14 May 2012

A Jump Straight into the BAF

Mother's Day 2012 fell on Sunday, May 13. In 2011, May 13 was a Friday. It was also the day I launched into Afghanistan as an embedded civilian reporter. In doing a little personal archeology this weekend, I came upon this never-before-posted Red Bull Rising blog entry. I thought I'd share it now. File it under "Where Were We One Year Ago ..."

MAY 13, 2011—Having cashed in some 95,000 of my wife's airline miles, it cost me $63 U.S. to get to Dubai.

Further opening the family wallet, it cost another $1,000 for a round-trip ticket straight into Bagram Airfield. A jump into the "BAF."

In my research into civilian routes to Afghanistan, I'd talked to a couple of Midwestern journalists who'd also recently made the Afghan trek. An Ohio TV crew reported they'd almost been escorted off the plane in Kabul, with officials citing their allegedly illegal possession of body armor and helmets. A U.S. State Department rep on the scene had advised not to fight it.

A newspaper reporter buddy had his protective equipment "confiscated" at an Afghan police checkpoint outside of Kabul International Airport (K.I.A.). One of the hard-and-fast rules for embedded media is: You need your body armor and magic helmet to board any military aircraft or ground vehicle. Lucky for my buddy, he was on his way out of the country—transferring from military to civilian transportation, rather than the other way around. Still, it was a sticky-fingered situation. "Not allowed," he was told with the wag of a policeman's finger, as that same policeman began to take the reporter's stockholder-funded gear. The police offered this compromise: "I give back to you when you come back to Afghanistan."

Yeah ... right. Or maybe I can by it back by watching the Taliban Home Shopping Network?

I regard travel like I do baseball—I've never really been a very strong fan of either, but it seems somewhat un-American to say so. For me, however, both activities seem full of questionably prepared foods, unthinkable latrines, uncomfortable seating arrangements, and arcane languages. Plus, I get the sneaking suspicion that the guys with the money make up their own rules. You want me to pay my hard-earned money to subsidize all that?! I think I'll stay home and have a beer. I can make my own nachos.

To extend the sports metaphor a little: In planning my Afghan travel, I've got the problem of transporting $2,500 of personally purchased equipment to my next away game. In fact, it's my own Big Show. My Kelvar stuff is heavy, but still breakable. And it's illegal in a growing number of countries. I buy the wrong ticket, make the wrong move, go through the wrong airport, and it's a potential show-stopper.

When Uncle Sam is your travel agent, everything is easy. You are told what to pack, when to show up, and to wait for the next flight. You are escorted and eased through customs. Nobody steals your stuff. When you go free-agent, however, you get the bum's rush. "Hurry up and wait" turns into "you can't do that here."

Consider this cautionary language from the U.S. State Department:
All US personnel - to avoid violation of Emirati laws by the intentional or accidental transport of any arms or items considered as law enforcement equipment or military gear. UAE airport personnel will x-ray all baggage - checked or carry-on - and cargo shipments, including household goods, both incoming and outgoing. UAE authorities will confiscate any weapons, weapon parts, ammunition, body armor, handcuffs, sensitive electronics, cryptographic devices, and/or other military/police equipment transported to or through a civilian airport. Persons found to be carrying such items will be arrested and face strict criminal penalties, including imprisonment and large monetary fines. One such incident involved one bullet, found in the bag of a traveler who had unknowingly left the item in his bag. [Emphasis added.] This individual was detained by the police and now faces a possible jail sentence and large monetary fine. In other similar incidents, U.S. defense contractors transiting the U.A.E. with weapons were arrested and are now serving jail sentences of several months.
Do I have anything to declare? Why, yes, that I'll do anything to avoid traveling through your country, thank you.

Safety is another factor, although one with ever fewer clear solutions. One of my favorite passages regarding travel to Kabul comes from Lonely Planet:
Flying into Kabul has always been a bit of an adventure. In the 1980s and ’90s, approaching planes had to steeply corkscrew when approaching the airport as an antimissile defence, while as recently as 2006, new arrivals were greeted by the sight of the ‘Ariana Graveyard’, a twisted and shattered junkpile of destroyed airliners. The same year also finally saw the installation of a radar system at the airport.

Poor maintenance has been a worry for Ariana flights, and the UN and many embassies ban their staff from flying with the airline, which has also been barred from EU airspace. Much of the fleet are second-hand planes from Indian Airlines, but these are slowly being replaced. Kam Air uses newer planes and is generally regarded as being better run, but it has Afghanistan’s one recent fatal crash to its name: a flight between Herat and Kabul crashed in February 2005 with the loss of 104 lives. Snowy conditions were blamed.
I'll take "Travel Insights I Won't Tell My Wife for $200," please, Alex?

If you're flying a charter, you can often make up your own rules. One of my more surreal deployment memories? While returning from a deployment to Egypt in 2004, I field-stripped my M-16 rifle so that I could stuff it under my airline seat. The smaller parts went into an air-sickness bag. Waterproofing bonus!

Back when I worked at the Better Magazine Factory, my fellow workaday editors and I would roll our eyes at our snooty editors-in-chief, who were rumoredly too posh to carry-on or check-in their own luggage. Such high-roller-bag behavior might fly at Condé-Nasty New York, but here in River City, Iowa? Allegedly, they'd overnight-express their goods to their next night's destinations.

Still, while the Devil may wear Prada on the plane, however, she never wears Kevlar. I swallowed my Midwestern carry-it-myself pride, and mailed my body armor to a Bagram buddy via the U.S. Postal Service. I flew through Dubai, and flew a chartered 737 directly into Bagram. The name of the outfit--Middle East affiliate of "Diplomat Freight Services"--made me feel like I was about to cuddle up in a romantic cargo bay alongside some ambassador's in-bound stash of Johnnie Walker Blue.

