all have our own personal records.Records of the highest altitudes, our strongest thermal, and our longest
And we all have
dreams.Dreams of breaking these
records.Dreams of going higher, faster
I'm at Rustenburg, in South
Africa. This is a new site, has only
been open for a year or so.It has two
launch areas, one facing east and one facing west, both at 1500 m’ ASL, some
300 above the surrounding terrain.One
of the good things about Rustenburg is that there are roads in virtually every
direction, which one can follow when going cross-country.
I'm here with Ulf.Tall and
quiet, Ulf mumbles more than actually talks, in a heavy German accent.Always flying in his old faded red overall,
Ulf Arndt is the Chairman of SAHPA, the South African Hangliding &
Paragliding Association, and a good friend of mine.
I'm still flying my good old Futura. It already has 240 hours and its
yellow color has badly faded.I know I
should get a new glider, but I cannot make up my mind as to which one to
buy.So I just carry on with the Futura,
and try to get the best out of it.
Conditions don't seem too good today.In fact they don't seem good at all.We've been hanging around at take-off for a couple of hours, and nobody
is even laying out.We are all watching
Ulf.He's the most senior and
experienced pilot at the site.When he
lays out his glider the others will know that the time has come, and – weak as
the conditions may be - they won't be getting any better.
The first glider takes off and falls out of the sky.Ulf is laying out his glider.If we don't take off soon the sun will pass
the zenith and we will all have to move to the western launch.
Ulf gets into his faded red overall, puts his thick balaclava on his
head and straps in.People start
following.Ulf does an aborted launch,
and by the time he's finished sorting things out again, I have already taken to
Conditions are definitely poor: hardly any wind and only just enough
buoyancy to keep me in the air.I turn
right, into the bowl, looking for lift, desperately seeking swifts and
swallows, which might mark a thermal.After a while I see a flock of swallows chasing insects in a
thermal.But they are at the other side
of take-off, where the hill is much lower, and dynamic lift would be even
weaker.I decide to take the chance, and
go over to join them.
It was a good decision.These
swallows are definitely working a thermal, and slowly I start climbing.At first I'm 400m above takeoff, and still
struggling.At 1000m above take-off,
(2500 ASL), I start to feel that I might not be landing so soon. I bend over
and look down at launch immediately beneath me, and see people taking off.Some manage to hang on; others just fall out
of the sky.
At 1500m above take-off I am still exactly above the hill, and start
wondering which way to go.A few
kilometers to the east there is an altitude limit of 3300m ASL.So go west?Ulf was talking about an airspace restriction around some airport.I don't exactly know where this airport
is.And also, if one flies too far, one
might unintentionally cross the border into Botswana.
There’s no more than just a small white puff here and there, but I am
still going straight up.
- "Itamar here, above take-off at 3700m ASL.I'm setting off towards
fifty kilometers down the tar road to the west.When I studied the map it took me a whole day to memorize this difficult
I start a long glide to the west.I pass high over the next ridge, then over the place where I landed
yesterday.As I go on, I notice how my
ground speed slowly increases as the wind picks up.45 km/h, then 50, and sometimes even
60.Good, so the decision to head west
was a good decision.
It takes a long time to descend from 3700 meters.Ten minutes pass by, twenty.I'm still sitting there doing nothing, just
trying to figure out where one might find a thermal in this vast and monotonous
country.There's nothing, nothing at
all, not a peep on the vario all the way down.Not a scrap of lift.Was I just
lucky to find the one and only thermal, on this inverted, cloudless day?
