Cockpit Chronicles – Paragliding In Rio: Best Layover Ever! (Video)

The adage goes something like this:

The worst day of fishing beats the best day of work.

Years ago, I knew I found the right job when I was a co-pilot on a charter flight in a 15-seat Twin Otter for a day of fishing on an Alaskan beach. I remember thinking of that adage, and telling everyone that it was the best day of work and the best day of fishing.

How could it ever be possible to top that trip? Well, I think I just did it.

First, a little background is in order.

A year and a half ago, around the time I was learning to paraglide near New York City, I flew a few trips as a co-pilot to Rio. I took my camera and paid a guy $5 to take me up to the launch area at the Pedra Bonita ramp where hang gliders and paragliders launch at a rate that rivals the JFK airport in New York.

After chatting with a few pilots there, one of them asked me how much I weighed, suggesting that he had a glider and harness I could borrow. Having only flown from a 50-foot training hill, I politely declined. But I’ll admit, I was tempted.

I spent the day filming multiple launches, some of which weren’t so successful, and when I stood at the end of the paragliding ramp I set a goal to get a few hours under my glider so I could give this place a try.

Just this February I managed to rack up 20 hours of flying in Costa Rica. I figured it was time to bid the 34-hour Rio layover for some paragliding, but I wondered what would it look like to the passengers when I tried to go through security with what could be mistaken for a parachute on my back? I knew I would seem out of place, but in the end, it proved to be worth the hassle.

Starting at the last week of April and through the month of May, I found myself with five Rio trips in a row. I had heard that some crew members were able to leave bags at the hotel when they flew the trip often, and I planned to do the same with my 36-pound orange paraglider for the month.

As luck would have it, I knew the co-pilot, Mike from our days working together out of Boston to Paris and enjoying the bike tour there. Rio flights have one captain and two co-pilots for the required crew rest break on flights over eight hours.

Mike told me that the captain was a jovial kind of guy who, it turns out, had flown hang gliders in California when he was younger. I couldn’t have asked for a better cockpit crew, and the flight attendants were friendly, if not curious about my layover plans with such a large backpack.

Going through security, I joked with a TSA agent that I just didn’t like the pillows and blankets at the hotel.

In the cockpit, I was relieved to see that the bag fit perfectly in a recess next to the relief co-pilot seat in which I would occupy for takeoff and landing; I could see this wouldn’t impact my co-workers in the least.

Safely at the hotel in Rio, arrangements were made to meet both the captain and Mike in the lobby after a two-hour nap at around noon. We picked up a cab to the paragliding and hang gliding landing zone at the end of São Conrado beach, and I paid the $30 for a one-month pass to fly there.Mike wanted to be at the top of the mountain for the launch and to see how the whole operation worked. He was tempted to go for a tandem flight, but I assured him that the conditions weren’t conducive for anything other than a “sled ride” down with little chance of finding lift.

Reaching the top of the mountain, there were at least six other local pilots who let me go to the front of the line while they waited for the afternoon thermals or at least the sea breeze to pick up enough to soar along a ridge. I was content, especially for my first flight, to take a 10 minute hop to the landing zone.

Just before I launched, Mike pointed out a paraglider that was having a bit of success staying up along a ridge just in front of the manicured grass landing field. But by the time I was ready to go, the pilot had landed.

The steep ramp had actually made the takeoff easier than I expected, and out front I attempted to circle in a small, weak thermal. I gave up after one turn and spent a moment taking in the view while flying to the beach. On the left, was Pedra Dos Dois Irmaos peak, visible from our hotel, and to the right was the massive Pedra da Gavea mountain. The sightseeing didn’t last very long as I knew things would get busy for the landing and I needed to snap just a few pictures lest anyone didn’t believe I managed to fly my own aircraft on a layover. It was mind boggling even for me.

