When I read the news of a farewell sightseeing flight with IranAir’s Boeing 747SP in a Facebook group in September, I barely raised an eyebrow. After all, it was still just a version of the Jumbo Jet, and for me this didn’t justify travelling to this far-away and media-bashed country. But then I realized that there were still Boeing 727s operating scheduled passenger flights in Iran, and got much more interested. And when the news emerged that a joyride in an Antonov An-74 was being looked into on the same date, I just couldn’t resist any longer. And so I started the complicated booking and visa procedure…

 

 

The Preparations

Visa and Tour booking

First, the money for the tour needed to be paid. Because of the embargoes, this couldn’t be paid to the Iranian tour operator organising the event, but had to be sent to a bank account in Turkey instead. Of course the transaction was not to include any mention of the tour operator, its employees or the country of Iran, in order not to risk confiscation of the money. Of course this isn’t really inspiring confidence, but having travelled to North Korea before, I was familiar with the procedure. That’s one of the drawbacks of balancing on the axis of evil.

Then, it was time to get a visa. While a Visa on Arrival is possible, I didn’t want to depend on the mood of the immigration officer, and hence decided to get a regular visa. For this, the travel agency had to obtain a reference number from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs first, which arrived after about a week. In the meantime, I had to visit the police to obtain a set of my fingerprints – definitely something new for me! But since the EU requires all Iranian visa applicants to submit fingerprints, their home country just imposed the same rule on any Schengen nationals. Well, why not.

After I had obtained all the other, more regular stuff typically required when applying for a visa, I was ready to travel to the Iranian embassy in Berne. Thanks to a 50 percent express surcharge I was done in less than 20 minutes (instead of two weeks), and finally held my Iranian visa in hands. This marked the successful completion of step 1.

The 727 Flights

Step 2 was the planning of the Boeing 727 flights. The airlines don’t make that too easy, since they usually only publish their domestic timetables roughly 30 days in advance. At least Iran Aseman Airlines, the 727s’ operator, offers an online booking system which also displays aircraft types.


So, when I finally got news that the November timetable had been published, I immediately pulled an all-nighter and crawled through Aseman’s complete timetable. Finally I was able to work out which routes their three Boeing 727s would be flying during the days of my visit, and I noticed that they are mostly sent around the country on a W-pattern, with the route between the two biggest cities of Tehran and Mashhad serving as the trunk. While this was very handy for me, it was still possible that one of the planes would be replaced by a Fokker 100 on short notice. Therefore I put together a bundle of seven 727 flights total (two on one day and five on the other), which would give me seats on all three airframes at the same time, and thereby allow me to switch flights in case one or even two airframes were replaced.


Since the tour agency that organised the 747 flights was pretty overwhelmed by the demand, I contacted the Iran Traveling Center to book these domestic flights, where I was treated very courteously by their helpful agent Mitra. Of course she couldn’t help wondering about the massive array of flights I asked to be booked, and feared that the Airport Intelligence Service would become suspicious. However, with a bit of courage I finally asked her to book all the flights, and so I was all set for the trip.





Day 1: Let's go!

Travelling from Frankfurt to Tehran in the Iran Air A300

Finally the big day had come. Me and my travel companion René had already driven from Switzerland up to Frankfurt the night before, and now we were standing in front of check-in counter nr. 710 inside Frankfurt Airport’s Terminal 1. The young check-in agent, who was a native Iranian herself, was pretty amazed that two young gentlemen were travelling to her home country for sheer pleasure, without any business interests or family meetings necessitating the trip. She was very enthusiastic about it though, and said that she wished that more young people travelled to her home country. After a short battle for seats (we asked for seats on the left-hand side behind the wing, but those were all sold out) we were finally placed at the right-hand side emergency exit. Good for the legs, less good for the photos (backlit).

 


 

All set for our adventure, we killed some time riding the SkyTrain – the only reason being the good view of our IranAir plane, which was parked just below its elevated tracks.

Ending up in Terminal 2 after our ride, we couldn’t help but follow the smell of food, and indulged in a completely Anti-Iranian last meal: A selection of German sausages for me, and a pint of beer for my friend René. We were both hoping that the Iranian guardians of public morals weren’t looking over our shoulders just yet, and that the sniffer dogs at Tehran’s airport wouldn’t be able to pick up the alcohol and pork meat in our perspiration.

Soon, we returned to Terminal 1 and our gate, where boarding had already begun 45 minutes prior to departure. Everyone was eager to get the plane ready before schedule, and so we were quickly ushered inside. 

When entering the cabin, the first thing we noticed were the large flatscreen TVs mounted on the middle walls, and the sonorous voice of a mullah who calmly read some kind of prayer:  
Next, the Purser welcomed everyone on board, starting with “In the name of God the compassionate and the merciful, welcome on board Iran Air Flight 720 to Tehran”. There was definitely no lack of godly blessings! And like to prove this point, right then the push-back started – ten minutes before schedule!

 

We proceeded to taxi to Runway 18, passing Airbus’ newest flagship on the way – 18 years and two generations apart from our own plane, which we admired in Frankfurt Airport’s huge mirror.

