Good Fly

Good Fly! A week of paragliding in Colombia.

Mikal Jakubal
February 18, 2024

The farmer says there are indeed anacondas, but assures us there are none in his nearby canefield. Three of us landed in an adjacent harvested and plowed cornfield and walked over to a small triangle of grass next to an irrigation ditch. There, a small tree provided something we could pretend was shade while we folded our gliders in the sweltering heat. A cowboy showed up on foot, herding a small pack of cattle who proceeded to wander over and almost step on Ryan’s glider before being shooed away. Curious cattle are much more of a threat than anacondas here, as it turns out.

Two men are standing in a field next to their paragliders while a small herd of cows wanders nearby.
Sometimes you have company in the LZ. These cows had to be shooed away after almost stepping on the glider being folded up. The cowboy who came by assured us there were no anacondas in his nearby cane field, but said they are around.

While we wait for our shuttle van, a motorcyclist pulls in off the road and asks us if we need a ride. This is a common practice here, where paraglider pilots are randomly landing all over the valley. Some drivers charge a little for it, others will ferry you out to the road or even back to the hotel for free. You have to be careful. One pilot damaged her glider when her pack hung down a little and touched the hot muffler. Also, drivers here seem to take lane markings, speed limits and stop signs as mere suggestions.

I’m on a week-long paragliding tour with Eagle Paragliding out of Santa Barbara, California, the school where I learned to fly and got my P2 (novice) certificate last May. It’s an all-inclusive tour, which means pretty much all we have to worry about as pilots is getting our kit together each morning and being ready to jump on the shuttle in front of the hotel at 7:15 a.m.

A group of paraglider pilots waiting to launch on a grassy hill on a sunny day with clouds above. They are all wearing helmets and special paragliding harnesses and holding their bunched up gliders in their hands.
Waiting at launch for the winds to shift. Once things become favorable, everyone gets in the air quickly. The plastic ribbons some people have help pilots identify each other.

There are multiple launch sites in the area, but the one we’re using is on a nature reserve above the town of Roldonillo, in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca. The drive each morning is about 45 minutes on a windy, narrow mountain road. At the launch, there is a small station where you can buy snacks, electrolyte drinks, coffee brewed from locally grown beans and paragliding themed shirts.

From the station, it’s a five-minute walk up very steep steps, one of which has the wet-concrete inscription “Good Fly.” Launch itself is a gradually steepening grassy slope facing into the morning anabatic (uphill) flow from the valley floor. A ragged collection of streamers and wind socks indicate wind direction.

A white plaster wall with the logo of the Reserva Natural Villa Juliana, flags of many countries and lots of colorful paragliders painted on it.
The wall at the small base station below launch. The launch site itself is called Los Tanques.

A good paragliding site needs to have three basic characteristics: proper atmospheric conditions; a place to launch; and a place or places to land.
This a an amazingly good launch: wide open, facing into the breeze, easy bailout downslope with few obstacles, smooth grass with no sticks or other things to tangle glider lines, short glides to known thermal trigger points, and easy glide distance to safe landing zones if you miss the thermals.

Looking down a grassy meadow with a steep set of cement stairs going up it. There is a collection of buildings with tin roofs at the base of the stairs and farm fields in the valley far below.
Hiking up the steep cement stairs to launch from the base station. "House Thermal" rises from the ridge to the left. The last small ridge before the valley floor is known as "The Alligator." Even if you miss the thermals, the fields in front of and behind The Alligator provide safe LZs.

Standing around on launch each morning gives time to discuss conditions with the more experienced pilots. The day usually starts with a light northerly flow, switching as valley floor air heats up and slithers up the ridge lines before breaking free and bubbling into the sky. When these warm air columns hit the dew point 1,000 feet or more above us, any entrained moisture condenses into clouds, showing that the thermals are “on.” Without thermals to keep us climbing, we’d have a nice, slow glide from launch to landing, known as a “sled ride” or “sledder.”

Smoke from ubiquitous post-harvest field burning is a key indicator of conditions further out in the valley, the smoke particles acting like tracers for otherwise invisible air currents. Early on, the plumes rise up and flatten off when they hit the nightly inversion layer. When smoke goes straight up, we can assume the natural thermals have also broken through, even if clouds haven’t yet formed above them.

An aerial view of a large, green agricultural valley with blue sky above and clouds in the distance as seen from a paraglider. The pilot's foot extends into the bottom of the frame.
Looking NE across Valle del Cauca. My goal was the thermals causing the clouds in the distance to form. I went to the left of the smoke plume and ended up sinking out and landing on a dirt track off to the right.

