How flight tracking data can shed light on Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

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The arrival and departure of Saudi plane HZ-SK1 on October 2, 2018. (PlaneFinder)

Over course of the last week, I’ve watched with increasing horror the reports of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who had spent the last year as a columnist for the Washington Post, entered the Saudi consulate on October 2 and never came out; Turkish authorities now believe he was murdered inside the consulate.

According to the Post and other outlets, the Saudi government flew a 15-man team on two private jets to Istanbul to conduct the operation against Khashoggi. Additionally, the Turkish news agency DHA identified the tail numbers of two planes that officials believe were connected to this operation. The theories surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance appear to be supported by their flight data. In fact, a close examination of this flight data aligns with the disturbingly plausible scenario that a Saudi team was lying in wait for Khashoggi, with personnel on the ready to dispose of his body.

According to the DHA story, two Gulfstream jets, registered in Saudi Arabia as HZ-SK1 and HZ-SK2, arrived at Istanbul International Airport’s general aviation terminal around October 2, the date of Khashoggi’s disappearance at the consulate. To corroborate this, I began looking for these two airplanes on a variety of flight tracking websites, including FlightAware and FlightRadar24. According to FlightAware, the two planes are “not available for live public tracking due to European government data rules,” while FlightRadar24 had no records of the flights. However, I managed to find useful data via PlaneFinder, and, and to a lesser extent, RadarBox24. These tools provide us with a deeper picture of what might have transpired last week.

The flight of HZ-SK2

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HZ-SK2 flies from Riyadh to Istanbul. (PlaneFinder)

HZ-SK2 was the first of the two planes to depart for Istanbul, taking off from Riyadh on October 1 around 20:40 UTC, the night before Khashoggi went to the embassy. (Note: the exact departure and arrival times are not currently known, as PlaneFinder data only displays the planes in flight just after departure or before arrival. Based on the altitude and speed of the planes, it’s possible to calculate that these time stamps are generally within 10–15 minutes of their actual takeoff and landing times.)

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HZ-SK2 takeoff. (PlaneFinder)

After making its way over Egyptian airspace, HZ-SK2 headed north and made its approach to Istanbul, landing just after 00:13 UTC (3:13am local time) on Oct 2, approximately 10 hours before Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate.

HZ-SK2’s approach and departure from Istanbul. (PlaneFinder)
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HZ-SK2’s final approach into Istanbul. (PlaneFinder)

HZ-SK2 remained on the ground in Istanbul for more than 19 hours before departing around 19:54 UTC October 2. It was during this period that Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate and never returned.

Rather than return the way it came, HZ-SK2 headed east over Ankara. By around 20:30 UTC, it had reached cruising altitude as it entered Iraqi airspace.

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HZ-SK2 takeoff from Istanbul. (PlaneFinder)
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HZ-SK2 at cruising altitude along the Turkish-Iraqi border. (PlaneFinder)

Instead of returning directly to Riyadh, it made its way to the UAE, landing in Dubai at 23:49 UTC, around four hours after takeoff from Istanbul.

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HZ-SK2 flight path to Dubai. (PlaneFinder)
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Final approach and landing of HZ-SK2 in Dubai. (PlaneFinder)

HZ-SK2 remained in Dubai for approximately 19 hours until departing for Riyadh at 19:05 UTC on October 3.

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HZ-SK2 takeoff from Dubai. (PlaneFinder)

The flight continued westward, making its way around Qatar, eventually landing in Riyadh around 20:34 UTC on October 3.

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HZ-SK2 flight path from Dubai to Riyadh. (PlaneFinder)
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HZ-SK2 returns to Riyadh. (PlaneFinder)

The flight of HZ-SK1

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The departure path of HZ-SK1, via PlaneFinder.