After our Flap-zero take-off the crew waited anxiously for the seat-belt signs to be extinguished at 18’000 feet, and then sprung into admirable action handing out snack boxes – despite embonpoint on the male and chadors on the female side heavily working against them. The box contained some nuts, sweet crackers with grape seeds, as well as a yummy chicken sandwich complete with lettuce and gherkins. That’s more than you get on most European flights, yet here it was just the bridging meal to prevent anyone of starving to death on the short 90 minute leg to our fuel stop in Belgrade, before the full meal service would kick in on the onward flight.

The Serbian capital was hiding beneath dark overcast clouds, but we still reached it in time. We taxied to a remote stand where the fuel truck was already waiting. The reason behind the whole fuel stop procedure? Because of the embargoes, Iran Air is not served fuel in some countries including Germany. Therefore, their A300 leaves Tehran filled to the gills with fuel, flies straight to Frankfurt, and then proceeds onward to Belgrade with what’s left in the tanks to fuel up there. The whole rotation is also performed by the same crew – being picked-up at their homes in Tehran at 4AM, and returning just around midnight. What a long day for man and machine!

 

 

During the hour-long ground stop we started a conversation with two elderly Iranian gentlemen who reside in Germany, and after only ten minutes they had already invited us to a picnic with their families the next day, plus equipped us with emergency contacts all around the country, in the forms of unsuspecting distant relatives. A first example of the Iranian hospitality!

With all the babbling we completely missed the seat-belt chime, and hurriedly headed back to our seats when we heard the #2 engine spool up. Soon after, the plane taxied back to Runway 30 and took off, bound for Tehran. Only 3h 30mins of flight time were left before we would reach the Iranian capital.


After half an hour, the next meal service was fired up, and we were served a well-filled dinner tray. I really like the frequency of meals here! And the quality wasn’t too bad either: Rice with chicken or beef was served, joined by a light salad, a Tsatziki-like sauce, and a delicious chocolate cake with marmalade and marzipan. Yeah, we definitely didn’t start this trip hungry!


I spent the remaining flight time already copying photos to my laptop and working on this report, because when we got to Tehran we would need to find sleep as soon as possible before getting up again at 4AM. I couldn’t help flipping through the in-flight magazine though, and just about the only thing I could read was a surprising amount of ads for Swiss watches. Plus the nice ad of “Bern Sleeping Products”, which fits very well with the slow and sleepy image people from Bern have within Switzerland. My friend René soon followed them to the land of dreams, too :-)

Arrival at Tehran’s international Imam Khomeini Airport, 50km outside the city, was smooth as silk. Immigration took all but 30 seconds, and waiting for our suitcases a mere couple of minutes. We soon spotted an agent of our tourist agency, who met the two of us plus two other travellers from the same flight, and drove us downtown. Which was fine, except that the hour-long drive with five people plus suitcases crammed into his small private car was really a test of nerves.


But we finally made it and reached our home base for the next five days: The Ferdowsi Grand Hotel, one of the best places to stay in town. We quickly checked in, rushed through the strangely decorated lobby, and fell asleep in our slightly kitschy room soon after. 

 

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Day 2

Flying the Boeing 727 to Mashhad

The alarm clock went off at 3:55, waaay to early for our taste. Because if things had gone as planned, we would have been able to sleep in much longer, since our first booked 727 flight to Mashhad wasn’t to take place until 11 o’clock. However, the day before, my contact at the travel agency sent me a worried Whatsapp message, saying that this flight had been cancelled. She instantly offered to re-book us onto an earlier flight though, which was also carried out by a 727 – the only drawback being that this flight already left at 06.45. Lack of sleep aside, I was impressed by her good service – never in my life have I booked a flight via Whatsapp, and never so quick and easy either. Wouldn’t have expected that to happen in Iran!

With our first 727 flight awaiting we finally managed to climb out of bed, and 15 minutes later we were greeted by a funny taxi driver, who took us to Tehran’s domestic airport Mehrabad in just under 20 minutes. That’s the one perk of departing so early. Later in the day you would need more than an hour for the same 7km route, thanks to Tehran’s chaotic traffic. Being at the airport a bit early was nice, too, since we were able to have a look around the terminal first. And you can have a look around too, since the photo below is a 360 degree view :-). 

Waiting for our check-in to open we went for a cup of tea at the terminal’s restaurant, where, upon learning where we were from Switzerland, staff immediately brought us a Swiss flag. What a warm welcome! Check-in was a good experience, too: The agent liked us, and gave us exactly the seat numbers we had scribbled on our reservation document, located right between the wing and the engines: 26A and 27A. Let the adventure begin!
(oh, and take a close look at my jacket: there are four memory cards in each of the chest pockets, allowing me to quickly bank any good photos and insert a new memory card in the camera on the go).

We then proceeded through the gender-divided security control to the departure area, which is in fact one large hall with five or so doors to board buses. Thus it totally resembled a bus station, and this being the start of rush hour, it was fairly busy, too.

 

With a slight delay of five minutes, our flight to Mashhad was boarded. Yay, jets go! Lo and behold, after the 5 minute bus trip along most of Mehrabad’s aprons, we indeed stopped right in front of a Boeing 727. To be precise, it was B727-228 EP-ASA, built in 1980.