Small clouds are forming on my right and on my left.Should I leave the tar road and go look for
lift beneath them, thus getting too far away from the road?I was once told that in South
Africa one looks for thermals along the
tar roads.Trucks passing by disturb
the hot-air-bubble lying on the ground, and cause it to start moving
upwards.But if that is so, there
should be a beautiful cloud-street along the highway.Right now there's nothing but a big blue
Then I find it.Low, over the
fields south of the tar road.It starts
as a hesitant beep.Then it’s a steady
bip… bip… bip.At last I'm climbing
again. And climbing - and climbing - and climbing.As conditions are so poor today, I won't
leave this thermal until it is completely dead.So I climb: 2500 meters and the landscape
rolls out on all sides.3000m, and it
starts getting cold.3500m.My previous record is 3800m ASL.Might I be breaking this record today?3600, and the thermal is still here, getting
weaker but I'm still going up.3800
meters - I break my personal altitude record, and am still going up!How far should I go?
Many years ago I was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.We used to have special training in a
decompression chamber, teaching us to recognize the symptoms and dangers of
lack of oxygen at high altitudes.The
main danger is that one doesn't feel hypoxia until its too late.Airplane pilots go onto oxygen at 12000
feet.I am approaching 13000.Should I stop the climb?
I decide to set myself a new record, then dive back to denser air.So I level off at 4000 meters, and head
west.The only effect of hypoxia I
think I notice, is that the light seems slightly dim, like during a partial
eclipse.Otherwise I feel fine – Or do
I?I decide to give a position report
on my radio.So I bend over and try to
talk into the radio set, but it is tied down to my harness and I cannot reach
it.That’s strange!Then I remember: I don’t have to talk into
the radio set itself, because there's a microphone in my helmet.How stupid of me to struggle to reach the
I continue westwards, so happy at having broken my altitude record,
that I am quite prepared to end the flight right now, and find a good place to
land.But then, in the middle of a blue
hole in the sky, and still quite high, I find a new thermal.It starts as a gentle +2 m/s.Then turns into a beautiful +4.When it passes +6 meters-per-second I begin
to get excited, and at +7 I am ecstatic: my previous record was +7.4.
I search above to see if there is a big cloud trying to scoop me up
into it: Nothing. Blue sky.So I hang
on, and climb fast.I'm spiraling up at
between +7 and +9 meters per second.My
vario screams a sharp "ping… ping…ping…", mixed with a hard
as if it is about to explode, or at least knock itself to pieces.It has long gone through the main scale and
is now completely covering the secondary scale, showing a dark array of dense
black lines covering the whole screen.This is the mightiest thermal I've ever dreamt of, and it is completely
smooth: no surges, no violent collapses, just a round pillar of rising air,
zooming me up to the heavens.
When it's all over, I start another long glide, following the tar road
to the west.Huge dust-devils are popping
up around me.They make me scared.We don't seem to have dust-devils in Israel, but
here in South Africa they are
most common, and cause quite a few accidents, nasty ones.Trouble with dust-devils is, that there's
not much you can do to avoid them.You
can be the best disciplined pilot, behave yourself, don't take any chances, and
still be thrown to the ground by a dust devil.So I hate dust devils and would very much prefer not to land until later
on in the afternoon, when the ground has cooled off a bit.
At sixty kilometers out I realize that with one more thermal I might be
breaking another record: my distance record of 76.5 km, set a couple of years
ago flying across Israel, from
Zichron on the coast, into the Golan Heights.But then I run into sustained continuous
sink, and reluctantly have to get on the speed bar, which only makes the sink
worse.Again I am getting low.I look for a place to land, and… for a dust
devil.Dust devils are
dangerous, but they do mark the creation of a new thermal.I find one behind me, turn around and head
back towards it.I arrive above the
column of dust, and sure enough there is lift.I am saved.
On the next glide a message appears on the GPS screen: "GPS
Batteries Low".Makes sense after so
long in the air.So I note the time: , and the distance: 75 km, and
switch it off.
I know that in a couple off minutes I will have also broken my record
of 76.5 km, even if the GPS is switched off.And I start to contemplate the ultimate dream that every paragliding
pilot has: The dream of flying 100 km.
