As we descend over the Dead Sea, the bright lights of Jordan’s capital city appear in the distance surrounded by the darkness of a largely uninhabited desert. The air entering the flight deck starts to thicken and the familiar sweet, musty smell of the Middle East fills my lungs. Three words welcome us over the radio waves as we establish contact with Jordanian airspace: “Salaam alaikum Speedbird.” Every airline has a call sign that identifies its aircraft in air-ground communication—Speedbird, representing a bird in flight, belongs to British Airways. When I hear these three words, they warmly remind me that we have nearly touched down in one of my favorite countries in the world.
I’ve been flying jet aircraft commercially for eight years. My 6,000 hours of experience have taken me across Europe’s corners, from Reykjavík, to Moscow, to Larnaca, and beyond. The most recent type of aircraft that I am certified to fly on, the Airbus 321, has a much greater range and has taken me even further afield from my British homeland to countries in the Caucasus region, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Today’s route from London to Amman quickly became my favorite to fly—not only because within approximately five hours you are transported into a culture that feels worlds away, but also because from a pilot’s perspective, the journey brings complicated challenges that are unique to flying in this region.
A takeoff with complexities to consider
Before every flight—no matter the route—the captain and I calculate the engine power settings and speeds necessary to get airborne. (These depend on the aircraft’s weight and external atmospheric conditions.) We then upload our entire flight route—it consists of airways and waypoints, invisible GPS coordinates that create air pathways similar to highways and junctions. The on-ground flight planning team then determines the most fuel-efficient way to reach our destination depending on jet streams and upper winds, also taking into account other safety aspects such as “no-fly zones.”
No-fly zones can exist for many reasons. Some blocks of airspace are banned from commercial aviation so they can be used by military airforces; others are prohibited due to security concerns. Under no circumstances are we allowed to penetrate them. On this route between London and Amman, the airspace above Syria is relevant: With the civil war being fought by several entities, there is a genuine risk that our aircraft could be shot down by military jets or ground-to-air missiles, whether deliberately or by mistake.
We finally receive our take-off clearance and begin to accelerate down the runway at Heathrow Airport, soon reaching our initial cruising altitude at 33,000 feet somewhere above Belgium.
After more than seven years of short-haul flying, Europe and its landmarks have become very familiar to me. The flatlands of Belgium transform over an invisible border to the rolling hills of Germany and Austria. Next, we follow the winding Danube River from Vienna to Belgrade. This region does not fall short of architecturally impressive cities, and the bridges that make the Danube so romantic stand out prominently—even at altitudes as high as ours. Just a few weeks ago I sat in a rooftop café overlooking the Szechenyi Chain Bridge. Now I am admiring it from 35,000 feet in the sky.
These governments’ refusal to acknowledge each other on the ground affects the airspace above.
A dreamy, deep blue now lingers as night falls over the Adriatic Sea. We departed from London just after 2 p.m. Halfway into this flight (after we’ve crossed two time zones), the twinkle of the first star appears—the first of thousands that I’ll see in the sky tonight. I’m lucky to sit in one of the best seats on the planet for stargazing.
Europe is behind us and the Middle East beckons. As we pass over striking mountainous terrain in western Turkey, we edge our way into the skies above a region whose conflict affects commercial aviation.
Navigating a conflict zone from above
The first obstacle on this route is a political hot spot known among pilots as “Chaos Corner,” or the Republic of Cyprus. The Turkish and Greek governments have disputed over Cyprus for decades: Greeks claim the Mediterranean state belongs to them, but in 1974, the Turkish military invaded the island’s northern area and declared rule over the territory. These governments’ refusal to acknowledge each other on the ground in Cyprus affects the airspace above.
During flights, pilots ordinarily communicate with one air traffic controlling body at a time. But in the northern Cyprus area above Ercan and Nicosia (the name depends on who you’re talking to, though Nicosia is internationally recognized), we have to speak to two simultaneously. Because both Greek and Turkish air controllers try to control the space without communicating with each other, pilots who fly over this part of the world must listen to the air traffic controllers from both live frequencies and diplomatically navigate through the airspace.
To complicate matters further, we are rapidly approaching the skies above Tel Aviv. Israel has one of the strongest air defense forces in the world: All aircraft entering the country’s airspace must establish communication with Israeli air controllers and receive entry approval prior to the boundary—about 180 miles out, to be exact. (This protocol happens nowhere else in the commercial world.)
The obstacles we encounter serve as constant reminders of the world’s many existing conflicts that still need resolving.
If an aircraft crosses the boundary without approval from Israel’s air controllers, a military jet would pay that aircraft a visit within seconds. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the situation where our aircraft was identified as “unknown.” We pass over Tel Aviv carefully, following the exact waypoints assigned to our flight before takeoff. Shortly after Israel’s air control has firmly identified our blip on their radar, we receive authorization to continue.
Tel Aviv from the air is impressive, an expansive, radiant city dotted with tall skyscrapers and neatly patterned neighborhoods. I look out the other side of the flight deck and can even spot Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark, the Dome of the Rock, its intricate gold roof glistening from afar. I am incredibly humbled to fly over a region whose history has defined much of the world today. But on the route between London and Amman, the obstacles we encounter serve as constant reminders of the world’s many existing conflicts that still need resolving.
“Salaam alaikum Speedbird.”
Geri Moore has been operating commercial jet aircrafts since September 2011. She currently works as a British Airways pilot flying routes across Europe and in parts of the Middle East.