I counted three or four bus-loads full of passengers, and in the end there was no spare seat to be seen. But as long as I had one, I didn’t mind, and prepared for my first B727 flight:


 

 

 

One after another, the three engines in the back were started up, creating a wonderful noise in our rear part of the cabin. Brakes were released and we taxied by many an interesting domestic plane on our way to Rwy 29L. Here we lined up, the sound from the three P&W JT8D engines intensified even more, and the three rockets pushed us past the military aprons into the early morning Tehran sky. To sample the take-off sound or get yourself in the 727 mood even more, listen to the audio file below: 

Soon, a 180-degree turn followed, putting us on an eastern track in the direction of Mashhad. And just as we had established ourselves on that track, an impressive mountain chain caught my attention outside the window: The Alborz Mountains north of Tehran, topped by 5’671m high volcano Mt. Damavand.

The rest of the journey was often pretty scenic, too!

On the inside, a light breakfast battled for our attention – and since we hadn’t eaten anything since our Iran Air flight the day before, it didn’t survive too long.

After a good 40 minutes in the air, the nose was lowered and we descended towards Iran’s second biggest city, Mashhad. Several layers of clouds and fog awaited here, but I didn’t mind: I finally flew on a 727, and got away with taking some decent pictures too!

Upon entering the terminal, we were in for a huge surprise: The structure had only been completed pretty recently, and it’s very roomy, clean and looks quite noble with the golden paint everywhere. The reason behind all this pomp is Mashhad’s position as one of the seven holy sites of the Shias Islam, which flushes 20 million pilgrims to the city per year - and of course you want to impress them from the very first moment!

 

Speed-Sightseeing in Mashhad

Another good example of this theme is the neat mosque which we discovered right outside of the terminal:

However, we yearned for more, and so we caught the next cab and headed downtown, looking for the Shrine of Imam Reza, apparently the world’s second-largest mosque complex. We had no trouble finding it – just follow the black bloc :-)

Here it is!

Unfortunately, non-Muslims wanting to enter the Shrine need to undergo a lengthy admission process, which even involves contacting the Ministry of the Interior. Too much hassle for our four-hour turn-around, and so we sticked to peeking inside through the huge entry gates.

The architecture is really nice though! 

On the bazaar next door, which caters to every imaginable and unimaginable need of the pilgrims, we were much more welcome.

Many traditional things were on offer, like spices, sweets, or the local trademark: saffron.

 

But even in case you are looking for medicine, perfumes and children’s dolls AND happen to notice you’re missing a padlock at home, you are all catered for!

Unfortunately we had to bid farewell to this maze of colours and smells way too soon, and return back to the airport. On the way we learnt that you shouldn’t kick escalators, but that they in turn seem to be pretty malicious towards that part of the population wearing a chador. We also got to know the Iranian car, the Paykan manufactured by Iran National, which was our ride back to the airport. And in the grocery shop there, we noticed that the Iranians don’t just seem to like our watches, but also our most famous mountain :-)

 

 

Back to Tehran "only" on the 727

For the return to Tehran, we had two different flights booked. One was of course Iran Aseman’s Boeing 727, just in case that the morning flight had experienced an aircraft change. As an alternative, we had also booked a flight with an old Airbus A300-B4 of Iran Air, leaving roughly at the same time. However, a few hours before the flight I received an e-mail from Iran Air, saying that we had been rebooked onto a supplementary flight, which appeared in the system as an Airbus A320. Of course we wanted to avoid flying on such a new plane at all costs, but booking us back onto the A300 was not possible – nobody even understood why we wanted to do that. But, was the additional flight really an A320? The only way to find out was to queue at the IranAir Check-in counter, and when it was our turn, to ask the agent whether it was an A320. The following conversation ensued:

“Yes, here it’s written A320”
“Okay, thank you. In that case, we will cancel our bookings and will not check in”
“I need your passports to check you in”
“No, we don’t want to check in”
“You don’t want to check in any luggage?”
“No, we don’t want to check in at all. No flight. Thank you”

The poor guy looked more than puzzled, and will probably to this day ponder the question what in the world these two foreigners had against modern Airbus planes.

And so, we had to content ourselves with the contingency plan – Iran Aseman’s trusty old 727. Of course that’s not a bad choice at all! Here she is seen returning from the destination of today’s W-Pattern, Zahedan, a hotspot located close to the Afghan and Pakistan border. No apparent bullet holes to be seen, and the drugs are very well hidden anyway. All green then for our return to Tehran!

Half an hour later, a bus takes the 40 passengers to the waiting 727, and soon we are climbing skywards again – a bit more agile than on the fully loaded morning flight.

We are already looking forward to the next inflight meal, as these were our only sources of food so far. This afternoon we are treated to chicken (dry as a bone) and a vegetable omelette – a meal we would see two more times the next day, and accordingly slowly become fed up with.

Since there wasn’t much work for the cabin crew I asked them about the possibility of a cockpit visit, and after a quick chat with the Captain the Purser returned to me with the good news that I could follow him to the front. In the cockpit I was warmly welcomed, instantly served with tea and sweets and invited to stay there for the remainder of the flight. Now that’s formidable hospitality!