After putting the camera away, I flew to the ridge Mike had pointed out, arriving just above the treetops. I figured I could see what lift was available there, since at any point the “runway” was just below the 200-foot hill if things didn’t work out. The instrument I fly with, called a vario, can quickly sense any climbs or areas of sink. It also shows the altitude as I was paralleling the ridge, which I made note was 70 meters.

My plan was to make one pass and if I haven’t lost too much altitude, I’d consider one more before giving up. On the next pass, I was at the same altitude. So I went for another, each one taking less than a minute. Pretty soon, it was apparent that I was gaining about five meters with each leg. Before I knew it, I was holding steady at two hundred meters. Finally, I had time to pull out the camera and share the view.

Before long, the pilots who had been waiting before launched and joined me. At the busiest, there were three other hang gliders and two paragliders, most of which were flying paying passengers. I was kicking myself that I had discouraged Mike from being one of those passengers. Fortunately, we would make up for it the next day.

Mike hitched a ride down to the LZ (landing zone) and enjoyed a beer with the captain while they watched me having all the fun. My goal soon became one hour, and that came and went. At an hour and twenty minutes, I felt my bladder might give out before the lift does. So I set an hour and a half as the new goal, which I managed to reach without wetting myself.

Mike and the captain understandably grew tired of watching me hover over a rock with a few frigates and a turkey vulture or two, and they weren’t fully recovered from the 10½-hour flight to Rio that morning, so they went back to the hotel. I landed, packed up my glider and chatted with some of the tandem pilots and their passengers before catching a ride to the hotel with one of the regular drivers at the mountain.

That night over dinner, we shared some of the pictures with two of the flight attendants and a Miami-based pilot named Dewey, who was itching to check out the launch the next day. Mike decided that since he wasn’t going to be flying Rio for the foreseeable future, he would take a flight with Max Kälin, a Swiss tandem pilot and instructor who does a fair share of the paragliding in Rio, and who helped me considerably with the ride logistics and advice on the best places to find lift depending on the wind direction.

The next morning, Mike, Dewey and I went to visit Max. We made plans to launch with as little time between us to hopefully join up with each other inflight. As we jumped in the truck to get a ride to the top, one of the passengers said, “Kent!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a Dallas based co-pilot and old friend named Glenn. Coincidently, he had been the pilot on my flight down to San Jose, Costa Rica, just a few months prior. Apparently I had done such a good job of convincing him that paragliding was the ultimate way to fly that he had to see it for himself during one of his layovers in Rio.

He too would be flying tandem, with the mindset that he may want to take lessons.


Glenn getting ready for his tandem while Kent shows Mike how the lines are arranged.

Once again, the weather didn’t look promising. The windsock was completely dead at the ramp and almost everyone was logging ten minute flights. It was no different for Glenn, and then me and finally Mike. While I managed to fly under Mike and Max, I was still about 200 feet below them for the entire flight since I launched first. Max gave Mike the controls and let him make a few turns before they set up for the landing.


Max gives Mike a lesson in flying a paraglider in Brazil.

Just 20 seconds after I touched down, Max and Mike settled in for a perfect touchdown, and I could see his smile as I gathered up my glider a few hundred feet away.

Sometimes we hear horror stories about the places we fly and the dangers, such as crime or even being run over by a bus. Every major city in the world has its issues and if we live our layovers in fear, rarely leaving our rooms, what is the point in having a job that offers the chance to see so many places?

More than just seeing these locations, it’s the chance to visit with the locals there that makes travel such a gift. Paragliding is the perfect reason to travel as you’re assured of meeting like-minded and fun people along the way.

If you want to try tandem paragliding in Rio, look up Max or Flavio (Altitude Parapente) respectively.

I’ve talked at length with both pilots and I’m amazed at the amount of experience they have. I would highly recommend either one of them.

And if you’re itching to learn to fly a paraglider, take a week or two off and fly with my instructor, Benoit Bruneau at Let’s Go Paragliding just north of New York City or Chris Santacroce at Superfly in Salt Lake City. And if you happen to live in Europe, where paragliding is far more common than in the U.S., well you can just about walk to your local paragliding shop and take lessons there.

