Cultural Prism: Killing Israeli general aviation

100 years ago, there was a better understanding here of the importance of aviation to the prosperity of a modern society

May 28, 2015 20:52
birds-eye view Israel

A birds-eye view of Israel. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)

A century ago, Israel was crisscrossed with railroads, but over the years this strategic transportation system was neglected due to a policy favoring buses. Only since the 1990s have we been on a corrective path, and even the historic (Jezreel) Valley Railway, constructed in 1905, is now being rebuilt.

Sadly, we are heading toward a similar course in aviation, with the expected closing of the Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv and the threat to close Herzliya Airport – the hub of Israeli general aviation (civil aviation operations other than scheduled air services and non-scheduled air transport operations for remuneration or hire).

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It almost seems that 100 years ago there was a better understanding than today of the importance of aviation to the prosperity of a modern society.

On December 27, 1913, the French aviator Jules Védrines landed a Blériot monoplane on the beach near Tel Aviv on his way from Paris to Cairo. Four days later, a Nieuport plane landed in Jerusalem.

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During World War I, the rival armies deployed squadrons to Palestine, and in the 1920s, British planes participated in enforcing their Mandate.

It took time for the Yishuv leaders to understand the importance of aviation, but in the 1920s and 1930s, there were efforts to promote aviation technologically and culturally.

It became a national goal to instill an appreciation for aviation, and the magic of flight inspired people to join aero clubs and attend exhibitions.

Still, without statehood, aviation progressed slowly, and at the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948, only a few planes were at the disposal of the Palmah’s clandestine Palestine Flying Club and the Hagana’s Sherut Avir. But in the course of the war, the newly established Israel Air Force grew dramatically and made a significant impact.

Herzliya Airport was established during the war, as a makeshift airfield for the 101st Squadron.

From there, planes took off to halt the Egyptian Army in the Negev, and it was from there that Modi Alon took off in his Avia S-199 fighter to shoot down two Egyptian Dakotas, which had been bombing Tel Aviv for two weeks.

The squadron was eventually relocated, and after the war, a newly paved dirt strip was used first for crop-dusting, and then for a variety of civil aviation services.

In 1970, a petition to the High Court of Justice by local municipalities led to restrictions on operating hours. Further legal clashes resulted in compromises relating to the scope and nature of operations, such as limits on weekend pattern-flying.

Although the airfield had never been officially authorized and the buildings still lack construction permits, it became a national airport, and in 1978 came under the administrative wing of the Israel Airports Authority.

Over the years, governmental agencies have repeatedly declared that Herzliya should transfer to a new location, but nothing was seriously done to promote this, leaving the airport under a temporary status and nonenforcement policy.

In 2000, local municipalities petitioned the High Court, claiming that the airport posed noise and safety hazards to residential areas.

The complaints were refuted, and Justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen stated that “they came to the airport, not the airport to them.”

A 2009 commission led by former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (res.) Herzl Bodinger recommended that Ein Shemer Airport, located 30 km. to the north, should be adapted from its current defense-related uses to take over from Herzliya, but this time-consuming and costly plan was never implemented.

In 2010, the National Planning and Construction Council approved the district outline plan, whereby Herzliya Airport was classified as “temporary” for five years, until April 15, 2015. Specifying this deadline was intended to spur the authorities into action.

In 2011, the Regional Planning and Construction Committee approved the Urban Building Scheme of the airport, changing the designation of the property from agricultural to construction purposes. But the Airports Authority strangely (and perhaps illegally) sabotaged this by refraining from submitting the required letters of indemnity.

Further debates and court sessions led to an understanding that Ein Shemer should be prepared to take over general aviation activity, but still no action was taken. The Association of Herzliya Airport Users petitioned the Supreme Court in September 2014, requesting that the authorities be forced to develop Ein Shemer.

In January 2015, the Airports Authority issued a laconic notice that on April 15 (the arbitrary date defined in 2010) Herzliya Airport was to cease all aerial activities. Plane owners were insensitively told to take their planes elsewhere, sell them, or have them towed at their own expense.

Those who had been entrusted with promoting aviation in effect announced the end of general aviation in Israel.

In February 2015, as the deadline drew near, the association – fighting alone – petitioned the High Court again, asking for an interim order preventing the closure as long as no alternative was ready.

The court convened a day before the intended closure date and issued a 90-day order nisi, ordering the National Planning and Construction Council to deal with defining the status of the airport and promoting alternatives.

The airport has been allowed to continue limited operations for six months, under an interim order forbidding all aerial activities except for maintenance, pilot instruction and safety-related flights.

Who objects so much to the airport, and why? The mayor of Herzliya says that “every day without an aerial disaster is a miracle,” but this groundless claim has been rejected by the courts. The airport is described on the Airports Authority website as operating “according to international standards,” and appears in international publications and charts. To date, not one person outside the airfield has ever been harmed.

Arguing that the airport lacks licenses and permits is foolish, as all this could be regulated if only there was a will.

Local municipalities also claim that the 16 hectares of land could be used for building reasonably priced homes for young couples, but as this is the priciest real estate in the country, this seems unreasonable.

Another demagogic argument aims to slander the aviators as a group of wealthy snobs who want their own playground at the expense of national interests.

But the sad truth is that real estate sharks have their eyes on the valuable property and they are backed by extremely powerful politicians. Policy is guided by money, not national goals.

What will happen if Herzliya closes? The airport serves a variety of purposes – pilot training and certification, tourist and business flights, private flights, aerial firefighting, medical evacuation, and more.

Almost all pilots are certified at Herzliya, including air force pilots transitioning to commercial licenses, and pilots who need to accumulate hours for acquiring a multi-engine rating. Closing the airfield would lead to a devastating shortage of new airline pilots – a scenario which should be foreseen as a national crisis.

Other airports near Haifa and Beersheba have been mentioned as alternatives, but I believe that they are unfit for various reasons, mainly because they are too far away. Denying 80 percent of general aviation users an accessible airfield is absurd.

A point overlooked by policy-makers is that having a plane stashed away in some faraway hanger is ridiculous and dangerous, because this would result in pilots logging fewer hours.

The less pilots fly, the more dangerous they become.

The issue is more than just finding a place to take off and land. Herzliya is home to maintenance facilities servicing 90 percent of all general aviation in the country. Without this, there will be no flying.

There are more ripple effects.

Closing Herzliya Airport will directly affect hundreds of families whose livelihood depends on operating the field and peripheral services.

Many flights serve important national and social goals, such as a wonderful program for flying children with cancer, or showing foreign diplomats Israel’s strategic environment from a bird’s-eye view.

Closing both airports in the Tel Aviv area will negatively influence the national goal of connecting Israel’s periphery to its center.

I believe there are even broader considerations, completely disregarded by everyone involved.

General aviation has a positive cultural influence. Pilots and other aviation professionals contribute to their communities by demonstrating professionalism and responsibility, and applying team work and risk management methodologies.

But above all, we deserve to be a “normal” Western society. Israel is characterized by extreme dissonance. We deal with existential threats, while striving to lead in science and technology. I believe that a thriving aviation community promotes this goal admirably.

In conclusion, the Transportation Ministry, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Airports Authority have failed to develop a long term, national aviation plan, and are now “punishing” the general aviation community.

This decades-long farce and the combination of politics, power and money – all paint a troubling picture of the kind of society in which we live. Leaving it all for the High Court to sort out is another symptom of our dysfunctional organizational culture.

I hope that the court will act to prevent a historic mistake by leaving Herzliya Airport fully functional until Ein Shemer is ready, and telling the authorities to do their job.

The writer is a former IAF pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.

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