Pilot’s log: Wednesday, June 25, 2020

Origin:Interlaken Airport (LSMI), Interlaken, Switzerland
Destination:Gibraltar International Airport (LXGB), Gibraltar
Distance:985 miles

We’ve come quite a ways from our start in New Hampshire, but there’s still a lot to go. So let’s get flying! Today’s journey will take us over the highest peaks in Europe, then southwest over Barcelona and the sun-baked south coast of Spain. Our destination is the tiny British territory of Gibraltar, located at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

We’ll climb out of Interlaken through valleys leading to three of the most famous peaks of the Alps: the Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau. Each rises above 13,000 feet, and they’re visible from Interlaken, their snowcapped peaks looming over the landscape. Our flight plan calls for us to follow the scenic (but short) Lauterbrunnen Valley and go right up and over the saddle between two of the peaks, at a pass called “Jungfrau Joch.” We’ll need to gain more than 10,000 feet in just a few miles, which means after takeoff we’ll have to make a wide loop over the Brienzer See just to gain altitude before entering the valley.

In 218 BC, the Carthaginian General Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants to surprise the Romans

The Alps, which in this case tower two miles over the valley below, form a natural barrier that have influenced the course of history for centuries. For all their engineering skill, the Romans never quite conquered them, leaving the territory to the north to be ruled by Germanic tribes. In their own way, the Alps acted as a kind of natural fortress that protected Rome for a long time, with one notable exception: the time in 218 B.C. that Carthaginian General Hannibal somehow marched his troops (including a squadron of elephants) through the mountains and brought a devastating attack on Rome from the north. Later on, the Alps played a role in the formation of a federation of regions called “cantons” that eventually became Switzerland. The deep valleys also helped shape Swiss folk culture, which includes such elements as yodeling, the playing of enormous Alpine horns, and identifying cattle in mountain pastures by the distinctive Swiss cow bell.

The Piz Gloria Restaurant, high atop the Schilthorn, makes no secret of its James Bond connection. We’re heading for the Jungfraujoch, the mountain pass just above the smokestack.

The highest part of the Alps in Switzerland, called the “Bernese Oberland,” is like a small part of Antarctica in Europe. It’s a world of barren rock peaks and year-round snow and ice that form Europe’s largest glaciers. But unlike Antarctica, it’s easy to visit. Throughout Switzerland, railroads and cablecars whisk visitors to restaurants and hotels high atop alpine peaks. As we prepare to fly over the Jungfraujoch, on our right you’ll see a classic example: the Schilthorn, a mountaintop resort that sits astride a craggy 9,744-foot peak. Reached by cablecar from the valley below, it’s home to the Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant where scenes were filmed for the 1969 James Bond classic “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

Even more amazing is Jungfraujoch itself. This barren snowbound high altitude mountain pass, which tops out at 11,331 feet, is reachable by train. Really! Opened in 1912, the Swiss engineered a mountain-climbing cog railway that uses a tunnel inside the mountain to reach the pass. At the top, the station is the highest in Europe, and serves an observatory, a visitors center, and several restaurants. Even dog sled rides are offered on the snowfields outside, weather permitting. We could probably land here if we had to, but only if our plane had skis.

The Aletsch Glacier, with its characteristic stripes, flows out of the Bernese Oberland

Once we clear Jungfraujoch, we’ll follow the Aletsch Glacier as it flow south and then west. At 14 miles long and more than 3,000 feet thick in places, it’s the largest glacier in Continental Europe. Like a very slow-moving river, it’s fed by several smaller glaciers from the high peaks; the way these combine to flow together explains the noticeable stripes that the Aletsch Glacier sports in some places. Because they require freezing temperatures year-round, glaciers can actually grow and shrink over many years as the Earth’s climate fluctuates. In recent decades, a cycle of rising temperatures has caused glaciers such as the Aletsch to recede, or grow smaller. There’s more information about how glaciers respond to changing climate conditions in the link below.

As we fly south and west, we now pass by two of the most famous mountains in the Alps. First up is the Matterhorn, a pyramid-shaped 14,692-foot-high summit on the border of Switzerland and Italy. With its distinctive and dramatic peak, the Matterhorn almost looks like an artist created it. And indeed, the Matterhorn attracted landscape artists starting in the 18th century, popularizing its profile and later fueling the demand for Alpine tourism among wealthy Europeans in the 19th century. Railroads played a big role as well in opening up the Alps to tourism; just as Jungfraujoch got its own railway, plans were worked up for a rail line to the summit of the Matterhorn before an outcry caused the plans to be shelved. Today, the Gornergrat rises nearby to a height of about 10,000 feet, offering spectacular views of this most photogenic of peaks.

