilities of using C-46s for cargo were apparent to lower the ton/mile cost.
"Ethiopian Air Lines wasn't interested in using C-46s because they practically had a monopoly with their DC-3s and
could charge any price to transport the number one cargo of khat, a fresh green leaf which the Arabs chewed, producing a
"Our next stop was at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, then continued to Shannon, Ireland, and on to Rome, where
we picked up my wife and ten-month-old daughter and flew to Asmara, Eritrea, on the Persian Gulf. This was to be our
home base as it was under the control of the United Nations and because there was no housing available at Djibouti.
"Verne Shrewsbury, who had preceded us with the first C-46, had everything organized on our arrival."
From its headquarters in Asmara, Air Djibouti DC-3s ferried fresh meat and vegetables from the plentiful East African
plateau country to the desert outposts of Saudi Arabia, its capital city, Riyadh, and to the Arabian-American Oil Company
(ARAMCO) installations around Dhahran. Air Djibouti airplanes also transported cargo and conducted (in conjunction
with Nairobi Air Services of Nairobi, East Africa) big game camera or shooting safaris from Saudi Arabia to the Nairobi
area. Brochures advertising the tour service stated that Air Djibouti could fly passengers to "the exciting land of safaris,
trout fishing, sailing, surf bathing, underwater fishing, and glamorous evenings in just twelve hours-ten times faster than
the old Magic Carpet record."
The operation also flew religious pilgrims from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. From Jeddah they would
continue to Mecca on foot because non-Moslems were not allowed in the holy city. The crews had to carry five-gallon or
thirty-gallon drums of gasoline to have fuel for the return leg to Asmara after delivering the hajjis home, which was quite a
"In the middle of this operation I received a cable stating that the government of French Somaliland had been overthrown
and that the governor had been assassinated. It closed with the command: DO NOT LAND IN DJIBOUTI.
"Three countries - Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan - were considered as possible bases from which to operate our charter
business since we were no longer able to land in Djibouti.
In December 1951 Libya attained its independence as a constitutional monarchy after years of rule by Italy and after the
end of World War II by a British mandate. This north African desert country with a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea is
inhabited mainly by wandering Bedouin tribesmen. In the extreme south live the veiled Tauregs. Air Jordan was called
upon by Libya for assistance in its race to develop its oil fields. Its services were used by Mobiloil of Canada,
Continental Oil Company, Caltex, Standard Oil of Indiana, and Robert Ray Geophysics, Inc., in addition to ARAMCO.
Scheduled flights by Air Jordan provided supplies and services to the desert oil camps. In addition to the cargo, Air
Jordan carried oil crews who were given one-week furloughs in Tripoli or Benghazi at the end of every four weeks of
work in the desert.
Publicity for Transocean Air Lines often took creative
turns as well. For example, Transocean's Dave Gregory
capitalized on the fact that the air route from Cairo to
Jerusalem passed over the Dead Sea at 1000 feet below
sea level. Dave founded the "Below Sea Level Flying
Several hundred bright yellow membership cards were
printed with the Air Jordan logo which certified that the
card holder was a qualified member of the exclusive club
and had the right to ask: "How low can you get ...and still
fly?" The club's cards were the topic of conversation
among flight crews and seasoned travelers of other
airlines transiting the Middle East. Surprisingly, this club
generated considerable business for Air Jordan.
"Bill Pearce, who was with Ethiopian in Addis Ababa, and I decided to look for financing for Air Djibouti. We found a
listener in Orvis Nelson of Transocean Air Lines.
"One of the reasons Nelson was willing to proceed was that our government was offering new C-46s, including spares,
for $300 a month with the latest Pratt & Whitney engines and three bladed props, not the troublesome Curtiss Electra
props previously used.
"We started with two aircraft (one had 3.4 hours flying time, the other 4.5 hours) and modified them at Transocean's
base at Bradley Field, Connecticut.
"Bill Glenn and I took the second plane over in midwinter. We had an engine change at Goose Bay, Labrador, with two
feet of snow on the ground. Glenn, with the help of the military, did the job in less than two days in sub-freezing
temperatures, which was an outstanding feat.
