Paragliding Paradise 

Brazil hosts World Cup of human flight

GOVERNADOR VALADARES, Brazil — This low-key city of a quarter million people along the silty Doce River is famous for one thing: sending its native sons and daughters abroad in search of work and a better life in places like Danbury, Conn. and Madrid.

But in certain international circles, Valadares is much better known as a place to jump off mountains, preferably with a hang glider or paraglider attached. It bills itself as World Capital of Free Flight, which is certainly an exaggeration, but last week Valadares did welcome 120 polyglot pilots from Russia to Venezuela to Alaska to round one of the Paragliding World Cup.

On the five mornings that the uncooperative weather allowed, pilots headed by bus to the flattened top of Ibituruna Peak, the mountain that looms over downtown from across the river, and harnessed themselves to high-tech wings that look like banana-peel-shaped parachutes. Toting GPS equipment, emergency beacons and variometers to determine their rate of rise or fall, the pilots literally ran off a cliff, then attempted to fly through multiple turnpoints and arrive at a finish line somewhere between 25 and 40 miles away.

It is more obsession than sport.

“To me, this is true aviation,” said Jack Brown, who in his only slightly more grounded real life pilots 737s for Alaska Airlines. “When I discovered paragliding, I discovered true flying. It’s just you and the elements and the birds and the thermals.”

Thermals are the columns of hot air that rise from the ground, providing the primary means the pilots have to climb before gliding down to the next turnpoint. Finding them, however, is the trick: “It’s like white-water kayaking, except you can’t see the rapids,” said Bill Hughes, an American pilot (and former kayaker) who tied for 14th in the competition.

The thermals aren’t totally invisible. Pilots depend on clouds that can signal the top of a thermal, and ground features that signal the bottom. They must also be amateur ornithologists.

Many paragliding regions have their own thermal-loving birds—in Valadares, it’s a black vulture called the urubu. Pilots look for them circling lazily with wings outstretched, then zoom over to join them. They’re a friendly bunch, taking in a stride what must look like a flock of multi-colored behemoth parrots circling well beyond their flight range. Some birds in other paragliding spots have been known to attack.

One of the quirkiest aspects of competitive paragliding is that the daily routes, or “tasks,” are set up so that the majority of fliers don’t make it to the finish, meaning they land ... wherever.

“You end up in somebody’s backyard,” Hughes said. “They’ll come out and bring you drinks, take you out to the road.” A few years ago in Mexico, he landed in a school playground, and was rushed by kids who may or may not have asked their teachers to be excused from class. “It was like I was a rock star,” he said. Less frequently, pilots tell stories of being chased off the land by gun-toting ranchers and peeved llamas.

This year’s cup has new rules, giving more hope to those who are either not well-funded enough or don’t have the time to attend steps of the tournaments across the world. The top 15 finishers at each of the rounds (Valadares, Korea, Turkey, France and Croatia) qualify automatically for the Superfinal in Italy in September. Previously, a cumulative scoring system essentially eliminated anyone who couldn’t afford the cost or time off required to attend the different rounds.

One of the potential beneficiaries in Governador Valadares last week was local pilot Leonardo Machado, a diminutive 23-year-old evangelical Christian electrical engineer. A native of Valadares, he said he couldn’t possibly afford to attend any of the other meets, but would get himself to the Superfinal in Italy if he qualified in Valadares. He thought he had a good shot, having grown up and learned to paraglide on Ibituruna Peak.

“Knowing the place you’re flying is a huge advantage,” Machado said as he prepared for the fourth day of competition, with the top of the mountain shrouded in clouds. Another advantage: the Brazilian rhythms that dominated the sound system as pilots prepared.

Going into the final day, last Saturday, Machado had a good shot. Because the weather had been so mediocre, only the top two of each competitor’s performances would count, and Machado had placed second on day two. But he dropped out of the air far from his goal, at 12 miles, placing him 98th for the day and 85th overall.

On Saturday night, organizers threw together a makeshift awards ceremony at Todos os Tons, an open air bar and live music venue in the center of town which in previous days was a spot for pilots to drink and flirt with local women. Xavier Murillo, the affable president, was at his joke-making best (meaning people laughed at maybe 30 percent of his attempts) as he called winners of various categories up to a makeshift 3-level Olympic-style podium. The top 15 included five French citizens, two Brazilians, two Americans, a handful of other Europeans, and the winner, Raul Pento, a Venezuelan. The 13th place finisher, Elisa Houdry of France, was also the women’s champion.

As regular customers who had accidentally come just to have a beer fled the scene, hand-held video cameras rolled and the champions hugged and high-fived. On April 25, they’ll do it all again for round two in Mun Gyeong, Korea.

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