After three days of sitting in bars, FBO’s and hotel rooms, we finally got on our new plane and went wheels up from JFK a little after 1 am. We learned that our 707 was once used by Bon Jovi and the Eagles for their tour plane.If these walls could talk. Ellen Kuras was excited to know that she was sitting in the seat where Hugh Hefner had sat with his girlfriends. The plane is totally rock star. It boasts 3 bedrooms, a large seating area with tables, couches and fully reclining swivel captains chairs, two private rooms and two baths with showers. The interior is a little dated with that early 80’s feel with lots of gold trim and beige leather, but who cares, it’s so comfortable. The flight crew is great. They have everything you could possibly imagine, including hundreds of new and old DVD movies and players. They even had tequila (well, almost. Jose Cuervo hardly qualifies as tequila) and three flavors of ice cream. Life is good.
People are happy that we are finally on the move towards our destination and despite the long flight people are in really good spirits. I think former Clinton advisor Bob Nash has slept since before we took off. How does he do it?
One thing has been really impressive to me over the last three days is that nobody has complained. Not even once. Everyone has just rolled with the punches and have occupied themselves as best as they can as we sit around in places for hours at a time. I’ve been on trips before when we have had an hour or two of delays and people are complaining non-stop. I guess it’s a big difference when you’re going somewhere like Africa versus Toledo, Ohio. No offense to people in Toledo, but I think Africa might be slightly more interesting and worth the wait.
With three days off the schedule, I am curious to see how the rest of the trip pans out. Matt McKenna, Clinton’s spokesman and a good friend, says we are still going to all the countries that we were originally slated for, just in fewer days. That means 5 countries in 4 days. I think we might have dropped a day off of the Rwanda leg. I am kind of disappointed with that since I was going to meet up with my friend and Newsweek photographer Jonathan Torgovnik who just happened to be in Rwanda on assignment. I think we will still be able to share a drink on the one night that we will be there.
We have finally arrived in Addis Ababa. We took a bus from the airport to the very luxurious Sheraton Addis (Starwood points!) where we were greeted by Bill, Chelsea and the rest of the VIP delegation for a dinner and drink reception. Everyone was going out of their way to tell us how sorry they were that we got stranded in Newark for so long. I talked to Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson about the church that we missed. Ted seemed sincerely bummed that we missed it. He said it was a once in a lifetime thing to see and just kept shaking his head in disappointment when I told him how much I had been looking forward to it.
Nobody was really hungry since we had eaten an hour and a half before landing. I did take advantage of the open bar and had an Ethiopian beer called Bati Bashen Beer. It was pretty good.
We have found a plane. That was the news that came across email this morning. I was skeptical at first, but we have moved from Newark to JFK so I am becoming more optimistic. The new plane, a Boeing 707, is the kind of plane that was used as Air Force One in the 90's. After 747's succeded the 07 for AirForce One, then First Lady Hillary Clinton used one for her plane. We’re sure getting a lot of recycled Hillary planes on this trip. The 707 is prehistoric. One good thing is that it does have a much better range than the 727 so we will make up time by only having to stop once for fuel in Spain. I might just drop off there.
The timing of our departure remains to be seen. It is one of those things that changes by the hour. The latest rumor is midnight, but they haven’t said what day that will be. Yes, I’m very skeptical.
For now, we sit and wait…for the third day. The upside is that we do have a change of venue. The delegation was moved to the Sheraton in Jamaica (no, not that Jamaica) where we will sit in yet another bar until we depart or go to another hotel to overnight. We had a nice ride over from Newark through Manhattan. We ate ginger snaps given to us by our driver as actress Erika Alexander and Jehmu Green, former director of “Rock the Vote” and political commentator, had an interesting conversation about a new Ludacris song that is coming out with lyrics that praise Barack Obama and call Hillary Clinton an irrelevant bitch. Is Ludacris a sore winner?
While grazing on the assortment of cold fried food that was laid out for us, I overheard ABC producer Glen Dacy say that he was attempting to upload video that he and cinematographer Ellen Kuras had shot on his DV cam of us sitting around the Signature terminal the night before. Apparently, the tape recorded no sound, but I’m sure the footage was great. I will surely end up on the cutting room floor.
The waiting continues. I think I will watch Oprah.
