Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trouble fly away

In Sharm El-Sheikh Dena Rashed saw how the sky could really be the limit

Click to view caption
The Silver Stars, with vivid colours, painted the skies of the Red Sea;Like father like son, RC modelling is a hobby that runs through the veins; members of the RC Modelling Aviation Society

Eyes were glued to the sky as teams from all across the world delivered vivid, unforgettable performances for the Avex air show and aviation Expo held in a Sharm El-Sheikh newly christened City of Peace. Dust-filled air and cloudy sky did not stop anyone; and with each team performing for 10-30 minutes, drawing shapes in the sky, there was no end to gasps of excitement. Particularly memorable was a heart created by two planes as they swished down at astonishing speed -- never colliding.

Aerobatic air shows make for risky business but always undertaken with passion. "The aeroplane and the pilot become one," in the words of Bill Giles of the Honda Dream team -- which performed alongside the Royal Jordanian Falcons, the Egyptian Silver Stars and the Lithuanian Air Bandates, who delivered an impressive mix of solo and group formations.

Giles is from the UK, and his career in aerobatic flying started in 1989. A private pilot licence was followed by a commercial one in 1996 and he was off. He could fly the big beasts but it was aerobics that drew him in -- a hobby turned profession. He flies mainly in the UK, where there are some 100 displays a year. This was his first performance in Egypt, though last January he performed in the UAE. And he had lived and worked here when, arriving with a new sense of excitement, he came back this time: "It is always nice to come back to Egypt, where there is good hospitality."

It took Giles and his partner Will two years of practice to excel in aerobatic flying. "Although the aerobatic show is a very specialised field, there is always a space to improvise to a certain extent, one could go out to find a manoeuvre that works," he said. It took him six months to build up: "Normally if you change a member of the team, you only change one person and you need almost six months to build up again."

But there is more to air shows than artistic and dangerous moves. It is not just about skill and courage, the process also involves trust and mutual understanding. "You have to fully trust the person you are flying with," Giles said. "I did not have to deal with that problem since my partner and I have known each other for 25 years. We were together in school, and then as commercial pilots and we pushed together for the aerobatic flying, and that is when we became good friends."

Interestingly, Giles's first experience of aerobatic air shows was when he watched the Royal Jordanian Falcons (RJF) as a child; 18 years later he is here to perform alongside them. "I always knew I wanted to fly," he said with a spark in his eyes, "but when I was 12 years old, I watched the RJF show in the UK and decided this is what I want to do." He has tips for the aspiring professional: "After taking a good course for three weeks, flying a minimum of 45 hours, you would know what flying is about, but it's after 60 hours of flying that you get to learn about flying. However you would start to feel comfortable after flying for 150 hours."

Dressed in a bright red overall, RJF Group Captain Gamal Azizia was cheerful, happy with his team's performance. Yet, fighter pilots, his team members were in the show for a different reason. The team, which flies Extra-300 planes and display in a four-ship presenting a blend of both formation and solo aerobatics, consists of 10 members, five pilots from the Jordanian Royal Air force and five engineers. "We dedicate ourselves to this team for three years, and then we go back to the air force," said Azizia, "which makes us always ready for a strong performance. It also makes us more professional, never distracts us."

Azizia believes fighter pilots have a noble message: "I am a fighter pilot trained to be engaged in wars, but through aerobatic performance I send a message of peace and friendship, the message that we can all live together in peace." The RJF was established in 1976 on the request of King Hussein Ibn Talal, he went on: "The idea behind its creation was to establish an Arab presence in the field of aerobatic flying, capable of representing Jordan and the Arab world. The creators of such a team aimed at spreading a message of love and peace through performing in the different parts of the world."

Now the team tours Europe regularly, once a year. So far it has performed in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as in Arab countries such as Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. For Azizia perfecting aerobatic performance is a challenge, "but through it we have been able to develop friendships". That was evident in his interaction with Giles and the Silver Stars pilots.

Azizia seeks the support of other Arab teams: "Much as I love performing with European teams, I'd love to have other Arab teams perform with us to help spread our message." As the director of the team, Azizia knows best about uniting the team: "We are family, we don't spend as much time with our kids as we do with each other; and it's my duty to perform a check on issues related to safety and order." And while the audience at Avex was impressed with the manoeuvres of the teams performing, the families of the pilots might not have been quite as thrilled. "I've witnessed accidents and I totally understand my wife's feelings -- always worried. Although flying is risky, with constant training and dedication you become professional enough to feel safe," Azizia said with a smile.

But the idea of flying dangerously has a vital meaning to each and every pilot: "This is about enjoying the sky; it's about leaving the troubles of life behind -- simply freedom." Although audience interaction was intense, Giles said that once he is on the plane he forgets everything and focuses on speed, direction, height and the air space he occupies.

