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.

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk – Thailand Part 6: Swordfights and Elephants

Travel Talk Thailand - Swordfights and Elephants

Gadling TV’s Travel Talk, episode 36 – Click above to watch video after the jump

Travel Talk is back! After our fall hiatus we are excited to bring you our greatest adventure yet: Thailand.

From the vibrant heart of Bangkok to the remote countryside, we traveled by foot, car, boat, motorbike, ox cart and elephant to savor the the splendor of ancient temples, the energy of the muay thai ring, the serenity of rural life, and every single spicy bite of Thai cuisine. We’ll be bringing it all to you in the coming weeks as part of our special 12-part feature: Travel Talk Thailand.

As we venture further from the bustle of Bangkok, we get a chance to be the first westerners to visit a Thai martial art and dance school, taking swordfighting lessons from the Thai National Champion. Then we learn how to tame, wash and ride giants.

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.


Subscribe via iTunes:
[iTunes] Subscribe to the Show directly in iTunes (M4V).
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Hosts: Stephen Greenwood & Aaron Murphy-Crews
Special guest: Joom!
Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Stephen Greenwood & Aaron Murphy-Crews
Special thanks: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Trikaya Tours

Travel Talk took Thailand by storm on invitation from the Tourism Authority of Thailand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Aaron & Stephen were free to openly share all adventures that they embarked upon.

Photo of the day (11.11.10)


At first glance, I thought this photo was an aerial view of the sea with the gorgeous, saturated aqua green color, looking down from the clouds. Then I saw the tiny airplane silhouettes and realized it was looking *up* at 3,700 feet. Flickr user StefanTrego soared above upstate New York in an ASK-21 glider plane (which apparently has semi-reclining seats, pretty comfy for a tiny plane) with Harris Hills Soaring Club and has this shot to prove it. Certainly makes flying lessons look tempting for views and perspectives like this.

Have you ever taken flying lessons or seen the world from far above? Send your photos to our Flickr Pool and it could be our next Photo of the Day.

Girls’ getaway at The Osprey offers more than the norm

Ladies, give yourselves a break this winter. As you plan your next girls getaway, keep The Osprey at Beaver Creek in mind. This RockResort is the closest hotel to a chairlift in North America, and its post-New Year escape package is sure to put you in a room. From January 6 – 9, 2010, the ReTreat Yourself package combines skiing and snowboarding (guided by pro athletes) and yoga with Beaver Creek instructors – all with the goal of building a little girl power.

So, recharge yourself once the anxiety of the holiday season is behind you with three nights at The Osprey, daily skiing and snowboarding lessons by pros Megan Pischke-Porcheron (snowboarder), Barrett Christy-Cummins (snowboarder) and Kasha Rigby (skier). Then, spend several sessions calming your spirit with Forrest Yoga teacher Amy Baker, balancing the excitement of the slopes with the pursuit of relaxation. Life coach Linda Kennoy is on hand to conduct sessions on Manifesting Your True Personal Power, Fate and Destiny and Energy Fields, Magic and Soul Mates (well, the other stuff sounds pretty cool). The package also includes daily breakfast and lunch, mini spa treatments and a consultation with a skin esthetician.

At $1,428.32, this is a bargain, especially since all resort fees and taxes are included (except lift tickets, which are available at a discounted rate.

No Wrong Turns: How to Surf, by a Wannabe Surfer

I believe the time people put in working, running errands, going to the gym and all the other daily stuff we feel we have to do starts to take its toll on how we live and think. This is a big reason why Tom and I decided to pack up and leave for a little while…to put things in perspective, do a bit of work on the road and to surf (ok…learn to surf for me).

My surfing experience is limited to three times…once in New Zealand, once in Australia and one time in Costa Rica where an encounter with a jellyfish put my surfing attempts on hold. But now, since we have stopped in the Baja and there are some good learning beaches, I have decided to dedicate a few months to surfing, though the extent of my abilities so far is to stand up on my board. I’m working on it.

A few things beginner surfers need to know and remember: it is not as easy as it looks. No matter how athletic you are, expect to fall over and over and over again; practice makes perfect. Coordination, decent physical fitness and sheer determination (stubbornness…call it what you will) to get back up and keep trying are ideal traits if you want to learn how to surf.

Get the right gear

Extreme beginners should rent a foam long board. These range from 9 to 10 feet long and are wider than most surfboards, which provide more stability allowing more opportunity for “newbies” to pull themselves up. Make sure your board has a leash to prevent it from getting away from you or from maiming some poor innocent bystander — drawing blood isn’t a good way to make friends.

You are going to be out there for a while so a wetsuit is vital. Keeping warm while you are battling the waves helps you focus on learning to surf instead of wondering why you can’t feel your feet.

Figure out your lead foot

Your lead foot is the foot that feels most comfortable in front when you are standing on the board. If you snowboard or skateboard you won’t have any trouble figuring out which foot feels more natural as your lead foot; if you have no clue ask for assistance at the surf shop. Or have a friend stand behind you and, when you are not ready, give you a little push…whatever leg comes out first to prevent you from falling is your lead foot. “Regular” stance is left foot front, while riding “goofy” refers to those who prefer their right foot forward. If you still cannot figure it out you just have to get out there and see what feels best to you.

Take a Lesson

From my meager experience it is valuable to either take a lesson or have a seasoned surfer walk you through the motions of surfing on the beach. Walking into the ocean without any idea of what you are supposed to do is a waste of your time and the surfboard rental fee.

How to stand up on your board

(Explaining this definitely makes it sounds much easier than it is.)

  1. Lie down in the center of your board with your feet just hanging over the tail end and your head facing the top (the “nose”) of the board.
  2. Grip the “rails” (the sides) of the board and push yourself into a “push up” position and drag one knee through your arms so you are in a crouching-lunge position.
  3. Use your front foot and push yourself up to stand.
  4. Try and stand with your feet about hip distance apart with your lead foot in the middle and you back foot closer to the tail end of the board.
  5. The most important thing you can do to keep your balance is to try and keep your feet around the center of the board.

Walk through these steps a few times on the beach before hitting the waves. After a couple run-throughs, pick up your board, strap on your leash, imagine yourself catching a wave and get out there. Though I would never call myself a “surfer,” in the past few weeks I have managed to stand up on my board. I am definitely not consistent but with a bit more practice I can only get better. I should warn you: once you start to get the hang of surfing it’s hard to think about anything else but getting back in the water. Oh yeah and one more tip from this wannabe surfer: keep your mouth shut when you wipeout.