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.

Cockpit Chronicles: How I Fell In Love With An Airplane (Video)

The MD-80 just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the airline world. It just can’t seem to get any respect. But for those who really get to know the airplane, it offers some features, and admittedly a number of quirks, that has made it near and dear to many pilots. Against all odds, this Boeing pilot has fallen in love with the Mad Dog.

Passengers either love the airplane or hate it. And much of those feelings depend on where you’re sitting. A perch up in first class offers one of the quietest cabins in the air. Conversely, finding yourself in the back row between the engines and across from the lav would only be appealing to the truest aviation geek who somehow enjoys the noise.

Compared to a Boeing, there are so many sounds, levers and quirky features in the cockpit of an MD-80 that I can only do justice by video. So on my last week of flying the airplane back in February, I decided to document a few of the features that have made me fall in love with the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or the “Super 80″ as we call it.

For all the quirks, as I mention in the video, it has an enviable safety record.

But let’s face it; the reason I’ll miss the MD-80 the most might have more to do with which seat I sat in. Bumping back from captain to co-pilot as these airplanes are retired means that I won’t find myself taxiing around La Guardia or Chicago, or any place for that matter as the captain does all the taxiing.

And the co-pilots I flew with were the hardest working aviators at the company. I will absolutely miss them as some became good friends along the way.

You never know, with the flood of A319s, A321s and new Boeing 737-800 and -900s coming at my company, I could be back in the Super 80 left seat soon, or in one of those shiny new jets. Either way, I’m glad I had the opportunity to fly the airplane before it’s gone.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?” and “A Captain No More.”

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: The iPad Flight Bag Is Finally Here (Video)

The long awaited, previously announced iPad Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) has finally been approved for most of our airplanes at the company. In fact, we’re the first U.S. airline to receive FAA approval for the use of the iPad as a replacement for all of our paper Jeppesen approach plates.

The process started in 2007 when we were allowed to use laptops to hold our company manuals. This meant we could leave three to four manuals at home that weighed about ten pounds. When the iPad came on the scene, we were allowed to use it as an alternative to the laptop. That left only our “Jepps,” two to three large manuals that weighed even more than the company books, for us to lug around.

Some airlines went a different route, investing in a built-in laptop solution called a Class II EFB that included Jepp support. This 2009 cockpit video by Gadling shows how Virgin America deployed that solution.

Later, our company worked with Jeppesen and the FAA to offer an iPad that would be provided to every pilot and a RAM mount that stays in the aircraft. In addition, the company also provided us with a Hypermac backup battery that’s capable of extending the life of the iPad for an additional 24 hours.

Since both pilots will be carrying an iPad, coupled with the extended batteries, the FAA feels this is as redundant as the regular manuals.

A few weeks ago we saw our first mounts in our MD-80, so I felt a video tour might explain how the setup works and just what it replaces.

So far American has approval for the 777, 737, MD-80 and is just awaiting approval for the 757/767 fleet. Hopefully, this will be just in time for my return to that airplane, as once you use this setup, you won’t want to go back to the paper.

To get that approval, American had to have the iPad tested in a hypobaric chamber to simulate how the device would handle during a rapid decompression. They also had to arrange for mount testing with the FAA, which is ironic since our manuals weigh far more than the iPad and aren’t secured in place. Many takeoffs have resulted in a book or two sliding off the side table and onto the floor.

Next up on the list are the reams of dot matrix printed paperwork we take with us on the flights that I covered in a previous video. Once that is accomplished, and weather is incorporated into the iPad, we can finally claim to be flying in the seemingly mythical “paperless cockpit” that has long been the goal since sometime just after the Wright Brothers took to the air and discovered how difficult it was to fold up their maps in the open cockpit.

[Photo/Video credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Cockpit Chronicles: Paper Makes an Airplane Fly”

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: A Captain No More

Occasionally, pilots seek out a better ride by climbing a few thousand feet. Sacrificing a bit of fuel to climb earlier than scheduled often makes sense as long as there’s less turbulence at the new altitude. But it’s frustrating to discover that the premature climb didn’t help and then find yourself headed back to where you started.

Discontinuing a takeoff roll or performing a missed approach – or even a mechanical at the gate – are all annoying for pilots. But nothing, perhaps short of being laid off, is more frustrating than upgrading to captain and then being bumped back to a co-pilot position.

And that’s where I find myself today. After enjoying eleven months on the MD-80 in the left seat, the company has noticed that there are too many captains in New York on this airplane. So they’re displacing eight of us back to our choice of co-pilot positions, and they’ve announced intentions to bump another group back in April and May.

Once I knew it was inevitable, I could give my displacement preference – a line of text saved in a computer system for just this kind of action by the company – some more thought. Initially, I had planned to fly the 777 as a co-pilot, an airplane that I flew briefly in 2005. But after looking over the various destinations, schedules and the seniority (or lack thereof) my choice came down to three:777 International: While there are only four destinations on our largest airplane from New York – London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires – they were all exceptional places to see. But even as a co-pilot, the 777 was a senior airplane, meaning I would likely be on reserve just as I was as a junior MD-80 captain. Reserve means that you don’t have much say in your schedule and typically fly when needed, which is often less hours than a full month. This may sound nice, and it can be if you’re working around the house or, say, blogging on the side, but it limits the flexibility in this job. It’s hard to string a bunch of days off in a row to travel, for instance.

