The Crash - Vignette from Aramco Brat: How Arabia, Oil, Gold and Tragedy Shaped My Life

Two a.m., Thursday, May 20, 1965, Cairo, Egypt.

A Boeing 720B is in its second landing approach; the first attempt was aborted. The Cairo airport has just installed a new night-guidance landing system. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Flight 705 is inaugurating a new service: Karachi to London with intermediate stops in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; Cairo; and Geneva, Switzerland. The plane is piloted and crewed by the airline’s very best. There are 127 souls aboard, including twenty-two premier members of the Pakistani press who are likely to write about and thus promote the service. Ten Chinese Communists are passengers, including the chief designer of a jet fighter. (With a stop in Pakistan, this will be the fastest route between China and England.) A senior Egyptian diplomat and his wife are seated in first class. Also in first class, and one of four Americans aboard, is Donald D. Love, an Exxon executive specializing in aviation fuel. He is headed home via London to his daughter’s wedding in Riverside, Connecticut, having recently left Hong Kong after a six-week assignment in East Asia. Arif Raza, whose father owns Hostellerie de France, a landmark Karachi airport hotel, is aboard. Mrs. F. N. Choudhury, pregnant, is flying to meet her husband in London. Travel agents, wooed for their potential to generate future agency business with complimentary tickets, fill out the manifest. The Kanoo Travel Agency of Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, did not send a representative but at the last minute had assigned their three seats to the vacation travel itinerary of an American Aramco engineer and his family, who boarded in Dhahran and were headed to their son’s high school graduation in Michigan. None were prepared.

Whether through pilot error (this was PIA’s top pilot, and to his right was PIA’s number two), mechanical problems (certainly possible), or the poor operation of the newly installed night-landing system (my guess), the 720B “touched down” in a level field about six miles south of the intended runway. It was nowhere near level enough. Moving at 150-plus miles an hour, the left wing hit first. It may have been tilted down at the moment of impact, or perhaps it encountered a small hillock, but in any event, it ripped off first. As the struts and housings holding the two massive Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines on that wing failed, the deadly innards sprayed in all directions. While the plane cartwheeled and slid haphazardly forward, both the nose and its right wing encountered obstacles. The pilots, and bridge area generally, were quickly crushed. The second wing snapped off and by then, with structural stresses far beyond the strength capability of the aluminum skin and internal framing, the middle of the plane ripped open. Passengers spilled out, some already dismembered. Eventually bodies and pieces of the shattered wreck came to rest over the space of about half a mile.

During the next few minutes, most of those not already dead succumbed to their wounds. Miraculously, about a dozen passengers remained alive. In the small first-class section forward, behind the crushed bridge, everyone was killed, but in a forward-aisle seat of tourist-class there was a temporary survivor. Lewis P. Howard, the Aramco engineer who’d boarded in Dhahran, was badly injured but alive. Next to him, his wife, Marian. and daughter, Elizabeth, were dead. The battering seems to have been particularly hard on smaller bodies—none of the twenty-three children and women aboard lived, including the four cabin attendants. One of whom, Momi Durrani, at that time the “face of PIA” in the airline’s print advertisements, had been in the least damaged rear of the plane. That is where Jalal-al-Karimi, a vigorous thirty-something-year-old, found that, other than being badly bruised, he was fine.

Despite the fuel burned during the 1200-mile flight from Dhahran, there was certainly fire risk, and Howard, a U.S. Navy catapult officer in World War II, would have been keenly fearful. (Many victims were ultimately burned beyond recognition.) Regardless of who sounded the alarm, it was Karimi, the Dhahran-based PIA station manager, who acted. One by one he helped the survivors to a small nearby hillock. The miserable group looked out over the wreckage, mourning their friends, companions, and loved ones. Travel agent Shaukat A. Mecklai, whose wife was in a first-class seat, was alive and grieving. But by the very act of moving their battered bodies painfully to that hillock, they showed a determination to live. Perhaps they had other loved ones, perhaps they saw their life’s work as unfinished, perhaps they were just ornery. In any case they were alive and most desperately needing medical help.

Would it come in time? They weren’t that far from the airport. The control tower operators knew Flight 705 should have landed. They knew the radio connection had been broken. Surely help would come. Within minutes their hopes were raised only to be quickly dashed. First to the scene were not saviors but looters. Jewelry, particularly wedding and engagement rings, was a prime target. Where necessary, fingers of the dead were cut off. Somewhere in the wreckage a smallish shoebox full of diamonds headed to De Beers’s London Central Selling Organization by confidential courier was found … and kept. It must have been heartbreaking to watch.

As the minutes ticked slowly by, injuries and wounds winnowed the group. It took an unforgivable six hours for help to arrive, strengthening my conviction in the ground staff’s incompetence and adding to my distrust of any information they later gave to accident investigators. By then only Karimi, Mecklai, Raza, and three others were alive. Former Navy officer Howard was dead from his injuries, his wedding ring added to the loot and his remains later identified by his dental records. In total, 121 dead have their names memorialized on a stone monument in the Pakistani section of Cairo’s Bassatine cemetery. Most are interred there, although Exxon flew Love’s body home to his grieving family and a somber Connecticut wedding. None of the thirteen crew members survived. It was, at the time, the third worst single-plane disaster in aviation history. All Pakistan grieved. It changed my life … I was Lewis Howard’s eighteen-year-old son in Michigan.

Vignette from Aramco Brat: How Arabia, Oil, Gold and Tragedy Shaped My Life

About the Author

Rich Howard lives comfortably in Guilford, Connecticut, with his wife, Yvette, and two cats. Close by are his sons, Robert and Paul, their wives, and his five grandchildren His working past included managing both billion-dollar mutual funds and the similar-sized investment portfolios of institutional clients. He is now trying to become semiretired. However, the supposed occasional hour spent analyzing energy securities continues to engage him and typically leads to far more work Boiling Point Energy, the small family investment partnership he helps manage, is named for the Ras Tanura home he left so many years ago.

Rich has served on the Board of Trustees of both Millikin University and Quinnipiac University where he is happy to now have emeritus status, having largely reduced responsibilities. Other enjoyed activities include woodworking, gardening, and reading Thanks to the inactivity caused by COVID-19, he is “probably” retired from playing basketball. Aramco Brat, his first book, has taught him that writing is hard work. In the unlikely event he authors a second, it will be an espionage novel that plagiarizes Brat and fills in the blanks of what might and may well have happened during his time in Arabia.

From Pittsburgh trailer park to Harvard Business School, a youth's journey set in the turbulent Middle East spiked with tragedy, wrong turns, unforced errors, luck, espionage, and family love. Whether life grinds you down or polishes you...depends on what you're made of.