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.

YouTube Video Of Owl-Kicking Paraglider Prompts Investigation

You’d think someone whose sport of choice is flying through the air would have respect for birds, but one paramotorist is catching heat after a video of him chasing and kicking an owl mid-air was uploaded to YouTube.

The man in the video doggedly pursued a Barn Owl in flight for more than seven minutes, kicking it several times as it flew over the landscape near Utah Lake. He then proceeded to brag about it, yelling, “I kicked an owl butt” in a taunting voice and asking, “Who’s the predator now?”

But federal and state wildlife officials aren’t smiling: since migratory birds are protected under federal law, officials are currently determining if the video warrants prosecution. They have a hunch the man in the video is Dell “Superdell” Schanze, a paramotorist who was arrested in 2011 after posting a video that showed him taking off from a historic monument in Oregon. I guess some people just never learn.

“I’ve gotten to know many pilots in the paragliding and powered paragliding community and I’ve found them to be some of the most considerate and conscientious fliers in aviation,” says our resident commercial and paragliding pilot, as well as “Cockpit Chronicles” columnist, Kent Wien. “But there’s always one, and I suppose every community has their own Dell ‘Superdell’ Shanze.”

The YouTube video has since been removed, but more than 50,000 people caught it during the four days it was online. Segments of it can be found in news reports online and on Facebook.

Outdoor Adaptive Sports Programs: Where To Find The Nation’s Best

adaptive skiingLike most of us, I didn’t fully realize the extent of the daily hassles and challenges faced by those who use a wheelchair, prosthetic, or other mobility aid until it became somewhat personal. I’m fortunate to have two people in my life who’ve been an enormous source of both education and inspiration, and I’m writing this piece because of them. A little bit of background is in order:

When I moved to Vail in 1995 to attend culinary school, I became friends with Darol Kubacz, a young Forest Service employee. Darol had broken his back in a motorcycle accident about 18 months prior; at the time of his injury, he was in the Army, working in Special Ops. He was already an experienced outdoorsman who enjoyed scuba diving, climbing, and hiking. Despite the physical challenges and fairly recent onset of his paralysis, he made a huge impression on me with his positive, non-defeatist attitude.

Darol’s job with the Forest Service entailed trail assessment for the handicapped, while in his personal life he’d already undertaken a number of adaptive sports, including the aforementioned activities he’d enjoyed prior to his injury. He’d also started alpine skiing (he broke his neck in a skiing accident in 2000, but fortunately sustained no additional physical or neurological damage).

Darol became my workout buddy, and he was the first friend I’d ever had who was in a chair. Through him, I learned a lot about what it means to live with a limitation. Mainly, he impressed upon me that, to a certain extent, it’s possible for humans to overcome physical limitations. I’m surprised he doesn’t have, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” carved into his chest.arm bikeToday, Darol works as a part-time adaptive hiking guide in Phoenix (he and his clients use off-road arm bikes),and is working on launching an adaptive paragliding program. He’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro –twice, summiting once– entirely under his own power, to raise awareness for his foundation, Freedom for Life. Following his ski accident, he has, he says, “Learned to embrace a more intimate experience with nature, that’s less about speed and adrenalin, and more about being in the moment.” Hence his passion for off-road bikes.

I met my friend Tony 12 years, ago, when I was living in Berkeley and working as a farmers market vendor. A loyal customer, Tony is also a documentary filmmaker and graphic designer. He’s quadriplegic, the result of a teenage diving accident. Tony has partial use of his arms, and until his accident, was a competitive surfer. Until a few years ago, however, he’d never been able to get back on a board due to some medical issues he was dealing with.

Today, a freakishly youthful 48, Tony is an avid surfer and skier (that’s him at Alpine Meadows, in the photo at the beginning of this story), thanks to several amazing adaptive sport programs. He says he’s in the best shape of his life, and his jones for salt water and snow matches that of any able-bodied enthusiast.

Living in the outdoor adventure mecca of Boulder as I do, I’m also in an epicenter of outdoor adaptive recreation programs. With my locale and both of these inspiring and incredible guys in mind, I wanted to provide a round-up of top adaptive sport centers across the country.
wake boarding
Adaptive Adventures
Based in Boulder, this is Darol’s preferred ski and summer program; he also co-produces a summer Moab Mania event for them. They offer alpine skiing, snowboarding, waterskiing, wake-boarding, kayaking, rafting, and cycling. Offers civilian, veterans, and kids programs.

Telluride Adaptive Sports Program
Darol and I both recommend this program (me, from living in Telluride and knowing some of the staff). TASP is very well-regarded, and offers summer and winter programs. This time of year there’s alpine, nordic, and backcountry skiing and snowboarding, snow shoeing, ice-climbing, Helitrax skiing, and snowmobiling. In summer, there’s horseback riding, hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, paddling, and camping.

Challenge Aspen
This prestigious adaptive ski and snowboard program based in Snowmass is for civilians with physical or cognitive disabilities. Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (C.A.M.O.) is for injured military; a new camp this year has been developed to help adaptive skiers learn more about competitive Paralympic training programs and interface with Paralymic coaches.
adaptive kayaking
High Fives Foundation
Tony is a huge fan of this Truckee, California, based non-profit founded by paralyzed former competitive skier Roy Tuscany. It’s dedicated to raising awareness and funding for “injured athletes that have suffered a life-altering injury while pursuing their dream in the winter action sports community.” High Fives also serves as a resource center for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and pilates, gyms, and adaptive sports and equipment.

WORLD T.E.A.M. Sports
Chartered in North Carolina and based in New York, Darol recommends this athletic organization that offers adaptive and able-bodied events in mountain biking, rafting, cycling, and more. They also offer teen challenges.

