Pilot’s log: Friday, July 3, 2020

Origin:Gibraltar International Airport (LXGB), Gibraltar
Destination:Naples Internnational Airport (LIRN), Naples, Italy
Distance:1,742 miles

Good morning and welcome to the next leg of our around-the-world journey. Today’s ambitious flight takes us into Africa, and through some of the most exotic terrain we’ve flown over so far, including the world’s largest desert and an active volcano. But first, just a little more about Gibraltar, the small peninsula we’ve been visiting. As we learned, it’s a British Overseas Territory, one of the few remnants left of Britain’s once global empire. And there’s a curious local legend involving the native Macaque monkeys that are native to Gibraltar. For many years, it was believed that if the monkeys ever disappeared from Gibraltar, it would cease to be British. As a result, for generations, British troops stationed on Gibraltar were required to feed and care for the creatures! (Today, it’s the responsibility of the local government.)

“The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782,” an oil painting by British Artist John Singleton Copley

As we fly around the rock and then south over the Strait of narrow Gibraltar, just nine miles wide, take a moment to ponder the role of this area in history. Coveted since ancient times as it controlled the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, in Greek mythology the strait was created by Hercules. It has been ruled by a succession of empires: the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, and the Visigoths. Starting in 711, the armies of Islam presided over the strait, and the Rock of Gibraltar is still known in Arabic as “Jebel Tarik,” meaning “Tarik’s Mountain” after a Moorish general who conquered the area. Later ruled by Spain, it fell under British control in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. During the American Revolution, France and Spain staged an epic four-year siege against Gibraltar to win it back from the British, but the campaign ultimately failed. In more recent times, citizens of Gibraltar have twice rejected votes (in 1967 and again in 2002) to leave Britain and rejoin Spain.

Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard on the first-ever intercontinental solar-powered flight across the Strait of Gibraltar in 2012

Below the surface, the narrow passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean has an interesting story to tell. Natural evaporation of water in the Mediterranean outpaces the flow of all the rivers feeding it. So at the Strait of Gibraltar, this creates a steady eastbound inflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean to make up the difference. Over time, the waters of the Mediterranean gradually get saltier and sink below the surface. This creates a layer of very salty water far below, which slowly flows westbound through the Strait of Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic. So when you look down at the Strait, you’re seeing water that’s flowing in two directions at once. Far above the water, the Strait has its share of aviation milestones: in 2012, a Swiss pilot became the first person to make an intercontinental flight using a completely solar-powered aircraft when he flew from Spain to Morocco. And far below the Strait, the two nations are considering a rail tunnel not unlike the English Channel tunnel to connect their rail networks.

Africa is home to 53 nations and is four times the size of the continental United States

After crossing the Strait, we’re now over a new continent: Africa! A gigantic and diverse landmass, Africa is second only to Eurasia in size. It’s about 11.7 million square miles, which means you could fit the continental United States (not including Alaska and Hawaii) into it four times over. Scientists believe today’s homo sapiens (you and me) evolved out of tribes native to East Africa. Today it’s home to more than 1.3 billion people who live in 53 different nations. Today we’ll to fly over just three countries: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which all hug the northern edge of the legendary Sahara Desert. In all three, the dominant faith is Islam, and has been since armies from the Arabian peninsula conquered all of northern Africa in the last half of the 7th century. In more recent times, European colonial empires brought Christianity to parts of North Africa, especially the French in Morocco and Algeria. But the entire northern coast of Africa is culturally and spiritually part of the Arab and Islamic world.

Humphrey Bogart watches Ingrid Bergman depart on a Lockheed 12A Electra Junior in “Casablanca”

First we fly over Casablanca, at 4.3 million people the largest city of Morocco and one of the biggest in all of Africa. Located on the Atlantic Coast, Casablanca has long been a busy site for trade, and today remains the nation’s busiest cargo port. Commerce goes back 2,500 years to the sea-faring Phoenicians and later the Romans; in the Middle Ages it was a haven for pirates, which led the Portuguese to take control in the 16th century, naming it “Casa Branca,” or Portuguese for “white house.” The name stuck through Spanish and then French colonial rule, and finally independence for Morocco in 1956. During World War II, the city became a hotbed of intrigue, as it marked the limit of German controlled North Africa and was filled with spies, informants, and double agents. For Hollywood, it was the perfect setting for one of the great romantic dramas of the era, ‘Casablanca’ (1942), starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, who (spoiler alert!) escapes by flying out on a Lockheed 12A Electra Junior, another twin-engined plane of similar vintage as our C-47. Later, as the Allies gained control of North Africa, Casablanca became the arrival point for the “southern” Atlantic supply route from North America, which meant many, many C-47 transports passed through here (see, for example, the note about C-47 restoration projects on our Aircraft page). Today, Casablanca is a bustling modern city, linked by high-speed rail line (opened in 2018) to Tangiers, Morocco’s other major port.

