Behind the Image: Sailing above Sand (E)

As we journey home from Johannesburg, the breathtaking sight of a sunrise over the Sahara Desert unfolds before us, casting a golden hue over the seemingly endless dunes. The first rays of the new day illuminate this vast expanse, revealing a stark beauty in the midst of a desolate and inhospitable environment. Yet, despite the mesmerizing scenery, our focus remains on the intricate dance of technology and skill needed to traverse this remote region safely.

Perhaps it was the fragrance of a steaming cup of coffee, or perhaps my "inner clock" whispering that a vibrant sunrise awaits just beyond the sun visor. I relish the flight as a passenger, casting my gaze beyond the wing across the boundless expanse of the Sahara, a canvas of memories from my days as a long-haul pilot. En route to distant metropolises, I soared above lands entirely unfamiliar to me, traversing regions almost devoid of human presence. One such realm is the expansive tapestry of the Sahara, cutting across Africa north of the equator in all its width. From the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, this colossal desert unfolds. Contrary to prevailing beliefs, the Sahara is not merely an infinite abyss of sand. A tapestry of diversity spanning millions of square miles across northern Africa. Mountains stand sentinel, ancient volcanoes slumber in their dormant grace, salt flats stretch like glistening mirrors, and vast plains beckon with a quiet majesty. Amidst this enchanting panorama, the illustrious sand dunes dance, an ever-shifting ballet choreographed by the persistent caress of trade winds, sculpting ephemeral masterpieces in the golden sands.

The first rays of the new day illuminate the vast expanse, revealing a stark beauty amid a desolate and inhospitable environment. As my eyes feast on the boundless view, my thoughts wander into the cockpit where flying over such remote areas presents unique challenges for pilots. Unlike densely populated regions with well-established air traffic control systems, remote areas often lack ground-based navigation aids. Pilots must rely on their own skills and experience to safely navigate these regions.


Embarking on the journey of becoming a pilot, I was first taught how to navigate by visual references. I had to devise a flight plan consisting of landmarks, such as roads, lakes, or settlements, and connecting them to get to the destination I was tasked with. Yet, as I piloted airliners across the globe, veiled by the night and cloaked in clouds that obscured these earthly signposts, the celestial ballet demanded a more nuanced dance of navigation. In the infancy of aviation, hundreds of light beacons were placed on top of mountains to guide the first airmail flight across the American continent, connecting New York with San Francisco. These luminous sentinels, etching trails in the firmament, paved the way for the airborne pioneers. With time, their terrestrial glow yielded to the subtler hum of radio beacons (NDB, VOR), transmitting whispers of their position (bearing and distance) through evolved instruments on the flight deck. However, those ground-based navigation aids are maintenance intensive and above all need solid ground to stand on, making them less of an option in remote areas. Before the invention of GPS, inertial navigation systems (INS) and a long-range radio navigation system (LORAN) were developed to provide independent position information and allow safe and accurate passage of those areas. Today, pilots rely heavily on satellite-based navigation systems. The GPS provides precise positioning and accurate navigation even in the absence of any ground-based navigation aid. In the contemporary skies, the once-luminous beacons have metamorphosed into cryptic five-letter waypoints—coordinates etched in the air, forming a lexicon along the airways that crisscross continents and connect the beating hearts of cities.

Communication in Remote Areas

The sparse skyways above the surreal landscapes are densely treaded at certain times. Just as with navigation, communication, too, finds itself subject to the boundaries of physics. While we usually communicate through shortwave radio (VHF), remote regions require us to rely on a combination of longwave and text communication. The high-frequency (HF) radio and the CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications) are the lifelines that connect us to the outside world. HF radio allows us to communicate with air traffic control in a remote area, even if they are hundreds of miles away. CPDLC, on the other hand, facilitates data link communication between pilots and air traffic controllers, easing our workload while ensuring a streamlined exchange of essential information. As the short-range radios are rendered useless to communicate with air traffic control, we utilize them for pilot-to-pilot communication. This adds another layer of collaboration and safety. In the solitude of the cockpit, pilots share information, insights, and observations, enhancing situational awareness. This peer-to-peer communication fosters a sense of camaraderie among aviators navigating the challenging airspace above the Sahara.

In the Cockpit

While navigating through remote areas pilots are engaged in a myriad of tasks to ensure a smooth and safe flight. Continuous monitoring of the aircraft's systems, weather conditions, and navigation instruments is paramount. The ever-changing nature of the skies requires adaptability, with pilots ready to adjust course and altitude based on real-time information.

Moreover, pilots play a crucial role in managing fuel consumption, optimizing routes for efficiency, and making strategic decisions based on weather patterns. As we sail above the sand, the cockpit becomes a command center where every decision is calculated and every action meticulously executed.

About the image

The title image of 2024 edition of my photo calendar “Sailing above Sand” is a testament to the synergy between human skill and technological marvels. Navigating remote areas demands a harmonious blend of precise navigation, effective communication, and vigilant task management.


Shot on a Sony 7S + 24-105mm F4 G SSM @24mm, ISO125, f/5.6, 1/320sec

About "Behind the Image"

In my photo calendar "Up in the Sky" I get to share my favorite aviation pictures with you. This blog series will complement the product and will tell the story about the moment the picture was taken. It will also share comprehensive information about what happend on the flight deck and how the picture was created.