Just an Airborne Sport

What haven't we heard about Rishon Letzion? They have a Superland and oxidation pools and a giant shopping mall and cheap furniture, and even a former pilot who performs operations by means of aliens, or so we were told. But very few people know that hidden somewhere in the vast plains of Rishon is the country's largest airfield for ultralight aircraft, which resemble toy planes.

Nothing about the broken asphalt road hints that it leads to airstrips, two giant hangars and a makeshift club house, which houses a drink machine, an out-of-tune white piano, and a shelter with picnic tables and benches. In short, this airfield is about as chic as a tractor shed.

Dan Tamir, Avraham "Kim" Kimche ("no one calls me Avraham Kimche"), Zeev Zeevi and Dan Sion are all over 60, but they look great. ("We are simply happy," Kim says.) All have impressive histories with the Israeli air force, El Al, or both. Tamir heads the operations committee of the ultralight craft sports association, and Sion is responsible for safety.

The guys can marvel as long as they want about the beauty of the planes parked in the hangar, and about the two that will carry a photographer and me (separately). But beauty is one thing and a feeling of security is another. The creeping angst is heightened by Kim's excitement when he tells how these toys were assembled from parts, including the two he built himself, which have a cockpit "exactly like a 777." Go and trust the quality control. Tamir also shows us a plane entirely of cloth; hopefully it won't shrink when washed.

But fortunately we are invited to fly in ready-made planes, which were assembled in a factory and hopefully underwent strict quality control. They look very cute, painted blue and white. They are tiny even up close, and may weigh no more than 250 kilograms.

However, more than half of Israel's ultralight aircraft do not abide by these standards, judging by the worrisome report released by the Transportation Ministry's chief air accident investigator, Yitzhak Raz.

The report, which was drawn up after several accidents involving ultralight planes, indicates collusion between the planes' owners, the plane maintenance centers and the Civil Aviation Authority air-traffic controllers (who are supposed to supervise them). The report lists faulty maintenance work, deviations from maximum plane and passenger weight, deviations from flight regulations, and how the authority ignored problems and lost control over the ultralight sector. All this endangers lives.

I was deeply suspicious about the motives of those who sent me on this mission - from a purely journalistic point of view, it would be best if it were to end in my death, or at the very least, in a small accident, in order to drive home the report's findings.

Of course, the four men here are all prepared to swear that it is much more dangerous to drive than to an ultralight aircraft, and that statistically speaking, it is also much more dangerous to go to bed, because many more people die there than in ultralight accidents. The problem is that everyone goes to bed, while flying an ultralight plane is the pursuit of the few, the adrenalin addicts.

In planes, like cars, the larger the vehicle, the greater one's sense of security. When it comes to flying, there is another element involved - the higher the aircraft, the less fear. The ultralights can fly at an altitude of up to 70 meters (around a 20-story building), and up to 180 kilometers per hour (the report says these limitations are often exceeded).

From this low altitude, one can easily read signs on restaurants, identify the make of a car and see whether vines are blooming and pomegranate trees are budding. In general, it feels like flying on a lawn mower or a tricycle, and is much more frightening than riding a camel, and a little less so than taking the Boston subway. On the other hand, the ride lasts much longer.

On the third hand, if one is already afraid, it is best to be so when a considerate, soothing pilot like Tamir has the controls. And there is also the enjoyment from overcoming the fear, and from the new lease on life after imagining a sudden, painful end in a blossoming field or against an electric pole.

"The power lines are our natural enemy," says Tamir.

Tamir was the control power commander at the Tel Nof army base, and bought himself ultralight flying lessons for his 55th birthday.

Learning to fly an ultralight does not require a background in flying.

"The principle is KISS - "Keep it simple, stupid," Kim says. "As you noticed, you don't retract the wheels during flight, and there are no complicated instruments. The whole preparation for take-off takes about three minutes, and you can fly only until a certain altitude and speed, and during good weather.

"You can't fly in the dark, you can't fly in bad weather, and everything is very simple. Because of that, it's a huge error to treat an ultralight like a passenger or cargo plane. I believe it should be treated like a sporting vehicle, like a race car or an ATV.

"After all, when a jeep flips, no one makes a fuss, and definitely no one talks about setting up a commission of inquiry. But ultralight accidents immediately become a public issue. We are fighting to be defined as a sport."

Numerically speaking, he is certainly right. Many more people are injured and killed in road accidents or even in home accidents than in ultralight accidents. There are about 10 such accidents each year, and most end without fatalities.

But it is hard not to shake the feeling of improvisation at this airfield. There is no control tower, and none is needed. The pilots maintain contact with each other via a communications system. "It's also very important to be in eye contact," says Zeevi.

People who have chalked up hundreds or thousands of flying hours, like Kim, Sion and Zeevi, certainly stick to the rules and know how to navigate their tiny aircraft. However, they insist this hobby would suit anyone, presuming he can afford the course (NIS 30,000), the aircraft (hundreds of thousands of shekels) and maintenance.

"It's not an expensive hobby," Kim insists. "If there are three partners to a plane, each one invests as much as he would in a used, not very expensive car."

"The monthly outlay for fuel is like an extra-curricular activity," says Tamir. "NIS 500. There are also maintenance and storage expenses, of course, but it's really not terrible."

"I had horses at Ben Shemen, and believe me, it's more expensive to keep a horse," Kim adds.

Sion says that sometimes he flies to Rosh Pina for lunch "and the fuel there and back costs the same as in a car, but it takes much less time and the scenery is much more beautiful."

He adds that the association is run in a very professional manner.

"Most of us come from the air force, and we give professional talks on safety. In the past month alone we had three gatherings about safety with all the pilots. As Kim likes to say, this hobby demands a high level of professionalism."

In order to get a license, prospective pilots undergo many safety tests. The teachers are excellent. The only problem is that no one enforces these excellent regulations.

Who prevents a beginner pilot from flying higher or faster than allowed, the photographer asks. Who ensures the pilot and the passenger's weight do not exceed regulations?

Kim says it's like driving a car: You can't ensure everyone drives safely and keep them from endangering their lives.

"But as you see, most of the people here are not really young, and they are truly interested in flying, and not so interested in doing something stupid," he says.

Although Israeli pilots generally are well-respected, when it comes to ultralights, "We are far less advanced than the Europeans," Zeevi says.

He attends international competitions with association members every year.

"In the last competition, we came in eighth, and that's no surprise. There are no competitions in Israel. Like all sports in this country, our problem is the lack of government support. If we had government support and a training regimen, we could be the best in the world."