Unfortunately though, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures with my big cameras, just with the mobile phone. So I just left it at one shot, and focused on enjoying the very historic occasion with all my senses instead. The approach over Tehran’s sea of houses was immensely beautiful, and something I won’t forget!

Besides this, I got some interesting information about the plane for the Captain – for example, he said that the 727s would be flying for another five years, that they typically cruise at Mach 0.81 and that he’s always landing with Flaps 30. The fuel dials then told me that upon landing, a total of 17,4 tons of fuel was consumed. However, this seems to have been for the whole rotation Tehran-Mashhad-Zahedan-Mashhad-Tehran, with each flight taking a bit more than an hour. Still, a full A320 on the same route would only burn between 12 and 13 tons.

 

After this wonderful experience we joyfully returned to the hotel, skipped the planned sightseeing, and instead headed straight for our welcoming beds…




Day 3

Mashhad on the 727 - yet again :-)

After another extremely short night we shuffled out of the hotel lobby at 04.15 – only to meet our funny taxi driver from the day before. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. Just 24 hours ago he brought us to the airport to send us off to Mashhad – and now we were standing right in front of him again, once again asking to be taken to the airport? We were kind enough to conceal that we were once again travelling to Mashhad, or he would’ve deemed us completely crazy.


Despite all this we reached the airport in record 15 minutes, and were back again at the entrance of Terminal 4. Today we are right on time to witness the opening of our check-in counter, perform our usual strategy of scribbling the wanted seat numbers on our reservation, and head to the waiting agent. Unfortunately he isn’t able to give us these seats, as only 40 passengers are booked and the rear of the cabin is off limits because of trim reasons. Still, we are confident to move in flight. At the counter right next to ours, the flight to the oil town of Ahwaz is checked in – which is good, because their plane will later take us from Mashhad back to Tehranz, via Ahwaz. Fingers crossed it all works out!

So today we are planning for two different registrations. The first one is new for us: EP-ASB, built in 1980 as well, is just 20 days younger than her sister EP-ASA.




Let’s climb inside again!

Perfect timing I’d say, just as the parking brakes are released we witness a beautiful sunrise. We taxi to the runway, take off towards the west, and then perform the usual 180-degree-turn back to the east again. Beautiful!

Next up, Mount Damavand – yep, it’s still there and beautiful as ever!

We quickly gorge down the dry chicken and omelette again (with lots of water…), and then head for a discovery tour of the rear cabin, which we have all to ourselves today thanks to the meagre load factor

Looking down the cabin, plus some close-ups…

 

But we frequently turn our eyes toward the scenery, too, since there’s quite a lot to see outside!

Interesting and stunning! 

Yes, the classical views are not to be missed either! 

As we overfly these snow-covered peaks in the descent to Mashhad, it gets even more beautiful

After just over an hour, we’re once again on finals for Mashhad’s airport (Iran’s second busiest airport in front of Tehran’s new IKA but behind its old Mehrabad), which today is enjoying some weak winter sunshine. Nice!


And if you like moving pictures (or are just craving a dose of 727 sound), take a look at this video of the approach, recorded by my colleague René

 

Leaving the aircraft in style – just before the guy in the high-vis jacket stops me from taking pictures :D

Once the bus is moving, I’m grabbing the camera again, for a nice farewell shot

 

Back to Tehran via Ahwaz

Third 727 ride logged, and the fourth one is coming right away! Unfortunately, our check-in agent’s comprehension seems to be very limited, and despite us pointing to our jotted down seat numbers and earning many a “yes, yes”, we end up sitting on the wrong, backlit side of the plane. At least I manage to find a spot inside Mashhad’s terminal from where I can shoot 20 minutes worth of taxiing planes, only using my bridge camera though in order not to raise too much suspicion

 

Then it is 727 o’clock again, as good old ASA is entering the apron inbound from Ahwaz. This means we will end up with four flights on her in total!

Now it’s time for Nr. 3, and it’s gonna be completely full again. We even spotted someone with sequence nr. 177, while there are only 172 seats on board. Well, just have everybody enter first, and care about seat assignments later…

It takes a good amount of time till everyone has found a place to sit, but finally, we are on our way to Ahwaz and Tehran!


As expected, we have the sun shining in our faces for the whole flight – only when approaching Ahwaz, its major claim to fame comes to our rescue: The WHO attested it the worst air pollution anywhere in the world, and at least the smog kills the sunshine too. This lets us see some of Ahwaz’ primary industry: For over a hundred years people have drilled for oil here, turning the village of 2’000 inhabitants into a city of over a million. However, we don’t get to see any sign of civilisation – just lots of oil rigs, endless desert, and countless pipelines.

 

At the end of the runway we turn onto a small apron, and come to a standstill right in front of the rather unglamorous structure that is Ahwaz’ main terminal

We are in a bit of a hurry, because just as my initial timetable predicted, the same plane would fly onwards to Tehran in just 40 minutes – without this being offered as a regular connection, of course. Thus, the crew is pretty shocked when we tell them about or plans. But they quickly summon someone of the ground crew, who fetches another rampie to take us through the terminal and straight to the check-in desk. The two of us in trail, the big guy storms through all the waiting crowds in the terminal, and 45 seconds after deplaning we are standing at the check-in counter – together with 50 or so other passengers. As expected, the check-in is still in progress, and we would have had plenty of time. Still, our new-found friend doesn’t give up yet, heads straight to the counter in front of everyone else, and returns with our new boarding passes just moments later. Now that’s VIP service!


