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  • Writer's pictureDan Feltham

Sahara Sands

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Come travel 'over-seas' with a young man straight out of Stanford University to a time between major wars. Visit the countries of England, Sicily, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran through the first person learning experiences of a graduate geologist during the boom years of oil discovery. Learn about a peaceful period of Italian occupied Libya that became a temporary 'home' to this author, and fly with him on aerial surveys over 'Sahara Sands'. If Libya had oil, we would help find it.

The company I worked for, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, essentially helped to first map the world in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Sahara Sands’ takes place during the years 1958 to 1962, a brief period in which I transitioned from a naive college kid to a proven self-dependent adventurer exposed to things never seen, never done or never even imagined.

My story begins, oddly enough, with my first serious job as a photo analyst on early Polaris Missile testing while working in Washington D.C. It soon moves on to aerial geophysical survey work in North Africa and an oceanography survey in the Persian Gulf. Those peaceful years contrast sharply to the Middle East chaos and tragedies of the same areas today. My observations and experiences are told throughout my travels including a few wishful love affairs. This story may be the only practical history of how aerial surveys were conducted prior to satellite technology. Please join me in those times and adventures.

“The world’s last glaciation drenched the Sahara. One could still see, from a Lockheed Lodestar survey plane, the dry courses (wadis) of mighty rivers that veined the land during the early Neolithic. We were able to fly above the remnant scars to access the desert’s memory. Some say that in fifteen thousand years the Sahara may be green again.”


What people are saying:

I thoroughly enjoyed traveling along on the author's adventurous early career. It fits right into something I call "the meandering path of life", which shows how beautifully life's options can play out if one has good skills, an open mind and an adventurous spirit. I envy the opportunities the author had to live in those countries and to experience the North African and middle-eastern cultures when those places were less complicated, and that are now mostly unavailable to outside travelers. And, it was a fascinating story of unique and very interesting work in a blooming, new industry. Whether one is a world traveler or simply an armchair wanderer, the reader will conjure up vivid images of an unusual time and place not so far in our past.


This book is an older man’s recollections about the adventures in his early career half a century prior. Dan Feltham was chagrined to find that the oil companies were simply not hiring when he graduated from Stanford University in 1956 with a degree in geology. He eventually found a job doing aerial surveys in support of the oil business – among others.

Petroleum geologists know that oil must be found where it is trapped by certain fairly predictable geological formations. Beds of vegetation buried in the age of the dinosaurs has to have been covered, heated, and left to percolate over eons to be turned into oil. As geological forces push the oil bearing rock to the surface, geologists know what surface features will be promising to explore. Dan started his career doing the type of aerial photography they used to identify promising areas for more intensive exploration.

Aerial surveys use other devices than photography. Dan described using magnetism and sonar type detection as well to look beneath the surface. Also, they are used for other than petroleum exploration. One project had them mapping the seabed around the Shatt al Arab at the joint border of Kuwait, Iraq and Iran in order to plan dredging to allow the passage of deep draft oil tankers.

Though he learned his trade in Southern California, Dan was soon dispatched to North Africa to perform aerial surveys. Along the way he learned about every subspecialty within the field: assembling maps, navigating airplanes to make the photos, flying the airplanes, managing project finances, leading the exploration mission, negotiating with (and paying appropriate bribes to) officials in the host countries, and keeping everything working. Though he worked more in Libya than any other single country, he worked as well in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

The world was generally at peace during the late 1950s. The appearance of the world to which Dan was dispatched had not been vastly transformed by oil wealth. The societies had been disrupted to various degrees by the Second World War and colonialism. The dangers that Dan encountered and to which he seems to have been surprisingly oblivious were the obvious ones: theft, bad food, misunderstandings and deceit. There were no terrorists and no overt anti-western sentiment.

Dan’s account provides combines a useful survey of the technology of the era, an overview of the business climate of the 1950s, and an assessment of the politics. Equally interesting are his observations on relations with the fair sex. The 1950s was an era of chastity and civility in America and, one gathers from this account, the foreign ports in which he stayed as well. I make this assessment from a uniquely privileged vantage. I am a Californian only a few years younger than Dan, and I worked under Dan’s management in Vietnam as we both watched with fascination and perhaps some horror as the sexual revolution swept over not only the United States but Europe and Vietnam as well. When he writes about an innocent era, he knows whereof he speaks.

Dan was gifted by his creator with a sufficient endowment of good health, athleticism, good looks and intelligence that he could do what he wanted in life. He was a wonderful man to work for because becoming a manager was no big deal to him. It was a job he could do effortlessly, and his ego did not need to flaunt it. He was comfortable in his career with IBM because he did not need to strive terribly hard to achieve the things he wanted. He has arrived in his ninth decade of life without having made any serious compromises. He has the ability to look back with wry amusement on all of the adventures and misadventures, satisfied that he has fulfilled his obligations to both his employers and himself.

This book is in unselfconscious portrait of an era. It was the time before jet aircraft, before worldwide telephone communications, and long before the Internet. It was the time when popular music was dominated by love songs, marriage and family were the norm, drugs were almost unheard of, and America was indeed a “city on a hill” that enjoyed the respect of the rest of the world. It was a great time to be an American abroad, and Dan Feltham was a great ambassador for the America of that era.


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