When the wheels of the Boeing 737-900ER touched down on the runway at Yanbu on the Red Sea coast a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. on New Year’s Day, the plane had completed a nearly five-hour flight from Prague, during which it had covered 2,062 nautical miles, i.e. just over 3,800 kilometers . Despite the delayed start by a few days, this year’s entry into the new year was not marked by stormy celebrations either, as all Czech participants in the Dakar 2024 tour met at the Prague airport at four o’clock in the morning on January 1st to depart for Saudi Arabia shortly after six o’clock.
No alcohol on board, no big celebrations. There were two reasons. In Saudi Arabia, alcohol is taboo (even in its airspace), and immediately from the airport, everyone moved to the port, where the equipment was picked up, i.e. racing motorcycles, cars and trucks, but also all escort vehicles. And while, for example, in Martin Prokop’s MP Sports team, all fifteen members drank at least symbolically from one bottle of champagne at the airport in Prague, so, for example, a large group around Martin Macík was banned from alcohol.
The idea for the first joint flight of the vast majority of Czech teams was already here before, but the first covid wave made the final decision. “It is not cheaper than flying on a normal route, i.e. with a transfer in Turkey, for example, but it is definitely faster and with significantly less health risks,” says Martin Prokop, who is already running his ninth Dakar.
“You will not come into contact with so many strangers, you will not have to make a long local transfer in Saudi Arabia, and the risk of losing your luggage will be greatly reduced. And I say reduce on purpose,” he laughs. He alludes to the fact that last year the author of the article lost his suitcase and completed the entire rally in only what he was wearing and what someone had lent him.
And minimizing the risk of losing luggage is quite convenient, because although the teams have the vast majority of things already loaded in the cars that completed the voyage from Barcelona (this was a change after many years), they still send other necessary equipment and even parts by plane together with personal luggage. “We carry alternators, a set of springs and shock absorbers and a few other little things,” says Quirin Müller, manager of MP Sports. And for example, Buggyra sent a lot of paper boxes with other necessary equipment.
“It was quite recognizable,” says Captain Jan Šťastný, one of the crew members. “Although the flight was not fully occupied, there was more luggage than usual. Our takeoff weight was 81 tons. There was still a reserve, in terms of the number of passengers and luggage, but even so, they were rather higher values.’
The airline Smartwings is a logical choice for the Czech teams, its aircraft and crew remain here in Saudi Arabia. For the fourth year already, it has a contract with the organizers of the competition and provides them with air transfers between the individual locations of the race. “We have a preliminary flight plan and we will see what the reality will be,” adds Šťastný, who flew here two years ago. “It develops according to the requirements of the organizers, i.e. according to the course of the competition and the weather. We know what and how, flying is the same everywhere, but for example one of the airports does not have its own air traffic control, and that of course requires completely different procedures.”
Two mechanics also fly with the complete crew of the Boeing 737-900ER. “It is standard procedure if the aircraft leaves the home airport for an extended period of time. Performs routine checks, solves any problems. But we don’t expect anything out of the ordinary to happen. There are a lot of aspects that are looked at when choosing the aircraft that we send here. Priority for service cycles and updates, but maybe also brakes or tires. It’s routine work for us, albeit in a not quite standard environment.”
It is not without interest that aircraft operated in locations such as Saudi Arabia have a slightly different service regime. The engines in particular show higher wear due to the sandy environment. “It’s a standard thing that when we fly to Antarctica, we also watch other things than when we fly a regular flight, for example somewhere in Europe,” explains Šťastný. And he won’t forget to remind me to wish all the Czech crews successful racing for Smartwings.
In return, we wish you a nice flight and look forward to meeting you somewhere at the track. After all, when the crew has time off, you can count on the fact that they will be cheering somewhere and will definitely be seen!