Just three minutes after deplaning, we are waiting at the security control again, where we spark the interest of all the officers. Not because they suspect any security concerns, but rather because they have no idea where Switzerland is, and have never seen anybody from that far-away country. Seems like it gets pretty lonely out here in the desert, and certainly not too many foreigners are passing through their airport. Anyway, we have a lot of fun with these guys, and even if it takes some convincing to make them accept it, our box of Swiss chocolates that we give them is a source of huge joy. Interesting, where in the world you find new friends because of this hobby!

 

After 20 minutes of waiting we board our last 727 flight of the trip, and quite likely our last 727 flight ever. Even out here in the desert, the sky is crying too, and so everyone of the 172 passengers is sprinting to the airplane under torrential rains – and greeted on board by the crew handing out paper tissues. It takes some time for everyone to recover and find their seats, but finally we hear the engines roar up one last time, as we are taking off to Tehran.

The 50-minute flight is normal, we once again savour our “beloved” dry chicken (just two hours after sampling it for the third time), enjoy the last minutes aboard this trijet (and probably *any* trijet?) and pretty soon we’re turning onto the approach path for Tehran

Back where it all started this morning, unfortunately sitting on the wrong side to capture the beautiful photos of Tehran’s sea of houses. But still, we enjoy every bit of it!

Not having had any problems with photography over the last two days, I grow a bit more confident and quickly shoot around during deplaning. My main interest is this beauty here resting on the Aseman apron, an Ex-United 727 which went to the UAE’s Al Rais Cargo in 2003, was converted to a freighter, and then passed on to Aseman in 2009. Apparently it hasn’t been flying since 2010, but it’s still looking good!

These two littluns here are most likely a bit more active.

We still had about 90 minutes till sunset, so we jumped into the first taxi we saw and directed the driver to one of Tehran’s newer tourist attractions: 435m high Borj e Milad, the world’s sixth-highest tower (built in 2007), which offers an observation deck with stunning views

Unfortunately, it took the better part of these 90 minutes to fight our way through traffic and get to the tower, even though it is just 10km away from the airport. Thus we missed the sunset, but then again, with every passing minute, the views got more amazing anyway: Thousands of headlights lit up Tehran’s motorways like contrast agent lights up one’s arteries, and the endless sea of houses started sparkling all around us. A commanding spectacle that’s not to be missed!

 

 

 


Day 4: Photographing airplanes in the museum and on approach

After three days of flying, it was time for our one and only flight-less day of the trip. Originally intended as a buffer in case that no 727 flight had worked out, we didn’t need it for this purpose and decided to go hunting planes instead. The first stop was Tehran’s Aerospace Exhibition Center, its open-air museum located at the northern end of Mehrabad airport. With plenty of time on our hands, we decided to use the subway and suburban trains for a change, and walk 20 minutes from the nearest station.

Unfortunately, we had to leave our DSLR’s at the entrance, but my smaller Powershot G1X was allowed inside. First, have a 360-degree view of the main flight line.



The first main draw were these two 727s (seems like they haunt me even on my days off!). They were built in 64 and 67, and served the Shah of Persia (background plane) and his sister respectively. The 727 in the front was opened up for a class of school children, and so we tagged along too to get inside, and to see its faded glory.

 

The school kids were just as enthusiastic about our visit as we were about the planes – we felt like rock stars ourselves, climbing down the 727’s rear stair and being cheered and waved at!

Not just as cheerful is the sight of these two Rockwell Commanders – they correspond pretty well with the image the general public has of propeller planes :-)

This 737-200 clearly isn’t in her prime anymore either. It’s been ten years since she’s been put to rest in the museum, limited to enviously watching all the active tri- and quad-jets still rocking the show next door.

The same applies to this Iran Aseman Fokker 28 (built in 78), and the equally old Cargo Queen B747-200 EP-ICC, which were both put out of service in 2000.

A bit more captivating is the history of this Tristar here. Built for TWA, it was sold to Air Atlanta Icelandic after 10 years, where it remained flying as TF-ABT for another 20 years. It was then bought by Air Universal, a company from Jordan, who used it for various wet-leases in the Middle East under a Sierra Leonean registration. The last customer appears to have been Mahan Air, hence its final resting place here…


For anyone who thought of Delta when looking at its paint: That bird never flew for the Atlanta carrier, its sistership 9L-LDE however, which is parked just next to it, did so for many years, before also being bought my Air Universal. 

There was time for some fun, too! :-)

After about an hour we left the museum, and took a taxi to nearby Wasabi Azadi Square (René came up with that name and somehow it stuck), where we met with local spotter Mehrad. Before though, we admired the grandeur of Iran’s second biggest square and its 50 meter high tower, which is made out of 8’000 marble blocks

Enough history for now, let’s get back to moving targets! Tehran’s most famous spot, located on a footbridge next to the runway was off limits to us, since the prime views of the military apron that you enjoy from there make you a favourite target of the police, especially as a foreigner. Instead, we spent two hours in a park beneath the approach path, taking pictures of everything that flew over our head – which wasn’t bad at all either.

