Welcome to one of the most beautiful, vibrant — and dangerous — countries on the planet.
Attuned to Business Aviation
Andrew Wilkinson, standards captain at PepsiCo and left seat on the trip into Beirut crewed by Steve Ragland mentioned earlier, praised OLBA as “great, really professional. They are organized for you when you arrive with assigned general aviation parking on the north side by Terminal B. There are startup and pushback procedures at the FBO — you are directed to request permission to start from the tower, but the published procedures for pushback on the general aviation apron are not practiced. The reality is that you just start up and go and there is no need to pushback.”
Wilkinson offered a “heads up” on a charting omission for an arrival procedure. “On one of the STARS, there's a note that says to call Beirut Control before crossing the FIR — we arrived from Cairo, and it says to contact ATC before entering the FIR. It is a published standard arrival, but this advisory is not on the en route part of the Jepp FD app. SILKO is the fix, and we were on the SILKO ONE arrival from the west.”
Ragland — his copilot on the September 2012 visit — added that “The city is situated like a California coastal city — there's a thin strip of beach, then hills that rise very quickly. The high ground is to the north and east of the airport; however, most maneuvering is over the water.”
When planning trips to international destinations, especially unstable ones like Lebanon, operators will often begin by checking the U.S.website for a security briefing — which more often than not will state that travel is not recommended. “But in my experience,” Ragland said, “you need to weigh that against reality. So, call to your folks on the ground there to find out what is really going on, and make your decision that way.”
The drop-in last September was “a benign trip for us,” Ragland continued, “because of the presence of the pope [Benedict XVI], who was visiting; security was everywhere and everyone was on their best behavior. As soon as we got to the hotel, I hailed a cab and went through the city and saw all my old stomping grounds where I'd spent my formative years.”
The son of Beirut Baptist School administrators, Ragland spent his first 15 years growing up in Beirut, a halcyon life interrupted by the Lebanese civil war. His parents promptly sent him to the U.S. to live with relatives. After graduation from Oklahoma State University, he joined the U.S. Air Force, was accepted for flight training (he'd already earned his private pilot license in college), and wound up flying KC-135s in Desert Storm, the 1990 war against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi incursion into Kuwait. “I was back in the Middle East . . . but not under the best of circumstances,” he said.
His parents remained in Beirut until retiring in 1987. “They were well known in our neighborhood, and there were people who looked out for them,” he told BCA.
We asked Ragland if it is going to be “Battleground Lebanon” again. “The little proxy wars that have devastated modern Lebanon are regionalist within the country. It is important to remember that Lebanon is a fairly small place. The north now is not a good place to go because the Syrian civil war has spilled across the border. Beirut, however, is as good a place as always [almost!] to go.”
The different factions that are fighting in Syria are located close to the northern border of Lebanon, not far from Aleppo in Syria where much of the fighting between the rebels and the government has taken place, Ragland pointed out. “The rebels seek refuge and train in northern Lebanon. That's why it's somewhat a regional issue as to when, why and where you should go.”
As for Beirut, Ragland notes, “In the past, it was called the 'Paris of the Middle East,' and it's regaining that grandeur. It has beautiful beaches and ski resorts, wonderful historic sites with Roman and Greek antiquities, Crusader history, castles and ruins. It is much more Westernized than the rest of the Middle East with a good, vibrant night life. In addition, the Lebanese food is wonderful. My first choice for a place to go would always be Beirut — but of course my heart is there.”
The Lebanese people are known for their warmth, and Ragland described them as “some of the most gracious and hospitable that I've ever known. And do they hate Americans, as we hear so much? Nothing could be further from the truth. On that trip I mentioned earlier, we had five destinations, and we got the best service, handling, and the nicest people to deal with on the entire trip in Beirut.”
There was no evidence of the war damage at all at the airport, Ragland said, “and the city is under repair from the ravages of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. The Beirut museum has been redone and shouldn't be missed. The Junea area is a good place to visit, and a short drive away is Baalbek, built as a temple to Baal and a wonderful archeological find.
“There are the caves at Jietta, where I visited as a kid, about a 45-min. drive from the city in the east. Also, there are the Cedars of Lebanon, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre [all ancient cities dating from the Biblical era].”
Hanlon reminisced about a field trip he and a flight crew took on earlier flight to Lebanon, this into the Bekaa Valley where he almost froze to death in an alpine winter (in the Middle East!) and witnessed “absolutely amazing” Roman ruins.