The reality of it turned out to be far more pedestrian: A 737 full of contractors, ex-military, one Middle Western media guy, and other ne'er-do-wells. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My original itinerary was to fly American Airlines from Des Moines to Chicago, and Chicago to London; then British Airways from London to Dubai. Due to storms over Chicago, however, I was delayed getting out of Des Moines, and rerouted to Dallas-Fort Worth.

When I got to Texas, the next flight to Los Angeles had been cancelled. So I spent the night circling DFW in a tram, launched to Los Angeles in the morning, then made a Los Angeles connection to Dubai via Emirates Airlines. From Los Angeles, it was one excruciating no-hitter of a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Dubai: Up the West Coast, over Canada and the Arctic Circle, down Eastern Europe. I think we even flew over Iran, but I may have been hallucinating by that point.

The in-flight entertainment on Emirates 218 was exceptional, however, with on-demand video served to each and every seat—even those of us in the nose-bleed section. Over the course of 16 hours or so, I watched a series of recent-vintage movies, including: the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit", the unnecessarily bromantic update of "The Green Hornet", and "The King's Speech"

Only in retrospect did I realize that each of these selections involved unexpected heroes: Rooster Cogburn, Britt Reid, and Lionel Logue. A lawman turned drunkard, a newspaper publisher turned "criminal," and a ne'er-do-well thespian turned speech therapist.

For the rest of the trip, I thought myself in characteristically good company.


  1. I love reading these type of stories - please keep sharing them! :)


    1. Roger that! While in pursuit of some Red Bull-related writing projects, I've recently been going though the pile of posts on the proverbial cutting-room floor. I'll keep an eye out for other such tales, with an eye toward presenting them for the first time.

      Thanks, as always, for your continued readership and support!

  2. I was over there several years - no one ever called it "...a jump into the 'BAF.'"

    You might say, "I flew into BAF" or "Last week I was at KAF, KIA and finally BAF..." but no one flys into "the BAF".

    Words matter... just saying.

    And wow, if you paid $1000 to fly one way into BAF on DFS you paid double. It's been around $1K for a round trip ticket from BAF to Dubai (about $500-$520 one way) since 2009 with a slight increase recently.

    Why didn't you just fly mil-air in? There are plenty of C-17 flights and you could have just rode Space-A from Dover or somewhere on the east coast.

    (Yea, Emirates IS pretty damn good airline and Dubai is pretty neat. Great little coffee shop and Kabob place upstairs in the International Arrival terminal.)

    I've never been hassled going through Dubai regardless of all the crap I carried.... just smile alot and Salam Alekum and Shukran alot and you'll be fine. There are probably a couple thousand western contractors a week passing through there from OEF and related areas.

    Oh and that Ohio crew and their body armor?

    "The United Arab Emirates had just recently passed a law saying Kevlar wasn’t allowed into the UAE. He was told if he took it into the country he would be arrested upon arrival and if he ever wanted to see his family again, give up the vests. They were worth $10,000 and of course Andy’s worried about his job. What choice did he have? He let them confiscate the case."

    They got snookered by the locals on the ground in Kabul. Thousands of folks flew in and out with body armor and had no issues. Weapons parts and magazines were the only thing I've ever seen anyone have an issue with in Dubai. A lot of money is spent on these flights and if folks have to start going through Kuwait then the UAE/Dubai (and Emirates) looses that cash.

    Just saying.


    1. Dakota:

      Thanks for your insights and fact-checks.

      The "jump into the BAF" was my joke, a conflation of "the 'Nam" and "BAF," that latter which sounded to some ears like "bath." Yep, words matter. And sometimes attempts at playing with them don't work.

      You're correct on the DFS charges. I just checked my stubs, and it was $1,000 for the round-trip, rather than one-way. Thanks for the correction; I'll make sure to change the copy above and elsewhere, as well as to begin work on a cover story to offer Household-6 regarding how I spent the difference.

      Roger that on mil-flights from CONUS. Because it was our first trip to the rodeo, and maybe because my target embed unit was National Guard, my Iowa and Nebraska colleagues and I were never able to work the connections between state National Guard and active-duty mil-transport. Instead, we followed the same paths as Vermont embeds had made with their brigade in 2009-2010.

      You found an error also on the Ohio broadcaster anecdote. I'd wrongly indicated their hold-up (pun intended) occurred on the tarmac in Dubai, rather than Kabul. I'll make those corrections as well.

      A few notes on Kevlar and Duba circa spring 2010, however. I wasn't reacting solely to the Ohio team's experiences. I was sharing notes and travel plans with an Iowa newspaper team, which had confirmed the Dubai restrictions via some downrange Associated Press contacts and a British media/travel advisory. I'll re-post some of the British memorandum below separately, to give you a flavor of the thing.

      That Iowa crew, by the way, was similarly shaken down for their Kevlar equipment as they were leaving Afghanistan. This time, it occurred at a police checkpoint outside of Kabul International Airport.

      Bottom line: I didn't want to travel through Kabul, and Dubai seemed problematic at the time.

      Usual lessons-learned caveat: Every experience is sample of one. Your results may vary.

    2. Just realized I'd already quoted the travel advisory stuff in the original blog post above. I cite it as "U.S. State Department" language above, but have it in my notes as a British advisory. Regardless, it was the description of travel restrictions in Dubai that I was reacting to/planning for at the time.


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