Flying Extremely Low

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Seal Level
Sea Level
4X-CGI
4X-CGI
Climbing
Climbing
Massada and the Sea
Massada and the Sea
Flying over the ridge
Flying over the ridge
The Dead Sea shore
The Dead Sea shore
The canal and the sink holes
The canal and the sink holes
4X-CGI over Massada
4X-CGI over Massada
On Final
On Final

During training for your pilot's license, you experience a number of different flight "profiles". You learn to first fly the aircraft "straight and level" then "slow flight", then takeoff and landing and as you get further along, you learn to do diversions and precautionary landings, which involve a number of the the perviously learned profiles, including a new one, which is to fly low and slow over the field prior to landing on a grass strip or unused runway. You need to be sure that there's nothing that will cause a problem, like a rock, a tree or a pothole, so you fly low and slow just off to the right of the prospective landing area, checking it out to be sure it's safe.
If you're flying over the field at say 150', and there's a tractor say plowing the end of the field, you might want to fly over the tractor, a so called "buzzing". You're not supposed to do that.
But you might want to.
I learned that flying low can be cool. But I never found out how cool until July 13, 2008.

4X-CGI
4X-CGI
 

Across the highway from Massada, right next to the Dead Sea is a 4000' runway, the Bar Yehuda airfield. It was built during the 1950's as a way to get to Massada quickly from Jerusalem. In those days, you had to drive to Beer Sheva, then Arad, and then to Massada, a 3 or 4 hour drive, on 2 lane roads that went through every town, village or gathering of sheep.
These days we drive down to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem past Jericho and then south to Massada, a trip that can take as little as an hour if you do it at 4:00 am when there is no traffic or as long as 2 hours at most other times. (the 4:00 am time includes picking up 3 hitch-hickers in Jerusalem and dropping them off at Mizpah Jericho)
Now at the airfield is a sightseeing service, run by Habebee Matzliach, and ex-paratrooper who now flies folks around Massada and Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea.
A note about the terrain. Think Grand Canyon, but with more rocks. The Dead Sea is at 1400' BELOW sea level and the lip of the ridge to the west is about 1200' above sea level, giving a number of canyons that are over half a mile in depth.
When you drive along the road beside the Dead Sea, you can't really see the depth of the canyons, nor appreciate the really rugged terrain.
Our story starts on Thursday, July 10, when I arranged with Mr. Matzliach to take a flight. Since he's a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) I can log the time as a pilot. We work out a price - double what I would pay in Canada - and we arrange to take 2 passengers with us. We plan the flight for the following Sunday in the late afternoon, once the sun and the heat begin to get lower.
Unfortunately one of my prospective passengers, my Mom, was in the hospital in Jerusalem recovering from breaking her hip later on that Thursday. Since my brother and his family were in Jerusalem, we could still go to the airfield and they would be with Mom. (I had to promise her a flight later when she recovered completely - there will be a page about that one day)
My daughter Nikki and her friend Ian became the cargo. We drove down to the airfield, and got ready to fly.
Since we were over 2000' below the normal altitudes that I am used to when we started (my home field, Brampton is at 935' ASL), I expected some differences in flight performance. The air is heavier but the heat makes it less dense. Take off would be a bit quicker, but the climb would be fun, especially considering that there was a ridge nearly 3000' high just a mile or so west of the field and the Dead Sea and then the Kingdom of Jordan a quarter mile or so to east. Spiral climbing is the way to go here.
Climb we did, until we topped out at about 1500' above sea level, and turned towards Massada.

The Fortress of Massada
The Fortress of Massada
 

The fortress on top of Massada was built about 2000 years ago by King Herod as both a summer palace away from Jerusalem and as a refuge in case of revolt. The top of the mountain is shaped like a boat, and at the north end is the kings palace which must have been beautiful when completed.
After Herod died, in the year 73 CE, the Romans were busy crushing a revolt and Massada was one of the last places that the Jews controlled. After a long and tough seige, the Romans finally breached the walls of Massada, only to find that over 960 people had chosen to take their own lives rather than become slaves to the Romans. More details of the Massada and the siege can be found here.
I did two turns around Massada, getting some incredible photos and seeing things that you can't see from the top or bottom.
Habebee then directed me towards Ein Gedi which is about 25 kliks north. We flew over the ridge about 500' about the ground, passing over a number of incredible canyons. You get an incredible sense of speed when your traveling that low and the plane is doing about 120 knots (nearly 140 mph). Passing over the canyons, you go from being 500' above the ground to being nearly 3000' above in just the blink of an eye. We passed over a number of Bedouins walking their donkeys and camels, and saw the numerous caves in the sides of the canyons that play such a great role on the history of the area.
Ein Gedi is an oasis at the bottom of a large valley and the plan was to idle the engine and glide down the center of the valley. So I pulled the throttle out, and pulled the nose up to slow down to get the best glide speed, like a good student pilot. Habebee, however, had other ideas.
Habebee, as I mentioned is an ex-paratrooper. Paratroopers are not meek or mild. They tend to like doing things that others think are insane. Things like jumping out of airplanes in the dark over fields of rocks. Personally, I'm planning on having the same number of landings as takeoffs. Paratroopers are very high on takeoffs, very low on landings (at least inside the plane).
Habebee says no, we're too slow, and pushes the yoke all the way forward and we pick up speed again. We also loose about 500' in just a few seconds, going from a gentle climb to a quick dive. For those who are used to small aircraft, no big deal. For the cargo (Nikki & Ian), this is quite a bit like the world's largest roller coaster ride.
When Nikki stopped screaming, she began to admire the view. Ian stopped talking for a while. I was just laughing, as I flew down the valley, with the rocky cliffs on each side. We quickly passed both Ein Gedi and sea level, and kept going down until we came out of the valley just about over the Dead Sea.

400' below sea level
400' below sea level
 

Now I've flown in Florida, where the altimeter and the ground level are pretty much the same, so I'm used to looking at the altimeter as being somewhat divorced from the height above the ground.
But there's a funny feeing when you look at that altimeter and is shows an reading below zero. And dropping. And we're still descending. When we got to 400' below, we leveled off, put the throttle back in and the power came back. We head south, traveling over the sea shore, looking at the incredible landscape below. Since the level of the sea in dropping due to drought and evaporation, large areas of "beach" are opening up. Because of the terrain, sink-holes have developed in some areas. Large, deep, circular holes suddenly appearing along the shore. There are canals that move the water along, because there's a lot of development at the south end of the sea, with a large cluster of hotels and spas and then further south the Dead Sea Works on the Israeli side and APC on the Jordanian side. Sides are not exactly true here as you can now drive across the seabed in places - if you're in the military or work for either of the companies.
As our half hour flight is ending, we fly over the shore, and as we descend through 1000' below sea level and prepare for landing, a thought strikes me. I'm flying an airplane at a relative altitude that puts us BELOW just about every submarine in the world.
As we are on final, we get a call from the military ATC in Arad, about 100 kilometers away. It seems that there's going to be a flight of 4 coming through in just a few minutes and we'd better get down ASAP.
That's 4 F-16's coming through.
At 500 knots.
At about 200' AGL (above ground level)
Which is just about 1000' below sea level
Now that's flying low!

More images from July 13, 2008 can be found here.

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Modified March 25 2024
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