Touring the country by air
Touring Israel by air might, at first thought, seem an unlikely activity. Much of what we hear or read about this country suggests a history of serious conflict sufficient to squelch activities like recreational flying. If network news has given you that impression, I’m pleased to report it is completely wrong.
Recreational aviation — flying for fun — is alive and thriving in Israel. I saw homebuilt projects (Dick VanGrunsven’s RV series is popular), light-sport aircraft, powered parachutes, and weight-shift trikes. All were owned by motivated pilots enjoying their sport planes.
What’s Not on the News
A trip to Israel from the United States starts with a long airline flight. My trip consumed eight hours to Amsterdam, an eight-hour layover at Schiphol airport, and four-plus hours to Israel. I left Minneapolis at 9 p.m. and arrived at 2 a.m. two days later.
The president of EAA Chapter 1346, Abraham Kimchi — he prefers simply “Kim” — met me in the wee hours of the morning. He eased me through the security screening process, for which the Israelis are famous. An El Al airline captain for many years, Kim knew the process well, and all went smoothly. I appreciated his gracious hospitality.
My original purpose for visiting Israel was to make a presentation about the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft rule at an Israeli aviation symposium. Miki Raviv was its principal organizer. I also participated in a panel with the Israeli civil aviation authority (CAA) to discuss regulations for recreational flying and support the Israeli pilot community’s goal of encouraging rules similar to our SP/LSA rule. The seminar attracted the new head of the CAA, Udi Zohar, accompanied by his deputy and the head of general aviation and light aircraft operations for the country. The turnout included general aviation pilots, homebuilders, and ultralight, rotorcraft, and powered parachute pilots.
Miki and Kim outdid themselves and may advance the cause of gaining additional privileges for operators of recreational aircraft in Israel. Listening to the conditions under which Israelis fly made clear the freedoms we enjoy here in America. For example, once an Israeli homebuilder’s kit is assembled, inspected, and approved, the owner must thereafter take the machine to a certified mechanic for service. The homebuilder is not allowed to maintain the airplane he built. However, by the conclusion of the daylong symposium, Zohar and his aides appeared to gain much more comfort with the recreational flying community, and the possibility for positive changes seemed likely.
Important as the symposium was, my special unexpected treat was a spectacular tour of Israel by ultralight. Five aircraft crossed many miles of the Negev Desert to Faran near the southeastern tip of the country before turning north in a wide-ranging circuit of Israel. The opportunity was so unusual — even for the local pilots — that Nati Niv, the chairman of the Israeli ultralight association wrote, “How proud I was to be the organizer of an activity which meant to show you Israel and aviation in Israel in brief. As I stated many times and in both languages, by the end of the day I have no idea who was the one to enjoy it more, you or us.” I can’t answer his question, but I certainly extend the warmest possible thanks and appreciation to a group of pilots that I am proud to call new flying friends.
Our aerial tour began at the Rishon airfield where some 60 ultralights are based. Six big, enclosed hangars house the aircraft, and a separate clubhouse allows the group to gather. Upon returning from our exceptional flight, many club members had assembled to greet the touring pilots with food and fellowship. The airfield was made available to the ultralight enthusiasts by the town’s deputy mayor who is himself a pilot. It is mere minutes away from the country’s largest city, Tel Aviv.
Much of Israel reminded me of the western United States, particularly of parts of California, which is not only much, much bigger than Israel but also enjoys many more natural resources including vast natural forests. In many scenes that passed beneath our wings, I saw lots of trees, whole hillsides and valleys covered with them. “Most of the trees you see were planted,” several of my aerial guides told me. They are planted by parents and children on family outings who nurture their saplings for years until the trees’ roots reach the water sources below the bonedry desert surface. This fact is merely one piece of the puzzle that is modern Israel set in the most ancient of places where humans have ever lived.
The accompanying photos tell the story of a flight of five planes traveling 150 miles south across the Negev Desert, then west toward Egypt (nine planes for breakfast in the desert), and finally northward to the Dead Sea where we turned west to fly over Jerusalem — permission rarely given — and back to the Tel Aviv suburb where we’d begun. It was a 400-mile excursion in two days.
Along the way, in a course carefully plotted by the five pilots, we landed at airports where I would jump from one airplane to join another. Our group included several Italian-made aircraft: an ICP Savannah, Tecnam P-92 Golf, FlySynthesis Storch, and a EuroALA JetFox 97 — all of which are distributed here in America — plus an American Rans S-6 Coyote. When we reached the southern point of our travels, we landed at an airfield maintained by Rami Bar, a desert-flying guru and mechanic extraordinaire. That evening we enjoyed a delicious outdoor meal, visiting with a large group of ultralight pilots, all of whom were kind enough to speak English for my benefit.
Early in the morning of the second day, nine ultralights and more than a dozen recreational flying enthusiasts flew 50 miles out into the Negev Desert for a breakfast picnic within sight of the Egyptian border. Everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience with the faster planes leaving later so we all arrived at a similar time. I felt like the honored guest as I accompanied Rami in his Rotax 912-powered Super Drifter. I took the back seat as he proceeded to give me a flight of dreams. Rarely on the 100-mile out-and-back journey were we more than 10-15 feet off the deck, whizzing by sparse desert vegetation at 70 mph. I swear Rami knows every rock in the vast Negev Desert, growing up as he has in this area.
