TRIPOLI, Libya — My interpreter, Ahmed, is flooring it down an airport runway, giddy with enthusiasm. He keeps talking about how he's always wanted to push this hard on the gas, how he never thought he'd be driving his car on this vast flat asphalt.
A photo tour of the dictator's personal plane
But in Free Libya anything is possible. Including a visit to Muammar al-Qaddafi's personal plane.
Our car accelerates toward the Afriqiyah Airways airplane standing apart from a cluster of others like a giant white turkey in the recently secured international airport. We've been lucky enough to be offered a tour of the runways from Mohammed Saad, a 24-year-old engineering student now part of the Zintan Brigade, a western mountain rebel unit that has set up shop in the airport.
As we pull up to the Airbus A340, there's a cluster of people milling about under the door, but no staircase to actually climb up into the plane, which looms high above our heads. A foreign TV crew decked out in flak jackets and helmets is swarming around it, trying to get aboard. We approach cautiously.
After we wait five minutes in the blaring high noon heat, the rebels wheel over a small metal staircase, which stops about 4 feet under the actual door. The TV crew bombs up the stairs to get into the plane, pulling themselves up gymnast-style, a gaggle of onlookers scrambling up behind them. Before long, at the bottleneck, a fight nearly breaks out between a group of local civilians demanding their right to enter before the foreign press, and the rebels, who are clutching their AK-47s and trying to enforce order.
It's a small slice of the uncertainty that's everywhere in post-Qaddafi Libya. The entire mass is yelling and no one is backing down. Everyone is packing heat. The mood is buoyant, but the possibilities for violence are endless. I had spent the day with Ahmed moving smoothly through checkpoints manned by grinning young men with Kalashnikovs -- but when people start shouting, I have to wonder: Is everything about to unravel, right before my eyes?
At the airport, the shouting goes on for about 10 minutes until the soldiers finally subdue the angriest would-be plane tourist, who storms away from the line and begins shouting somewhere else, away from the melee. Then the rebels calm everyone down and after a pause decide to allow another journalist -- me -- onto the plane. Ahmed follows.
I scamper up the rickety stairs to climb inside the megalomaniac's personal space. The interior is dark, cool, and done up in what looks like quilted satin with lavish rugs. As I move through the plane, there's ample space for security details or guests to sit in business-class-type seats. Then there's a lounge, and finally at the back, the quarters belonging to the big man himself.