Laura Ben-David
Sharing Israel with the world through my lens

Flying high, facing fears

Like anyone, I have a ‘bucket list’. Not that I’ve ever written one down, but, well, if we stopped to think of it, we all know what those things are that we just long to do.

Somehow my list always involved things in the air such as flying a plane, paragliding, a helicopter flight, and, of course, a hot-air balloon ride. Not quite sure how gravity-defying thrills became such a common dream theme for one with a sometimes paralyzing fear of heights… go figure.

Years ago I had the incredible opportunity to fly a plane. The whole nine-yards: take-off and 45 minutes of flying along the coast of Florida and even over my own house at the time. I did everything but land the plane. As we leveled out to our cruising altitude (ooh, sounds so official…) I looked down and remembered with a panic that I’m petrified of heights. Too late, I was in the sky. I allowed the utterly elated part of me to take over, pushing the panicking part to the corner of my consciousness, with a stern warning to stay put and allow me to experience this brief flight with utter joy. Amazingly it worked. I stored the knowledge of this ‘power’ away, reserving it for one day when I would need the courage again.

Two weeks ago a group my husband and I were joining for a short trip to the Galilee presented the possibility of doing an early morning hot-air balloon ride, and did anyone want to join. As I read the whatsapp message, I felt my eyes widen and my heart leap. A hot-air balloon ride!! Over the Galilee! At sunrise!!!!

Then I heard the price. Somewhere between ridiculous and are-you-kidding-me? But… a hot-air balloon ride! Over the Galilee! At sunrise! Upon discussing with my husband, he was actually happy to skip the ride, and spend that time sleeping. That meant the ride was effectively 50% less… I then realized that these 24 hours would probably be my entire summer vacation. One hot-air-balloon ride divided over an entire summer? Not really so bad. I decided to go for it. And…I called to book it.

My heart thumping with excitement, I gave my details to the woman at the Skytrek reception. “What occasion is this in honor of?” she wanted to know.

I didn’t hesitate. “The occasion of me finally going up in a hot air balloon!” She laughed. I didn’t care. Because I was GOING! (The date was certainly going to become a memorable, marked, yearly occasion. So there was that…)

Finally the big day arrives. I’m so excited I can barely sleep. Which is unfortunate since I had to set my alarm for 4 o’clock in the morning.

At the ridiculous hour of 4:30am I’m in the hotel lobby with David and Chana Walles of Eddie’s Kosher Travel (they organized it – may as well give them a plug) and my friend Robin who’d arranged the trip. We drive out to the meeting place in the middle of a half-empty cornfield. Several others are gathered in the dwindling darkness drinking Turkish coffee, and gazing at the huge, un-inflated hot-air-balloon, stretched out in all its enormity on the barren field, tethered to a large basket that is lying on its side.

Standing by as they inflate the balloon...
Standing by as they inflate the balloon… (who knew we’d be so color-coordinated with each other – and with the balloon!)

After some brief instruction they begin inflating the ‘envelope’ first with cold air to inflate it, then the hot air which will give us the lift. As the colorful fabric fills with air, it finally expands to its full size and rights the basket. It’s time to climb aboard.

The huge basket is divided into five compartments, 3-4 people in each, and the center for the pilot and all his fuel tanks. We climb in and get acquainted with the space. It’s padded, with hand-holds, and a pair of binoculars in each section. Within minutes the basket wobbles a bit and suddenly… we’re airborne!

I’m mesmerized as the landscape grows steadily smaller. I love it and am petrified at the same time. But like in my single flight years ago, I refuse to allow fear to take center stage and I push it back, utterly determined not to give in to it.

My safe place... behind the lens. (Photo: Robin Schreiber)
My safe place… behind the lens. (Photo: Robin Schreiber)

As we float upward I look out at my beautiful country below and it occurs to me that it’s not unlike the view from Neve Daniel where I live. With our altitude fluctuating between 2000 and 3500 feet above sea level, our maximum altitude is just about 500 feet higher than the lookout at the top of my neighborhood. Of course there I’m standing on the ground. Here the ‘ground’ is nothing more than the thin floor of a basket. If I lean over and look straight down, then whoa… bad plan.

The flight is so calm. Aside from the initial wobbly liftoff, you barely feel any movement. We simply watch the change in scenery, feel the changes in wind and temperature, as we gracefully float above the rolling hills, and patchwork of fields in the Jezreel Valley. A highlight is when we poke through the early morning clouds and find ourselves in dazzling sunlight, gazing at a magnificent blanket of puffy whiteness, cast in a golden, early-morning glow. It is just magical.

The beautiful Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee as viewed from our hot-air balloon. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
The beautiful Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee as viewed from our hot-air balloon. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)

We feel as if we could stay up there forever, but alas soon enough it is time to land…

That balloon ride may now be part of my past, but it will forever be something I can recall and relive – and not just dream about. One more item on my bucket list… Check!

(Photo courtesy SkyTrek)
There’s simply nothing like it… (Photo courtesy SkyTrek)
About the Author
Laura Ben-David is a photographer, public speaker and Israel advocate. Inspired by her Aliyah experience, Laura began writing and never stopped. She is the author of the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has spoken all over the world about Israel, Aliyah and other topics, often with beautiful photographic presentations. Formerly the head of social media at Nefesh B'Nefesh, Laura is the director of marketing at Shavei Israel as well as a marketing consultant.