"A certificate was available in the name of Lebanese
International Airlines in Lebanon, and in Jordan an
established airline, Air Jordan (owned by His Excellency
Ismail Bilbeisi Pasha), was operating in Amman.
Afghanistan, where we had established our hajj
movements, had been ruled out because of its isolation.
"Nelson was extremely interested in the possibility of
having a scheduled carrier in the Middle East since
Transocean planes carrying the Air-Jordan flag would give
the airline easy access to other Middle East countries. This
tilted the decision in favor of owner Pasha Bilbeisi's Air
"We would use some of Air Djibouti's personnel and as
many Arab-speaking employees as possible. Supplies and
equipment came from Lebanon, and customs duty had to
be paid on supplies shipped into Jordan. As a result, we
performed our maintenance in Beirut and kept our offices
there, along with other facets of TAL operations that
included the export/import division."
Later, Munther Bey Bilbeisi, son of the Pasha, opened a
trading office for TAL in Baghdad, capital of Iraq, on the
banks of the Tigris River, where merchants in the old
covered bazaars traded in carpets, wool, hides, dates, tea,
|Left to right: Pasha Bilbeisi of
Air Jordan, TAL's John
Russell, Pasha's assistant,
TAL Captain John Waterman,
TAL Vice President S.L. Wilson
A freak accident with no known cause once occurred on
the ramp at Jeddah. The starboard wing of TAL's 967
exploded. A replacement was shipped from California but
was destroyed when it was dropped while being offloaded
on the Jeddah docks. (Transocean's Tommy Walker's
screams could be heard all the way to Beirut, 883 miles
away). A second replacement wing was discovered in
Cairo and purchased from the Egyptian Air Force. TAL
stripped and modified it for transit, then hung it under the
fuselage of TAL 966 in a specially built cradle for the flight
Refueling in Zahedan, Iran, always presented exceptional
problems for the pilots. They first had to circle the tower to
signal the gas truck to be ready to refuel. Then they had to
go around and buzz the field to disperse camels from the
runway in order to land. One unlucky pilot hit a fence while
landing and had to remove the 200 feet of barbed wire
wrapped around the tail wheel.
Above: TAL-built cradle for aircraft wing being
ferried from Cairo, Egypt to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
on C-46 aircraft.
|Air Djibouti. Packing
gasoline up a ladder by
hand so it can be
funneled into the wing
Fierce competition from Arab Airways and Middle East Air Line kept
Air Jordan's managers scrambling to maintain profitability. Two
events during each year gave Air Jordan its greatest income: the hajj
(the pilgrimage to Mecca), and flying U.S. Navy personnel on
vacation from Beirut to Jerusalem whenever the Sixth Fleet was
visiting Beirut. It was Stan Kochenderfer, Roland Swanson, and
others of TAL's Middle East offices who effectively cut the
competition to zero. They went directly to U.S. Naval Headquarters at
Barcelona and won for Transocean the contract for all of the Navy's
tour business before the fleet's departure for Beirut.
Ethiopian Air Lines DC-3, ready to
receive gasoline, Port Sudan, Africa.
Left: Celebrating new DC-3 flight schedule from Amman,
Jordan to Cairo, Egypt, in front of the Shepherd Hotel in
Cairo. Top row left: TAL's John Russell, bottom row,
second from left: TAL's Ed Ringo, others unidentified.
Below: Air Jordan C-46F, 44-78655, ex N-1668M, Taloa paint
scheme. Photo taken at TAL's Hangar 28, Oakland Municipal
Airport, Oakland, California
Above: Captain Frank Kennedy at Transocean Airlines
Operations Office, Jiddah
The effect of Air Djibouti and Air
Jordan's presence on the oil
exploration program was
incalculable. Work which would have
taken months without Air Jordan's
wings took days or weeks. Delays
due to equipment breakdown were
minimal. Even when no flight was
scheduled on the day of an
emergency in the oil fields, Air Jordan
would rush a special flight, and the
needed parts or supplies would arrive
Operating aircraft in the severe
weather and desert terrain of the
Middle East was charged with
problems unique to the area. The
solutions frequently required the most
inventive efforts of TAL's ground and