There were even two nice little highlights. One being the An-74 of the Revolutionary Guard (keep that one in mind for later), and the other being “our” EP-ASB returning from her first mission of the day.

The one big highlight though was this Boeing 707, registered 5-8310, which was built in 1976 as a tanker and transport aircraft for the Iranian Army. For some years she also carried passengers as Saha Air’s EP-SHU, but now she’s been returned to the military again. What a rare and special sight, and what a treat for the ears! A perfect ending for the day which started in the museum – seeing living history is so much better! .

Returning to the hotel was an adventure, too. Not really because of using the subway during rush hour, but mostly because of getting across 6-lane Azadi Square in the worst of traffic first :-)

 

Back in the hotel area we took some time to amble through the streets and alleys, and suddenly stumbled upon this lively market here, well hidden from the main street

In an adjacent shopping center there were hundreds of stores offering women’s clothing, and we were more than impressed to see what all these women are wearing beneath their black chadors. In contrast, male fashion ideals didn’t seem to be overly appealing…

One wrong turn on our walk back to the hotel, and we were lost in what we called “Lamp Street” – more than one kilometres’ worth of lamp and light shops back to back, and a very enlightening experience!

 

After having recovered from the light shocks, we took a cab to Milad Tower once again, where we reunited with our local friend Mehrad and a group of Japanese photographers for a traditional Iranian meal. The food was outstanding, and we had a lot of fun long into the night. 
Both photos © Mehrad W.

 


Day 5: Joyrides on the B747SP and Antonov An-74

Finally, it was time for the two highlights of my trip to Iran: the flights on board the Iran Air Boeing 747SP and the Antonov An-74. After a quick geek reunion at breakfast, we left the hotel in a big yellow tour bus headed for the airport. 90 minutes were scheduled for the 7km, and considering the chaotic traffic, this was a very wise decision.

 

 

Flying aboard Iran Air's Boeing 747SP EP-IAC

Right on time we got to Mehrabad’s Terminal 2, and instantly noticed that Iran Air had pulled out all the stops for today’s event: Two dedicated and specially decorated Check-in counters were waiting for us, and here every participant received a boarding pass plus a badge.

 

We quickly made our way through the security checks, the officers staring at all the photo equipment on their conveyors in disbelief. Everything was waved through though, except for a few tripods, which were apparently returned after the flight.



Reaching the airside windows, all the spotters sprinted into the tiny smoking room – not to get their nicotine fix though, but to shoot some much craved for pictures. Especially since word had gotten around that our SP Jumbo was on a test flight, and was expected to land again any minute. And lo and behold, here she is!

As the old lady got readied, we were kept waiting inside the terminal – which was more than welcome, as many of us enjoyed taking some pictures of all the airplanes taxiing by. Meanwhile, the Iranian spotters in our group couldn’t believe it: they would never have dared to take any photos inside this terminal, let alone standing at the windows for a full hour, displaying huge telephoto lenses, and gazing over to the military apron. But today seemed to be a special day with special rules!


And indeed, there was no problem with photography whatsoever, and so these were the movements we got:

After a very slow boarding, finally the first bus made its way out to the waiting SP. Doors opened, and this fantastic view awaited!

Time to get a bit better acquainted with EP-IAC. The Boeing 747SP-86 wears serial number 307, was built in May 1977, and delivered straight to Iran Air, as nr. 18 of a total of 45 SPs built.

The flight was completely sold out, with the majority of tickets going to the Iranian public. After a few busloads had arrived, there was a huge congregation building up all around the mighty Jumbo. With all this frenzy going on, I took the chance, sneaked on the rear airstair…

…and shot THIS! What a streak of luck to be parked right next to this beauty – the 1976-built Boeing 707 “1002” of the Government of Iran. I wouldn’t mind flying on this plane either!

Another two planes which I could photograph were these two here – almost like a small ramp tour in Tehran!

But let’s get to our four-engined beauty now, which was quietly enjoying all the attention she was getting. It was a real party out there, out on the apron of Tehran airport, where usually a strict photo ban is enforced. Am I dreaming?

After approximately 15 minutes out on the tarmac it was time to ascend to heaven…err, the cabin of the 747. While doing so, I was able to log yet another special plane: The Falcon 20F “0110” of the Iranian Police. That one was chartered for an Air 2 Air shooting by two Austrian guys – but just as our Jumbo took off, the Falcon had to land again without a single picture taken, because an Iranian minister required urgent transportation. What a pity!

 

Unaware of all this, we settled into our comfy seats, listened to the four engines spooling up, and gave in to our quickly rising excitement. It grew even bigger when we taxied towards Rwy 29L and finally lined up. Ready to rumble, let’s go!

The four Pratt & Whitney PW JT9D-7F engines did a fantastic job, and pushed us up into the skies in no time.

The higher we climbed, the better the view got. Here are Tehran’s northwestern suburbs, plus our chase plane shortly before it had to land again.

