Despite being in the Middle-East, Jordan is a surprisingly westernized country and extremely open and welcoming to the west. Whereas it is virtually impossible to visit any of the air forces in the troubled region, the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) has a more open approach and by the end of the nineties few groups of aviation enthusiasts visited the various air bases in this stunning desert country. I was aiming for more and what took me five years (!) to arrange was achieved in December 2003, I received a fax from the RJAF Headquarters informing me that HRH Prince Feisal Bin Al-Hussein, son of the late King Hussein and then Chief-of-Staff, of the RJAF had authorized my request to visit this interesting air force. I was given the unique opportunity to photograph a selection of their aircraft and helicopters in an aerial environment during local flights.
It took me another three months to arrange all the details and in March 2004 I arrived in Amman. I had a busy schedule and in three weeks I hoped to photograph almost all the types in the inventory of the RJAF. It would probably get boring to give the details of all the eleven flights, but this project was unique for me as it was my first opportunity to experience a back-seat ride in an Lockheed-Martin F-16. After having flown the CASA-101 and an F-5F on the days preceding my scheduled F-16 flight, I was asked what I would like to achieve during my photo-flight in the rear Viper. I suggested to take two aircraft (an A and a B model) to the desert of Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is an amazing area in the south of Jordan and it is famous for its spectacular rock formations and variety of unusual colours.
The people involved liked my idea. A few quick calculations and they concluded that we needed an external fuel tank as the transit from Azraq to Wadi Rum would take around 25 minutes each way. Of course we needed some time in the 'theatre' as well. So we were planning on a 75-min flight. I was pleased with the external tank as I didn't want the aircraft to be completely clean. There was another issue that the Commander of No.2 Squadron pointed out and that is that flying below 10.000 ft. was normally not allowed over Wadi Rum. Special permission needed to be arranged.
In good spirits I finished my first day at Azraq with a few sunset shots. That night I slept surprisingly well, despite the fact that flying the F-16 was top of the list with things that I hoped to achieve. Wednesday 17 March 2004 would be a big day in my 'career' as an aerial photographer! I woke up before sunrise and at exactly the agreed time my driver met me at my hotel in downtown Amman. We drove past the beautiful eastern desert castles of Qasr al-Harraneh and Qusayr 'Amra to Azraq. After a brief introduction to the base commander I met my pilots for the mission. We proceeded with the pre-flight briefing and I explained my objectives. We went through various check-lists and emergency procedures. One of the things that we discussed was what to do if one of the aircraft had to abort the mission before take-off. Did I need a spare aircraft? I decided against it, as I wanted to avoid any further delays. I needed the first few hours of sunlight as that is when the light is at its best and the colours of Wadi Rum most spectacular.
The pre-flight briefing was kept short and we were driven to the waiting F-16. Our call-sign was Hurricane. Ground-crew had already prepared the aircraft the previous evening and I was strapped-in while my pilot was conducting the walk-around. We launched out of a hardened aircraft shelter, whereas the two other aircraft operated from the flight-line. I used the time that it took to taxi to the beginning of runway 31 to check and double-check my equipment and to familiarize myself with the lay-out of the cockpit. By that time my enthusiasm had turned into a high-level of concentration and I focussed on the objective of the flight. I wanted to make the most of it. When we lined up on the platform close to the beginning of the runway, I noticed that the F-16A next to me was leaking massive amounts of fuel. My suspicion was immediately confirmed. The aircraft had a technical fault and had to abort. I was too optimistic when they asked me about the spare aircraft and I regretted that I told them not to bother to prepare one. But good luck was with me, as a spare aircraft had been made available anyway. It was quickly decided that the pilot would swap aircrafts while we proceeded with the mission. We would meet in Wadi Rum.