Many years ago I
was a young pilot, flying the Mirage for the Israeli Air Force. Then also I had
a dream, the ultimate dream that every fighter pilot has: to shoot down my
first enemy plane.
stand-by at the squadron, dressed in my overall and G-suit, ready and waiting
for the alarm bell, I would lie on my back and daydream of the victory I'm so
longing for.Oh! How happy I shall be
when I've shot down a MiG!In my mind's
eye I would see it over and over again: the sudden clang of the red bell, the
dash to the planes, scramble... interception... and battle.In my imagination the fight would be very
long and hard-fought.My opponent would
fight fiercely for his life.He would
be an excellent pilot, but I shall overcome him in a desperate struggle.I could see the enemy plane in my sights,
with the pipper on its body and the bullets flying.It would explode in the air, and the pilot
would eject and parachute down.Then I
would do the most spectacular victory roll over the squadron, and would be
welcomed on the ground with photographers and TV cameras. After that I would
become one of that exclusive group of victorious pilots, those aces who have
shot down enemy planes.
are over.Peace is the issue in the
Wild(Middle) East.But I still
have a dream: now my dream is to do 100 km on a paraglider.
then, I lie on my back and visualize the whole flight again and again: I see
myself launching into a beautiful thermal at Zichron, in Israel, shooting up to those lovely
active Cumulus clouds, and setting off in a north easterly direction.Then I visualize every step in the long
flight, calling out and giving position reports over each waypoint on my way.I live through all the difficult decisions
of such a long and glorious flight, watch the weather pattern change as I drift
inland, and finally – the landing, in the northeastern tip of my tiny country,
just short of the Syrian border.
That’s how I always
dreamt of doing my first 100k flight.But as things so often happen, in reality everything is completely
different: I am in South Africa, flying over unknown terrain, with
very few clouds and poor conditions.And my GPS is switched off, so I won't even know when I've passed the
So I note the time and
distance when I had to switch it off and carry on by dead-reckoning.I do some calculations, and conclude that
if, by I am still in the air, that would be the time I pass the
Thermal after thermal
I carry on over the monotonous countryside.Fatigue is setting in, my stamina is wearing out.Dogfights lasted minutes.But I have been chasing invisible pillars of
air for hour after hour, trying to visualize their location and figure out
their shape, and I am becoming exhausted.
There should be a
restricted airspace around an airport somewhere.I'm a visitor to this country, and don't
want to break any rules.So I descend
to the ceiling limit, and carry on.No
need to stop and gain altitude in thermals anymore.The whole sky has become buoyant.I just sit there, on and off the speed-bar,
and look out for this airport.I reach
a dam and there's a small city beyond.Then I see the airport, beyond the town to the south.
I decide I've had
enough.It's passed .It would be unfair to ask my friends in the retrieve vehicle to follow
me so far.I decide to turn around.
I switch on the GPS
for a few seconds.As soon as it has
finished its initialization, I press "Mark" and switch it off
again.Then I get on the speed-bar and
try to penetrate back into the wind, going significantly slower than
before.I cross a valley, arrive over
some farmland, and look ahead: further on there is nowhere to land.My retrieve is getting nearer and Ulf is
asking me where I am. I tell him that after hours in the air I have had
enough, and am coming in to land.
I land safely, switch
on the GPS just long enough to mark my position, and the next thing I want to
do is to pee.But immediately I'm
surrounded by hordes of black children. A few moments later Ken is beside me,
helping me fold up.
I am exhausted.Together, very carefully we check the vario:
flying time , max altitude 4071 m ASL!And best thermal +9.6 m/s!!!
But I won't touch the
GPS until I've replaced the batteries.I do so only when we get home in the evening, and only then do we
measure the distances: 104.9 km from take-off to the turning point at the dam,
6.1km back. A total of 111 km!
– says the Ulf - "You are the new Rustenburg distance record
And my feeling is exactly the same as the
feeling I had, after shooting down my first MiG….
ex-Israeli Airforce pilot, and works as a captain for El-Al. He now flies an