"The idea is to free your mind while you are flying," he said. Many people might believe it is not a job to die for, yet Giles looks at it differently: "I am lucky I have the job I love, although the downside of it is that one spends a lot of time away from the family. Even though the financial returns of the job are not great, I am happy doing what makes me comfortable."

A breathtaking show of the Egyptian team, the Silver Stars, was yet to make for an even more spectacular show. A group of 10 fighter pilots (nine of which are in the basic formation), the largest team in the air show, performed in different formations and filled the sky with violet, yellow and white traces of their moves. The audience enjoyed the scenery since the sky cleared on that second day of the show. Some people even managed to watch from a hotel beach near the airport.

The Egyptian team was one of the first aerobatics teams established in the world. The idea goes back to the mid-1970s, when it was conceived as a celebration of the October War victory on its anniversary. The team performed with four L-29 planes, and was made up of flying instructors at the Air force College. In 1984, the team consisted of six alpha jets, a number that rose to nine the following year, and in 2003, K-8E planes were introduced.

The presence of pilots among the audience brought a cheerful air, especially to children and the young. While the aerobatic planes were executing the wildest moves, another set of planes on the ground were taking a chance to impress the audience -- the RC model planes.

On display next to a Boeing 318, many thought they were toys. Yet the truth is something else. "Some of these RC models could go as fast as 220 miles per hour," said Walid Malah, the Egyptian businessman who won first prize at the international competition for RC model planes in Qatar.

Small aircraft with remote controls -- as Rawi Abu Leila, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer -- model planes are divided into different categories: "There are sports models, trainer models for beginners, aerobatic, high-performance and scale models. The latter models are versions of the real aeroplanes." The model prices start from LE2,000 and can go up to LE15,000 and more.

A widespread hobby all around the world, flying model planes is restricted to people over 15 years old. "That said," Ahmed El-Fatieri, an RC modeller for the past six years who coordinates his group with Aviation Club activities, explained, "at Avex, children who are six or seven, were calling on their parents to buy them a plane from the models; people get confused, but the models are not toys."

El-Fatieri and Abu Leila were among the nine Egyptians invited to Sharm El-Sheikh to display their models and perform their own air shows. "Some of us are amateurs and some have been trained at the Egyptian Aviation Club under the auspices of the Aviation Ministry," said Abu Leila. Aeromodelling is an old hobby, going back almost half a century. It started in 1955, but RC models did not come to Egypt until 1978. "It is being practised now in almost 24 clubs in different governorates," Bahaa Sabri, a 40-year-old communications engineer, said. For Bahaa, this hobby is not just about flying models: "It involves a lot of research and understanding of the sciences -- electronics, mechanics and aerodynamics -- and all goes under aeroengineering. It opens up different horizons."

The men in question started flying models early on in their lives. Abu Leila built his first model in three months when he was almost 13: "I was so proud, but as soon as it flew, it fell and broke. Later on I got used to the idea that the model could break any time," he said. "But as one grows into a professional, there is less chance of a crash," Abu Leila and Sabri agreed. Those who practise this hobby find it deeply absorbing. Since it is still a male-dominated hobby, it leaves wives jealous: "My wife does not like the idea that I am so involved in this hobby, but I can't give it up. Finally she's accepting it after many years of resentment," said Malah who is going to participate in the World RC modelling competition in Indiana, USA, in 2007.

"This hobby represents all for me, it is an open-ended process of learning," said Walid Salah, also an electronics engineer, who has been flying models for five years. He came especially from Alexandria to participate in the Expo, he even missed his daughter's sobou (the seventh day of birth, a traditional celebration) to be part of the group. Abu Leila's wife, Randa, a designer, is one of a handful of women who seem to be interested in the hobby, learning about it through the software simulators: "If I had enough time I would be able to practise this hobby too with my husband, but in the mean time I enjoy watching him with my young son, who is very interested," she said.

There seems to be agreement among the men about their hobby being a difficult one, even more difficult than the real air shows. "The models are harder to fly because of the lack of instruments indicating speed, altitude and other vital information present for the real pilots. Also the modeller has to reverse all control using his hands and develop reflexes to keep it going," said Abu Leila. Despite all the fun they are having, they are not able to fly their planes as frequently as they want to due to security regulations, for they are limited to few circumscribed areas. This is something they hope will change, so is the fact that 90 per cent of the material that goes into creating their models is exported from abroad. "Although this is an expensive hobby, it could definitely be made available to more people through the support of aviation clubs."

Members of the RC modelling group were eager to fly their planes in Sharm El-Sheikh, and they waited for two days to perform, but sadly they were not allowed to -- and the reasons remained unclear. "We were promised by the minister of aviation at the end of the show that there will be more flexibility and space for us to practise our hobby in the future," said Abu Leila. "It is a challenge to fly these RC models and perform manoeuvres and safely land them on the ground. It's almost an addiction, and I wish I could practise it more freely."

For more information on Egyptian RC modellers, visit their

website: www.rcegypt.starnet.com.eg

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