The rickety Antonov has been standing on the red-hot taxiway in the Emirate of Bahrain for almost 20 minutes. It is shortly after six a.m., and the temperature outside has just reached the 95 degree mark when relief comes in a radio message from the control tower: "The Americans have freed up a slot." Flight DMX 0111 has clearance for take-off.
A few seconds later the antiquated transport plane lumbers to the runway and with an ear-splitting noise lifts off, heading north. The crew consists of five ex-soldiers from Moldavia and they are clearly nervous. Even for these former military pilots Flight DMX-0111 presents an enormous challenge.
Without radar, even without radio contact for part of the way, they will be flying for a good 2 1/2 hours over extremely dangerous terrain to one of the world's best-protected airports: the former Saddam Hussein Airport in Baghdad.
The pilots' objective is as unusual as the flight itself. The five Moldavians in their veteran flying machine that dates back to the nineteen-fifties are flying on assignment for the Deutsche Post (the German Postal Service). Specifically for its subsidiary DHL, operating worldwide, which has taken on this risky task of delivering the soldiers' mail.
Two or three times a day the aged plane, which comes from inventories of the former Soviet army, works its way through the chaos of tanks, helicopters, and U.S. soldiers. "This alone is a minor miracle," says Pete Toghill, who is responsible for DHL's involvement in Iraq.
The airport, which lies on the outskirts of Baghdad (five million inhabitants), is actually a strictly cordoned-off military zone and off-limits to all non-military flights. Since the Americans occupied the city in April, the airport has resembled an immense fortress. The U.S. Army has hermetically sealed off the huge area from the outside world with roadblocks and tanks. Civilians are not admitted. Every few minutes there are landings by helicopters and huge transport planes that look as though one could stow away parts of a city in them. However, the air space is closed to civilian planes.
Except for the Antonov with the temporary DHL logo painted on its side. After landing, the plane rolls matter-of-factly to an isolated hangar where U.S. soldiers use forklifts to unload huge containers full of packages and letters.
Americans send off between 30 and 50 tons of mail every day to the soldiers in Iraq. The wave of support from the home front, says a U.S. Marine, is tremendous. Schoolchildren collect money in their classrooms to buy sunscreen creams and electric fans; with big promotional campaigns corporations donate blankets, shoes, or beverages, and of course relatives and friends write innumerable letters and postcards.
Yet these millions of letters, goods, and packages are not being processed by the U.S. Army itself, but rather by Deutsche Post's express and logistics subsidiary DHL - in operations that are sometimes hazardous.
DHL manager Toghill says the only normal thing about the transports is the pickup in the U.S. There the U.S. military transfers the mail containers to the DHL shipping experts who transport them to Bahrain by plane. DHL has had a large logistics base in the emirate for years.
But the site was inadequate for the enormous quantity of U.S. mail. So DHL rented a vacant airplane hangar. There, about 40 employees work around the clock, with huge lists, sorting the mail according to the current whereabouts of the U.S. units.
Next, the mountains of letters and packages are transported to various U.S. bases, where they are distributed to the soldiers. Smaller quantities of mail go to Afghanistan and Kuwait. However, the majority of the mail is taken directly to Iraq by DHL - by whatever means available.
Cities like Basra in southern Iraq are serviced by DHL truck convoys that drive the mail across the desert. Deliveries to northern Iraq are made by truck from Jordan. "So far," Toghill says, "we've been able to establish a direct air connection only to Baghdad." But even that doesn't resemble a normal flying operation.
The old Antonovs keep requiring makeshift repairs. Even hard-boiled DHL professionals like Toghill hold their breath when the Moldavian crew calmly starts rewiring defective cockpit instruments with a Swiss Army pocketknife at an altitude of 42,000 feet.
Moreover, the military situation in Iraq has heated up again in recent weeks. Some flights had to be canceled on short notice because the Americans were warning of fighting and the possible use of fighter planes. "Up to now," says Phil Armatage who is the DHL manager in charge of security problems, "the flights and convoys have not sustained any major damage." One of the primary reasons for that is "the perfectly functioning cooperation with U.S. soldiers."
This unconventional cooperation between U.S. troops and DHL began during the Afghanistan campaign. Back then, Helen Edwards, DHL project manager in Bahrain, recalls, the U.S. military had a serious problem. Not enough transport capacity was available for the millions of pieces of mail addressed to the soldiers. It took weeks and months for some of the letters and packages to reach their destination. Criticism of the sluggish delivery system grew louder and louder in the U.S. and among the troops.
Finally the U.S. military had no choice but to call in professional help. But the two giant U.S. shipping companies, UPS and Fedex - Deutsche Post Chief Klaus Zumwinkel's most serious worldwide competitors - turned them down. Their transportation networks in that region were inadequate to do the job, they said. And in addition, DHL managers recall, the two U.S. companies felt these flights were too dangerous.
That's when DHL jumped in. "Only a few weeks later," Toghill says, "the leased Antonovs were rattling toward Afghanistan. Mail deliveries to the troops became appreciably faster." Since the collaboration worked exceptionally well in the following months, U.S. military officials also engaged the services of DHL for Iraq - in spite of the grave tensions between Washington and the German government.
DHL was able to secure a basic contract with the U.S. military that runs to 2005. Meanwhile, for an amount in eight figures, DHL is now carrying not only Army mail, but also items and equipment such as clothing and aid shipments for the civilian population.
Furthermore, Deutsche Post's subsidiary, the first worldwide express and logistics company, is also in a position to offer daily delivery service for quite normal, non-military shipments to Baghdad. Every day, the four DHL staff members stationed in Baghdad, equipped with special U.S. military passes, drive civilian Jeeps through the populous city delivering small packages and letters.
Not a job without danger. Almost every day, in more than 122 degrees Fahrenheit heat, there are exchanges of gunfire between Iraqis and obviously nervous U.S. soldiers who have moved by the thousands into position in the maze of streets. Again and again angry Iraqis stage spontaneous demonstrations. And the U.S. soldiers have not yet been able to put a complete stop to the looting of businesses and shops.
The volume of non-military packages and letters delivered by DHL is still quite modest. Only a few embassies and business firms have so far availed themselves of the services offered by DHL. In spite of that Toghill thinks that the expense and risk are worthwhile. "Once government structures have been established and the situation is more stable," he predicts, "there will be a boom here."
DHL intends to be prepared for it. And so the enterprising manager set up his own DHL Letters and Packages Counter a month ago. He is renting a corner area in the lobby of the Hotel Palestine for 2,200 dollars a month and has put up a huge DHL sign there. Three hurriedly recruited Iraqi employees have been installed at two tables covered with yellow tablecloths.
Not only can the numerous journalists staying at the hotel drop off their express mail there. The counter is also used by embassy staff and American sales representatives or companies to send documents worldwide.
In a few weeks Toghill even wants to open a big office in Baghdad, bring his wife over, and expand DHL into the foremost express and logistics enterprise in Iraq. Then the adventurous flights of the decrepit Antonov planes will be a thing of the past.
A few days ago at DHL headquarters in Brussels he obtained the green light for the use of larger planes. By next week, instead of the rickety Antonov, a modern DHL Boeing is expected to glide into the military airport in Baghdad.
Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo