Flights of fancy

A precocious teen from Toronto has been piloting airplanes since before his bar mitzva.

michael domb 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
michael domb 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Domb was nervous, all right. There, thousands of feet in the air, he took the controls of the small airplane for the first time. The adrenaline rush was overwhelming as he guided the Cessna 172 for what felt like an eternity. But he kept his cool, knowing that if he was ever to pilot one of Israel's F-16s, he would have to acquit himself well right away. Afterward, back on the ground, Michael buzzed with excitement as he waited for a ride home - from mom and dad. He was, after all, only 12 years old. "It's kind of weird that I can fly a plane but I can't drive a car," the unusually mature and exceedingly polite teen told The Jerusalem Post with a laugh. He still has more than two years to wait before hitting the highway on his own - even though he has earned his private pilot's license, and will take his first solo flight next month, when he turns 14. All before he has started high school. Michael got his start when his uncle, also a pilot, let him tag along on flights. "Mike would come home and say, 'Hey, I got to take the controls!' We didn't believe it at first, but then we realized he was actually flying the plane," said his mother, Liz, who is the music director at the Fieldstone Day School where Michael studies. Soaring over the skies of Toronto, Domb said, was addicting. "Flying is something that hooks onto you and stays with you." After that maiden flight, Michael pleaded with his parents to let him study to be a pilot. "At first it didn't sound like the right thing for a 12-year-old to do," said Michael's father, Uriel, an Israeli-born aerospace expert. "He had gone sailing before and I thought that was fine, but flying seemed a little too high, a little too far and way too early. But he was persistent." "With certain kids, you just don't bother saying no," Liz explained. "Michael is like that. He was the kid on rollerblades at age three." EVEN SO, said Uriel, "we thought he would give it up after one or two times. Instead, he only wanted to do it more." Ground school took about a year, Michael said, noting that he got some tutoring for the physics and some of the other studies. Upon graduating - he finished at the top of his class - he was initially assigned to fly out of Buttonville Municipal Airport, then was transferred to Markham Airport. "The squadron at Markham is considered a high-ranking squadron," he explained. "It mostly consists of older pilots working toward their commercial license. There are a lot of Indian pilots there and quite a few Israelis." The Israelis, he said, "have their own approach to flying. It's a much smoother way, really; they fly better than most of the pilots training here. And their respect for safety is tremendous." Even better, Michael said, the IAF veterans "have been sharing a bunch of stories with me. They treat me as one of the gang. As long as you can fly well, you're one of the gang. So I'm trying to get some protektzia." Maybe it's working: On a visit to family here just before Pessah, Michael was invited to take a spin in one of the IAF's training planes. (The flight was cancelled due to an alert in the North, but officers showed him around the Ramat David air force base.) Domb has made other, deeper connections here, too. While he was studying at a boarding school outside Binyamina last year, Michael spent a lot of time visiting the Stuckelman family in the Jezreel Valley community of Timrat. The Stuckelmans' son Gilad had grown close to the Dombs while traveling, working and teaching Hebrew in Canada following his military service. When Gilad returned to Israel for the Second Lebanon War and fell in battle, it strengthened Domb's bond with the Stuckelmans. "Michael really sees us as family," said Gilad's younger brother Yair. "He's very curious - he wants to learn about everything. He's very interested in learning about Israel, especially. In fact, he knows more than most Israelis his age!" Domb came here for his bar mitzva, then stayed at the boarding school to sharpen his Hebrew skills and get used to everyday life here, hoping to prepare for his aliya after high school. "Even though I've been to Israel many times throughout my childhood, when you move there, and actually get into your real-life routine, it's very different," he said. "After staying at the school for a while, I didn't like it, and returned to Canada. I got to a point where I wasn't really learning more... and I realized that I really wanted to be at home." One of the difficulties, Michael said, was the forced break from flying. "I talked to a lot of flying schools in Israel," he said, "but by law, you can't fly there until you're 17." To fill that gap, he raced on the Haifa sailing team. Sailing, though, is just one of Michael's hobbies, which also include snowboarding and playing the guitar. "It's hard to balance everything, but it does work out," he said. "You just have to learn how to balance things and manage your time." AND YOUR finances, too. "Flying is quite expensive," Michael said, "about $200 an hour. I fly twice a month, which works out to about two hours a month, or $400-$500 a month. My parents weren't going to pay for that, so I got a job fueling and dispatching aircraft at Markham. That brings in some money, plus I get a discount on my flight time." The bigger cost is the time involved. "For every hour in the air, I can spend up to five hours training and preparing on the ground. It's a lot of time and a lot of work. I do it," he said, "because I really love flying." And what he loves most about flying, he said, is aerobatics - "flying extremely fast, upside down, pulling two or three Gs." (Yes, the kid has the lingo down pat.) "Some people don't like it," Michael added. "I mean, I've seen lots of people come in for their first flights, and I can tell you that not everyone enjoys it. I understand that, too. It can be nauseating. You're cramped into a very small space. You're extremely close to the instructor in a cockpit that is very small. "Also, there's very little room for error. It takes a lot of time to build a feel for the airplane. You have to develop fine motor skills, learning how to make your hands and feet work together. You have to make everything work smoothly. It takes a lot of practice. You have to adjust your body to be able to work in tough conditions." Then there are the tough conditions that the planes face. "Winter takes a toll on small planes especially," Michael said, and all the more so in frigid Canada. "Recently we had ice buildup on our airplane and had to make an emergency landing." Michael spends a lot of time practicing spins, emergency procedures, takeoffs and landings. The highest he has flown has been 6,000 feet and, yes, he sometimes takes his friends for flights. "Early on, I wouldn't watch him fly," said Liz. "It was only recently that I dared to watch. And the first time I saw him go up in the air, I thought I would die... Actually, his instructor jokes that he's the one who should be getting the attention, as he's the one who has to fly with a kid!" DOMB RESPONDS to the danger of flying by shrugging off fear and preparing thoroughly. Handling pressure and aiming high, though, seem to be family traits. His sister was accepted to Harvard at 16. His uncle, the pilot, was accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School as a musical child prodigy, who later performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic at 15. Domb's father worked for NASA on the first lunar landing and on the Apollo missions before moving into satellite technology. Uriel helped Canada launch its first communications satellite and worked on Israel's Ofek and Amos satellites; "I've worked on probably 50 percent of the satellites launched around the world by now," he said. "Michael doesn't seem to feel the pressure to be exceptional," his mother said. "But he feels a sense of obligation. I mean that not just in his desire to serve in the Israeli air force, but the sense that if he has a talent, he has to use it." Liz's only concern is what challenge her son will pursue next. "He's been talking about skydiving," she noted with trepidation. "Flying, by contrast, doesn't seem so bad."