“Tripoli, as-salamu ‘alaykum,” said the volunteer pilot into the radio. “Do you hear me? This is Moonbird calling. We are currently entering the search-and-rescue area.”
We were some 20km from the Libyan coast, more than an hour into flight on a four-man, one-engine plane. Its mission was to search for refugee boats in distress.
As he repeatedly tried to contact Libyan air traffic controllers, Manos Radisoglou, a 31-year-old Greek-German, heard only crackling.
It wasn’t surprising. Mitiga airport, the main airport in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, had just been closed due to rocket fire. The city has been at war since April 2019.
As conflict goes on, refugees and migrants continue to try to escape across the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of reaching safety in Europe. While nearly 1,000 were caught in the first two weeks of 2020 and returned to Libya by the Libyan coast guard, in five days later that month about 850 people made it to Europe.
More than 19,000 men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014, and the central Mediterranean route is the deadliest in the world.
It has also become a battleground for hardening European Union migration policy. For three years, the EU has been funding the Libyan coast guard with tens of millions of euro to intercept boats and force those on them back to indefinite detention.
Moonbird is operated by Sea Watch, a German charity which also sails its own rescue ship. The Sea Watch 3 made headlines last year after its captain, Carola Rackete, risked prison for sailing into an Italian port without permission to bring the 40 refugees and migrants on board to land.
Rackete’s action led to worldwide fame for her and a wave of donations for Sea Watch – necessary, they say, given the cost of operations.
Each of the roughly 100 missions the Moonbird flies annually costs €2,800. A second plane – the Seabird – is expected to begin operating in March.
"Report everything you see," advised Moonbird's tactical co-ordinator Neeske Beckmann (30), her words broadcast through noise-cancelling headphones, as she scanned the blue water below her. "The size ranges from a lifejacket to big oil tankers. If you see lifejackets or canisters, that could hint towards a shipwreck. Fishing vessels, rescue ships, oil tankers and oil platforms, they are our only allies – we hope – in rescuing people."
Along with searching for refugee boats, Moonbird's remit is to increase accountability. Its crew monitor whether commercial vessels and European coast guards are ignoring appeals for help. On top of that, they try to track forced returns to Libya by the Libyan coast guard.
In March 2019, the EU pulled its naval assets from the Mediterranean. They were previously deployed under Operation Sophia, the military operation set up in 2015 to tackle smuggling, which was also legally obligated to rescue people in trouble.
EU aircraft still fly across the Mediterranean but activists and NGO workers accuse them of failing to share information about what they find with charity rescue ships.
“They have different interests than we do,” said Beckmann, who has been working with Moonbird for 18 months. “The only people they co-ordinate with are the Libyans.”
This is the third year Radisoglou – who has a day job is as an air traffic controller in Frankfurt – has been volunteering on the Moonbird. He comes out once a month and stays at the Moonbird base for anything from a few days to two weeks. There are around seven other pilots doing the same.
“It’s not just flying around your local airfield at home, it’s a very demanding operation,” he explained. “You’re bringing both crew and equipment, especially the aircraft, to their limits. The days are super long. Weather conditions are demanding for pilots, especially when it comes to winds.”
At one point in 2017, Radisoglou says they were finding between 20 and 30 boats a day, but the number has drastically decreased.
Yet tragedies continue. Since April 2017, when Moonbird began flying, its volunteers have discovered more than 200 boats with at least 24,000 people on board them.
Many of these findings led to rescues but in other cases they’ve had to watch as catastrophe unfolds, and people drown without the crew being able to do anything to save them. Radisoglou said he has witnessed this about a dozen times.
“If the boat starts to capsize already you know you can’t do anything about it. And also if fuel runs out and we have to leave a scene we never learn what has happened with that boat because nobody has found it,” he said.
“We would by all means try to get someone to initiate a rescue, whoever that is, and stay as long as possible. You always have to consider that at some point staying on a scene for two hours watching what happens, if you know you cannot do anything and there is nobody coming for help, at some point you potentially miss other boats.”
The Moonbird lacks a lot of equipment, like a fixed camera system and infrared cameras. It flies at 1,500ft, meaning it is possible to scan the sea below using bare eyes or binoculars. That gets tiring though, and crests of waves often morph into a possible boat, before morphing into a wave again.
Most refugee-laden rubber boats are white, light grey or blue, making it even harder to spot them. When volunteers flag, they sometimes take caffeine pills, knowing any delay could cost a life.
Hours into our journey, the plane veered towards Libya to check out a possible target. From 25km away, we could see the high rises of Tripoli through the hazy sky. Usually, Moonbird flies further from the coast – security assessors warn that ground-to-air missiles could reach a full 30km from land.
During our five-hour mission, which began and ended in Lampedusa, the windswept Italian island many migrant boats aim for, the crew spotted two charity rescue ships but no refugee boats.
Back on ground they worried, fretting about whether they had missed anything and what would happen later in the week, when the Moonbird would be out of commission for mandatory maintenance.
“We really make a difference for all the charity ships – we are the eyes,” Radisoglou said. “If nobody has their eyes down there, people keep disappearing. They are not seen as the responsibility of the politicians.”