The three of us sat outside the van relaxing in the shade of a large Colombian mango tree, having just finished up our typical pre-nap meal of Empanadas and ice cream, discussing the previous evenings forray into Colombian nightlife. That particular Sunday was our first full day-off, our seventh day of paragliding school, our tenth day of the second leg of our Savvlinvan journey. it was an unbelievable moment then, when sense of safety and lack of perceived danger (inherent in any sport in which humans forgo the safety of the gravity of earth and take flight), was swiftly and forever altered. Nearly missing the awning, the blue spiraling blur or reality came to a smashing halt against the clear plastic bubble that pre collision was the upper bunk skylight on our French Neighbor, Michelle’s, home*. The thud reverberated across the open expanse of grassy take off zone, utterly shocking our senses, dropping our stomachs and intensifying our rush to aid in what I assumed was a gravely injured paragliding pilot.
First Day of school photo
He came to rest on his side in the fetal position with his arms splayed rigidly outward, occasionally gasping for air between intermittent coughs featuring bright red blood. He was not responsive to pain, his eyes were wide open, unequal pupils staring straight forward, his chin was filleted open, he was flat unresponsive. It was very apparent that he needed advanced medical attention, by the time we were able to detach him from his glider, a small concerned crowd had arrived. This gathering included his wife, who, like us, had witnessed the accident from less than 25 meters away and surely felt the impact as he impacted their truck camper. She was in a state of shock, silently mouthing his name and “no,no,no,” seemingly only to be comforted by the announcement of one of the nearby paragliders that witnessed the crash, ‘Soy Medico”, as he ran up and took over the situation. After what seemed like five minutes the injured man began groaning, asking what happened and actually trying to sit up. No more than ten minutes after the initial slam, an ambulance rolled into out little ridgetop camp and whisked our neighbor Michelle and his terrified wife to a nearby trauma center.
In a normal afternoon at Las Aguilas fly site, a brisk wind blows up the side of the 250 meter ridge creating the necessary lift for tandem paraglide flights, providing the option for locals a cheap option to get a bird like flight over their city by a professional pilot. These same afternoon winds create challenging conditions and top landings for lighter solo flyers, and the underlying conditions that led to the smash landing of a otherwise experienced paraglider. These high winds necessitate that beginners like us, learn to fly early in the day when the winds are calm and it’s a gentle glide down, over the tree and rock peppered agricultural operations to the deep grassy landing of a pasture below. These normallly five to eight minute morning flights are the perfect mix of altitude, stabile conditions, mellow flight path and length to learning the basics of the take offs, landings and glider control.
We arrived to Colombia Paragliding on a Saturday afternoon after a mellow 2 day cruise through the rolling foothills of the Andean plateau, expecting to start early the next morning. Sunday at the fly site is a hectic day when the area is overrun with locals paying 25 to 40 USD for tandem paragliding flights which consist of 20 minutes of ridge flying and roller coaster like spirals, near inverts and drops. Thus we were instructed to enjoy the day off, take it all in, and show up at the hostel/school, 9 am sharp on Monday. Monday and Tuesday we worked to learn the basics of take off and glider control in the mornings, had 3 hours of siesta time and then re conveined at 3 for a bit of lecture or glider control depending on the weather. By the morning of day 3, we were lining up for our first flights, ready or not.
Confidence in glider control in light wind, with my feet on the ground, is one thing, actually launching off the ridge and gliding my way over 5 minutes into a landing zone solely by the radio guidance of our instructor extraordinaire, Russell, takes a whole different level of commitment. The three of us laid out our gliders, cleared our risers, clipped on our helmets, climbed into our harnesses, connected into our gliders, radio checked, and stared off into the horizon, stoked to fly. Marlie without hesitation nabbed the top honors of the first flight by clearing herself for take off, launching her wing, tip toeing to the horizon line and gracefully and gently dropped off the ridge into her first successful flight. Watching her crush it, eased us into our first attempts and by the end of the morning we had two flights apiece penned into our logbook, hungry for ice cream, Empenadas and naps.
Over the course of the following 12 days, our comfort levels, hours of flight time, lecture and confidence rose with each additional flight. Bucaramanga is known for its large gentle thermals that allow inexperienced beginners a chance to learn the intricacies of catching these up drafts of warm air alongside flocks of vultures. By and large the greatest assets to us was having a guru of flight, our coach Russell, instructing us over the radio, guiding our flight path and scoring us flights that eventually lasted up to an hour. Just like getting yelled at at football or volleyball practice by a pissed off coach expecting better of us, having a proper critique of our flights was something we came to expect upon our landings. All of us got yelled at our fair share of times and we witnessed some people ignore his instructions with some almost electrifying consequences of near misses on the power cables that lined one side of the landing zone.
Our final flight in Bucaramanga we were able to soar the ridge line, gaining hundreds of meters of altitude, cruising up and down, over and back above the campsite and take off zone. Reaching this goal of flight, feeling comfortable, being able to relax and enjoy the ride is what we were looking forward to obtaining, but as with any new hobby, the steep learning curve also educates us on how much more there is to learn before I’ll be confident in calling myself an intermediate. That last flight lasted well into dusk and finally as the sun was setting, I glided down to the landing zone without any radio advice and confidently barrel rolled into the dirt, tangling myself in my lines, covering my self in dust and high on the previous two weeks of grad school.
View of the campsite, Savvlinvan tucked safely into the trees and the white truck was the scene of the accident. Also notice my crossed brake line, pretty sweet to notice that 5 minutes into a 50 minute flight.
*A small early 2000’s ford truck adorned with a modern lightweight camper, appearing more mini motorhome than pickup topper, had pulled up three days prior, and ironically the French owner had moved it further into the shrubbery to keep clear of paragliders. After 2 nights in the hospital and a week of rest the injured Pilot seemed completely fine with the exception of a new scar across his jaw.