May 16, 2014
Gaggle Flying Rules the Roost In Roldanillo
Hopefully this blog will be an article published soon in the US Paragliding Magazine. If not, well, it's here!
The Eagles have landed in Colombia during the months of January and February 2014. Eagle Paragliding Tours, that is, led by US Paragliding Team Coach Rob Sporrer and his wife Marite, out of Santa Barbara, California; along with Brad Gunnuscio out of Utah. They were accompanied by some highly talented guides, including Brian Howell; 2013 USHPA PG Instructor of the Year Jesse Meyer; and US Paragliding Team Pilots Marty Divietti and Matt Beechinor. This is Eagle Paragliding's 4th year of leading winter tours down to Colombia, and this year the participants and guides really synced up and flew like a convocation of eagles! The Eagle tour guides were able to give personalized attention to each pilot, flying in small groups and helping individuals to set personal bests and accomplish many flying goals. All guides were also tandem pilots, and as part of the tour, participants could use tandem flights to accelerate their learning curve. Often there were two or three tandems a day out flying with the gaggle.
Yep, we're talking about Colombia, South America. It's warm down here while most of the USA is in the deep freeze covered in white stuff. Here, we fly in the mountains. We fly in the flat valleys. We fly when a few raindrops fall, and when the sun shines, and when the clouds dot the landscape like icebergs in the north sea. And mostly, we fly in gaggles. It's safer. We sink out less. We go further, and fly longer, and land together in places where we can pack up and head to the center of the nearest village for a refreshing drink.
From the east facing main launch above the town of Roldanillo (dominant winds in the southern hemisphere are from the east), the mountains flow both north and south up to 3,000 feet above the valley. Here the last vestiges of the great Andes spine begin fade into the sea. XC flights are possible in either direction on most days. However, the real challenge begins when the valleys heat up. As the mountains often overdevelop in the afternoon, the safer and smoother place to fly is out over the Valle del Cauca. Pilots must choose when to leave the safety of the house thermal and take their chances soaring over sugar cane fields, grapevines, and other lush green crops. But valley flying isn't as simple as it sounds, and having a gaggle of pilots to spread out to find lift makes sinking out less of a worry. A little bit less, anyway!
The milk run from Roldanillo is about a 30 km square around the valley. Launch on a grassy slope, and explore the mountains while waiting for the flats to turn on. Then cross the valley to the small town of Zarzal, which the guides like to call a thermal factory! From Zarzal, fly north to the village of La Victoria, and finally back across the valley to the little town La Union, tucked into a curve of the mountains. There is usually possible to land in the soccer stadium to the tune of friendly kids cheering us on.
The drive up to launch is entertaining, too, guided by Chipri in his custom-built yellow bus, beautifully hand painted inside and out by students from a local school. His unique horn is recognized by everyone in town and often blared to announce his passing. Retrieves in the valley are pretty simple as well (yay!). Main roads form a square around the valley, and jeep driver Flacco hunts down grounded pilots and gets them back to Chipri or to the town square. Pilots then can rehydrate with pitchers of fresh-squeezed juice, or fill up on rotisserie chicken while people-watching on the square. For those pilots who really decide to send it long, public buses are plentiful and it's usually easy to find connections back to La Union!
During the first week of the Eagle tour this year, there was a big competition going on in Roldanillo; the 2014 Colombia National Championship and FAI Open. This made launch very crowded and the number of wings in the air was staggering to some of the newer pilots. So the Eagle tour participants started adding streamers to their harnesses to be able to find each other in the air. By the middle of the week, the gaggle of flying streamers had become so popular that non-Eagle pilots were asking to use them. Even a few competition pilots, (it was rumored) started flying with us instead of competing!
The people of Colombia are super friendly, too. They are eager to show visitors that Colombia is now a safe, beautiful place to visit, and are happy to have pilots flying around in their skies. Often the first question a local asks is "How do you like our country?" or "How are the people here?", which of course I always answer by saying "La gente son muy amables!" meaning "Everyone is very friendly!"
Out of a month of flying, only 4 days were lost due to rainy weather…that's amazing! Also amazing are some of the flights by Eagle pilots during the tours, including XC distances of 60, 80, and 99 kilometers…including 80k on a tandem. Yep, and the tandem only landed after 80k because the passenger had to (ahem) use the facilities.
There are a lot of places left to explore in Colombia, and the 2015 Eagle tour may include a chance to do some mock competition flying, or even some Vol Biv. But one thing is certain: gaggles rule and next year there will be more Eagles out soaring together in Colombia!