Our typical flight plan involves a quick glide to “Spine One” to the south or to the “House Thermal”, the prominent ridge to the north where lift can usually be found. The goal is to find a thermal and climb up to “cloud base” — literally, the bottom of the cloud at the top of the rising air column — where we bide our time, trying to stay high, until we’re ready to make a cross country move. Based on clouds over the valley and mountains on either side, we’ll either ridge-hop down range or try a run across the valley, hoping to find enough lift as we cross to reach known thermal triggers on the far side.

As the saying goes, “Launches are optional; landings are mandatory.” The best paraglider landing zone — “LZ” — is a massive grass field with no power lines and easy road access. There are a few cow pastures that qualify for such a 5-star rating, but you have to pay attention to how many animals are in the field before aiming for it. If there’s just one “cow”, it may be an aggressive bull who is not impressed by your ballerina-perfect touchdown. Olé!

We mostly land in the abundant post-harvest fields that patchwork the entire valley. I have personally come to prefer the dirt tractor roads between fields, aiming for one aligned directly into the wind whenever possible. They are often grassy and being on a road already makes the hike out to a pickup spot easier.

A dirt road covered in grass, with sugar cane fields on either side. There is a paragliding harness in the foreground, connected to a paraglider lying across the road.
Last day and a perfect landing zone on a farm road between cane fields. I came in from the left, made a low right turn into the light headwind and put it down easy.

Where you don’t want to land is in the sugar cane jungle of death. Forget anacondas, a mature cane field itself is scary enough. At eight feet tall and appearing dense enough to require a machete to navigate, untangling a glider and lines looks like a nightmare. I did hear from someone who inadvertently tried it that cane at least makes for a soft landing.

A very tall field of sugar cane seen from a dirt road.
Canefields of death. You really don't want to land in that, anacondas or no.

I found Colombians to be extremely warm and friendly, in Bogotá and Calí as much as the rural area and small towns near where we were flying. Compared to the U.S., their friendlier, less aggressive vibe had immediate implications for the quality of paragliding there. It meant we could choose LZs based on safety and convenience, without worrying whether some uptight yay-hoo was going to show up with a gun or sic his dogs on us and yell at us to “git off mah private propity.” I don’t recall ever seeing a single “no trespassing” sign. No one cared if we landed in some random field and most farmers or farm workers who saw us wanted to come up and talk or offer us rides.

A blue mini-van with a roof rack heading toward the cam3ra kicks up a cloud of dust on a dirt road between sugar cane fields.
Ah, pickup at last. Eagle contracts with a small fleet of chase vehicles to come get us after we text our location. Locals will often offer pilots rides back on motorcycles, sometimes free, sometimes for a small fee. One pilot got a ride out of a field with the farm workers on trailer.

Thermals — columns of warm, rising air — are not like elevators that follow a smooth upward path, taking you along for the ride. They are irregular, bumpy and turbulent, especially at the margins where rising air scuffs up against cooler falling air, the latter being known as “sink”. This is especially true in the mountains above ridge line “triggers” — usually knobs or points where rising hot air cuts loose from the it’s surface mooring and bubbles upward. Being a novice pilot, the majority of my flying has been at the training hill, with a handful of mountain flights off the high ridge above Santa Barbara in relatively mild thermic conditions.

This, in comparison, has been a daily fucking rodeo. If you ski, imagine learning on the bunny hill and then being tossed straight into a steep, black diamond mogul field — without the option of stopping. Gah! I know that, as conditions go, these are easy for experienced pilots, but I have been routinely feeling well past the edge of my comfort zone all week. Getting used to rough air like this is called “bump tolerance.” Though I can’t say I’m comfortable with it, what I have learned is to trust the built-in stability of my glider. I’m flying an A-rated wing, which trades off some performance for safety and stability. On long glides where I sink out and land before everyone else, I can’t help but think this has something to do with it. But when the gusts are pitching me around like a mechanical bull on full speed, I’m grateful that the wing will mostly correct itself as long as I don’t overreact.