According to PlaneFinder, Gulfstream HZ-SK1 departed Riyadh at approximately 10:10 UTC on October 2. (Again, the reason I can only offer an approximation is because Planefinder’s records only begin when the plane reached 10,525 feet and 318 knots at 10:25 UTC. Assuming it takes around 10–15 minutes for a Gulfstream to reach that altitude, the plane must have departed Riyadh somewhere around 10:10 or 10:15 UTC.) According to initial reports, Khashoggi entered the consulate around 10:00 UTC — around the same time the flight departed Riyadh.

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HZ-SK1 soon after departing Riyadh on October 2 (PlaneFinder).

From there, the flight made its way to Istanbul by way of Cairo, landing in Istanbul at 14:15 UTC. It didn’t stay there for long.

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HZ-SK1 arrival and departure path from Istanbul. (PlaneFinder)

According to PlaneFinder, HZ-SK1 remained on the ground for less than 90 minutes, as it can be seen departing just before 15:40 UTC.

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HZ-SK1 takeoff from Istanbul . (PlaneFinder)

While crossing the Mediterranean, HZ-SK1 flew the same path it had previously made earlier that day. But rather than continuing to Riyadh, it landed in Cairo around 17:17 UTC, less than two hours after departing Istanbul. Looking at the flight map, you can see the plane making its descent into Cairo.

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HZ-SK1 approach and landing in Cairo. (PlaneFinder)

HZ-SK1 remained in Cairo for approximately 27 hours, as it can be seen taking off the next day — Oct 3 — around 20:30 UTC. (flight path link)

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HZ-SK1 departs Cairo . (PlaneFinder)

Within 20 minutes, the flight had reached cruising altitude en route to Riyadh, where it landed around 22:46 UTC, just two and a quarter hours after taking off from Cairo.

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HZ-SK1 reaches cruising altitude. (PlaneFinder)
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HZ-SK1 returns to Riyadh. (PlaneFinder)

With this information in mind, we can piece together the following timeline, with the approximate times based on flight tracking data:

Friday, Sept 28

Khashoggi visits Saudi consulate regarding paperwork for his upcoming wedding and is told to come back the following week. According to the Washington Post, the Saudis begin to make plans to intercept Khashoggi upon his return.

Monday, Oct 1

020:40 UTC: HZ-SK2 departs Riyadh, 11:40pm local time

Tuesday, Oct 2

00:13 UTC: HZ-SK2 lands in Istanbul, 3:13am local time

10:00 UTC: Khashoggi returns to the consulate with his fiancee waiting outside, 1pm local time. He’s never seen again.

10:10 UTC: HZ-SK1 departs Riyadh, 1:10pm local time

14:15 UTC: HZ-SK1 lands in Istanbul, 5:15pm local time

15:40 UTC: HZ-SK1 departs Istanbul, 6:40pm local time

17:17 UTC: HZ-SK1 arrives in Cairo, 7:17pm local time

19:54 UTC: HZ-SK2 departs Istanbul 10:54pm local time

23:49 UTC: HZ-SK2 lands in Dubai, 3:49am Oct 3 local time

Wednesday, Oct 3

19:05 UTC: HZ-SK2 departs Dubai, 11:05pm local time

20:30 UTC: HZ-SK1 departs Cairo, 10:30pm local time

20:34 UTC HZ-SK2 arrives in Riyadh, 11:34pm local time

22:46 UTC: HZ-SK1 arrives in Riyadh, 1:46am October 4 local time

What’s particularly striking about this timeline is that if you assume there’s a connection between these flights and Khashoggi’s disappearance — and for now, this is still speculation — it would mean that one of the flights was dispatched before he arrived for his second visit, and the other around the time of his arrival. This would make sense if the reason they told him on Sept 28 to return the following week was more than a bureaucratic hiccup. If one is planning an ambush, one would need the time to set it up. So while these flights may not constitute a smoking gun, it does raise more questions that must be added to the many surrounding Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance — including why the planes made brief stops in the UAE and Egypt before returning to Riyadh.

Written by

Asper visiting professor, UBC School of Journalism. Former Sr Editor-At-Large at NowThis & founder of reported.ly. Author of the book Distant Witness. NPR alum.

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