Above the clouds

Flying through life…and Israel

By Chandrea Serebro

From Bapsfontein to BB Netanyahu, Kevin (Akiva) Braun is flying through the ups and downs of the life of a pilot in Israel, learning Hebrew while flying over the chosen land, seeing five capital cities from Jerusalem’s clear skies and transporting prime ministers, celebrities, and not one, but two Israeli Chief Rabbis all in a day’s work. And it is a dream come true, after a lifetime of Hashem’s Divine assistance that lead him there.

“It is a real privilege to live and fly in the place we’ve been praying to return to for over 2 000 years. On a clear day over Jerusalem, one can see the entire country from 30 000 feet and a bit higher one can see five capital cities – Jerusalem, Beirut, Amman, Damascus, and at a stretch, Cairo. Sunsets that last over an hour, ‘surfing’ on the clouds and rising above the world for some private thinking time from a detached perspective are some of the perks of the job, and my office truly has the most amazing view. All day, I am meeting, interacting, and working with many different people, and there is a culture of constantly striving for perfection and taking pride in one’s performance, which makes it exciting and motivating.”

Learning to fly and becoming a pilot has been a dream from as far back as Kevin can remember, starting sometime when his father would take the family for Sunday drives to watch aeroplanes at the local airport – “which remains a favourite family outing for my kids almost 40 years later,” he says. He took his first flying lesson at 16 years old at a microlight club in Bapsfontein, and so hooked was he that he immediately sold his bicycle to help pay for the next few flights, starting formal flying college a few months later and graduating with a commercial pilots license shortly after he turned 18.

What followed was a rigorous schedule of flying and learning – at the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva for morning and evening Torah learning and flying college in the afternoons and on weekends. I worked as a flight instructor, charter pilot, and an airline pilot flying all sorts of aircraft from microlights up to antique four-engine airliners throughout Southern Africa, building experience towards an airline career.” But soon it became apparent after a few “mostly successful” job interviews, that being a white religious Jewish male was not the “ideal profile” in an industry that was trying its best to “embrace the New South African way of life”.

When an amazing job opportunity arose with a famous international airline to work in the Far East, Hashem ensured that it would come to nought, as Kevin had only a few days earlier become engaged to his fiancé. “She wisely declined the option of moving to the Far East which ultimately contributed to us both spending many years immersed in Torah education and learning while building our family. Both my father and Rabbi Raff were instrumental in guiding us along this unplanned path for which we are deeply grateful, supporting and encouraging me to keep my flying qualifications current for the 10 years that I spent at Yeshiva Maharsha.”

Then Kevin found himself moving to live in Israel, when “the combination of forces pulling us to the holy land and the forces pushing us out of South Africa became more powerful than the forces keeping us in the familiarity of our birthplace”. That, and the chance finally to pursue the career of his dreams, on meeting an “accomplished El Al captain through a wonderful friend who asked me what I was doing in South Africa as there was a looming shortage of airline pilots in Israel”. Thinking that his lack of Hebrew and his perception that only Israeli Air force graduates could be employed by El Al had never led Kevin down this path, but with help of the captain, after 18 months of studying, exams, and a practical test, Kevin was issued with an Israeli Airline Transport Pilots License.

“We made Aliyah in May 2016 and I was employed at Arkia Israeli Airlines in January 2017 as a pilot on their new fleet of Embraer Jets flying to over 36 destinations around Europe and the Greek Islands.” A typical workday consists of either two return flights to Eilat or a return flight to a destination in Europe. An average week consists of between two and five workdays depending on the season. “I find even the most mundane flights very pleasurable. There is something particularly satisfying about playing a vital role in the complex system that moves millions of people all over the world every day. The job carries a huge amount of responsibility, but I like to explain that if the pilots are left to look after themselves then everyone else behind them should also arrive safely.”

