To fly - like a bird

by  Itamar Neuner

 

    Oh, what a beautiful thermal! Plus three, sometimes even plus four and  more. 1875 meters above sea level and climbing fast, spiraling up, riding an invisible force. My hands pulling on the brakes, muscles aching. Black granite peaks sinking beneath me, subsiding into a white blanket of glaring eternal snow.   The variometer on my knee pings to the rhythm of the climb: too... too... too - 2010 meters. The valley of Chamonix lies far below. Houses in the town can barely be seen. Whiffs of hay and ploughed fields rise up with the thermal to enormous heights.  2650 meters and still climbing fast.  A rough jerk and my wing-tip collapses for a moment in a vortex, dangles behind like an empty sock.  My flying suit sleeve flaps in the wind.  Cold air finds its way into my helmet, seeps through my balaclava, freezing my chin and forehead. -

 

    - And the view: All the way to Finland!!!

 

    T H I S  is T H E dream of mankind, ever since the beginning of history; the most beautiful thing one can do - to soar, like a bird, over the high peaks of the Alps. There isn't, there will never be, anything more enjoyable, more fascinating than this.

 

                                                         *    *    *

 

    Two years earlier I was lying on the cliff at Ga'ash with a smashed ankle, crying. Crying for I knew I would never be able to fly again like a bird. A nurse who chanced by fixed my foot. An ambulance is on its way.  My friends stand around me, trying to cheer me up, doing their best to console me. Of them all I remember Yariv, saying: "Itamar, you will be paragliding again, you will fly over the Alps."

 

    Ambulance... emergency room... two doctors pulling my foot with all their might, trying to get it back in place. I clench the rails of the bed, screaming. Then - silence, my world a hazy blur, a hospital bed rolling down a cold dark corridor. My wife is sitting near me. "When are they going to operate on me?" - I ask. "You are already after the operation. Your foot will be OK. Go to sleep" - she answers.

 

    Morning. Glaring light. My foot hurts. "This is Doctor Stern, he operated on you" - I'm told. An encouraging smile, deep blue reassuring eyes, soft speech conveying self confidence.

 

    After a week they sent me home, to a "life imprisonment" of three months. My leg - up, and my morale down.  Life has come to a standstill.  I read books, watch TV, move around on crutches, stand on one foot.  Cannot drive a car, cannot fly a Boeing. Grounded.

 

    Friends come to visit. Friends from El-Al, friends from my childhood,   people I haven't seen for so many years. But in particular the "Rag Flyers". They all come. Every single day I have two or tree of them to visit me. We talk about the "Flying Rags", discuss accidents, look for reasons, search for a common denominator. There is one thing in common to nearly all the accidents in Israel and abroad: the blame is only on the pilot!  Not a malfunction of the equipment, not the idiosyncrasies of the weather; only the pilots themselves are the cause of most of the accidents: those who took-off when the weather was too rough or the wind too strong, the novices who flew wings too advanced for their capabilities, those who flew wings too large for their weight, and those  who showed-off and bought it (like myself)... In most of the accidents only the pilot is to be blamed.

 

    For three months I sat on the terrace and investigated the subject. In the end I was convinced: if I will fly only when conditions are safe, if I will be able to control myself and won't go beyond my limits chasing new records, if I will not fly wild and won't go crazy - then I'll be able to go back and safely fly on paragliders.

 

    After three months they gave me back my foot, thin, pale, fragile. I started walking: five minutes to the corner, rest, and back home; ten minutes to the main road; then - to the main road in seven minutes, and on to the bank.

 

    When I could walk for half an hour I started walking on rough terrain - on ploughed fields, and at Ga'ash. I would choose a straight line and follow it: up the hills and down the ravines, struggling, limping. And all the time my paragliding friends above me, Ilan, Eyal and Miosheleh, on brand new Apco wings, calling to me, encouraging me.

 

    "You will go back to paragliding and fly over the Alps..."

 

    When I could walk for an hour I went to Mount Carmel. I started with one hour, then one and a half, torturing my foot, killing it. Two hours; three hours, by the stop-watch; if I stop to look at the map I stop the watch. Four hours and ten minutes, up the mountain, down the other side, then up again. Six hours and twenty minutes, roaming the Carmel like I never did before as a child living on this mountain. Starting out at dawn, returning to the car at sunset, limping, in terrible agony. And at home - physiotherapy, hour after hour: up on my toes, down. Bending, then releasing. Elevators are off limits for me; stairs only, even to the fortieth floor.

 

    Six months out of plaster, and I can walk eight hours. I quit the Carmel and go to the Judean desert, navigating on a 1:50 000 scale map, gulping kilometers, alone.

 

    And all the time the dream - to go back to paragliding, to ride a thermal up to the clouds. Like the donkey following the carrot, I follow this vision, struggling, dreaming of this thermal.