Minutes later we were lined-up at runway 31 of Muafaq Al-Salti Air Base as the base near Azraq is known. The tower gave us take-off clearance, the pilots had decided on a take-off at full military power (so without reheat) and the throttles were slowly moved forwards. A high pitched noise filled the cockpit but I knew that anyone standing too close to the aircraft would have to deal with the thundering noise produced by the aircraft's Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220E engines. The pilot of the lead aircraft nodded his head and both aircraft released their breaks simultaneously. The acceleration was astonishing and after less than half the length of the runway, we rotated and were airborne. Another nod from the pilot of the lead aircraft and the landing gear was lifted. You could feel the aircraft accelerating considerably due to the loss of drag as the undercarriage disappeared into the aircraft.
Immediately after take-off we headed south. We were surrounded by clear blue skies and below me I could see some of the most spectacular desert sceneries one could imagine. We passed a few sulphur mines, which formed the only interruption of the brown / yellow landscape around. The sun was in a perfect position. It took around 25 min to reach Wadi Rum, so I had plenty of time to check my camera and take a few shots of the F-16B next to me. We flew at a height of around 5,000ft and the pilots kindly met my various requests. At the same time telling me about their country and pointing out various landmarks in the distance.
When we were approaching Wadi Rum the desert landscape changed and a pink-orangey area appeared in front of us. We descended to around a 1,000ft and the sense of speed flying this low was intoxicating. Almost immediately we were surrounded by massive sandstone mountains. Sandstone is not very hard and the elements have no problem in turning these mountains into rough looking structures with amazing shapes. With a thundering speed we approached a valley and before I realized where we were we flew over Wadi Musa which is a small village and the tourist gateway into the Wadi Rum area. Briefly I thought about what the people (and camels) below in the village must have thought when two roaring jet aircraft aggressively disrupted the peace. In this area it's normally only the wind hauling around the mountains and sweeping up the desert sand that disrupts the desert peace. We tried to stay close to our photo-subject, but this was sometimes difficult due to the strong turbulence around the mountains.
After flying through this area for a few minutes, we climbed to around 2,500 feet as the second aircraft (the one that was used as a spare) joined us. Together we continued for another 15 minutes or so. We were slowly running out of fuel, so we started making our way back. The two aircraft lined-up beautifully and again I had plenty of time to take a few images and even enjoy the flight itself. The views from the backseat of an F-16 are amazing! The flight back went smooth and without problems although at one stage my pilot approached the lead aircraft a bit to aggressive and a sudden move prevented us from flying into him. My pilot apologized! Although I actively flew gliders when I was younger, I normally don't ask for the controls during photo-flights. But when my pilot offered it to me, I was delighted with the opportunity. Hands on throttle and stick and my pilot holding his hands in the air to indicate that I had the controls. He made me make a few shallow turns and had to try to stay in formation with the lead aircraft. By that time a recorded woman's voice had already made us aware that we were 'bingo' fuel. So there was no time (and fuel) left to try a bit more. It was an amazing experience to feel the aircraft respond to throttle adjustments and stick movements. The flight was already a massive success, this flying experience made it complete.
After around an hour and 15 minutes we approached Azraq and we separated from the other two aircraft. The pilot selected our gear down and I could not help to check for the 'three greens' myself. The landing was smooth and eventless. We landed in the opposite direction and after we returned to the shelter, the pilot switched off the engine and opened the canopy. Why do the good things in live always seem too short? While the pilot finished the paperwork I took off my g-suite and thanked the crew-chief for his help. I went to the flight-line for some ground photography and was then invited to enjoy a classic Jordanian meal; mensef. This meal is eaten without cutlery, standing around the table and on a huge dish you find rice, almost a complete goat, spices and yoghurt. The lunch was attended by the base commander, the pilots of the mission and my guide for the project. A tasty meal and a few good jokes was the perfect way to end this very successful day. Before I left my newly made friends I was presented with a patch of No. 2 Squadron, the unit that hosted my flight. Guys it was an amazing experience that gave me some very good long-lasting memories (and some stunning pictures as well!) Thanks!