This approach of focusing on one’s job and the destination ahead, he says, seems to work just as well in our everyday lives, and Kevin tries to employ the same positive and steady attitude to his life. And is the job exciting? “Excitement is a feeling we try to avoid in the cockpit. However, I often find myself standing next to the plane and thanking Hashem for the gift of working in an environment that I’m passionate about.” And, of course, he has had exciting moments along the way. “Flying Netanyahu was a special honour and I’m very grateful for having been chosen for the mission. There was much planning and briefing before the flight about everything from the weather down to what kind of beverage he prefers. The level of security was rather intimidating but once the aeroplane doors were closed the captain becomes the one in charge.

“Netanyahu is a man with an extremely powerful presence, yet he was warm and friendly, even showing an interest in my South African background. The flight itself was entirely routine, except for the Prime Minister of Israel sitting with us in the cockpit behind a locked security door. He commented that it is not every day that he is left alone with two relative strangers, yet he seemed to enjoy the experience. Shortly before the doors were opened in Eilat, he told me that he was happy that I’d made Aliyah and that we should encourage more South African Jews to come home.”

Two of Kevin’s favourite aspects of flying in Israel are flying over Jerusalem every trip to Eilat and seeing the Israeli coastline back in his sights again when returning home from Europe. “A few memorable trips include my first landing during a snow storm in Moldova; every flight over the Alps; and being a part of the crew that did the first night landing and take-off at the new Eilat Ramon airport. Last year, during the week of Parshat Noach, I flew past the site that is known as Mount Ararat while learning about the Parsha with my captain. Many Torah discussions have taken place during the cruise in the skies of Israel as we fly past the many holy landmarks, it is awe-inspiring.”

Airline flying, says Kevin, is designed to be very routine and standard, so even when faced with challenges like weather or technical faults, almost everything has been previously rehearsed, which leads to very few surprises. There are challenges though. “Theoretical and practical examinations every six months, and occasionally we have to do flights at odd hours which require starting our day at 2am or even 11pm. There are strict laws about the amount of rest a pilot must get before a duty period, which demands a cooperative and understanding family environment.”

And Israeli airspace, says Kevin, is “challenging in its complexity”, entirely controlled by the military. It takes only 35 minutes to cross the country from North to South and around 8 minutes from East to West. “Every flight entering Israeli airspace requires security clearance from the military. In contrast, South African aviation is open to all and was very non-restrictive when I flew there. On a few memorable occasions, a group of flying friends and I flew around the coast of SA and to the Kruger Park without once having to contact air traffic control. That kind of adventure is something that Israeli pilots dream of.”

Learning to speak Hebrew is also a major challenge, not least trying to learn Hebrew while flying a passenger jet through Israeli airspace, which he says “adds a new dimension to the experience”. “One blustery winter evening, towards the end of my final night examination flight, I confidently declared ‘shalosh yerakot’ over the radio to the military air traffic controller. The intention was to confirm that I have ‘three green’ lights, indicating that the undercarriage is down and the aircraft is ready for landing. But I confidently told them that I have ‘three vegetables’. So I had three greens, yes. But instead of lights it was vegetables! The controller managed to conceal a giggle, but the examiner was less discreet. After successfully passing the exam we shared a laugh when I remembered that the correct phraseology is ‘shloshah yerukim’, the right kind of greens.”

Now with his Hebrew coming along nicely, his flying bringing him immense joy, and living in Israel, the fulfilment of a dream, Kevin is a great example of seeing how Hashem gets you to where you need to be in life. “For those with the required aptitude, passion, and determination, a career as a pilot can be tremendously rewarding. There are many obstacles to overcome, particularly for religious Jewish pilots, but the joys of flight and the life lessons it can offer are also available at the recreational level, and I would highly encourage anyone with a dream for flight to give it a try.” You never know where you might end up, how many countries you can see in the sweep of an eye, or who might come to sit in the cockpit with you, making life, rather than just the cockpit, exciting.

Thank you to Gary Lewenstein for this story idea

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