Transocean Air Lines 1946 - 1960
Flying "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime"
The Hajj Airlift
The first large contract Transocean was awarded in the Middle East
was flying the hajj in 1948. The pilgrimage to Mecca that every
Moslem is expected to make once in his or her lifetime is known as
the hajj. It has been an annual religious rite for more than 1,300 years
with some devout pilgrims crossing mountain passes as high as
Cooperating with Iranian Air Lines, Transocean flew a few flights during the hajj season in 1947,
but 1948 saw air transportation play a major role in the pilgrimage. The airline used three C-46s
and two DC-4s in the ferry operation between Tehran and Jeddah.
Because non-Moslems are not allowed to see or enter Mecca, Transocean planes landed at the
Jeddah airport, thirty miles from Mecca. There, busses transported the pilgrims to within ten miles
of the holy city. From that point they were required to walk to the Kaaba, the sacred Moslem shrine
toward which all Moslems turn when they pray, then continue their hajj to "Arafa," a place on the
Hill of Mercy on the road from Mecca to Taif. Every Moslem who is able is bound, once in his life, to
fulfill the "stand at Arafa" or to engage a substitute to fulfill it for him.
The pilgrims came aboard the modern DC-4s garbed in flowing robes and carrying prayer rugs,
praying stones (replicas of the black stone in the Kaaba in the center of the holy city), small
cooking pots and braziers, and black umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching desert
sun. Their ways were strange to the crews. Some of the passengers spat on the seats, floor and
walls. They also built camel-dung fires on the cabin floor to cook their meals, which, when
discovered, were immediately extinguished by crew members amid much shouting and shaking
of fists by the hajiis.
On the return trips, flight crews had to remove forcibly the heavy packages of souvenir sand the
pilgrims were attempting to carry home from Mecca. None of the passengers understood English
nor were they able to comprehend that the aircraft could not take off with the excessive weight of
the sand on board.
*From Folded Wings, A History of Transocean Air Lines by Arue Szura
19,000 feet and crossing hundreds of miles of desert once marked by the footprints of their
But among the aggravations of the heat and inability to communicate were a few lighter moments.
One of these moments occurred when a pilgrim plane landed for the night for refueling in
preparation for the next day's flight. The passengers deplaned to kneel in rows on the runway to
pray. The navigator noticed that they were not facing east, as was their custom, and tried to point
this out to one of the men by gesturing toward the stars. Then organized confusion reigned as one
by one they realized their mistake and turned to face the cast. They appeared to be saying to one
another, "Hey! Turn around-we're facing the wrong way. Pass it on!"
On another trip the pilot had difficulty holding a steady course as from time to time the plane would
dip unexpectedly for no apparent reason. Nothing seemed to be wrong mechanically. The crew
was puzzled until it was discovered that the reason for the mysterious movement was the
Moslems shifting the weight as they knelt to pray. As the devout Moslems did their five daily
prayers, the crews learned to expect the aircraft's respectful dip. Captain Bill Keating was in
trouble from the first day he flew the hajj. One of the Transocean airplanes flying the run to
Jeddah had lost an engine on takeoff at Teheran and had returned to the airport for repairs. The
necessary work could not be accomplished for several hours and so the evening flight to Jeddah
was canceled. Meanwhile, a large group of pilgrims with tickets to Jeddah rushed the plane, trying
to get on board, and nearly caused a riot when they were denied access. To them, the trip was the
dream of their lifetime-and they wanted to depart immediately.
The police were called but were unable to control the crowd. Finally, Keating and TAL's Jack
Ullner, who was in Iran handling the accounting for the hajj, boarded the aircraft and let the
pilgrims file in until the plane was filled. Then Keating started the engines and taxied to the end of
the runway where he conducted preflight procedures, then quickly flicked off the switches on the
outboard engines-causing them to backfire and shoot long tongues of flame past the cabin. After
he had done this a couple of times he swung the plane around and taxied back to the terminal.
This action convinced the pilgrims that the plane couldn't take off. But they refused to disembark,
staying on board until the morning departure.
Transocean's participation in the hajj continued for ten years. One year they flew the two thousand
members of the royal household of Saudi Arabia's last reigning monarch, colorful King Ibn Saud,
from the thousand-room winter palace at Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, to his summer
palace at Taif. A fleet of twenty airplanes were required to complete the operation by flying a total of
sixty flights over a two-day period.
The number of Moslems flown by Transocean and other airlines during the hajj numbered in the
hundreds of thousands. Exact figures are not known because of the many different points from
which the operation was conducted. But the number of pilgrims visiting Mecca during the hajj of
1948 was said to have exceeded five hundred thousand.
Hadjus descending a
vertical ladder at
Jeddah after a flight
via Transocean. They
are making their holy
pilgrimage to Mecca,
the Holy City, and
cooking braziers, and
black umbrellas for
protection from the
intense desert heat.
Most of the Hadjiis
had never flown in an
airplane before, and
attempted to build
fires on the cabin floor
to cook their meals.
photo: Ralph Lewis