3 years

Airborne

The Silent Flight Plan

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The story of how a deaf man learnt to fly

He could not hear the words “launj pojeeshun! launj pojeeshun!” as he prepared for take-off. He could not hear the sound of his ragged breathing as he tried to stay calm. He could not hear his feet tearing through the rugged landscape as he ran downhill. Or his canopy inflate behind him. He could not hear the wind whisper as he drifted upwards. Or the commotion on the ground as three instructors—Ganpat at take-off, Ankush mid-way, Avi at landing—ran around to keep an eye on him.

But he made sure he saw everything on that warm summer evening in Kamshet. The arms that demonstrated launch position, the reassuring eyes that looked right into his, the impish smile that told him to just let go and enjoy. Nothing escaped him. Not the wind in his face or the birds in the sky. As he soared to a thousand feet, and flew for 40 minutes, sitting back in his wing in sunlit silence, watching with reverence the temple-shaped mountain that appears almost mythical at sunset. He steered his glider gently, taking it all in on his first long flight.

He watched carefully as Ganpat, Ankush and Avi held up two-by- three ft colour-coded placards for him—red for right, white for left, yellow for ‘come down’ and green for ‘all good’. He smiled as he looked back up at the sky and watched the soft, fading light kiss the Pavna Lake. He was thousands of miles away from his home in Antwerp, but never had he felt more at home than in the Kamshet skies, learning to fly.

Most paragliding pilots talk about how quiet it is up there, an escape from the cacophony of life on the ground, a form of meditation on an engineless wing. Sven Noben was born deaf. His world has been silent for 36 years. But this was a different quiet. ‘I felt peace moving forward slowly and riding the soft bumps of air.’ Flying made his visual world come alive. ‘When I was very young, I saw on TV a paraglider descend in front of a beautiful canyon in the mountains,’ he answered in purple ink in a notebook when asked why he wanted to fly. ‘I thought it was so wonderful, I wanted that too.’

But in a sport where instructions are issued on radio by the second when you’re a beginner, how do you teach someone who can’t hear? So flying became ‘a forgotten desire’ till Sven found someone who was ready to teach him. A former Air Force pilot, now the most qualified paragliding instructor in India, Avi Malik was quick to respond to an email from Sven inquiring if his school Templepilots would ‘dare to take up the challenge’. Avi had never taught anyone with a hearing disability before. “But I was confident it would be possible,” he told Open.

Sven’s self-deprecating assurance—‘I’ve made a living with my own company for 5 years, so I assume my mind is working just fine!’—made Avi chuckle. An MA in new media, Sven had founded Signfuse, a company in Belgium that creates multimedia applications in sign language for websites, film productions and smartphones to integrate sign language with branding strategy.

A few emails back and forth, and Sven found himself in India last month. He signed up for a 10-day course with Templepilots, in Kamshet near Pune, the country’s paragliding hub, hoping to become a paragliding pilot with a licence to fly almost anywhere in the world.

But there was a lot of work to be done before Sven could go on even a really short flight—top-down from a height of 350 feet and just three minutes long. All beginners are required to do at least two-three short flights before they can attempt a long flight, known in paragliding parlance as ‘soaring’. Every pilot’s eventual goal is to learn the technique of soaring where it’s possible to fly for long and go as high as 3,000 feet, even higher, depending on the conditions and the pilot’s skill.

Avi and his team had to teach Sven the fundamentals of controlling a glider with various teaching aids, including a whiteboard, a simulator, hand signals, placards, batons and hours of practice in ground handling that would help him in the sky. They spoke through Avi’s iPad and Sven’s iPhone, especially at the flying site, as Avi drafted hundreds of notes and diagrams to instruct, encourage and answer Sven. “He worked very hard and was quick to grasp concepts,” says Avi. The days began with theory lessons, briefings and simulator training, followed by trips to the flying site every afternoon, ending with post-dinner debriefings between Avi and Sven back at the school.

During the 10-day programme, Avi’s team took Sven on five tandem flights (other students get one) to teach him glider control up in the air; to show him how to follow flight plans and cope with turbulence; to point out danger zones when flying around a ridge; to demonstrate a range of tasks that every licensed pilot must know—like dealing with wing collapses and executing manoeuvres to lose height. On each tandem flight, Sven was handed the controls for a few minutes as he gradually built his confidence and prepared to soar. 

On day six, Sven was informed he would be attempting his first soaring flight that evening. Another student, Gaurav Chande, who had begun the course two days after Sven, was taking off for his first soaring flight when Sven landed after an instructional tandem. Sven stood by and observed, anticipation building with each moment, his orange canopy meticulously spread out, drawing deep breaths, waiting for a thumbs up.  Moments later, Ganpat Newale, a senior instructor with Templepilots, informed Sven he would not be flying that evening. Sven was stumped. He threw his hands up, probed him with angry eyes, turned his face and walked away.

Flying day over, the students piled into the van that ferries them from the school to the flying site. Through the 45-minute ride back, Sven shrank into a corner, avoiding all eye contact, imploding with anger and frustration. “I felt bad because Sven thought we were discriminating against him,” Ganpat explained, “But the winds were too strong and the decision was taken purely for his safety.”

As soon as they reached the school, Sven went looking for Avi, who was not at the flying site that day. As the rest of the students discussed their flights with each other, Avi and Sven quietly slipped out to talk on the whiteboard outside. Sven picked up a blue marker and began writing furiously:

‘Why was [Gaurav] allowed to fly and I wasn’t?’

‘Unfair.’

‘I’ve spent more days here. Why wasn’t I given priority?’

‘I feel bad, I’m angry.’

‘I’m being treated differently.’

Avi responded patiently, explaining that paragliding is a nature sport where conditions can change quickly. ‘Managing disappointment and respecting nature are important aspects of learning to fly,’ he wrote. The board was cluttered with words tripping over each other. The other students, sensing their need for privacy, stayed away. This intense exchange lasted an hour, ending with a hug. When the students did eventually step out to check if he was okay, Sven hastily wiped the board clean.

The training process had its funny moments too. Soon after Sven took off on his first short flight, Avi, waiting in the landing zone, was slightly concerned that Sven wasn’t responding to his signals. He ripped his T-shirt and vest off, and wrapped them around badminton racquets, hoping it would make his signals more visible. Sven finally noticed the shirtless Avi and the bright batons. Avi ran backwards to keep pace with Sven’s glider, only to find himself in a ditch. “I could see the shock on Sven’s face when he saw me sprawled on the ground,” recounts Avi, laughing.

No wonder Sven thinks it was not all that hard for him to learn. ‘It was more of a challenge to Avi and his team who had to come up with new teaching methods.’ But Sven’s fellow students watched his progress with awe. They could not imagine learning the nuances of flying without a familiar voice crackling over the radio, keeping them company in the sky. “We wondered how it would be possible,” said Shreyansh Avlani, one of Sven’s fellow students, “Over the next few days, it all unfolded right in front of our eyes.”

Sven had just one thing left to do after he completed the course in Kamshet—score over 80 per cent in a written test in order to get his licence from the Association of Paragliding Pilots and Instructors (APPI), the only international standard for professional pilots. Sven got just three answers wrong, scoring 88 per cent, and was ecstatic to receive a congratulatory email from Avi informing him of the result. ‘I will always remember you as the skilful master who taught me to fly,’ he replied.

Sven then headed to Bali, where he continues to taste freedom through flight, as he soars to a place so quiet that it doesn’t matter he can’t hear, where he is no different than anybody else who puts his hand out to touch the skies.