The midday sun peaked as I ate lunch at a roadside restaurant. Their television broke news on the rapid rise of tensions between the US & Iran. On the ground, things were seemingly normal since crossing Bethlehem gate that morning. Military jeeps made their rounds in what were noticeably frequent drive-bys, all with flickering Palestinean flags. Down the valley, Banksy’s artistic calls for peace adorned the walls which had cut this nation off from basic human needs. Incoming texts continuously alerted me to potential threats that were already adding to my increased consciousness. Car horns flooded the air like smoke coming from the taxi stand. Though there was much more to see, it was hard to resist the cheap evening fare back to Tel Aviv - my flight was in less than 12 hours.
A last-minute aircraft change awarded me the pleasure of flying a widebody on this short hop up to Kyiv, Ukraine. I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport just around 2AM, giving me enough time to get the usual “is this country real?” interrogation. Traveling with a passport having been issued by a small island nation that few know of, often comes with the constant reality of discrimination. Wouldn't a simple Google search do them a favour?
After 2 hours of stressful screening and showing other “government documents”, I quickly hustled through duty-free and snapped some pictures before arriving at the gate before boarding. Though it was quite early, the terminal was bustling due to the morning bank of European departures.
Boarding calls echoed through each concourse; one to Vienna, the next to Barcelona. Ukraine International Airlines’ Boeing 777-200ER registered UR-GOB, shone brightly through the terminal’s window. Soon enough, flight PS778 was ready for her guests. The warm greeting from the premium class flight attendants was a stark contrast to my incoming flights a few weeks prior. The doors soon shut and mood lights illuminated the cabin, casting a soothing sunrise effect. Pushback commenced momentarily but though we had left the gate, the aircraft stood still for 30 minutes before taxiing to the active. Casually dismissing it, I dozed off before having my nap broken by the Pratt & Whitney engines roaring down the runway. Once airborne, the expanse of Tel Aviv’s lights glistened in the distance when the aircraft made, what I then thought was a right turn, towards Ukraine.
Purple and pinks hues of the sky gradually peaked through the clouds on the climb out. Meal service commenced once at cruise but though the aircraft was in fact long-haul, the offerings were the usual regional dining options. The remainder of the flight was smooth as we made our way over Turkey, the Black Sea, and into Eastern Europe. Crew members made their necessary checks throughout the cabin, still smiling though even though it was early morning. The 777 was nearing her destination and initiated a descent through the winter mist, landing on Runway 36R.
Our 14 wheeled chariot tickled the concrete at Boryspil airport, signaling our on-time arrival. With a short taxi to the international terminal, what I thought was an end to a perfect flight quickly changed. A stewardess swiftly ran past my seat with her phone to her ear. My attention then focused on her as she appeared frantic. She managed to get the attention of the head purser onboard; something was wrong. Tears flowed down her face. At first, I thought a relative had died but that assumption had shifted when I saw other crew members were checking their phone. They tried their best to hold it together for the sake of the passengers but too many caught notice of what was going on.
Parked at the gate, Ukrainian soldiers met us at the door and inspected the plane. My suspicions grew and I was eager to know what was going on. As I entered the terminal and connected to WiFi, multiple messages flooded the notification centre on my phone. Images of the cerulean blue tail of a Boeing 737 trailed by fragments of a white fuselage were scattered in what looked like a farm field. A familiar bluebird logo showed that it was a Ukraine International Airlines aircraft.
The realization hit me almost immediately. The very ambiance of the airport was one that couldn't go unmissed. There was a never-ending trance that layover staff and passengers alike. Momentarily, news came in of how many souls were lost on PS752 from Tehran. Of the 176 passengers, 138 were connecting onward to Canada on the very Boeing 777 aircraft I had arrived on. Of these 138, some of them were persons of which I shared a campus while at university.
There wasn't a pin drop in the terminal. The over-wing staff of the airline were almost non-existent. There was no one to talk to. Even crew members of other departing flights carried a ghostly look on their faces. A 12-hour layover in Kyiv felt like an eternity; I booked a return from New York, then separately to and from Toronto.
Sitting on the viewing terrace, I watched as the Toronto bound aircraft leave without the Tehran originating passengers. Even when dusk fell over the airport hours later, I still found it almost difficult to say exactly how I felt. Boarding calls for PS231 to JFK were heard on the intercom and I prepared myself for the 10-hour journey back to North America. The heavy spirit of the tragedy transcended from the terminal into the aircraft and lasted even up into and far beyond the the halls of JFK.
The reality was that some of these persons were headed to Canada, a country that awarded them the opportunity of living their dreams just like myself, were never able to make it back safely. This is still truly hard to accept. More so, the reality of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and friends alike, having been forced to accept the reality of what had occurred was even harder. Many other passengers were established citizens contributing greatly to society through academia, medicine, finance, and engineering.
Vigil candles were lit even before arriving back in Canada. I received emails from the University announcing their immediate celebration of the lives of the students lost. Two ceremonies were held within weeks of each other, along with many others across provinces and the world. Altogether the tributes were extremely well thought out, and focused on each person individually. May they all rest in peace, love and, power.
Arriving at TLV, just before check-in. Crowds flowed in soon afterwards.
Once passing security, the terminal was bustling due to many early departures. If I wasn't aware of time of day, I would've thought that it was mid afternoon.
Athens, Madrid, Amsterdam and Athens were some of the numerous outbound flights scheduled that morning.
The E gates were a bit of a walk from the main part of the terminal.
The arrival hall's lights shine can be seen across the tarmac.
As I arrived at the gate area, passengers has already queued for boarding.
Age: 19.2 Years
Layout: C21 W16 Y328
I assume the FAs were testing the breakfast meal before the passengers boarded.
Legroom and seating were adequate as this flight was short in comparison to my connecting one later that day.
One of the two PW PW4090 engines with both the company and national blue and yellow colours.
BA A35K, had just arrived from LHR.
Sunrise came as we ascended.
Meal serviced commenced an hour into the flight.
UR-GOB, after arrival.
Due to having a 12 hour layover, I found a lounge and remained there for the rest of the day.
Our flight path from TLV-KBP
A trip of a lifetime quickly turned into one of the most sombrely experiences as a traveler, and most importantly an alumnus. Out of respect I chose to leave the verdict area blank. May the souls rest in peace.