Thus it goes with Lebanon, this stunning, constantly amazing, dangerous destination.
Use Your Company's Security Resources
When planning a trip to a country where terrorism or war are risks, use every resource you have available to monitor the situation on the ground at your destination and assess overall risk trends before making a decision to go.
Here's how a major flight department interacts with its company's corporate security department, as told by Andrew Wilkinson, standards captain at PepsiCo: “We are a big international company, and we have a security department with contacts in the countries in which we do business. We get our itinerary in advance, and security gets it concurrently. Then they research where we're going and issue the flight crew a 'security passport.'
“Most of our security professionals are former Secret Service with contacts in the countries we travel to and the U.S. embassies there. They prepare a security brief and give it to the crews with contact info for our people on the ground there. We carry satphones on the airplane and take them with us on the ground just in case the cell networks go down. You always want to be self-sufficient.”
Lebanon and Aviation
Walid A. Phares, Ph.D., who addressed the 2013 NBAA International Operators Conference in San Diego this March on terrorism, is a recognized expert in Middle Eastern affairs and a native Lebanese. Here are his thoughts on aviation security in Lebanon and the country's relationship with aviation:
“When we analyze aviation security in a country that had and continues to have military clashes, terror attacks, assassinations, and almost daily clashes, we must take into consideration two levels. One is the state of laws and aviation technology in the country. Two is the military and security situation of the country, which can and is impacting aviation security regardless of the actual notion of aviation safety.
“In other words, Lebanon as a country at peace is successful in terms of managing aviation flight plans, logistics and resources on the ground, and air traffic control. It has an old and well-established aviation history and has had excellent pilots and operators. Lebanese pilots have flown to almost every country in the world and served with international companies with great success.
“Because of its size, about 16 millions worldwide, and distribution internationally within 32 countries, the Lebanese Diaspora has been also a significant contributor to Lebanon's aviation culture and education. Lebanese pilots, engineers, and operators have served worldwide and in the United States and have contributed to the level of expertise in the aviation field in Lebanon.
“Hence, on the strict technical and operational levels, Beirut Airport and the Lebanese airspace system in general have acceptable safety levels as per ICAO established procedures and recommended standards. However, there are certain zones in the Lebanese airspace that are declared restricted or prohibited areas by the Lebanese Army. Such areas are avoided by civil aviation.”
Phares on the Lebanese
We asked Dr. Walid Phares, a Lebanese national, to describe his people.
“Lebanese people in general have been and are hospitable, happy and entrepreneurial. I remember during my own years in Lebanon until 1975 how tourists, artists, and businessmen were welcomed in Lebanon with great joy and excitement. During the 15-years civil war until 1990, however, there were very few Westerners who traveled to Lebanon.
“After the 1990s and because of the Syrian occupation and Hezbollah presence, westerners didn't return in great numbers. Nowadays, the risk is even higher for them to travel and tour Lebanon. The contradiction between the fundamental nature of the Lebanese, as people, to be extremely open and friendly with foreigners, and the threatening terror forces in the country is wide and deep. If Lebanon is freed completely from all armed militias, it will resume as a haven for business and tourism.”
Why is Beirut the only game in town . . . or rather, in Lebanon? “The other airports in the country are either military or otherwise not certified for civil aviation,” answered Ali Al Naqbi, founding chairman of the Middle East Business Aviation Association, in Dubai. “Consequently, you are restricted from flying to other airports.”
MEBBA has been in active dialogue with the Lebanese government to certify other airports, “but this will be a long process,” Al Naqbi said. “An example is Aliaat in the north, where we are negotiating access for civil aircraft and business aviation, but it's been put on hold because of the war. As it is now, you cannot fly within the country except for arriving and departing at Beirut.”
Other candidates identified by Dr. Walid Phares include: “Rayak Airport, a military base used by the Lebanese Army, is close to the Syrian border, and Hezbollah controls its vicinity. Kleyat Airport north of Tripoli is also used by the Lebanese Army and close to the Syrian border. Hezbollah theoretically has no control over it, but Jihadi militias have been signaled in the area.
“And finally,” Dr. Phares said, “Hamat Airport near Chekka is used by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah again has no control around it; U.S. military aircraft have been known to use this field. It would be the safest airport in Lebanon, but special authorizations for landing must be obtained.”