A flying adventure to the Dead Sea
PUBLISHED: 16:37 10 June 2020 | UPDATED: 17:08 12 June 2020
The magic of history, an altimeter reading below zero and Air Force comrades reunited - all in one stunning flight over Israel, the West Bank and Dead Sea | Words & photos: Graham Robson
I would be the first to admit that my flying may not extend to every corner of the envelope. No aerobatic itch needs scratching, I have no rotary-wing desires and I cannot reconcile the cost/benefit argument of a twin rating. For me, the pleasure comes from flying itself and I mostly fulfil that passion touring the UK in my 1947 vintage Cessna.
Flying vacations, over the years, have provided many opportunities to add to the list of interesting places, across the channel as far east as Geneva and south to Spain and central Portugal for instance or the USA, where I’ve enjoyed some spectacular journeys and sights, in an environment so completely different to flying at home.
An early log-book entry, on my first touring trip in California in a rented Cessna 172 in 2009, produced quite an unusual combination. Breakfast at Big Bear Lake (airfield elevation of 6,752 ft and the highest airport I have ever flown myself into) then on to Furnace Creek airport in Death Valley, sitting at 210ft below MSL, for a night stop.
The surreal sight of the altimeter winding down below zero on the approach was interesting, to say the least. At that time I could not imagine flying any lower. However, circumstances would prevail that would eventually beat this by a considerable margin.
I work for a company based in Israel and visit the country three or four times each year. One of my long-time colleagues, Nachem (the company R & D Project Manager), had built a Skyranger Nynja Ultralight, which he flies from Megiddo airfield, less than ten kilometres from the company HQ. Upon discovering I was a pilot, he invited me to fly with him when I was next there and had some time available.
Following a long and accomplished flying career in the Israeli Air Force, having learned to fly at the Air Force Academy in 1977, Nachem is now a qualified Ultralight Instructor. In his first posting he flew A-4 Skyhawk jets, before moving on in 1982 to the IAI Kfir−an Israeli-built, hot-rod, all-weather jet fighter based on the French Dassault Mirage 5.
Following this, he converted to the F-16 and, until last year, was a Flight Instructor at the IAF flight Academy, teaching on the A4 Skyhawk and the Aermacchi M-346 (Lavi).
With the germ of a plan now growing, it took over eighteen months to find the time and opportunity to make something of it, the difficulty being for us both to be in Israel at the same time, with ample time available.
The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday, which would be the best time to fly, as Israeli airspace, as one can imagine, is far more geared to military operations than private pilot, cross-country VFR. Nachem stressed the best time to fly would be early on a Friday morning, describing it as “the bubble of available VFR airspace increases greatly at weekends, when the Air Force reduces its flying”.
This could easily work, as most of my visits are Monday to Thursday and an early start on Friday would allow time for the taxi to Tel Aviv afterwards, for my return flight to the UK. The moon and stars finally aligned in mid-June. The plan looked like it could work, available time for both of us, aircraft availability, good weather−it was on!
A very early taxi ride from my hotel in Haifa had me at my company office in good time to meet Nachem and drive the short distance to Megiddo airport.
The town, mentioned in the final book of the Bible’s New Testament by its Greek name Armageddon, is believed by some to be the location for a final apocalyptic battle between Jesus Christ and the kings of the Earth, as outlined in the Book of Revelation, hence Armageddon becoming a by-word for ‘the end of the world’.
Arriving at the airfield just after 7.00am, the sombre silence disturbed only by Nachem opening the massive steel security gate, thanks to a remote code on his cell phone. The British built the airport in 1942 as RAF Station Megiddo and it then served as an Israeli Air Force base until its decommission in 1983.
It was constructed and operated as an auxiliary field to RAF Station Ramat David, situated five miles to the North and now one of the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) main F-16 fighter jet bases.
Once inside, we headed to a solitary hangar located on the south side of the remaining east/west runway, passing a surprisingly sizeable collection of GA and air taxi aircraft, parked in a securely fenced compound.
In addition, two further ramps contained the resident crop spraying company’s Ayres Turbo Thrush fleet and an equally impressive line up of Government owned Air Tractor fire-fighting aircraft, quite easily the most imposing taildraggers I’ve ever seen.
Preflight check complete−including removing the home-made mouse prevention measures around the undercarriage legs−Nachem loaded the data up to the Garmin G3X EFIS, checked that our flight plan was received and we were ready to go.
Being as quiet at is was, we didn’t expect anyone yet to be on duty in the Tower but made our requisite calls anyway, unsurprisingly without response. We announced our intentions to back-track a short way down Runway 27, turned and immediately we were on our way.
I’m not an ultralight pilot and Nachem had warned that the Skyranger would be much more sensitive than my Cessna. However, with little to no wind, taking off was a non event, we climbed briskly into a bright sunrise and very hazy sky.
