Perhaps they wanted to escape the crowded streets, the smothering cement blocks, the pollution and the noise. Or maybe they wanted to escape the tangle of electricity wires and the communications towers that obscure the beauty of the skies. They may even have been bored of life on the ground. So they chose the skies.
A handful of Mosul’s more athletic inhabitants are following in the footsteps of Abbas ibn Firnas, who is alleged to be the first person to have flown with wings made out of feathers – the only eye witness reports that exist say this may have been an early glider - in ancient Cordoba, around 11 centuries ago. And for the past four years the people of Mosul have started to speak enthusiastically about their local glider pilots, parachutists and hot air balloonists whenever there is a suitable event for them to make an appearance. This is something new in Mosul, which has been – and still remains – one of Iraq’s most troubled and dangerous cities.
The hero of many of their stories is the Falcon Aviation Club, which was established in 2008 but whose origins are far older – most of the founders were members of the Abbas Ibn Firnas Aero Club, which was started in 1933 but was dissolved in 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The more recent association began because, as Saba Yassin, current chairman of the club, said: “We reached a crossroads. Either we had to let the sport quietly disappear or we would continue in whichever way we could. So we decided to stay and start again from scratch.”
Since making that decision, the Falcon Club has managed to achieve a lot. Their members now regularly compete in events around the country and region and have also flown in Germany and France.
“The first Iraqi woman to paraglide is a member of our club,” Yassin boasted. “And the youngest Iraqi to paraglider, who is registered with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, who’s only 11 years old.”
In fact the Falcon Aviation Club is the only Iraqi club that belongs to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the governing body for air sports and aeronautics worldwide.
At a time when many of the sports clubs in Mosul are no longer really active, many young local people are eager to join the club. The Falcons now have 123 members, all of whom are from Ninawa apart from four who come from Najaf and three from Tikrit.
The best known member of the club is honorary member, Iraqi pilot and athlete Fareed Lafta, who was the country’s first qualified cosmonaut and who also took part in the first sky dive above Mount Everest. In July, Lafta made headlines for attempting to fly in a machine made with hundreds of helium filled balloons.
Recently the club, which already has 75 pilots, had to stop taking on new members because the organisation was unable to cover the expenses of more people. Fifty more are waiting to apply and their applications are awaiting approval, among them four women.
Yassin doesn’t mind talking about the fact that locals use their connections or influence to gain admittance to the Falcons. IN fact, he considers it evidence of the club’s success.
“And it’s not just people’s enthusiasm for the sport that makes us so popular,” he added. “It’s also the nature of the Mosul environment, and the mountains around us that makes this place so suitable for flying.”
With that kind of popularity and fame one might assume that the club was well off financially. But this turns out not to be true. Whoever visits the club may well be surprised by its modest look: it’s an old building filled with older furniture. “The state covers about five percent of our costs and the remaining costs are paid by club members and some donors,” explained club treasurer, Ali al-Najmawi. Efforts to gain sponsorship have mostly failed – even Red Bull, the energy drink company that sponsors many action and extreme sports events, didn’t take the falcon’s bait.
One thing they did manage to do, al-Najmawi said, was convince an Iraqi insurance company to give pilots and club administrators life insurance, free of charge.
Because of the club’s tight budget, senior club members have learned a lot about how paragliders are made, and how they work, and they also have what Yassin described as a “modest workshop” where engineers and athletes can do maintenance on their various flying machines; Yassin actually lost a finger repairing a paraglider.
“We are currently manufacturing a plane that carries two pilots and we expect to finish it once we’ve received certain high-tech parts imported from outside Iraq. It will be a unique plane,” club member, Khalil al-Mousali, said. “Our gliders have consistently come first in the Sovereignty Day festival in Baghdad, in which a number of sorts clubs and universities participate,” he added with pride.
Merchant Namir al-Rawi, 50, is another club member who is excited about the club. “I want this sport to survive and to develop and to attract more young club members,” the former paratrooper enthuses. “I think it’s a very significant thing to be involved in.”
“We live in a country where there are a lot of challenges to security,” Yassin continued. “But our members are very supportive. Some of the members who are well known in local society have done a lot for the club because they have good relationships with people in the security services.”
“I’m so proud because our club philosophy is not a selfish one,” he continued. “We share our success by doing things like holding training courses free of charge in this province and in many others.”
Presently the Falcons are planning to continue to upgrade their club and they’re also hoping to open an academy for aviation sports. Al-Rawi has been talking to the flight training school, the Scandinavian Aviation Academy, based in Sweden, about the project. However the budget is still a major problem for the Falcons. Nonetheless as al-Rawi says, “this is our dream. We will do it – even if we have to be patient.”