767 International: Going back to what I did before the El Jefe position seems like a let down. But at just 36% down the seniority list, I would be able to fly to some of my favorite places in Europe, the Caribbean and Rio. The hourly pay is a little less than the 777, but could be made up by flying full schedule. And as a side bonus, many of my captain and flight attendant friends are still flying there.

737 Domestic: One of the happiest times of my career was 14 years ago when I first flew the brand new (to our company, at least) 737-800 and snagged trans-cons to Seattle, where most of my family still lives. Today in New York, there’s a one-leg-out, layover for 30 hours and one-leg-back trip I could easily hold since I’d be number one on the seniority list there. But what if that trip switched to the 757 in the future? There weren’t any other trips I was tempted to fly and it would be a larger pay cut. It also felt like I’d be taking a giant step backwards.


Goodbye Grand Canyon. Hello again, North Atlantic.

So in the end, I elected to go back to the 767, flying internationally to Europe and Rio. We’re adding a new destination, Dublin, in April and I’m excited to fly there.

Rumors are always flying (no pun) around the company, and the word is that the MD-80 will likely be leaving New York before any other base, possibly by the end of this year. So I doubt I’ll get the chance to fly it again, but I will always have a soft spot for the airplane that introduced me to the left seat at this company.

I suspect we may have a few light bumps in the ride going forward, but with the announced aircraft orders, it will hopefully smooth out soon. Perhaps I’ll be writing about an Airbus upgrade in the future – an airplane I’ve always wanted to fly and never thought I’d get the chance.

Through video over the next two posts, I’ll explain just what little features I grew to love in the MD-80, plus how one feature has changed our job. Stay tuned.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: A Landing Fit For A King

Harriet Baskas from StuckatTheAirport.com asked a few of us to identify the “scariest airports” as seen through the eyes of pilots. I gave her a list of “challenging” airports instead. I told her about New York’s LaGuardia and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan airports but I wondered if I should have mentioned Eek or Nightmute, two of my personal favorites from flying in Alaska, that attract only a few local travelers.

In the end, LaGuardia, Reagan and Orange County, in Santa Ana, California, made the cut in her article. I couldn’t really disagree with the choices. All three are short runways and each one has at least one unique departure or arrival procedure that requires a bit of piloting skill.

But do pilots worry, or get scared when flying into these places? I haven’t seen any evidence to support that. Do we feel some pressure? Sure.

A recent LaGuardia landing is a good example. Since finishing my initial operating experience (IOE) as a new captain on the MD-80, I hadn’t flown into LaGuardia for over a month. I managed to get two or three landings there with the instructor giving me the IOE training, but most of my subsequent trips had been out of Newark, another airport that’s part of my home base.

Finally, after finishing a three-day trip with layovers in Cleveland and Albuquerque, I’d get my first landing back at the USS LaGuardia. We joke about its short length, but it really isn’t much worse than the shortest runway in Boston, Chicago or San Diego. And as a co-pilot, I had flown into LGA many times. So why the pressure?

It might come as a surprise to some, but most pilots don’t constantly think about the responsibility that comes with flying a planeload of passengers while they’re flying. I suppose it’s because, in a selfish way, a passenger’s safety is no more important than my own, and this tends to be enough to ensure that the airplane and its occupants are flown in a safe way.

But I do have one recurring thought that goes through my mind during the more challenging times. Because of the hundreds of accident reports we’ve read that never fail to leave an impression, a little voice in my head can often be heard critiquing every decision or action.

And especially when things begin to go wrong on a flight, either mechanically, or because of weather or poor decision-making, that little voice in your head begins to craft your own accident report. And when you start hearing excerpts in your head, such as “captain elected to take off from the shorter, ice-covered runway to save time as the flight had been delayed” you tend to step back and re-think your decisions.

During my first LaGuardia landing as a captain, these type of thoughts were going through my head. Nothing was out of the ordinary – the weather was clear and while it was dark, the visibility was excellent.

But this time, it wasn’t an NTSB accident report that I was hearing; it was a newspaper headline because that night I had royalty aboard the flight.Jerry Lewis was flying in seat 2F. I could already hear not only the accident report, but the newspaper headlines. “The King of Comedy, involved in airline accident – new captain making his first landing into short New York runway.”

A double-blink and a glance over at my co-pilot, Mark, quickly brought me back into the present situation. I had briefed Mark on the turn-off point I intended to use, the approach we’d be flying, and the final flaps we’d select (all of them, or 40 degrees). In my mind the touchdown point was visualized, and we were now slowed to our approach speed. Really, what could go wrong?

“Lewis, who was returning from a performance in Las Vegas, had connected in Chicago for the doomed flight back to LaGuardia.”

Oh, stop it. This is just another landing. OK, so yes, there was a bit of a crosswind at 14 knots, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

“50, 40, 30, 20, 10 …” The electronic radio altimeter called out as we crossed over from water to runway, punctuated by a nice ‘thunk.’ It wasn’t a roll-it-on-greaser, but the landing was on speed and right at the touchdown point at about 1,000 feet down the 7,000-foot runway, leaving more than a mile to slow down smoothly.

After the flight, I smiled at how easy it was to think up dreadful headlines on the approach, which was especially ironic, since I struggle to put a title on my “Cockpit Chronicles” posts for Gadling.

As we were finishing up the parking checklist, Mr. Lewis poked his head inside the door and said, “Thanks for the great flight, guys.”

Some landings you’ll never forget, and this was just one of them.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: Kent’s favorite and least favorite runways.

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain on the MD-80 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.