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.

Ask Gadling: You left something on the airplane

It’s not a good feeling, walking toward baggage claim or a connecting flight, and realizing you forgot an item on the plane. Especially if it’s something valuable, like a brand-new digital camera (not that that happened to me). Okay, it did. I flew Varig into Sao Paulo, and deplaned to catch a connection to Rio. I was halfway to the gate when I realized the camera was missing. I’d removed it from my carry-on to review my pictures mid-flight, and, because I was cracked out on Xanax to quell my aviophobia, forgotten to tuck it back into my bag.

Since I don’t speak Portuguese, it was difficult to explain to airport personnel what had happened, and ask if I could retrieve said camera. I also had a flight to catch, so time was of the essence. I never imagined I would actually be allowed to re-board, due to security measures. Here’s the scary part: the Varig personnel just waved me back onto the empty plane, and let me rip my row apart. I found the camera, made my Rio flight, and vowed never to Xanax and unpack again.

My being allowed back on a plane-unattended, no less-was a freak occurrence. Says flight attendant/Gadling contributor Heather Poole, “Most gate agents/airline personnel can’t help, unless you’ve JUST walked off the flight.”

What to do if you’ve left an item on the plane after you’ve walked away from the gate

Immediately check with the airline’s “airport/terminal lost and found”; that’s where most stuff ends up. Poole says that a passenger’s lost fake tooth once made its way to lost and found.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

If the item doesn’t turn up at lost and found at your destination airport, call the airline and ask where the airplane flew to next. Explains Poole, “There’s a chance it won’t be discovered until the next leg. An airline employee might also have picked it up, and will return it personally, or leave it at your hotel.” Poole herself did this with a $500 check she found inside a book left onboard (can you say “good karma?”).

Realize that policies will vary depending upon the carrier, type of aircraft, and where you happen to be, destination-wise.

Try not to appear frantic or act demanding. You don’t want to arouse suspicions, or piss anyone off. Just calmly state the problem, while making it clear the item is of value.

If you don’t speak the language, hopefully you have a phrasebook handy. I keep a list of emergency phrases to cover my butt in situations like this, so I have them at my immediate disposal. I write them on the inside cover of my phrase book. Lonely Planet also has excellent phrasebooks that contain sentences like “Help, I’ve lost my….” Sign language, as I discovered in Brazil, also works well in a left-item scenario.

Leave your name and contact information, as well as where you’ll be during your visit (if this pertains) with lost and found personnel, or any gate agents/airline personnel you personally speak to. Also get the name and phone number of the person you speak to at lost and found, so you can follow-up, if necessary.

How can I minimize the chances of leaving an item on the plane, or losing it permanently?

  • Unpacking your carry-on, or fiddling with devices while under the influence is a recipe for lost valuables. If you’re flying solo, tape a Post-it note to the seat back in front of you, reminding yourself to to collect everything before deplaning. Sure, you’ll look like an anal-retentive freak. But who cares, as long as you leave with all of your belongings?
  • Don’t stuff valuables in the seat back pocket, especially if under the influence. I always try to keep everything contained to my carry-on, which I stow beneath the seat in front of me. If you normally stash in overhead, keep a compact, reusable shopping bag on you (some have small clips so you can attach to your belt loop). You can put whatever you might need in-flight inside it, thus minimizing the chances of items going astray or falling into the maw of the seat back pocket.
  • Always ID tag carry-on valuables like cell phones, iPod’s, cameras, etc.. I use stick-on address labels; if you don’t want the whole world to know where you live, just put a cell phone number and email.
  • Even if you didn’t unpack anything in-flight, do a sweep of your seat and floor before deplaning. I’ve had items fall out of not-fully zipped, or elasticized pockets on my carry-on.

Lost and found contact numbers for major U.S. carriers

While researching this piece, I quickly discovered that many airlines don’t have a general number for lost and found. Most require you to fill out an online form, or report missing items in person at the destination airport.

United: 1-800-221-6903.

American Airlines: If I may put my two cents in (and I will), AA has the most idiotic lost and found/customer service policy. There is no general number, so you must “call the Lost and Found office of the specific airport to or from which you were traveling.” Which is awesome, because none of these offices are open 24 hours. When I called the Delayed Baggage number to explain who I was and what I was writing about, and if they could provide me with a general number to assist readers, I was told, “You can send a written letter to customer relations.” Thanks, AA. You rock.

Delta: Click here to report your missing item.

Continental: Click here to report your missing item.

Southwest: Report missing item in person within four hours at your destination.