The interior of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which can accommodate 25,000 worshippers and has a retractable roof

A key site in Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, which can be seen clearly on the waterfront as we circle the city. Its minaret, or main tower, is 689 feet tall, making it the tallest exclusively religious structure in the world. Unlike many of the cathedrals we saw in Europe, the Hassan II Mosque is fairly new: it opened in 1993 after seven years of construction. Named after Morocco’s King Hassan II (who died in 1999), it’s the second largest mosque in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. It can accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside, with space for another 80,000 on the grounds outside, and features a retractable roof. The minaret is topped by a laser beam that points east towards Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia and the center of Islamic faith. We can’t do justice to Islam on our brief flight, but here’s one detail for those unfamiliar with this religion. When you visit any mosque, you’ll notice no decorations or pictures of the prophet Mohammad (who founded the faith in the 600s), as images of prophet are generally forbidden. Instead, surfaces are decorated with elaborate calligraphy: often phrases from the Koran, the holy text of Islam, rendered most often in flowing Arabic script with great artistic flair. There’s a lot more about Islam in the links below.

The twisting alleys of an old Marrakesh “souk” or market

Leaving Casablanca, we now fly south into the Moroccan countryside. The area between the Atlantic coast and the Atlas Mountains is dry but not quite a desert, with a climate somewhat like southern California. It’s a productive landscape dotted with farms and settlements that go back to ancient times, including Marrakesh, an old trading post and today one of the most colorful cities of Morocco’s interior. For many centuries, it served as the region’s capital, and indeed the whole nation was called “Marrakesh” rather than its modern name, Morocco. Its tightly packed urban center is one of the world’s best preserved marketplaces, and the place benefited by frequent visits in the 1960s by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jean-Paul Getty. Today, foreigners own much of the property in Marrakesh and have helped make it a top tourist destination.

The Barbary Lion, which once roamed the Atlas Mountains, is now extinct in the wild, but survives in captivity

Visible to the south are the Atlas Mountains, the highest peaks in all of western Africa and which separate Morocco’s prosperous coastal regions from the great expanse of the Sahara Desert in the east. The Atlas Mountains stretch for 1,600 miles across Morocco’s interior, from the Atlantic Ocean up to the Mediterranean Sea. Surprisingly, they’re distant cousins of mountains found in the eastern U.S.: the Appalachians and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, dating way back to when North and South America were attached to Europe and Africa. (They’ve been drifting part for millions of years, as we learned when we visited Iceland.) The Atlas Mountains are tall enough to have snow on the higher peaks for much of the year, but not quite tall enough for glaciers to form. The tallest summit is just south of Marrakesh: Mount Toubkal, rising 13,761 feet, making it the highest point in the Arab world. You can see by their worn-down shape that the Atlas Mountains are much older than the Alps, which have pointier and more dramatic peaks. As a wilderness area, the Atlas Mountains have been home to many large animals that have become extinct in modern times, including the Atlas bear, the North African elephant, and the North African auroch. The native Barbary lions are currently extinct in the wild, but descendants exist in captivity.

With their ability to store water, camels remain useful working animals in the arid Sahara

Clearing the peaks of the High Atlas, one of the world’s legendary landscapes looms before us: the Sahara Desert, its name derived from the Arabic word for desert. Stretching over 3,000 miles across the northern third of Africa, the Sahara is the largest hot desert on the planet. (The polar regions, with their lack of precipitation, are technically deserts.) To ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, the uncrossible Sahara (more than 1,000 miles wide) formed the limit of the known world. In Greek mythology, the Sahara was created when Titan’s son Phaeton borrowed his father’s sun chariot but drove it irresponsibly, causing great damage and prompting Zeus to use thunderbolts to make the chariot crash to the earth, thus forming the desert. Today, meteorologists understand that the desert is the result of ocean and wind currents that prevent moist air from flowing over nothern Africa. As a result, the high position of the sun, the extremely low relative humidity, and the lack of vegetation and rainfall make the Sahara the hottest region in the world, and in some spots the hottest place on Earth during summer. Salah, well known in Algeria for its extreme heat, has an average high temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in July.