Very quickly, the seat belt signs were killed, and 300 maniacs darted around the cabin. Most people were squeezing towards the front, so I enjoyed the calm all the way in the back first

Further to the front, the species Spotter was found shooting and praying – and one particularly famous individual was startled in its natural habitat, the Business Class :-)

Human traffic was at its densest around the narrow spiral staircase that leads to the upper floor. However, it wasn’t the additional set of seats that was of primary interest, but the open cockpit door – or much rather, the amazing view that awaited behind it!

Flying History! 

After the whole hustle and bustle I tried to calm down by gazing out along the iconic wings as we surfed along the cloud tops…

When everybody had settled back to their seats in preparation for landing, small gifts were handed out: A beautifully designed Iran Air box containing a pinch of saffron; the world’s most expensive spice is primarily harvested in Iran

The hour up in the air passed way too fast, and after a few last turns we were established on the ILS of Runway 29L again. Finally, in the third attempt, I was able to capture my beloved “Tehran’s Sea of Houses” view – with a 747’s wing gracing the photo, too. Who’s a happy camper?

Zooming in over the myriad of houses, you can easily recognize Milad Tower in the background, the one where my earlier night shots were taken from

After landing we taxied back to our parking stand and everybody prepared to leave. STOP! Nobody leaves an Iranian airplane without having been catered for with food at least once. And if you have 300 crazy avgeeks blocking the service up in the air, you just dish out the meals after landing. Simple as that.

After that unexpected encore, the time had finally come to leave the old lady again, and bid farewell in some lucky sunshine – the clouds parted just in time!

After this exceptional flight, the bus took us back to the terminal, where each and every passenger was given an Iran Air gift bag, containing a beautiful personal certificate, a paper ticket and an appealing Iran Air blanket. That’s Iranian hospitality!

The encore: Flying in the An-74 of the Revolutionary Guard


However, the most feverishly expected treat was yet to come! With the prospect of 50 aviation enthusiasts from all over the world flocking to his country, Iranian spotter Sharam Sharifi managed to charter an Antonov An-74 for a joyride, too. Most amazingly, the plane didn’t belong to any civil airline, but to the fleet of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – i.e. the paramilitary organisation which was founded during the Islamic Revolution 1979 to protect the country’s Islamic system, but which has also been found engaging in wars in other countries.


We all received a Pouya Air boarding pass (which is kind of the civil arm of the Revolutionary Guard, offering Il-76 and An-74s for cargo charters) and were then bussed to the northwestern most corner of the airport. This turned into yet another fantastic ramp tour, and while were were still on the civilian aprons, we were allowed to take pictures, too. Unfortunately only these two planes were parked nice enough to be photographed. As can easily be seen, the one on the right once belonged to Aeromexico, before it left their fleet in 2008.

Continuing to the military part of the airport, our tour leader begged us not to take any more pictures: “Pleeeeaaaase, don’t take the photo. Please!”. This was very unfortunate, since we passed rows of parked An-74s and Il-76s, all standing there in amazing evening light. Finally we reached our An-74 – “only” 16 years old, it was the youngest aircraft on this trip – but probably the most special one, too.

Inside, there wasn’t too much space, and only four small windows total. But in order to fly on a special type, an avgeek’s gotta do what an avgeek’s gotta do, right?

At least there was some use for the panorama function of my phone :-)

Apart from that, I had to content myself during the whole flight with shoting some cabin details... 

…or so I thought. Because barely had we left Tehran, it was announced that all passengers would be invited to visit and photograph the cockpit now. In Iran, inside a military transport aircraft, of all places. Is this even real? Oh yes, very much so – moments later I was looking over the revolutionary pilots’ shoulders…

Thanks to the fact that everyone was shuffling to the cockpit, there was a bit more room to move about the cabin now, even though it still required many artistic feats to climb over legs, seats and cables. At the rear end, one could peek into the cargo hold and towards the closed cargo door. My main interest was in the rear right window however, since that one would yield the best views of the approach over Tehran.

However, I wasn’t really alone with this thought. But even though I’m sure he was secretly wondering what a pack of crazy geeks he had picked up here, smartly dressed Mr. Revolutionary Loadmaster in the back remained quiet and let us fight for the window, as we all enjoyed the stunning views.

Thanks to formidable team-work and window-sharing, everyone could capture the stunning sight of vast Tehran on approach framed by the An74 wing, which makes the picture even more special.

After all this excitement and freedom on board, the rules concerning photography weren’t enforced anymore on the way back to the terminal, which allowed me to capture a few photos of the Pouya Air inventory we passed.  There wasn't anything juicy to hide - except for the titles on the first An-74 maybe, which made a somewhat handmade impression :-)

 

Before reaching the terminals, we also passed by the governmental apron, and could almost touch one of the 707s. A great end for this fantastic day – and here’s to hoping we’ll someday be able to fly on one!





Day 6: Returning home

After some last minute shopping in the alleys of Tehran and another short night (with 4.5 hours of sleep it was merely average for that trip), we were picked up and taken to the international Imam Khomeini airport early the next morning – once again sharing a much too small private car with other passengers of the Frankfurt flight.


 

Having spent the last Iranian Rials on way too expensive sweets and teas in the Duty Free shop, we ambled to our assigned gate, and discovered that good old EP-IBB was waiting for us again – the same plane that had taken here from Frankfurt.
Just as all the other flights before, this one left on time too, and soon we were on our way to Rwy 29R, shooting melancholy glances back to the colourful line-up at the terminal.

