A day to remember

negative QNH
This is indeed a day to remember for multiple reasons:

  • Starting this blog, sitting in the Ben Gurion airport and waiting for my flight to board (one hour late so far…)
  • Flying over Israel in a Cessna 172 leased by Tamir, a co-worker in Comverse.
  • Landing in the lowest airfield in the world by the dead sea (Masada Airfield), and –safely- witness a negative QNH altitude on the altimeter (about -400m).
  • Meeting the lady who runs the airport. The kind of person you usually see only on National Geographic channel

The trip started at 9:15 in the Dov airport North of Tel-Aviv, which besides flying tourists to Eilat also hosts a military base, a bunch of helicopters and a dozen private planes. After clearing the usual security checks, we head to the small plane, just back from a previous trip.
The last time I piloted a small plane was in 1993, also a Cessna 172. I am glad Tamir will take the left seat. Besides, he is a world champion in visual navigation, a reassuring perspective considering that getting lost over the Israeli airspace is not exactly the best idea.

The initial plan for the flight was to go from Tel-Aviv to the dead sea flying over Jerusalem, then land there, and return heading west all the way to the north limit of the Gaza strip restricted airspace. Unfortunately clouds are scattered by low today (2000 feet), and it is not allowed to fly below 3000 feet on Jerusalem: as we fly VFR, we are not allowed to fly above clouds and Tamir decides to take the more southern route way and back.

Tamir runs the checklist, and as our 30 Gallons of fuel are more than the 20 we need, we are all set. After waiting for a few choppers to land (actually 4 …some VIP visiting Tel-Aviv), we taxi to runway 21 and take-off.
Soon we fly past my hotel, and follow the shore to Old Jaffa. What strikes me immediately is that the map on our GPS (Tamir’s parachute 🙂 ) is moving much faster than I expected. Having France’s scale in mind, I had just forgotten to adjust to the size of Israel.
We continue our flight leaving a big military airfield to our left – as it is a week-end we have exceptionally been allowed to not fly around it-, and then it is kilometres of deserted beaches. A 4*4 here and there, couples escaping civilization, is the only sign of population.
Leaving Ashkelon to our back, the Electric plan chimneys are a sign that it is time to head East. This is the plan providing Electricity to Gaza, yet regularly shelled from … Gaza.
Outside of a few big cities Israel population is very scarce. As we head to the Negev, We start to see the Bedouin cities and villages.
The Negev preserved its Roman ruins amazingly well. Seen from 3000 feet, they seem intact.
The most striking ruin is Masada, which overlooks the dead sea. After the failure of the Jewish rebellion in 70, a thousand Jewish rebels took refuge in this fortress sitting on top of 400m cliffs, and ready to sustain a siege forever. But roman governor Joseph Flavius resolution to take them out was such that he built a dirt ramp all the way to the fortress.
Flavius camp Masada from above, notice the ramp and roman camps Masada from above (1)

In 74, his legions breached into the fortress only to witness the suicide of all rebels, women and children included. Their resolution to not surrender exceeded Flavius resolution to win the siege. Today, when young soldiers are sworn in the Israeli army, they make a statement that “Masada will never be taken again”.
From our window, Flavius ramp is still there, and also the legion’s camps, the siege walls, and even the roman camps buildings seem intact. The whole episode seems to have happened yesterday. It reminds me of the deep sense of horror that filled me when first hearing the story as a child, and I start to wonder such horror is really so remote after 2000 years of civilization. The Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction strategy, in a way, is based on a degree of resolution similar to the one of Masada. I also recall the Masada episode from childhood because I couln’t determine, then, if the rebels had acted as heroes or criminals. Strong resolution is generally presented in history books as a quality, and even my catholic education was full of martyr stories, also presented as an example of total commitment to faith… but deep down I only retained the inhuman horror of the rebel’s act, without exactly knowing why. Now I believe I can see more clearly the distinction between courage and romantism on one hand, and fanatism on the other. The fact that men with strong faith or dedication to a cause can end their own lives does not shock me: I can understand how seeing your whole system of belief vanish can make life intolerable. But involving the lives of others, even kids in the case of Masada, is totally different thing. Kids cannot knowingly endorse a faith to the point to be willing to end their lives for it. By naming a few men to kill the whole community, the rebels demonstrated that they believed that their commitment to faith, even as it faced defeat, applied not only to those who had knowingly adopted it, but was universal. This is my definition of fanatism.
The sight of Masada makes me hope that diplomacy, not just technology, has made some progress since the Roman era. Soon we are faced with a more immediate and practical problem: the dead sea now extends in front of us, and we need to find the airfield; a yellowish dirt strip in the middle of the yellowish rocks of the desert.
The Dead Sea Where is the runway ? Here it is !
Camels by the landing strip

I feel lucky that I am not alone in the cockpit. Tamir demonstrates its skills by spotting the barely visible field in less than a minute, and we get ready to land. At this point I don’t know yet that the best part of the trip is still ahead. This airport is fantastic. I don’ t mean the landing strip, cut in half without warning and requiring a last minute throttle surge to save our tires. As we taxi to the parking I take pictures of the couple camels standing by the side. The airport “terminal” is a small caravan and a Bedouin tent.
The Airfield terminal The airfield narguile, and our Cessna is the back Masada from the ground

This is where Ayana Kimron waits for the occasional plane, reading books in the 40°c heat next to a fan. The tent’s floor consists of multiple layers of carpets, with a Narguile standing in the middle of cushions for those willing to rest in the Bedouin tradition. We sit at a small table an enjoy a cup of the *very* hot Turkish coffee courtesy of Ayana. Quite unexpectedly in this context I have quick chat with Ayana on the Telecom market and Comverse situation… this is Israel, you can’t really escape high-tech :-). Besides telecoms, Ayana has another hidden talent: photography.
Stupidly enough I have forgotten my own camera, and so far rely only on Tamir’s camera phone. Ayana saves the day by pulling out a state of the art Reflex, and is kind enough to take a few pictures demonstrating her skills.
Ayana is quite a character, and really there are 3 good reasons to visit her airport: taking a picture of -1200QNH on your altimeter, taking a picture of the dead sea, and having a chat with Ayana.

Heading back to Tel-Aviv Dov… Take-off