The desert community of Beni Isguren, on the Trans-Sahara Highway in the Algerian desert

To get a sense of the Sahara’s immense emptiness, we’ll fly about 200 miles east, over the border into neighboring Algeria, into an area where for the most part there’s simply no human settlement anywhere. Instead, it’s a sea of sand: in some cases, sand is shaped by winds into dunes as high as 600 feet. In many other parts of the Sahara, the landscape is simply bare rock, baked for centuries in the unyielding sun. Even in this forbidding landscape, nomadic people have found ways to live and survive. And in the rare places where water is available, sometimes called an “oasis”, communities have existed for centuries. We’ll pass very close to one in the Algerian desert, Beni Isguren, a walled city in the remote Mzeb Valley. Beni Isguren is not isolated: it’s on the Trans-Sahara Highway, a north-south road project to connect the Mediterranean coast with sub-Saharan Africa. The road is 2,800 miles long and is not yet completed. But it links the arid Algerian interior to the prosperous northern coast, and we’ll turn north and follow it to the capitol, which is the city of Algiers.

The steep and narrow streets of the Casbah, or old town, of Algiers

Algiers, a city on the Mediterranean south shore, is another storied city with roots in ancient times, controlled by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians before becoming part of the Roman Empire. After Islam swept across North Africa in the 7th century, Algiers was ruled by local potentates, eventually emerging as a center for piracy on what became known as the Barbary Coast. For centuries, European merchant and military ships were menaced by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean and even as far out in the Atlantic as Iceland. Successful pirates would take captives to Algiers, where they would be enslaved and held for ransom. The practice lasted long enough to be the cause of the first international military action of the newly independent United States, which fought two wars with the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s, including action by the then brand-new warship the U.S.S. Constitution.

We then fly east along the coast, entering the nation of Tunisia and flying over its capital, Tunis. Movie buffs might find it interesting that Tunisia’s desert landscape has been the setting for a wide range of motion pictures, from the original ‘Star Wars’ (when it was the setting for the desert planet ‘Tataouine’ and in many other sequels) to Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian,’ when the landscape stood in for the Holy Land. In ancient times, Tunisia was home base of Carthage, a major mercantile power and a military rival of the Roman Republic. Carthage was defeated by the Romans in 146 BC. The Romans occupied Tunisia for most of the next 800 years, introduced Christianity and left architectural legacies such as the amphitheater of El Jem. After several attempts starting in 647, Muslims conquered the whole of Tunisia by 697 and introduced Islam.

A set from the Star Wars films still standing in Tunisia

Tunisia eventually came under French influence in the 19th century. Because of its location close to Sicily and the Italian mainland, Tunisia became a key World War II battleground between the Axis forces of Germany and Italy, which occupied the area, and the Allies, who were pushing in from the west. Hitler committed massive forces to the Africa campaign, including considerable Luftwaffe airpower. But the Allies prevailed, forcing more than 250,000 Axis troops to surrender as POWs, hastening the Allied invasion of Italy and ultimately the end of the war. Today, Tunisia is unusual among Arab nations in that it’s governed by a Western-style parliamentary democracy. In 2011, citizen protestors forced the abdication of the former authoritarian regime. The nation then adopted a revised constitution that allowed for a representative government, multi-party elections, and fewer restrictions on free speech. To learn more about the events of what is sometimes called the “Arab Spring,” check out the links on this week’s Pilot’s Log.

We now make the short hop over the mid-Mediterranean Sea to Sicily, a large island that’s part of Italy and also home to western Europe’s largest active volcano: Mount Etna. Looming about 10,900 feet above the surrounding countryside (the height is always changing), Mount Etna is in a near-constant state of activity. The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain and the broad Plain of Catania to the south. But the mountain’s summit is constantly belching fumes and ash from deep inside its crater. Although we now understand that volcanoes are the result of weak spots in the earth’s crust that allow molten rock from deep underground to reach the surface, ancient people had their own explanations. In Greek mythology, the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under this mountain by Zeus, and the forges of Hephaestus (blacksmith to the gods) were said also to be underneath it.

Mount Etna during a recent eruption

We now cross over the narrow strait that separates Sicily from the main “boot” of Italy, and then fly north/northwest up the western coast to Naples, the main city of southern Italy and our destination. As we fly in, we’ll see another volcano: Mt. Vesuvius. It’s only a fraction of Mount Etna’s size, but it’s just as famous because an eruption in 79 AD buried the nearby Roman community of Pompei under many feet of ash. Over centuries, this “lost city” has been uncovered by archaeologists and today stands as a remarkable record of a typical town at the height of Roman power. We’ll learn a lot more about Pompei when we fly our next leg, continuing up the Italian coast to Rome.

For now, let’s end this long flight with an approach and landing at Naples International Airport. I hope you’re hungry, because Naples holds an important distinction: it’s considered the birthplace of pizza!

Naples: birthplace of pizza

Resources to learn more about today’s flight:

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