With only 125 out of 261 seats occupied the flight wasn’t too well booked, but still our take-off roll was relatively long, and the climb quite shallow. Of course, the reason behind this was our high take-off weight of 166 tons (five tons below the MTOW), owing to the extra fuel we were carrying for the aircraft’s onward flight from Frankfurt to Belgrade. A total of 30 tons of fuel would be consumed on the leg to Germany, while another 18 tons were planned to get to Serbia.

Of course I didn’t mind the shallow climb, as it allowed me a good view of this Iranian outskirt here

Unfortunately, the sky was overcast for almost the whole rest of the flight. Only at the Turkish border did the clouds quickly part for a good view of this nice mountain range.

Apart from that, we tried to follow an Iranian romantic comedy shown on the shiny new flatscreen TV – and of course, we ate. Shortly after take-off, a light breakfast was served. And just when I complained to my friend three hours later that the meal hadn’t been really filling, a well-sized lunch was handed out. I really could get used to that level of service!

Already during bording I had asked the purser about the possibility of visiting the cockpit, and right during the meal service he asked me to follow him to the cockpit. The two pilots – both in the rank of captains – were busy with their approach and landing briefing, and even afterwards not overly open or talkative. Still I appreciated their gesture, but decided to leave them alone again soon.


So, why not let the numbers from the flight deck do the talking instead. The fuel gauges show a fuel flow of approximately 2,6 tons per engine per hour, with a total of roughly 13.2 tons consumed by each engine so far. Right below the take-off calculations are still visible. We departed with Flaps 0 but 15 degrees of slats, and the take-off speeds were at 163 (V1), 170 (Vr) and 172 (V2) knots. It’s also noted that we have 22 crew members on board – not bad for a load of 125 passengers!

A short while later the descent towards Frankfurt was initiated, we dove into the layer of overcast clouds, and touched down timely on runway 25L, fighting limited visibility and high humidity on our way in.

Then, we had to be quick. I had already browsed Frankfurt’s timetable back when we were in Tehran, and noticed that Lufthansa’s specially painted “Siegerflieger” to honour their soccer team’s World Cup victory, would be departing to the US only 90 minutes after our arrival. Unfortunately we had to wait almost an hour for our hotel/parking shuttle, but when we finally got there, we sprinted to the car, hurried to the main departure spot – and there she was, just a couple of minutes later. Perfect timing!

Being there anyway, we decided to stay for a bit, and catch some more impressive widebodies…

 

…Asian beauties…

…and a couple of guests from the Middle East

Only when looking at the planes that Iran’s neighbours shine with, you realize how hard the sanctions are hitting the country. A few Iranians whom we met complained that even war-struck Iraq had already overtaken them again economically, and as if to prove that point, Iraqi Airways displayed their almost brand new A320 that day (built in 2013).

Meanwhile, our trusty 20-year old EP-IBB had the distinct look of an outsider, a lame and ugly duckling from a long-forgotten era. Then again, I’m very fond of ducks, and of course the A300 is exactly my taste!

And with this image of IBB blasting off Rwy 18 heading for Belgrade and Tehran again, this report comes to an end. I would have loved to jump right inside again and head back to Iran to experience more of its ancient culture. But in contrast to the ancient beauties gracing the Iranian skies, I hope that the architecture will still be there in a few years’ time.

In conclusion I must say, that any scepticism towards Iran that I had held before departure (mainly caused by the Western media) quickly evaporated after the first few hours inside the country. I met a people that was in general very amiable, open, caring and hospitable, and appreciates the few outside visitors. Many Iranians are yearning for their country to be more open, and everything from the outside is very welcome. Even in not-so-touristy Tehran I never felt unsafe. Seeing all women wear a chador or at least a headscarf takes some getting used to, but one has to understand that a large percentage of them only dress like that to follow the orders from above. As one saying goes, the more open the country is, the more hair can be seen, and even now the scarf was often reduced to all but a fashion accessoire. And as we touched down in Frankfurt, 80 percent of them miraculously disappeared into pockets and handbags. Tehran’s underground apparently sees wild parties, where rules regarding clothing and alcohol are deliberately ignored. All this goes to show that while you are travelling to an Islamic theocracy of the highest order, the everyday people you meet are just like me and you (or even a bit kinder), and no gun-swinging religious fundamentals like the media wants to make you believe.


Of course, from a touristy perspective, not everything goes as planned, and many things take a bit longer than in your usual tourist destinations. But that’s just another part of the fascination that engulfs Iran for me.


Looking back on the trip, I’m extremely happy that all major aviation highlights worked out as planned, and that I didn’t experience any dire consequences despite the thousands of photos I shot. Most surprising was the fact how much was possible during the two organised joyrides, be it ramp photography at Tehran’s airport or the two cockpit visits. This lets me hope that, based on the great experiences of both sides, more such trips might be possible in the future – and maybe this will support a general opening up of the country. Speaking for myself, I’m looking forward a lot to return to Iran soon – maybe to ride on more of the iconic planes, but mostly also the experience its impressive culture and scenery.

 

 


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