Skills and learning

My instructor the vulture

Monday 3 April, 2000

Fly with vultures? Brad Sander knows how it’s done – flying in the Himalaya with dozens…

Itamar Neuner learns to thermal his paraglider from a natural…Essential reading for any hang glider or paraglider pilot

I was doing it wrong. I wasn’t aware of it, and nobody had told me so, but I was definitely doing it wrong. Somebody would have to teach me me how to do it right. For one more time – I needed a flight instructor.

I’ve been flying airplanes for many years. Throughout these years I’ve had many instructors who have taught me to fly. The first time I shared a cockpit with a flight instructor was in my pre-military gliding course. I was an air-cadet, 16 years old. My instructor, Israeli Airforce Lieutenant Reuven Brand, was fresh from his flying course, and assigned to fly light liaison aircraft. He also volunteered to teach us youngsters the very first basics of flying. In our eyes he was next to God.

Then at eighteen, I joined the Israeli Air Force myself and started my two years of training to become a pilot. Before earning my wings, my last instructor was Lieutenant Avi Laneer. We had a lot of fun together: we would go out on long navigation exercises in the Negev desert in southern Israel, racing along at 400 km/h, low over the countryside. Throughout the flight we would sing all the Israeli folksongs, verse by verse, word by word, not missing a syllable.

I also taught him some tricks I had invented, like how to do a series of four slow-rolls, while turning a horizontal 360º. Forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be the instructor and me the pupil, he would ask me to demonstrate and show him how it was done. Then he would try it himself, consulting me, his trainee, to tell him if he was doing it right. Avi was killed some years later, after having bailed out over enemy territory.

I quit the regular service with the Israeli Airforce (but continued to fly for many years in the reserves), and joined El-Al, our national airline, starting as first officer, then upgrading to captain.

The last flying instructor I thought I would ever have was captain Yaacov Roman. He trained me to become a captain myself. While our passengers were “sitting back and relaxing”, as we always tell them to do, we would go through our drills and simulated emergencies, with instructor putting as much pressure as he could on his trainee, and me reacting with a naughty smile to all his efforts to stall me.

Yes, I sure have passed through the hands of many flight instructors, nine of them, to be precise, and each one taught me something more about flying. When I finally qualified as captain, I invited all my instructors (those who were still alive, that is) to a party in my garden, and we spent a charming evening telling nasty stories about each other.

After that, I assumed I would never need a flight instructor again. But then I had one more – a wild Griffin Vulture!

Thermals are not always round pillars of air, as we think they are, rising straight up into the sky, with us going round and round in circles inside. Most thermals we encounter in drift downwind in the prevailing wind. When riding such thermals, there is a significant difference between the downwind side of the turn, and the upwind side.

Downwind – you accelerate. Your flying speed is added to the velocity of the wind, and you whiz around at maybe 60 km/h. Then, turning back into the wind it’s your airspeed against that of the wind, and all of a sudden you are slowed down till you’re barely penetrating.

Also, when turning downwind and accelerating, your rate of climb subsides, and sometimes you even lose altitude. Then, when half a turn is completed and you head back into the wind and decelerate, your excessive momentum transforms into lift and your vario screams as you shoot up into the sky.

How is the pilot supposed to react in such conditions?

Well, I always thought that one had to counter these extreme changes in speed, and try to maintain as round a circle as possible. I would pull the brakes while turning downwind, and release them again when facing back into the wind again.

That’s the way I used to do it. Until I met my ultimate flight instructor.

We fly a lot together with birds. Most times they find the thermals for us, and we rush over and join in. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Like that day when a lone stork joined me in a thermal 1300 m over Megido, on a 76 km cross country from Zichron to the Golan Heights.

Today we’re flying at Zichron, a small town on the western slopes of Mount Carmel, on the Israeli coastline. Although one of our favorite summer sites, the hill itself isn’t very impressive. Take-off is only 110 m above sea-level, and 85 m above the landing zone.

It’s also only four km from the Mediterranean Sea, so finding a good thermal at Zichron calls for a lot of luck and patience. Farther north Mount Carmel is much higher and steeper, and more suitable for our sport. But years before man ever took to the skies, he went and built there the town of Haifa, with houses, large buildings and electric wires, completely defacing the beauty of a good flying site.

Zichron is one of our favorites, because only from this most western of all our sites, can we do long cross-country flights, drifting downwind across the width of our tiny country, to reach the other side after 60 km.

A family of Griffon Vultures nests not far from where we take-off. They were put there as part of the Raptor Reintroduction Project, by the Israeli Ornithological Center, who also runs a special feeding station for them. These vultures are big and heavy, weighing seven or eight kg. They have broad massive wings, with a wingspan of around 2.60 m. They are mostly brown, but have thick black feathers at the trailing edges of their wings and their tails, some of them artificially dyed white for identification.

Four of these mighty and majestic vultures are sharing the sky with us today, flying with us in close formation. They are out not for foraging, just for the joy of flying, and to cool off a bit from the mid-summer heat.

Migrating birds that pass by in the region are not accustomed to paragliders, and keep a good distance away from us. Unlike them, these vultures live here, know us, and are accustomed to flying with us. It happens quite often that we fly very close indeed to each other, just a few meters away.

We are then able to see every detail, every small movement of their wings, and the smallest flutter of their feathers. So I am not surprised today when I find myself turning in a thermal together with one of these vultures just seven or eight meters underneath me.

This gives me a good chance to watch him carefully and see what he is doing. He seems to be a juvenile by the brown feathers around the base of his neck, his dark brown eyes, and black beak.

As usual when we fly at Zichron, there’s a fresh westerly breeze blowing. I am turning in the thermal the way I think is right – slowing down downwind and accelerating when I turn back into the wind.

But my vulture is doing it the other way round! He accelerates when turning downwind, and slows down when turning into the wind!

With fascination and surprise I notice how he narrows his six black wingtip feathers into a perfect point, sweeps his wings slightly back, folds in his tail – and accelerates! He’s actually flying downwind and accelerating!!!

Then, while turning back into the wind he spreads his fingers out again, opens his tail, and reaches forwards with his wings as he slows down and gains lift.

For one circuit I study his every movement very carefully, like a trainee pilot following his instructor in a new maneuver. Then we enter the second turn, both of us – instructor and pupil – flying together at precisely the same speed. I’m still some ten meters above, concentrating on imitating every movement my instructor is making, trying to fly exactly like him.

We are gaining height together, and drifting back over the crowd at take-off. As usual at Zichron, the air is very bumpy and turbulent at low altitude, but as we climb in the thermal it becomes smooth and calm.

On the third turn in the thermal I’m on my own, like a trainee pilot on his first solo flight. My instructor follows from a safe distance to see that I do things right.

And it works too! How stupid of me to have been doing this the wrong way. I had a feeling something was wrong, but it never occurred to me that one should slow down when turning into the wind, and accelerate downwind. All I needed was an instructor to teach me. And this instructor – was no other than a wild bird of prey.

Paragliding is definitely a very special sport. Show me another sport where man learns from animal! We don’t learn from the fish how swim or SCUBA dive, nor do we take jogging lessons from horses, or try to walk like the camel. The kangaroo doesn’t teach us to jump and the monkeys don’t teach us gymnastics.

Only in paragliding do we imitate the birds, and turn to them to teach us to fly: whether it’s taking off, landing, losing altitude by folding in our wings, or thermalling in those mighty columns of rising air.

Itamar Neuner is an airline pilot, free flyer and novelist, living in Israel. This article was first published in Cross Country magazine in 2000

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