Jet Blue: “Articles found onboard an aircraft will be placed in the JetBlue lost and found area of the destination city. You may call the JetBlue Baggage Service office at the airport to inquire about your lost item.”

Alaska: 1-800-25-7522, say “More options,” then “Baggage information.”

Frontier: Click here to report your missing item.

Virgin America: Contact one of these lost and found offices.

If you leave any item at any TSA security check, call 1-866-289-9673.

[Photo credits: electronics, Flickr user Burnt Pixel; cat, Flickr user dulcenea]

Cash and Treasures: Digging for gems in Brazil

The last two weeks of The Travel Channel’s Cash and Treasures on Wednesday night haven’t included kids at the dig sites, a quality I was impressed by early on. Still, I continue to be hooked into this show. This week, I stuck around for the back to back episodes because host Kristin Gum headed out of the United States for points south in what worked as a double feature. Normally, the first half hour show satisfies me. The episode right after the first usually has a totally different theme.

Episodes: Digging for aquamarines, morganites and more.

What are they? Gems that can be worth beau coups bucks. Aquamarines range from dark green to a light blue, like clear water. Morganites are light pinkish. Gum found an aquamarine worth $3,000 and a morganite worth $1,481, once they were cut and polished.

Location: In the mountains and hills of Southeastern Brazil before the jaunt to Rio de Janeiro for the cutting and polishing. The first episode was shot in Governardor Valadares in the state of Minas Gerais at the Jaco Mine. The second episode was at the Rio Doce Mine near Rio Doce.

Getting to the Jaco Mine involved first taking a train and then a jeep on an unpaved road with 32 switchbacks. The bonus of the effort, besides the gems, was the gorgeous scenery. Gum was given mining tips by the mine’s owner and his son. The snaking tunnel of the mines where the walls shimmered turned up nothing, but once Gum sifted through the tailings using a large screen, she found several aquamarines. One of them was large piece that was turned into the $3,000 beauty. The others were the type you’d put in a collection and were not considered valuable.

Even though finding an aquamarine most probably will happen at the Jaco Mine, as the son said about looking for gems, “It’s gotta be hard to be good.” You’re also not guaranteed to find a valuable one like Gum did. There’s a reason why quality gems are expensive.

The Rio Doce Mine is owned by Jerry Call, an American who has mining and gems in his blood. His sister owns a mine in North Carolina with the same name. [see Web site] Gum unearthed the morganite in Call’s mine.

Even if you don’t find terrific quality gems, the variety of what can be found in Brazil is astounding. Sixty-five percent of the worlds’ gems come from here. If I heard right, 100% of the different types of gems are here.

During her digs, Gum also found tourmaline and assorted other rocks and minerals like feldspar, mica and quartz.. If you want to go mining in Brazil, the Cash and Treasure’s Web site has a link to Chang Express, a travel agent that the show recommends.

Because the focus of the show is more on what you can mine than the culture of the country where the episodes take place, Brazil wasn’t presented much more than a miner’s delight. There was drinking juice out of a whole coconut, soccer playing and eating various meat dishes that Gum found divine.

Cost of mining: $100 per wheelbarrow

Going to Brazil for carnival or cosmetic surgery?

What better way to hide that you are going to get your physical imperfections perfected than to say you are off to Brazil for the Carnival! A nip and tuck here and there, some suction down and under, followed by some raucous dancing, drinking, and bronzing on the beach will make you a new person and everyone will think it was your holiday! That’s the main pitch of an ever growing wave of surgery tourism in South America, with Brazil being the center of it all.

Brazil has long been the cosmetic surgery capital of the world, providing easy, not to mention cheap, access to qualified cosmetic surgeons. Brazilians have no shame touching up their bodies so they can flaunt their “dental floss” thongs. Prime example is Brazilian carnival star and supermodel Angela Bismarchi who plans to dance at this year’s Rio carnival (2-6 February) almost nude in front of a 300-person drum group after her 42nd (!!!) plastic surgery. Nylon wires will be implanted in her eyes to make them look Asian so they accentuate the theme of her parade team that will celebrate the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil.

I wasn’t surprised to read that Brazil is an image-mad country where the pressure to look hot is so high, even the poor get surgical enhancements on an installment; it’s an added bonus that Brazilian butt and belly surgeons are amongst the best in the world. According to an article in the Guardian: Exact figures are hard to come by, [but] it’s known that Americans spent around $12.4bn (£6.5bn) on plastic surgery in 2005, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; they say Brazil is not far behind.

So whether you want to look oriental, or scrape off some flab and not be too obvious about it, there is definitely a cosmetic surgery tourism package for you. Frommers has a decent round-up of your options, check them out here.