High on Life

It takes your breath away and looks pretty simple, but paragliding is no cheap thrill

More than 100 people - youngsters, adults and entire families - climbed into their cars and drove up to the cliffs of Mevo Hama in the Golan Heights about a week ago. Their aim was to jump off it. Or, more precisely, to take off from it. Most of them succeeded. It was all part of the summer happening of Holywind, a local club of avid paragliders.

"It is true that in the air you are alone, but without a supportive group it's very difficult [to paraglide]," says Arieh O'Sullivan, 47, who was among the participants, and is in his professional life the spokesman of B'nai Brith. "You have to be part of a group that goes out to the field to paraglide. They will see to rescuing you if you land too far from the cars. It's in fact a social sport."

The paraglider, a compact relative of the hang-glider, consists of a single "wing" made of fabric that is similar in type and shape to a parachute. However, unlike a usual parachute, which loses altitude in a consistent way from the moment of the jump, the paraglider enables a skillful glider both to rise to high altitudes and to cover substantial distances. The glider sits inside a well-padded harness that looks like an armchair attached to a parachute.

Observed from the sidelines, it all looked simple. When the gliders were harnessed and ready to go on this particular day, they stood at the edge of the cliff with their backs to the amazing view of the Sea of Galilee, and waited for the right gust of wind. When it came, they raised their paraglider off the ground - and the wind did the rest. A few second seconds later the glider was off and soaring though the air.

"The body part that works hardest here is the brain," said Roman Kripak, a veteran paraglider who is only 32. "You have to understand what's happening all the time, to know when to take off and when to wait, to identify the thermal currents. It's not as dangerous as people think, if you act according to the rules." He added that he has paraglided from Mount Tabor and landed at the Katzrin junction: "I glided about 60 kilometers in three and a half hours, but abroad I have had longer flights."

Hunting thermals

"Explained Eitan Shabiro, one of the organizers of the event at Mevo Hama: "In order to remain aloft, you have to catch a thermal, which is a rising current of warm air. It is possible to reach 1,500 or 2,000 meters, and even more. At that altitude there aren't pressures yet and everything is cool and pleasant. Even if a person has gone down to 100 meters above the ground, he can still catch a thermal back up."

Shabiro pointed westward, toward Mount Tabor rising on the horizon, and noted that Mevo Hama and Tabor are good sites for gliding in the summer, when the winds are for the most part from the west. "A wind that comes from the west hits Mount Tabor and climbs up and then the thermals develop. The aspiration is to take off at Tabor and to reach Mevo Hamat on the westerlies."

For how long is it possible to glide?

Shabiro: "Until you have to pee, although in an emergency this is also possible in the air over an open field where you won't bother anyone below. You glide as long as there are good winds and daylight. There are some crazies who also glide at night. They put a sticklight on their forehead and fly."

The world's paragliding record was set recently in Brazil: Three friends soared for 11 hours nonstop and covered 461.8 kilometers.

This is not a cheap thrill, however. Arnon Harlev, the director of the Agur company and one of the first paragliders in Israel, said the basic training course given to people aged 18 and up cost about NIS 7,000 for 15 days, split up into a number of short courses. The price of new equipment, including a paraglider, the harness and an emergency parachute, can amount to NIS 14,000, but it is possible to find used equipment in good condition for about NIS 5,000. Harlev stressed that the course teaches the basic skills for solo flights, but only afterward does one start to glide. It is is necessary to acquire a great deal of practical experience and to accumulate between 100 and 150 flying hours a year.

At the Mevo Hama happening, the winds were strong and the takeoff was problematic. Some of the gliders needed help from someone on the ground, who turned them against the wind and let them go at the right moment so that they would rise; there were some takeoffs that failed.

Meanwhile, Amir Malik prepared his tandem paraglider. Maya, his six-year-old daughter, slipped into the harness with no hesitation. Both his wife, Anat, and his older daughter, nine-year-old Shani, were also partners.

"I started gliding in 2003," related Malik, 37, "but a few years went by before I dared to take Shani on a flight. During the first years she would glide with a friend of mine who was more experienced. Today I am skilled enough and I fly with the two in turn. They are ordinary girls who play with their Barbies and Bratz and all the rest, but on Saturdays they go paragliding."

Anat Malik started gliding in 2004. In the first year one of her vertebrae shifted in her back after an unsuccessful takeoff. "As long as the girls are in the air I am stressed," she admitted, "but it isn't right to prevent them from doing something that both they and I love. This is a safe sport, but it does entail risk. I was injured and didn't go back to flying without some qualms."

Shabiro said that in paragliding there are hardly any accidents, but as he spoke O'Sullivan, who had already begun to take off but needed support, turned around in the wrong direction. The wind threw him back violently onto the takeoff pad on the cliff. His friends ran to him and an ambulance was summoned, but the others continued to glide. O'Sullivan came back in the evening and sat with everyone around the campfire.

"I broke my collarbone and so in the evening I played guitar with one hand," he related later. "I assume that two months from now I'll be back flying. It's a kind of inner desire to fly like a bird. I'm not afraid of the parachute - just of my wife."

At 7 P.M. paragliders who hadn't succeeded in returning to the cliff from which they had taken off began calling in: They had landed in an alternative area elsewhere in the Golan Heights. Shabiro organized some vehicles and within an hour everyone was back up at Mevo Hama for supper. The next day, at 6 A.M. they set out to glide again.

"I simply love the experience - being suspended in midair attached to a piece of fabric, and knowing that you are still in full control," said Amir Malik. "We glide like birds and sometimes we really do fly with them, sharing the same thermals with storks, pelicans and eagles who join the flight for a moment. Mostly after a few turns they leave us behind - it's impossible to compete with their speed."

Added Kripak, who started to glide back in his native Russia when he was 20: "I'm attracted by the connection to the air. The paragliders connect us to the sky. It's a feeling that there are no limits."

According to Arie Lashover, 61: "Anyone who says that paragliding is dangerous is right - it's addictive. Ever since I started gliding my wife has been saying that she is in second place after the parachute. But it gives me serenity."

He began gliding 10 years ago. One evening, as he was sitting by himself on the beach in Netanya, a paraglider landed near him and it turned out that the glider was a client of his. "I asked him, 'What's this?' That same week I started the course."

Since then Lashover tries to glide every day. He sold his business, he took early retirement and today he imports paragliders from Brazil. He also works out at a gym three times a week. "This is a sport that requires skill, not physical strength. But on long-distance flights there is also significance to physical fitness."

Lashover said he plans to glide until the age of 90, and added that there are number of people who are 70 and older who glide. One man of 80 glided until not very long ago. "You have to respect nature," said Lashover, "to experience the possibilities. This is a sport in which you learn something new every day."