 

    I decided to go back to paragliding in two stages: first, ridge soaring the cliffs at the beach, where I would not have to run when taking-off and landing. I'll do it when I'm able to jump off a chair. I began  practicing: standing on a book and jumping to the floor. Off the pavement to the road. Off a high stair to the lawn. And finally, in the hotel in Manchester, my first jump from a chair to the floor.

 

    Trembling, I borrowed a 'Custom Sail XP', drove out to Ga'ash and flew. One year exactly after the accident.

 

    They told me the rehabilitation process ends after one year, but I persisted and kept improving. Fifteen months after the accident I start hopping on one leg: two hops... five... twenty-two... one-hundred and thirty five hops on my bad leg!

 

    I decided to fly in the mountains when I could run for twenty minutes. I began practicing. At first five minutes, and my son laughs at me: one foot is running, the other walking. A couple of months later I can run for ten minutes, and I increase to fifteen. Running, and limping, running and cursing. It's especially difficult running up hills. I used to jog along the same route for so many years and there were never any hills at all!

 

    Finally I managed to jog for twenty minutes.  I went to Yavne'el for my first mountain flight.

 

                                                           *   *   *

 

    Two years exactly since the accident. We are at Chamonix in the French Alps. Benny, Eitan and myself.  For a week we have been running around in a big Toyota from one site to another, flying, thermaling, climbing to the peaks of the snow covered mountains.

 

    Today we are about to take-off from the most difficult of them all: The peak of "Grand Montets" on the Mont-Blanc, 3300 meters above sea level.    Because of the thin air one must run much faster to gain enough speed for take-off.  But at these high altitudes even walking is difficult.  And we have to run in deep snow, with a tailwind. The wind over the cold snow always blows down the slope.

 

    We took the cable-car up, and walked down to the take-off site. We didn't like the wind blowing down the slope, and didn't know whether to wait for it to change, or to launch as it is. Until one of the locals arrived, spread out his glider, ran (like hell), and took-off (barely).

  

 It was decided that I should take off first. I ran with all my might, feeling my bad leg digging into the snow, raising hell.  My canopy rose - then fell.

 

    Exhausted and breathless, I sank into the snow, panting like a steam engine.  Only after a long time did I manage to pull myself together. My friends laid out my canopy for me, and I tried again. The wing came up a bit - then sank to the ground. This time I was finished, and frustrated.

 

    Benny took-off, then Eitan. Barely, but they made it. They ran two hundred meters down the white slope, dashing into the 3 km abyss, before they finally got airborne.

 

    What frustration!  More French "Rag Flyers" arrived, spread out their wings and took-off effortlessly. Will I have to walk back all the way up to the cable-car, carrying myself and my glider at this high altitude?

 

    Again I spread out my wing on the snow; again another aborted take-off.    What despair!

 

    Then two nice New Zealanders arrived, found me sitting in my harness, depressed. "Why are you sitting there with your glider spread out and not taking-off?" - they asked.  I explained that I am an old man with a bad foot, unable to run fast enough at this altitude, in the deep snow, with a tail wind. "Well, first - you had better launch parallel to the mountain so the wind comes from the side, and immediately after you get airborne turn to the right towards the valley", they suggested.  These guys have the experience, they know this site.  "And secondly, you are laying out your canopy wrong", they added. They rearranged it like an inverted 'V', pulling the center back until all the lines were completely taut.

 

    I ran.  Like mad I ran!  From behind they shouted: "Run! Run! Run!" – and this I did, with all my might!  I ran, and I screamed, a long loud hoarse scream, to help me overcome the pain in my foot.  I ran, pulled slightly on the toggles, lifted-off, touched down again, strained myself flat out - and flew!

 

    What a flight! The next day my foot hurt so badly that I could hardly walk, but it was sure worth it.  The slope from which I took-off was the northern slope, shaded from the sun. I followed the advice I was given by the New Zealanders, and turned immediately to the right, crossed the valley to look for a thermal on the other side. And what a thermal did I find!  Like a big bird I spiraled up to the heavens.

 

                                                            *    *    *

 

    Ever since childhood I had always wanted to fly like a bird. When the time came to fulfill the dream I came and said: "Hallo, I want to fly."

 

    "No problem," they told me, "Get into this box, close the lid, and start pulling the levers."

 

    "Pent up in a box? But I want to fly like a bird.  Is that not possible?"

 

    "No, man cannot fly like a bird," they told me.

 

    So for thirty years I flew boxes, pulling levers, turning knobs, flipping switches. Only after thirty years did I discover the paraglider, and I discovered that - yes, man is able to fly like a bird!  So excited I became that I forgot all I had learnt in thirty years of flying.  I flew wild, I showed-off, I exceeded all limits - and I was caught out.

 

    Now I'm back to paragliding, wiser, more experienced, with a difficult ordeal behind me. And I hereby declare: "There will never be a pilot more careful and disciplined than myself!"

 

 

    ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ

    The writer, Itamar Neuner 56, is an ex Israeli Air-Force pilot, works as a captain for El-Al, Israel Airlines, and spends one weekend a month in South Africa.

 

The accident described here happened eight years ago.

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