When you hit a solid thermal, you feel it! Based on my instruments, climbs of 800 feet per minute — and one of over 1,000 feet per minute! — were common. Still, it takes a lot of experience to map out a thermal by feel, knowing when you’re leaving it or when you’re in maximum lift, so even the best pilots use an instrument called a variometer. “Varios” have a ton of functions, but the most ubiquitous is the audio: increasingly rapid and shrill beeps indicate climb, while slower, deeper beeps indicate sink. The vario and other instruments (typically a phone with a paragliding app) are attached with velcro to a small flight deck that sits in the pilot’s lap. Finding lift and staying in it combines your senses, the sounds of the vario, numerical values on other instruments, and observations of birds, clouds and other pilots. It is a lot to take in.

The saving grace for me as a novice pilot is that thermals above the valley floor are buttery smooth compared to the mountains. Fun, even! I always felt that the first hour of white-knuckling on the bucking bronc in the mountains was the price to pay for being able to go cross country in the flats afterward. Alas, more often than not I never made it very far before sinking out and landing. Now I have a goal for next year.

An aerial view of Valle del Cauca with farm fields and rolling hills and clouds overhead.
Valle del Cauca from about 1500 feet up. I ended up landing in a cow pasture out of frame to the right, not catching any lift along the way. Note the other gliders below the clouds in the distance. They made it across to lift on the far side.

Paragliding is actually a team sport. Finding invisible air currents is a combination of skill and luck. Even when clouds provide a general indicator of thermal activity, the best lift could be way off to one side, especially when the clouds are still thousands of feet above. On the flats, clear-air thermals give no visible indication of their existence at all. As a “gaggle” — a group of pilots flying together — everyone should take turns pushing out, “sniffing” for lift. When a pilot finds it and begins spiraling upward, the others can join. Or, when a pilot is forced to land, the rest know to look elsewhere. As a n00b, I rely on other pilots to indicate lift and follow them into it. When I can. I made it across the entire valley only once, but couldn’t find enough lift at the end and landed in a cow field next to the highway, watching other pilots glide by 1000′ feet over me as I packed my glider.

The header video opening this post shows a typical gaggle of pilots all circling and climbing in a thermal. The rules of the road are that whoever first enters the thermal determines the turn direction. Everyone else subsequently entering follows along, helping to avoid head-on collisions. Marti DeVietti, a member of our group who shot the video, graciously let me use it for this post. I really wanted to shoot more photos and videos myself, but thermaling, especially in a gaggle, took all the attention and focus I had. Eventually I hope to be able to bring my DSLR along, but that’s a ways off.

A 3D image from Google Earth showing a colorful swirly line indicating a paraglider flight path over a flat valley.

It’s not metaphorical to say we’re “soaring with the birds.” Circling birds are doing exactly what we’re doing: riding thermals to stay aloft. Millions of years of evolution have given them exquisite sensitivity to the slightest variation in our shared flight medium, far beyond what our best instruments can tell us. When you see birds circling, go to them! Interestingly, they don’t seem to mind, often coming very close to us and hanging out.

On one occasion, I was low enough to be actively picking my LZ when I hit slow, steady beeps on my variometer, indicating a weak climb. I began a slow circling pattern, climbing and sinking in fits and starts, sniffing unsuccessfully for the thermal core. About to begin preparing for landing again, a circling bird less than 100 feet away showed me the invisible stairway to the sky and up I went, climbing 2,700 feet before topping out, the bird always staying close, as if taking pity on the poor hairless ape with dreams of flight.

Above, a Google Earth 3D image of a 2,700 foot climb in a clear-air thermal (i.e. no cloud at the top) over Valle del Cauca. I was on a slow, descending glide out of the mountains (green line) when I crossed a light thermal and began “sniffing” around for the core (orange line). Then a helpful bird showed me the core (corkscrew line) and I climbed straight up with it. Note how the thermal leans downwind slightly. The purple line is where the thermal topped out and ended and the bird left. I sniffed for a while, then headed out to look for another climb (blue line). The graph below is another representation of that flight.

A graph showing a cross-section of ground-level elevation as an up/down brown line and altitude as a rising and falling blue line, with time increasing across the bottom x-axis.
From the FlySkyHy paragliding app, a graph of my longest flight, with brown representing ground level and blue showing altitude. The next to last blue spike, a 2,700 foot climb in a clear-air thermal rising off the valley floor, was when I followed a bird all the way up. The last spike was also a bird showing me the the thermal core, but I couldn't find another.

Oh, yeah, the anacondas.

