(photo credit: Courtesy Bill Clark)
Pilot: Alpha Echo Uniform is lined up on two-niner and ready for departure.
Tower: Alpha Echo Uniform clear for takeoff. Wind is eight knots at two seven zero degrees. Report Tel Arshaf at 1,200.
Pilot: Alpha Echo Uniform is cleared for takeoff. Over.
And within seconds we were airborne, flying over Herzliya and heading south down the coast.
Last weekend was about the closest I will ever get to pretending to be an elite air force pilot, flying on a mission to protect the country. But rather than scrambling in a fighter jet ready to intercept an unidentified aircraft approaching Israeli air space, I was actually scrunched in the back of a small 1967 two-seat, single-engine Piper Super Cub called Plane Vanilla and spying on unassuming beach-goers having fun in the water below.
“This plane might look plain and simple,” said American-born Bill Clark, an enforcement officer with the Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) and a licensed pilot with close to 50 years of flying experience, “but you don’t need an F-16 to catch those threatening the environment.”
The NPA uses the Super Cub to intercept illegal solid waste dumping, monitor wildlife populations, watch for illegal grazing by domestic livestock, control hunting and protect nature areas from vandalism.
Bill from the Bronx
Although this was a private flyby on the way to Masada, within minutes of takeoff we spotted dozens of SUVs and other off-road vehicles ripping up the dunes and beaches of Palmahim and Nitzanim, both of which are nature reserves.
With more Israelis splurging on flashy, high-priced 4x4s, driving off the beaten track is becoming an increasingly popular weekend pastime. Although there are numerous marked tracks in the Negev, Judean Desert and Eilat region on which to go for a spin, not everyone plays by the rules, and they drive to places where they should not be. Driving in nature reserves, for example, is illegal, and if caught drivers can face fines of up to NIS 1,000. Luckily for them, I did not have a powerful telephoto lens on my compact digital camera to get their license numbers and report them to the authorities.
“Now that it’s getting warmer and people are gearing up for the summer swimming season, we’ll start seeing more and more cars on the beaches,” Clark said in a worried voice over the headphones. “This will threaten the nesting sites of marine turtles and shore birds.”
The country’s Mediterranean coastline extends along some 190 kilometers from north to south. According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, more than 65 percent of the population lives along the coastline, leaving little room for nesting loggerhead and green turtles and other endangered wildlife. Protected nature reserves are critical for their survival.
Air Africa to the rescue
With more than 40 years of conservation experience, 20 of them with the NPA, Bill Clark is certainly no stranger to wildlife protection.
As chairman of the Wildlife Crimes Group of Interpol, he uses his law enforcement expertise to help Israel and other countries, especially developing countries, combat wildlife poaching and trafficking. His involvement in a number of Interpol operations in Africa has led to the arrest of hundreds of traffickers and the seizure of tons of elephant ivory and weapons.
Much of this success has come from air support with the help of the Super Cub and other small aircraft.
The American-made Super Cub has been an integral part of IAF fleet, used for everything from reconnaissance in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1967 Six Day War to training pilots up until a few years ago. Although it has been retired from active service, Clark contends that the no-frills plane has a few missions left in it.
When Clark is not busy representing Israel at UN wildlife meetings or working as an NPA law enforcement agent, he is securing old surplus IAF training planes, like the Super Cub, for international conservation efforts. To date, 10 planes have been delivered to several wildlife services in Africa: six to Kenya, two to Ghana, one to Senegal and one to Chad (with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations). More shipments are planned once funding from donors can be secured.
Considering that some of these parks, like Kenya’s Tsavo East and West combined, are larger than the size of Israel, having planes at one’s disposal is crucial for monitoring elephant herds and tracking poachers.
“The Super Cub is an excellent airplane for patrol work in Africa,” says Clark. “It’s reasonably safe to fly at low altitudes and slow airspeeds. This is what is needed to locate and monitor poaching gangs on the ground.”
The planes are also being used for habitat surveys, resupplying remote ranger bases and rescuing tourists. Several years ago, an Israeli was found on the slopes of Mount Kenya by a Kenya Wildlife Service pilot in one of the donated planes after being lost for several days.
Landing on the lowest place on earth
But today’s mission was not about search and rescue or looking for elephants (we didn’t pass over the Safari in Ramat Gan or the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem). It was about taking in amazing views of the South on a nice spring day over the Mediterranean – passing Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Ashdod and Ashkelon (within Katyusha range of Gaza) along the way – before heading due east to the lowest point on earth.
Other than the occasional bump and the realization that not much separates you from the ground several thousand meters below, it’s true what they say about flying: It’s peaceful (except for the noise of the engine) and a unique opportunity to see the country’s changing landscapes and colors. Flying over the contours of the Judean Desert was a bonus. So was flying 150 meters above Masada, practically touching the top of the cliffs that saw more than 960 Jews commit suicide in the first century CE to avoid capture by the Romans.
We then plummeted 1,000 meters to the base of the mountain to land at an inconspicuous airstrip abutting the shores of the Dead Sea, which by association makes it the lowest “airport” in the world at 378 meters below sea level.
Welcome to the Bar-Yehuda Airfield, otherwise known at Masada “International.” I say “international” not only because its surrounding fence is dotted with flags of the world but because George W. Bush landed here by helicopter in Marine One during a visit in 2008. The same year, 23 small planes from Europe transited the country en route to Jordan, which is easily visible in the distance.
At only 1,188 meters long and 30 meters wide, the narrow runway is not exactly able to handle a Boeing 747. Rather, most of the year, it accommodates pilots of small and ultralight planes who like to pass the weekend hopping between the country’s 14 civil airports, a fun but costly hobby. The ones who really take advantage of the desert strip are radio-controlled model jet enthusiasts. Usually on weekends these expensive toys outnumber the real planes.
After grabbing a bite at the terminal, a Beduin-style tent that serves
humous and pita and strong Turkish coffee, and then chatting with the
airport manager Haviv Matzliah – whose control tower is a walkie-talkie
attached to his belt and sunglasses for looking up at the sky – it was
time to return to home base.
After an uneventful 90-minute flight back to Herzliya Airport,
literally flying into the sunset (with the intention of living happily
ever after), it was time to brace for a post-flight reality check –
making the drive to Jerusalem, something which can be more harrowing
than taking off in a Super Cub at a sharp climbing turn.