Who knows, maybe I’ll join you in a thermal somewhere over Rio de Janeiro someday.

[Photo/Video credit: Kent Wien, Max Kalin, Mike Hurley, Dewey Gray]

Related: “Cockpit Chronicles: Fly Rio!

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Video Of The Day: Finding Fortaleza

Rio de Janeiro-based production company MOOV maintains Fortaleza is “one of the most beautiful cities in Brazil,” and in the video above we get to see it through their eyes – or, rather, their camera lenses. Located in Northeastern Brazil, Fortaleza is the state capital of Ceará, a city where nearly 2.3 million people reside. On the tourism front, the city is a major destination for Brazilians (and, increasingly, international travelers), who flock to the city’s urban beaches. But as you’ll see in the video above, Fortaleza is much more than just fun in the sun.

Whereaguay? First impressions Of Paraguay, South America’s Most Underrated Country

terereEver notice how die-hard travelers tend to compare places to other places? Like, constantly? It may be annoying, but it goes beyond mere aesthetics. It’s often a reference point; a way to describe not only the feel of a destination, but the spirit of its people.

I arrived in Paraguay (yes, you’ll need a map) at 4 a.m. yesterday. Despite having traveled much of South America over the past decade, I confess that until six weeks ago, the only things I knew about Paraguay were that it’s often confused with vacation hot-spot Uruguay, and that no one appears to go there.

The question of why Paraguay gets dissed by travelers is one our Gadling editor, Grant Martin, wanted me to explore. And while I’ve only been in the country for roughly 36 hours, I’ve already been asking myself the same thing. What on earth is keeping Paraguay from being the new Brazil? This place is amazing.

Paraguay is roughly the size of California and is sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. To the north lies Bolivia. The country is divided into departments, and the Rio Paraguay snakes up the central half of the country (its waist, if you will). The river has traditionally been crucial to economic trade and transportation, given the country’s monsoonal climate. Now, however, new roads are being created or paved, and it seems the era of the riverboat may eventually come to an end in Paraguay. Based upon my brief experiences traveling here, however, let’s just say the age of modern transportation hasn’t yet arrived. One sees many horse carts in the streets of Concepcion, besides cars (although scooters are the main form of transit).

Given its location, comparisons to parts of Brazil are inevitable. Paraguay is very flat, and has a similar sweltering climate and verdant tropical countryside that includes plantations and cattle ranches. The lively capital of Asuncion, with its flowering trees and crumbling colonial decadence bring to mind both Rio and Hanoi.

Many of the villages I passed during an 11-hour bus ride yesterday reminded me of Thailand, because of the late-night buzz of scooters and street food vendors. Every Paraguayan drinks bottomless quantities of yerba mate and tereré (cold mate tea, often spiked with medicinal herbs, above), more familiar to those who have spent time in Argentina. Yet the empanadas, a staple here, make that country’s version look woefully anemic.But that’s where the comparisons end. In the brief time I had to prepare for this trip, I repeatedly read that what makes Paraguay different are two key things: it’s South America’s only bilingual country (the second language is Guarani, which refers to its dominant, omnipresent indigenous culture), and the people are renown for their warmth, hospitality and generosity. This, I can already verify, yet it’s only part of what’s already charmed me about this oft-overlooked, yet complex country.

Paraguay, like all of South America, has a history of political turmoil and indigenous conflict. Originally a Spanish colony, in 2011 it celebrated its bicentennial as an independent nation. And despite the lack of vast natural resources found in neighboring Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina (not necessarily a bad thing, as you’ll learn in my forthcoming post on the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia), Paraguay gets by.