They Will Surf Again
Tony has hit the waves with this Los Angeles-based program offered by the non-profit, Life Rolls On (LRO). Founded by quadriplegic, former competitive surfer Jesse Billauer, LRO raises awareness and funds for spinal cord injury (SCI) research, and offers bi-coastal adaptive surfing, skate, and snowboarding programs.

AccesSurf Hawaii
Honolulu-based adaptive surfing and other recreational water sport programs.
adaptive climbing
Wheels 2 Water
Tony recommends this adaptive surf and scuba diving non-profit in his hometown of Huntington Beach, California.

Wheels Up Pilots
This research and instructional paragliding program in Santa Barbara is highly recommended by Darol, who is about to become one of the first two U.S.-certified adaptive paragliding pilots. Open to civilians and veterans.

Freedom for Life Off-road Arm Biking
For guided hikes in the Phoenix area, contact Darol Kubacz, darol@fflfoundation.org.

[Photo credits: adaptive skier, Tony Schmiesing; all others, Adaptive Adventures]

Banos: Ecuador’s Top Adventure Destination

amazon jungle If you’re the type of traveler who loves extreme adventure and being active, you’ll love Baños, Ecuador. Located about three hours south of Quito, Baños is a small but lively town surrounded by mountains and lush greenery. There are dozens of tour agencies lining the streets, although I’d recommend using a highly reputable company like Geotours or Rainforestur. Some of the adventures you’ll be able to partake in include:

Taking A Trip Into The Amazon Jungle

From Baños, you’ll be able to do one day or multiple day excursions into the Amazon Jungle. The tours usually begin with a trip to a monkey sanctuary. Next, you’ll visit an indigenous community to get your face painted with fruit, drink Chicha, shoot dart guns and learn about the culture. Jungle hikes, canoe rides, waterfall swims and night treks encompass the rest of the tour. You’ll see unique plants, like the Devil’s Penis, which squirts a clear liquid used to enlarge the manhood of indigenous men, as well as wildlife like anacondas, tree frogs, exotic birds and enormous spiders.waterfall Biking The “Waterfalls Route”

I recommend getting your bike from Caroline’s Tours on Martinez Street. You can get a basic bike all day for $5, or upgrade to the more comfortable one for $10. She’ll give you a map, and a fanny pack filled with pumps, locks and spare tubes. The “Waterfalls Route” takes about two hours, including stops at viewpoints and hikes to the falls. You’ll see:

  • Agoyan- At 200 feet, it’s the highest waterfall in the Ecuadorian Andes.
  • Manto de la Novia- Literally meaning “the bride’s veil,” this waterfall has a distinct white color, and is 131 feet high.
  • Pailon del Diablo (shown above)- This is the second biggest waterfall in Ecuador, and is thought to be the most interesting one on the route.
  • Machay- This beautiful waterfall includes a challenging hike to get to and from its viewpoint. It’s popular for swimming, so bring your bathing suit.

You can take the bus back to Baños for $1 from Machay.

Going Canyoning

If you enjoy jumping from rock to rock and repelling down gorges, Baños offers canyoning excursions each day. You’ll descend numerous waterfalls, some extremely steep, along the Rio Blanco, while immersing yourself in the lush cloud forest. Your adrenaline will be pumping, as at times you’ll be dropping yourself 148 feet.

banos Hiking To Various Viewpoints

In Baños, there are two main viewpoint hikes: Bellavista and The Virgin. They’re both very straightforward, so don’t worry about getting lost. Bellavista takes you to a giant cross overlooking the city, and you’ll be able to continue the hike on the Runtun trail to see small villages and the Tungurahua Volcano. Just be sure to carry rocks, as dogs from the villages can get nasty. The trek to The Virgin takes you up hundreds of steps to an enormous Virgin Mary statue, for an all-encompassing look of Baños.

Rafting On The Pastaza River

Baños is a great place to enjoy white-water rafting. Depending on water levels that day, rapids can vary from class two to five. The rivers in Ecuador are warm and tropical, and you’ll even get the chance to journey through the lush flora and fauna of the Amazon Jungle.

canopy Zip Lining And Bungee Jumping

The city is well known for its aerial adventures, like zip lining/canopy and bungee jumping. For the zip line, you’ll be strapped to a high wire, and will fly above the cloud forest. Moreover, bungee jumping is $20 or less, and allows you to jump off a bridge and swing like a pendulum. No need to book in advance, as you’ll be able to get off your bike and jump along the “Waterfall Route.”

Hiking And Biking Tungurahua Volcano

A hiking and biking excursion on this 16,480-foot active volcano is my top pick for the adventurous in Baños. I only recommend doing this thrilling excursion if it’s a clear day out, as the views awarded from this volcano are priceless. The day begins at 9:00 a.m., when a van will take you to the starting point. Then, you’ll hike up three hours to the refugio for excellent views of surrounding mountains, valleys and rivers, before cycling downhill at rapid speed. Once you get to the bottom, you’ll also bike your way back to Baños.

guinea pig Eating Guinea Pig For A Cheap Price

Called cuy, eating this delicacy is usually an expensive culinary adventure. However, if you walk around near the main square, you’ll be able to find street food vendors cooking it for an affordable price. For example, I was able to buy a single serving with potatoes and vegetables for $3.50. While eating guinea pig may sound scary, it tastes a lot like greasy, fatty chicken.

Paragliding

Paragliding, which involves soaring through the air via a parachute, is a popular activity in Baños. Additionally, it’s a great way to take in views of the entire region. Most paragliding tours take off from Niton Mountain, and you’ll see mountains, volcanoes and rivers as you soar through the air like a bird.