Our route was straightforward: eastbound after departure, passing the large town of Afula on our left, then south-east towards the prominent ‘Saul’s Shoulder’−a mountain ridge on the northern end of Mount Gilboa, sitting at the junction of the Jezreel and Beit She’an valleys.
It was here, during Biblical times, that King Saul died in battle with the Philistines, which gave name to the site. Passing Mount Gilboa we headed to Tirat Zvi, a kibbutz ten km south of the city of Beit She’an, two miles west of the River Jordan−the border!
Looking into the bright sky it was extremely difficult to see the river, its wildly meandering path hidden in the shadowy undergrowth, against an otherwise featureless view−quite an important consideration if we were to avoid straying into another country.
Without the very clear magenta line to follow on the GPS, remaining strictly legal could have been quite challenging. From here, we took up a direct southerly heading for twenty miles, towards Argaman, a tiny Israeli settlement in the disputed West Bank region easily sighted by its well-defined perimeter, only one mile from the equally small but spread-out Palestinian town of Zubaydat, with extensively irrigated fields on the flat riverside plains providing quite a contrast.
Since our departure, the radio had been reasonably quiet, even after we changed over to the regional ATC radar service ‘Pluto Control’, where there was some traffic. I was unable to get a mental picture of what and where, as all radio calls are made in Hebrew unless traffic is non-Israeli, when communications are conducted in English.
As might be expected, any local radio calls omit the 4X prefix on all registrations. Israel’s ATC radar service is divided into Northern and Southern regions. The Northern Sector comprises Tel Aviv Control, a civilian unit responsible for all over-water and upper airspace traffic; and Pluto Control, a military unit controlling all overland and domestic traffic.
This covers the airspace as far south as Jerusalem, using a radar head located on a mountain top near the town of Sfat (Safed) ten miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Similarly, the Southern Sector has two components: South Control, a civilian unit handling traffic along ATS routes and flights in the FIR; and Hagav Control, a military unit responsible for overland and all domestic traffic south of Jerusalem, as far as Eilat.
Before Argaman, we had made a steady and slow climb to 3,000ft for better communication with Pluto Control as we tracked south with ever increasing high ground to our right. The Skyranger was quite restless in the hot and thermic air, seemingly needing constant attention, compared to the more meandering feel of my vintage Cessna.
Picking up a generous collection of bugs on the windscreen and enjoying the slight cooling effect of draughts from the door fit, the next point of note on our route required careful navigation, as we needed to transit Restricted Area LLP18.
This is the prohibited airspace surrounding the fabled city of Jericho, reported to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Part of the Palestinian Territories, the city is governed by the Fatah faction of the Palestinian National Authority, and its airspace extends almost right up to the Jordanian border and tops out at 6,000ft.
We remained at our cruise level of 3,000ft, making very sure we didn’t stray too far off our magenta line, which hugged the Israeli side of the border with Jordan, and were afforded a wonderful view of this ancient city. Recalling my first learning of Jericho and its legend, at Sunday school over fifty years ago, I could never have imagined such a moment.
As we cleared the restricted area around Jericho and began a slow descent, the Dead Sea was no longer a shimmering haze in the distance, its turquoise blue water now contrasted vividly with the sun-baked coastline only a few miles ahead.
Although the Garmin had been showing us flying over ‘water’ since passing the ancient city of Beit She’an, some forty miles back−such is the way its electronic chart depicts ‘sea level’−we finally coasted out at the northern edge of the Sea’s constantly receding shoreline exactly one hour after departing Megiddo.
The views left and right were quite stunning and remarkably different. The narrow strip of shoreline on our side of the sea rose into steep cliffs with deep canyons, whilst up-sun and to our left the Jordanian side, some five miles away, was markedly lower with a gentler slope towards the water−the difference being the result of shifting tectonic plates millions of years ago.
Keeping close to the western shoreline, we continued our descent, below the plateau, slowly bringing forth the moment I’d been so looking forward to. I found myself becoming ever more distracted, watching the altimeter wind further downwards and, ultimately, go below zero. My distraction was compounded by the Garmin’s vertical ribbon altimeter, rather than the dial more familiar to me.
At three miles out Masada airport’s 1,200m of tarmac became visible through the haze and generous collection of dead bugs on the screen. The altimeter was now unwinding below minus 500ft and we were perfectly positioned for a straight-in to Runway 19.
The hot breeze seemed to be moving in all directions and some very active thermals made the likelihood of a smooth and competent touchdown an increasingly unlikely event. A quick call out to Nachem confirmed that it might be wise to go around.
Whatever breeze we now had seemed to be favouring R01, so with the wheels almost on the deck, and altimeter reading minus 1,020ft, I added full power and climbed away−which at least gave me a good view of the entire airfield.
