Western Sahara Airspace Warning

By Chris Shieff

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The GCCC/Canarias FIR has published a new Notam warning of the overflight risk for Western Sahara, due to the ongoing conflict there.

Previously, they said that aircraft should avoid flying below FL200 on airways UY601, UN728 and UT975.

The new Notam is a bit different. It effectively says that overflights should be completely avoided over the part of Western Sahara that falls within the GCCC/Canarias FIR (i.e. airways UY601 and UN728). For the part of Western Sahara that sits under the GOOO/Dakar FIR (i.e. airway UT975), overflights should not be below FL245.

Here’s how that looks:

Here’s the Notam:

GCCC B0938/21 - OPERATORS ARE REQ TO EXERCISE PARTICULAR CAUTION DURING FLT OPS 
IN WESTERN SAHARA AS PART OF FIR/UIR CANARIAS.
IT IS RECOMMENDED TO AVOID OVERFLIGHT FROM SFC TO FL245 ON THE FOLLOWING AREA
274000N 0131000W, 274000N 0111400W, 274000N 0084000W, 260000N 
0084000W, 260000N 0120000W, 233000N 0120000W BORDER FIR DAKAR UP TO 
212000N 0140000W, 212000N 0165500W, 250000N 0154700W, 250000N 
0153000W, 272200N 0134200W
AND FROM FL245 TO FL660 ON THE FOLLOWING AREA
274000N 0131000W, 274000N 0111400W BORDER FIR DAKAR UP TO  212000N 
0140000W, 212000N 0165500W, 250000N 0154700W, 250000N 0153000W, 
272200N 0134200W. 
04 FEB 23:03 2021 UNTIL 04 MAR 23:59 2021. CREATED: 04 FEB 23:03 2021

Not much of a warning. What’s really important is exactly what is missing: why.

The answer: Because the airways are over an active conflict zone, with a known threat of anti-aircraft fire.

Western Sahara is effectively divided straight down the middle, literally by a wall. Morocco controls one side, while the region’s independence movement (the Polisario) controls the other. In Nov 2020, the Polisario declared war on Morocco.

Why do they want to fight?

The two have never gotten along. The Polisario want independence and were at war with the Moroccan Government for a very long time, until a fragile ceasefire agreement in 1991. Since then there has always been tension.

In early Nov 2020, a Polisario protest blocked a whole bunch of Moroccan truck drivers at the border with Mauritania, shutting down an essential route that connects Morocco to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco weren’t happy, and breached the ceasefire agreement by sending forces into the demilitarized zone to remove them.

The Polisario immediately declared war on Morocco, and clashes began straight away.

Why does it matter?

The FAA were onto it when they immediately carried out a risk assessment and published a notice. The big deal is that the Polisario are likely to have access to anti-aircraft weaponry left over from the previous war. This includes man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and surface-to-air missiles. The FAA think these weapons pose a risk to aircraft as high as 12,000 feet.

Example of a MANPAD system in action.

To make matters worse, they are suspicious that Morocco are flying drones over their territory – something that has been denied by Morocco. It wouldn’t be the first time an aircraft has been shot down there either – the Polisario downed two DC-7 airliners with missiles back in 1988.

What about airspace?

The sky over Western Sahara airspace is split between two FIRs –GCCC/Canarias and GOOO/Dakar. If the conflict escalates further, this is likely to complicate things.

So far there has been only one warning from the Canarias side – the NOTAM above. Nothing from Dakar yet.

There are currently three major airways affected. Two of them (UY601 and UT975) run the length of the region in a south westerly direction – likely to be used by aircraft transiting some routes between Europe and South America. The other airway, UN728 is a direct track from the coast to GCTS/Tenerife which may be used by smaller aircraft or those doing tech stops in the Canary Islands.

So if you’re  planning flights to the Canaries, or overflying central Africa, pay close attention to the risks involved. Continue to monitor Safeairspace.net as the situation develops.

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Chris Shieff

Chris Shieff

OPSGROUP Team Member and Airbus Pilot

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