The 9 am email on my Blackberry updated the traveling delegation on our status for the day. We’re waiting on a windshield for the 727 and its expected to arrive around 3:00 pm and if all goes well we will go wheels up at 6:00 pm. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Bill and his VIP friends have already arrived in Addis Ababa. Since half of the delegation is still here in Newark, scheduled events have been canceled. I am really bummed that we will miss the tour of the 1,000 year old Church of Bet Gioris in Lalibela. I was really looking forward to that. The staff is still optimistic that we will get to Ethiopia in time to have one large event before heading to Rwanda.
Our group, which started out with 28 people has now dropped down to 27. Yusef Jackson, son of Jesse Jackson, apparently had no confidence in the 727 after its repeated malfunctions.
As the day progressed, we were moved from one Marriott to another where we sat in a bar eating cold burger sliders and veggies with dip. We passed the time until we moved back to the Signature terminal at around 8:00 pm for an 8:30 departure. Unfortunately, we lost two more people. We are now down to 25. This is becoming an episode of Survivor.
It wasn’t until almost 10:00 pm that we learned of a new problem with our plane. The valve that transfers fuel to the engines has failed again, a problem that will surely be the final straw for the ol’ 727. The food from the plane, as well as the wine, was brought to us so we could eat while we waited to learn our fate. We drank red wine and champagne in Styrofoam cups (I don’t recommend this) while eating rubber chicken and eggplant parmesan until midnight when we were returned to the Marriott. More points!
The trip was in question. More people contemplated dropping out. Staff was having trouble locating planes with crews that had immunizations for the countries we were going to visit, not to mention visas. Several ideas were being floated. Divide us up in two Gulfstreams, book us on commercial flights or maybe even swim. One guy jokingly said “we could have been there already if we had ran.” The last we heard before hitting the pillow was there was a plane in the Bahamas that we could use. We just needed to get us to the plane and find a crew. We're still 25 strong, we'll see what the morning brings.
It’s been about 4 years since I last wrote a blog. I was on a two month trip to Iraq and thought it was a good opportunity to keep friends and family back home up to date on what I was doing and seeing. I have been contemplating writing one recently and thought an assignment to cover former President Bill Clinton on a trip to Africa would be a good time to start up.
The seven day journey begins in New York, well, Newark, NJ to be exact and travels through four countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia and Senegal) before finishing at the World AIDS conference in Mexico City. Needless to say, I have been very excited about this trip.
It’s Monday afternoon and I am heading to the Signature Flight Service FBO at the Newark International Airport for a 6pm wheels up to Ethiopia. President Clinton is traveling with a delegation that includes his daughter Chelsea and people like Tom Vilsack, Terry McAuliffe, Joe Wilson,Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and others. People seem excited and are having fun chatting. Myself and fellow photographer Barb Kinney had a really nice conversation about photography with Tom Vilsack and his wife. Nice people.
As the 6 o’clock flight time neared we were notified that there was going to be a delay on our plane due to a maintenance problem. The plane I would fly on, an antiquated 727, was a plane that I was familiar with since it had been used on the Hillary campaign. Bill would be flying on another plane, a 767 that was apparently donated by Google for the trip.
We finally got onto the plane, which was nice and comfy with big plush seats. At around 11:00 pm we taxied over to the runway for take off. After a 20 minute wait we were up. The engines roar and we rumble down the runway and then abort the take off. We taxi back to the terminal and pretty much sit for an hour or so while the problem is rectified. Barb and I have now consumed much wine and are having some good conversation.
Near midnight we finally go wheels up, we’re on our way to Puerto Rico, our first refueling stop. We drink more wine, Barb takes an Ambien to help her sleep. I settled into a movie, Barb’s sleeping pill was starting to kick in. And then, about an hour and a half into the flight, Jay Carson comes back and says we are going back to Newark. The plane’s windshield had cracked. The trip was off to a miserable start.
At 3:15 am I checked into my room at the Marriott near the airport. We wouldn’t know the status of replacement parts for the plane until morning. I guess they had to wait for the antique plane parts store to open.
Justin Sullivan decided to pursue a career in photojournalism in 1994. A self-taught photographer, Justin worked as a freelance photographer for local San Francisco newspapers for 5 years before getting hired to work on staff at the San Francisco Examiner in 2000 then later at the San Francisco Chronicle that same year where he served as a fill-in photographer. Justin returned to freelance in the fall of 2000 shooting primarily for the Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images and numerous newspapers across the country before being hired as a Staff Photographer with Getty Images. In the coming years he would cover a wide range of events from the World Series and political campaigns to natural disasters and overseas conflicts. Justin's photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world.
The views expressed in this blog are those of Justin Sullivan and do not represent the views of his employer, co-workers or friends