Climbing out with a right turn, inland rather than over the water, put us in a good position for a bit of opportunistic tourism. Re-positioning for a much-modified left base for 01 gave us the chance of a close up view of the ancient and stunning spectacle of Masada.
For those not familiar with this ancient place, I would urge a little homework to understand and appreciate the enormity of its past, where five legions of the Roman army were denied victory over 2,000 Jewish rebels, who defended the fortress to their death.
Our impromptu fly-by of the ancient mountain-top ruin provided the best view anyone could possibly have and, having previously visited on foot twice in the past, the valiant defence became even more apparent when appreciating its incredible construction atop an isolated plateau.
A power off, gliding approach to R01 finally put us on the ground for a short landing, with the altimeter settled at minus 1,230ft. This was truly a ‘bucket-list’ tick-box now filled.
Masada airfield, also known as Bar Yehuda (LLMZ), named after activist and Politician YiIsrael Bar-Yehuda, was built in 1963 to cater for increasing numbers of visitors to the Dead Sea who, until then, had to endure an overland journey from Tel Aviv that could take longer than the flight from any western European capital city.
These visitors, mostly from Europe at the time, were keen to avail themselves of the powers of the health-giving sea salts, rich in minerals with very therapeutic value. This new found tourism brought the need for accommodation and numerous hotels were soon built alongside the beach.
Sadly, the relentless shrinking of the Dead Sea from a higher evaporation rate than replenishment from the Jordan River has meant a slightly longer walk to the water from the hotels, and countless sink-holes have begun appearing along the shoreline, necessitating road closures and a halt to building close to the water.
Road links to the sea had improved so much by the end of the ‘60s that the airfield closed in 1967 due to lack of use, remaining dormant until it re-opened in 2006. It now attracts over 1,500 GA movements a year, mostly a mix of local sightseeing, charter business and visiting ultralights like ours.
The temperature was already pushing 30˚C and it wasn’t even 10.00am. A quick calculation gave the density altitude as almost 1,000ft AMSL, rather startling considering we were standing at more than 1,200ft below MSL!
On taxying in we were surprised to discover we were not the only visitor and parked next to a Savage-Cub, the STOL Cub look-a-like designed and built by Italian-Czech company Zlin Aviation.
The crew were just preparing to depart. A quick chat before they left turned what was already a rather special day for me into something extraordinary for Nachem. As we made introductions, the Savage-Cub owner and Nachem appeared to be familiar with one another, which, after a few quick questions, resulted in a highly animated and very high-spirited encounter.
Not possessing any Hebrew language skills, I felt the need to intervene in order that I could understand the nature of this deeply enthusiastic meeting. The Savage-Cub owner was Yoram Peled, a retired, highly decorated Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, son of the former Head of the Israeli Air Force and a former Air Force acquaintance of Nachem.
Yoram was the Squadron Commander of the first F-15 Eagle unit in the IDF and was the first Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter ace, with five Syrian Air Force Mig-21 and two Mig-23 shoot-downs to his credit.
The reason for their lively conversation was the location and situation of their last meeting−wing-tip to wing-tip, in a steep dive over the eastern Mediterranean! Nachem was flying an F-16, in a mock combat air-to-air sortie with a number of ‘aggressors’, one of whom was Yoram.
During one encounter, at 36,000ft, Yoram’s Kfir jet suffered an engine flame-out and, in a steep descent, he tried desperately to re-light the engine numerous times, during which Nachem flew on his wingtip.
At 8,000ft, Yoram decided to eject and Nachem circled his slowly descending parachute and remained overhead as he sat in his survival dinghy until helicopter rescue arrived. That was in August 1986 and they had not seen each other since that day.
We bade farewell to Yoram and his co-pilot and found some shade under our wing to have a late sandwich breakfast, before planning our return flight. We didn’t have too much time before we had to head back to Megiddo, as I needed to get back to Tel Aviv by taxi for my flight home, and this is where the wonderful day didn’t finish as planned.
Climbing out of Masada, passing 300ft the engine began to run extremely roughly, forcing a return to the airfield for a look under the cowl. Nothing was noticeable and when back on the ground everything ran as it should.
We set off for a second time, only to suffer the same problem. Landing back, Nachem consulted with a friend and Rotax engine expert concluding that the likely cause was vapour lock in the mogas fuel, from such high ambient temperatures.
We decided it best to abandon the flight back until early evening, when temperatures would be slightly cooler, which in the end they were, allowing Nachem to get home safe and well after 6.00 pm.
The temporary grounding meant my own plans quickly changed, and Nachem and I settled back to a lazy afternoon in the sun, as my taxi began the long drive from Megiddo down to Masada to collect me.