In a scene right out of daring Grand Canyon flying movies, we flew into small canyons where the exit could not be seen. At first I questioned the judgment of my accomplished pilot, but I soon came to realize he knew his way. After breakfast in the desert, the Super Drifter carried us back on an equally spectacular trip that had us flashing by four-wheelers enjoying the countryside. Rami showed me more of his desert landscape while the group of five ultralights on tour returned to his home field to top off their fuel tanks. On our return, the touring five ultralights reorganized, bid farewell, and headed north along the Jordanian border.
Repeatedly we flew above immense agricultural enterprises involving what seemed to be square miles of greenhouses. In these vast structures, industrious Israeli farmers grow all manner of fruits and vegetables, much of which is exported to the United States and Europe.
Along the way north, we landed near the Dead Sea where an airfield is approximately 1,500 feet below sea level (see accompanying photo). This fascinating body of water represents the source of nearly all of Israel’s sparse mineral resources. Mining equipment and structures are coated with literally several feet of caked-on salt. The Dead Sea is about 25 percent saline; you can actually fall asleep in the water without sinking. Several luxury hotels are built along the Dead Sea, catering to unusual health spas.
After taking off again, a highly unusual flight plan began to develop. Throughout the flight just described, we never flew more than 500 feet AGL, following the rules of a small country that preserves most airspace for transport or military. Fortunately for ultralight pilots, this is about the perfect height to take in the mysteries of a land inhabited for thousands of years.
However, for a flight leg over the famed city of Jerusalem, we climbed to 8,000 feet MSL. For my compatriots on this aerial tour, this was a singular experience that demanded a special effort to obtain permission. Many of the Israeli troubles seen on network news occur in Jerusalem, so permission to overfly the city is never given. On this special day, we held at 4,000 feet AGL until a commuter airliner passed through nearby airspace. We were then cleared to fly over the ancient city, now modernized with freeways, skyscrapers, and sports stadiums. Jerusalem’s most famous landmark, the Dome of the Rock, was easily recognized, as were other notable sites. After passing the biblically historic city, we descended to normal ultralight flying altitude and proceeded essentially east back to Rishon where the tour had begun. To say it was a most enjoyable event would be a significant understatement. But it was not the end of my experience.
Overflying the Sea of Galilee
The next day, Kim and Miki again took up their hospitality routine, transporting me northward toward Haifa where the symposium would take place on Sunday (a work day in a country where the religious Sabbath occurs on Saturday).
On this day I decided to leave my camera behind and just enjoy the scenery, so I didn’t photograph the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Galilee as the Israelis refer to it) — the location where Jesus is said to have walked on the water — the Golan Heights, or the river where John is said to have baptized Jesus. Heim Raveh and I also flew over a much greener northern Israel, but only after he demonstrated his aerobatic skills flying solo in a Drifter Red Rocket, one of a few such machines ever built.
We logged nearly another 200 miles on this third day of aerial touring, stopping at more airfields and observing powered parachutes, trikes, and a sailplane operation — a whole country full of flying life. On this one day, I also visited three different RV projects in various stages of construction.
By this time, I was headed toward sensory overload and running out of superlatives to describe my pleasure at seeing Israel in such a unique manner. “Amazing!” and “Thanks!” was all I could muster as Heim and I landed at the sailplane field, called Meggido, where one of the RV builders, Ilan Perry, met me with my luggage. He took me to his home where Miki Raviv joined us as we enjoyed the Perry family’s hospitality and reviewed Ilan’s homebuilding project.
Time to Earn My Keep
That evening, after a delicious dinner with several Israeli friends served by an Arab restaurateur in the port city of Haifa, Miki and his wife, Gaile, dropped me off at my hotel overlooking the Mediterranean. On the next day, we drove a short distance to the Technion University where the symposium was held. I finally had the chance to provide the lectures that had brought me to the Middle East.
Miki Raviv, the action hero behind the symposium (and me getting to go to Israel) is modest about his achievement. When I complimented his success and enthusiasm in an email thank-you note, he replied, “For anything you write about us, it’s just the spirit of the EAA, a thing we picked up at your place [Oshkosh].”
As I entered the airliner en route home after six days in Israel, I looked at those who boarded with me. Of the businessmen, or the Israelis leaving on vacation, or all the departing tourists on the plane, I knew I was the only one who had flown over the country at 500 feet — from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Lake Galilee — from the Mediterranean to Jordan, and from Egypt to Lebanon.
My experience and Miki’s words show aviation is a magical interest that spans political and geographic borders as easily as a jetliner flies overhead. Pilots around the globe speak a common language of recreational aviation. I hope to visit again and encourage others with an interest to visit this ancient land full of enthusiastic sport pilots.
EAA Chapter 1346 members were my most gracious hosts, including:
Miki Raviv (EAA Chapter leader, symposium organizer, and RV-7A builder), firstname.lastname@example.org
Abraham “Kim” Kimchi (EAA Chapter president and Long-EZ builder), email@example.com
Ariel Arielly (EAA Chapter vice president and RV builder), firstname.lastname@example.org
Nati Niv (Chairman of the Israel ultralight organization), email@example.com