Author: Itmar Neuner

We all have our own personal records. Records of the highest altitudes, our strongest thermal, and the longest cross-country distance.And we all have dreams. Dreams of breaking these records. Dreams of going higher, faster and further.

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 - though the conditions are so weak - they won’t be getting any better.

Yesterday we had amazing conditions: good wind and active cumulus above. I launched and immediately spiraled up to cloud-base. Within minutes after takeoff I was heading west. But - in spite of the active sky - two thermals and less than an hour later, I was most surprised to find myself on the ground again, after having done no more than 30 km. If that is what I managed to do yesterday, with those beautiful thermals and lively clouds, what are the chances for today? Maybe nothing better than what the South Africans call a Fuffy: a short glide to the ‘Turkey-Patch’.

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 the sky.

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 for 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 400 m above takeoff, and still struggling. At 1000m above, I start to feel that I might not be landing so soon. I 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 3000m ASL 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. But even before I set out, this flight is getting interesting: there’s no more than just a small white puff here and there, but I am still going straight up. I bend over and look down between my feet. I am so high that I cannot see what is going on at take-off, nor do I see other gliders in the air. I try to imagine what I look like if anyone is looking up at me. If I cannot see them, I suppose they cannot see me. If anyone was watching me I must have just disappeared into the blue.

- "Itamar here, above take-off at 3700 m, and I’m setting off towards Swartsreggens". Swartsreggens is fifty kilometers down the tar road to the west. When I studied the map it took me a whole day to memorize this difficult name.I start a long glide to the west. I pass high over the next ridge behind takeoff, then over the place where I landed a couple of days ago. 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 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 under 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 hole.

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. 3000 m, and it starts getting cold. 3500 m. My record is 3800 m 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 on 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 radio itself. Hypoxia? Maybe!

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 "thud…thud…thud!"

It sounds as if it is about either 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 on the ground. 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 I realize that with one more thermal I might be breaking another record: my distance record of 76.5 km. I set it 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. Again I climb and start a long glide, watching the GPS. But then a message appears on its screen: "GPS Batteries Low". Makes sense after so long in the air. So I note the time : 16:00, 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. I then also had a dream, the ultimate dream that every fighter pilot has: to shoot down my first enemy plane.

On 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. Then I would become one of that exclusive group of victorious pilots, those aces who shot down enemy planes.

Wars 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.

Like 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 100-km mark.

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 17:00 I am still in the air, that would be the time I pass the 100k mark.

Thermal after thermal I carry on over the monotonous countryside. Fatigue is setting in, my stamina is wearing out. Dogfights lasted four 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 17:00. 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 4:50 hours in the air I have had enough, and am coming into 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 and a few moments later Ken is beside me, helping me fold up.

I am exhausted. Together, very carefully we check the vario: flying time 4:50, 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!

"Congratulations" - says the chairman, - "You are the new Rustenburg distance record holder!" And my feeling is exactly the same as after shooting down my first MiG….

Itamar Neuner

Itamar is an ex-Israeli Airforce pilot, and now works as a captain for El-Al.