The Matterhorn looms over the nearby Gornergrat Railroad

Further south rises the highest mountain of all in Western Europe: Mount Blanc. Straddling the French-Italian border, this massive peak rises to 15,774 feet, although the exact height of its flat summit is subject to change depending on the depth of the snow cover. Although tall, Mont Blanc is not particularly difficult to climb, and so each year a whopping 30,000 people make it the summit. Plans are in the works to protect the area from damage due to the heavy use. Mont Blanc has some aviation history: in 1960, French pilot Henri Giraud managed to land a small plane on the summit. He also took off!

As we fly further south, we descend from the high altitudes of the Alps to find ourselves in the warm and sunny south coast of France. We soon pass over into Spain, reaching the enormous city of Barcelona, home to more than 5 million people. The cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, Barcelona is known for its art and architecture. The incredible Sagrada Família church and other modernist landmarks designed by visionary architect Antoni Gaudí are found throughout the city, giving it a distinctive character that attracts visitors all year round. Barcelona’s history includes our friends the Romans, who made the area part of their Empire. It also includes about 200 years of Islamic rule, during the period in the 8th and 9th century when Muslim armies invaded the Iberian Peninsula from the south. There’s a lot more about Barcelona’s rich history in the links below.

The Sagrada Família basilica, still under construction but nearly finished, is a unique combination of Gothic architecture and Art Nouveau style.

We then continue south to and then east, following the coast of Spanish Mediterranean coast. In recent years, this formerly quiet landscape has turned into a popular resort area, luring vacationers from Northern Europe in the same way the Caribbean islands beckons North Americans. But it’s also an important region for agriculture. As one of the world’s most productive growing areas, this area of southern Spain supplies a good portion of Europe’s fruits and vegetables year-round. From the air, you’ll see some regions are literally covered with plastic-roofed greenhouses to manage crops under cultivation.

Like other nations, Spain has a colorful aviation history. Unlike most nations, Spain’s aviation history dates back more than a thousand years, and includes several legendary (if unsuccessful) flight experiments. In 852, a man named Armen Firman used a crude parachute of his own design to jump from the top of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, landing safely. This adventure inspired his countryman Abbas Ibn Firnas, who in the late 9th century spent 20 years studying birds. The result was the first known manned glider, built of silk, wood and feathers, which Firnas himself (then in his 60s) demonstrated by jumping off the high ridge of the Sierra Morena near Cordoba. Records indicate Firnas stayed airborne for about 10 minutes, but was severely injured when he crash-landed, never to fly again.

Gibraltar, showing the famous rock and also the airport with the highway crossing the runway

Much later came Diego Marin Aguilera, an 18th century Spanish inventor who observed eagles and dreamed of joining them in flight. Years of study led to the construction of a man-powered flying machine made with wood, cloth, and feathers and featuring metal joints to allow for the flapping of the wings. On May 15, 1793, he launched himself from the highest part of the Castle del Conde. He managed to cross the Arandilla River and flew for about a third of a mile before a metal joint broke and the machine plummeted to the ground. Although unhurt, Aguilera did not fly again because local residents considered him a heretic and destroyed the machine. In Spain, today Aguilera is regarded as the ‘Father of Aviation’ and the Spanish Air Force has dedicated a monument to him next to the castle where he took off.

We now come to Gibraltar, today’s destination. In ancient times, this small peninsula with its iconic and towering rock was considered to mark the end of the known world. Later, due to its location guarding the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar came to be of extreme strategic importance. After changing hands many times (and being ruled by our friends the Hapsburgs at one point), it came under British control in 1713, and remains a British Overseas Territory even today. Home to about 32,000 people, Gibraltar remains a busy port and trading center. It’s also home to the only wild monkeys in Europe: the Barbary macaques, which live on the higher parts of the rock.

The Barbaray macaque, found on the upper reaches of Gibraltar’s Rock, is Europe’s only wild monkey

With an area of just 2.6 square miles (and much of that taken up by the iconic rock, which rises 1,398 above the water), space is at a premium. That’s one reason why Gibraltar International Airport includes an unusual feature: a major highway runs right across the sole runway. When a plane is taking off or landing, road traffic must be stopped just like at a railroad crossing! Gibraltar’s short runway is made more difficult by the frequent presence of strong winds, so landing there is a real workout for any pilot. We look forward to exploring this curious leftover remnant of the British Empire as we prepare for our next journey, which will take us to a new continent: Africa!

Resources to learn more about today’s flight:

The Spanish Air Force monument to Diego Marin Aguilera and his flying machine

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