Suffering from acute jet lag after a long and tedious flight from Karachi, the TWA/Singapore Airlines “Around the World” flight was one hour away from reaching its inevitable conclusion. As a 24 year old, single male I was none too happy about returning to the austere and orthodox “Kingdom” to begin a second year teaching at Riyadh Schools. How could I? I had just lived the summer of my life, passing through and partying in Germany, England, New York with Ahmed the multi-millionaire, San Francisco, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Thailand–a kind of R&R on steroids.
Sunset’s soft haze above the placid Arabian Gulf soon gave way to the beige sprawl of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. In less than an hour we’d be landing at Riyadh’s International Airport.
I closed my bloodshot eyes drifting into a half sleep in somnolent denial that my three month holiday was over.
Touchdown shook me from the abbreviated slumber alerting me to the fact we were on the ground and taxiing to the terminal.
Although it was night, the eerie silhouette of the charred and ghost-like fuselage of the ill-fated Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star was there for all to see, a stark reminder that traveling abroad in a developing country was a crap shoot. What was left of the burned out hulk was still on the tarmac two weeks after the tragic event.
Like my own flight, Saudia Airlines Flight 163 originated in Karachi, Pakistan and made its scheduled intermediate stop in Riyadh at approximately 7:06 pm. It was the 19th of August 1980. Flight 163 would remain on the ground refueling for two hours before departing at 9:08 pm for its final destination, Jeddah.
On board were 301 souls–287 passengers and 14 crew members, two of them Filipina stewardesses whom my future wife, Rory, also a Saudia stewardess, knew as recruits from the Saudia Airline compound in Jeddah. One of them, Zorayda, had attended the University of Santo Tomas Nursing school in Manila with Rory.
Most of the passengers were poor Pakistanis and Saudi Bedouin pilgrims traveling to Mecca for the traditional Ramadan holidays. Many of them had never stepped foot aboard a plane. It was not unusual for the uneducated passengers to secrete flammable liquids in their luggage. There were also stories circulated by expatriates, many of them flight crews, that the Bedouins were not averse to pulling out a portable stove and cooking a meal aboard the aircraft!
What the passengers could not know was the cockpit crew–the pilot, first officer and flight engineer had an unimpressive training record and were considered low caliber employees.
The Saudi captain, age 38, was considered a slow learner who required additional training and had difficulty upgrading to other types of aircraft. The Saudi first officer was barely 26 years old and only eleven days earlier had obtained his Tri-Star rating. His history with the airlines was sketchy–apparently, he had been removed from flight school but mysteriously found a way to return. There were rumors someone had pulled strings for him. The American flight engineer, a former DC-3 pilot, was supposedly dyslexic and had failed to qualify as a Boeing 707 and 737 pilot. He had eventually been removed from his employment but had negotiated a return to flight status provided he pay for his own flight engineer training.
Seven minutes into the night flight to Jeddah an onboard fire was detected in the C-3 compartment of the cargo hold.
Thus began a series of costly human errors which would culminate in not only the deadliest accident involving a Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star but the most lethal aviation disaster to occur in Saudi Arabia.
Due to poor communications attributed to a seemingly autocratic pilot, his disdain of the flight engineer as well as the flight officer’s surprisingly passive reaction to the events swirling around him, the pilot finally elected to turn back to Riyadh almost five and a half minutes after the fire was detected. The delay would prove costly but not nearly as costly as what was to come.
More bizarrely, with the fire accelerating and the passengers panicking, the pilot began chanting–some said he was praying aloud. While the flight engineer and flight crew repeatedly requested an immediate evacuation upon landing, the pilot remained mute as if in a trance.
Although the plane landed safely, most of the passengers were rushing the exits for an evacuation that would never come. At some point during the next 2:40 minutes when the plane taxied off the runway to a complete stop, it was already too late. While noxious fumes and poisonous gases filled the aircraft, the flight crew was being stampeded and overwhelmed by the passengers at the front exits. Compounding the critical miscues was the cockpit crew’s failure to open the vents and utilize the oxygen masks.
Several months later, I found myself at an expatriate party at a villa in Riyadh. Toward the end of the evening I was introduced to a pair of Americans from the Midwest. Kevin, the supervisor, was from Kansas; Rob, his assistant, from Illinois. Both men had been part of the Crash, Fire, Rescue (CFR) team at the airport that night. We sat together in the living room. I couldn’t resist asking them about Flight 163.
Kevin poured a tall homemade beverage and described the fateful night.
“It was absolutely horrible. We got the alarm that one of the Saudia flights was in trouble and returning to the airport. When our crew arrived to assist the evacuation and rescue operation, we realized the plane had not stopped on the runway. Instead, it continued to taxi for several minutes until coming to a halt at a taxiway.
We ended up chasing the aircraft for about three minutes until it stopped. When we got there, one of my crew screamed over the engines that he could see a fire in the aft section of the plane.
I was stunned. There was no evacuation in progress and the engines were still running. As a result, we couldn’t attempt a rescue–it was just too dangerous. From the time the plane stopped until the engines turned off, three minutes and fifteen seconds had elapsed. By this time all communication with the crew ceased.
Kevin somberly looked down at the floor, “I cannot imagine what those poor people were going through…”
The clean-cut bespectacled young man stared at the beverage for a few seconds, completely oblivious to his surroundings.
“What I remember most that night were two things. We frantically worked to open the door. We knew people were dying inside. When I put my gloved hands to the door, I felt a searing heat unlike anything I’d ever felt…the palms of my gloves almost melted away. “
Kevin paused…he was struggling emotionally to finish the tale. I felt my own lip quivering.
“About three minutes after the team finally popped open one of the doors, a flash fire ripped through and incinerated the plane’s roof. We abandoned efforts to extricate the passengers and crew. We were now hosing down the plane…trying to extinguish the blaze.
“Kevin, you said there were two things you remember that night–one of them being the heat from inside the cabin.”
“Yes, I did say that, didn’t I? Well…the other thing I will never forget was…”
He paused before continuing.
“When we opened the door we first saw the bodies of the flight crew, the women so small, under a pile of bodies with the passengers on top of them…up to the roof.
They were all stacked… like cordwood….like pieces of cordwood.”
 The old commercial airport now a military base
 The wreckage remained at the airport for several years.