Seeing Israel From a Cessna 172
Every hour and every dollar I ever spent learning to fly this or that aircraft was worth this one flight. Israel is a beautiful country, every bit of it, even the dry parts. The people here are as friendly and engaging as Texans and the weather is as good as Southern California. I’m flying north from Tel Aviv along the coast to Haifa, about a quarter mile out over the Mediterranean to avoid the bumps, and as far as I can see the land is green, cultivated and orderly. From this distance Israel is peaceful, quiet and affluent. Reality, of course, is always a little different, but that’s reason #14 for flying airplanes. Reason #14: Things always look wonderful from the air.
Imagine, for a moment, that all of the flying you’ve ever done or will ever do is confined to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, with its roughly 8 million people, 9 thousand square miles, and 15 or so general-aviation-friendly airports, and you begin to get an idea of what it’s like to be a GA pilot in Israel. Like in the United States, pilots in Israel go to the trouble and the expense because they love to fly, they love their airplanes, love being one of a very small community that has mastered these skills, and love being known to their friends as a pilot. There are 6,000 licensed pilots in Israel, a thousand of which are regularly active. That sounds pretty small, but as a percentage of the total population, Israel’s participation rate in GA is about half that of the United States, putting it easily on the list of the top 10 GA countries.
Israeli pilots share other things in common with American pilots, like crazy expensive fuel prices — prices are three times higher in Israel than in the United States — security requirements like you wouldn’t believe, airports under siege by local authorities, and new housing developments full of people shocked to find airplanes flying over their house.
My wife, Stephanie, and I were invited to visit with Fannie and Nisim Vanunu, the owners of FN Aviation, the largest and most active of the five flight schools at Herzliya airport. Herzliya (LLHZ), one of the 14 or so GA airports in Israel, is a 30-minute drive north from the center of Tel Aviv. The airport is used mainly by flight schools and general aviation operations and has a tower, but no terminal. It’s a great little airport, busy with aviation commerce of all kinds and, as is often the case, generally unappreciated by its neighbors. Mayor Yael German wants the airfield closed down, claiming it is a hazard to the city's residents and is keeping the city from building much needed housing. As with all of the airports we visited in Israel, there is a chronic shortage of hangar space, so most of the aircraft — and there are a lot of them — bake in the hot sun.
A man greeted us at the entrance to the airport with an assault weapon and a young woman in uniform. After producing our passports and answering a series of questions regarding our reasons for visiting the airport and our intensions while there, we were allowed in. This routine would be repeated every time we entered this and any other airport, even if we had just left a few minutes earlier to grab some lunch. FN Aviation’s facilities are modern, well maintained and, at least while I was there, full of students of all ages. After a quick tour of the facilities, I sat down with Shamgar Alexander, a chief flight instructor for FN, to review the charts and procedures in preparation for our flight. Flying in Israel can best be described as a VFR/IFR hybrid in that the flying and navigation are done visually but always under constant control of ATC, on published airways, on pre-filed flight plans, on discrete squawk codes and with mandatory reporting points. Flying in real IFR conditions is rare because the weather is so good. There are only NDB and VOR approaches at the GA airports, no GPS approaches, and the only precision approach in all of Israel is a single ILS at Ben Gurion International airport, which is closed to GA traffic.
Because Herzliya has a tower, it is — roughly speaking — class D airspace until the tower is closed in the evening, at which time the airport is completely off limits to traffic. The few airports that do not have towers are, roughly speaking, class E areas and are available 24 hours but not likely to have services of any kind. Approach control is handled by Center, of which there are two, one for the north and one for the south of the country.
After the briefing, we filed our flight plan, which included detailed information on each passenger. Along with Shamgar, we headed for the airplane. For reasons unknown, Herzliya airport conducts all of its radio communications exclusively in Hebrew, a language the Jesuits somehow left off the curriculum at my school. ATC communications everywhere else in Israel are in English on request, meaning that they are done in Hebrew unless any pilot on the frequency requests English, in which case everyone on the frequency is required to switch to English.
The plan we filed had us heading North on the published airways to Haifa, an industrial center, key seaport and the third largest city in the country. Tall peaks on which this beautiful city is built surround the port at Haifa and the airfield. Once aloft we were vectored to our planned route and altitude. In spite of the Mode S transponder aboard and the fact that we were squawking an assigned code, we were still required to report waypoints and altitudes along the way.
Israel is small that even in a 172 with the engine pulled back to 100 knots, the trip seemed way too short. The coastline is uninterrupted development with orchards and cultivated fields in the distance inland. Over Haifa we were given permission to make a few lazy circles directly over the city for an indescribable view of the famous Bahia Gardens. These gardens, located right in the center of the city, are a staircase of 19 terraces extending all the way up the northern slope of Mount Carmel. From there we continued to cruise north across the bay and over the old city of Akko, about 12 miles from the Lebanon border. Close enough, I’d say.
ATC directed us to turn back to the South and turned inland, which afforded more flying and more amazing sights along the way.
I’ve had one of those careers that has allowed me to work and travel in nearly every corner of the world. I keep a list in my head of all of the places I would retire to if, for some imaginary reason, I had to leave the United States... This place is on the top of my list now. Texas is as close to heaven as one can get, but I believe my airplane and I could be very happy in Israel.