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.