It’s allegedly the second poorest country in South America, after Bolivia (see where all those minerals get you?), but retains the strongest indigenous culture. Most of the populace has some mixed blood because the Spanish saw no reason to wipe out existing tribes to plunder natural resources that didn’t exist. Rather, they took many of the Guarani women as wives, and today Paraguay has a very identifiable mestizo culture, as well as strong folkloric beliefs and distinct indigenous crafts such as ao po’i lace and ceramics.
paraguay
Despite my initial enchantment, I believe it’s not only naive, but irresponsible for travelers (or writers) to think they can know a country or culture in just a few days, weeks or months. Perhaps we can never really understand if we’re not of it. But that shouldn’t stop us from learning about a place and developing informed opinions.

As travelers/tourists, we should ideally resist the urge to make snap judgments. Why, for example, do all of the many banks in Concepcion, the river port I’m now in, have casually armed guards out front? It’s like walking through an artillery; Paraguay is obviously very dangerous (for the record: it’s not). My assumption is that because Concepcion is the last town along the Rio Paraguay that’s “easily” accessible by paved road, it’s a critical point of commerce. The department is a crucial agricultural and cattle ranching region. Hence, the “don’t-fuck-with-us” posturing.

Semi-automatics aside, Concepcion also conjures for me romantic images of Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil. And Asuncion seems a glorious city of flowering trees, gardens and decaying colonials. There are street vendors hustling chipa (the staple bread made with corn flour and cheese), handcrafted jewelry, fruit, tereré and yuyos (medicinal herbs), but overall, it’s the tranquilo pa (Guarani for “it’s all good”) attitude and the warmth of the people that have got me hooked.

Ten days isn’t enough to know a country, but sometimes, it takes just 10 seconds to know if it’s won your heart. Paraguay has mine.

[Photo credits:terere, Flickr user julianboliche; horse, guard, Laurel Miller]

Exclusive Gadling Playlist: Tropical Beats And Rhythms Even If You’re Not On Spring Break

Once a month we put together an exclusive Gadling playlist – a little something to bring you sounds from around the world.

Every month we choose a theme paired with one of our #ontheroad Instagram locations and choose some of our favorite tracks, giving you a music-inspired playlist meant to inspire a little wanderlust.

Last week we hit up the island of Reunion and this week we’re in Cabo, and in celebration of getting a little sun and waves in around the time of spring break, we figured a tropical inspired playlist was just what we needed. We’re calling it “Tropical Beats and Rhythms Even If You’re Not on Spring Break,” because everyone could use a little warm weather inspired music, whether it’s vacation time or not. Enjoy!

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

  1. Lenda – Céu
  2. Tchon Di Massa Pé – Zeca Di Nha Reinalda, João Cirilio & Blick Tchutchy
  3. Boa Sorte – Vanessa da Mata
  4. Gumboots – Paul Simon
  5. La Camisa Negra – Juanes
  6. Karambol – Ziskakan
  7. Zouk La Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni – Kassava
  8. Parol – Baster
  9. Bring Me Your Cup – UB40
  10. 54-46 That’s My Number – Toots & Maytal
  11. Smoke on the Water – Senor Coconut
  12. Rhythym is Love – Keziah Jones
  13. Caxambu – Almir Guineto
  14. Pickney Gal – Desmond Dekker
  15. Warm Heart of Africa – The Very Best
  16. Can’t Stop Now – Major Lazer
  17. Sunset Tonight – Jordan T
  18. Cumbia Invasiva – Monareta
  19. Vampires (Afrolicious & Rob Garza Remix)- Thievery Corporation

Image: Alex Robertson Textor

Video: Amazon Ants Transform Into Life Raft

If you’re still haunted by the sight of spiders raining down on a Brazilian city, as we brought to your attention last month, this heartwarming nature video might be a palette-cleanser. Captured by the BBC, fire ants in the Amazon adapted to a flood by ganging together and turning themselves into a raft for their queen. Braving all manner of threats (speedboat on your left!), the colony clung to each other for dear life in the shape of a lily pad for the queen to glide down the river like Cleopatra. Add a Morgan Freeman voiceover and these little troopers could inspire the next Pixar hit.