I had several people tell me there were anacondas in the cane fields. I was…skeptical, let’s say. Anacondas are water snakes and probably unlikely to be found in the middle of the ag-land ecological hellscape that is the Valle del Cauca, at least not ones big enough to swallow a paraglider pilot whole. A brief internet search suggests that even big anacondas don’t eat humans, but it makes a good story. If there is any reptilian danger to stray glider pilots, it would be the many extremely venomous snakes that live in that country. Or maybe the so-cute-you-want-to-pick-it-up but very poisonous little frogs. There’s even a species of rattlesnake there! I never saw any snakes, much less man-eating anacondas, but the geckos in my hotel room were adorable.

Okay, one last thing, since it seems everyone wonders about it: “But how do you pee?”

My longest flight was a little over 2-1/2 hours! Which is, when you think about it, pretty fucking amazing. Floating in the air, turning in whatever direction I wanted, soaring amidst a flock of birds thousands of feet above the earth…for hours. More experienced pilots were getting 4-5 hour flights and cross country competition pilots routinely stay aloft all day. Eating and drinking are important, as is peeing. Diapers are commonly used by some pilots, but there is also a specialized pee condom for those with the right anatomy for it. It’s what it sounds like: an extra-tough condom with a rigid stub of tubing at the tip that is hooked to a long tube that runs down the pilot’s leg and out their pants bottom. I hook mine under my shoe laces to keep it in place and direct any stream away from my shoe. The condom is taped on near the tip to prevent leaks and backflow into the pilot’s crotch. While I set mine up for every flight, I never ended up using it. About the time I realized I’d need it, I was more concerned with finding a good LZ and putting down safely.

Now you know.

The words "Good Fly" pressed into a cement stair when it was wet.

Afterward.

A week later and I’m kneeling on the grass at my local park, carefully repacking my glider. I came out to do a little “kiting” (ground handling practice) but the gentle bluster at my house a few minutes ago quickly faded to sporadic puffs barely strong enough to inflate the glider and get it floating overhead. Looking at the lines laid out neatly on the lawn, the wing spread flat to facilitate a neat pack, I pause a moment to appreciate its elegance and the complex engineering hidden in the folds. Some fabric and string, nothing more, sewn together in just the right way. And now I can fly with birds.

It occurs to me that this glider could be built from materials that existed hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago. Of course a glider made from hemp twine and cotton or silk fabric wouldn’t be as efficient as modern materials and I would not want to try to ride bucking thermals under it, but maybe it could provide a nice sled ride off a mountain. While flight pioneers proposed, built and crashed all sorts of flying and gliding contraptions, only lack of modern engineering knowledge prevented them from building a paraglider out of materials then at hand.

Imagine if you could reverse-time travel and, instead of going to Da Vinci’s time yourself, bring him here to our time. Take him to a paraglider launch site to watch pilots take off. Or, better yet, give him a tandem flight! Most of his sketches and ideas about aerodynamics seem silly in retrospect, though it seems he got pretty close to drawing a functional hang glider. I imagine, then, that he’d be less amazed by the mere existence of modern flying contraptions than by their ubiquity. Any reasonably athletic person can take a few hours of lessons and then run off the training hill for a short flight, never mind going to an airport and hopping on a jet plane with no training at all except untying and retying your shoe laces. This, to Leonardo, would certainly be a miracle. Again, not the existence of gliders (and all aircraft, for that matter), but their accessibility to common people and the relative ease and safety of learning to fly one.

Flight by mechanical aircraft has been widely available for a mere handful of generations. Balloon flights for a century and a half before that. Flight of any sort is a very modern mode of travel, yet it is based on ancient dreams, going back long before modern humans left written records of their fabulous flying machines. Now imagine explaining to old Leonardo that a journey of thousands of miles in the sky, far above the clouds, at unimaginable speeds, is so unremarkable that people use it as a time to sleep!

What I’m getting to is this: paragliding is possible because of a combination of hard physics and modern materials science on the one hand, and mad dreaming on the other. Da Vinci had neither the science nor the materials to realize free flight in his time, but he had the mad dreams. He and so many others and all their crazy, sometimes fatal experiments, combined with relentless, incremental scientific progress brought me here to this park with my piece of fabric and string, folding it up carefully for the next flight. Which brings me to my other point: flying of any sort is amazing. It is understandable, I guess, that we have come to take jet travel for granted, finding it annoying, even. (Enjoy your pretzel snacks while your legs cramp up.) Paragliding for me taps into the universal wonder and awe of flight. If you allow it, the experience of a hundred thousand years of our collective longing to soar with birds can overtake you, overpowering the hang-the-fuck-on-this-is-not-fun or damn-I-bombed-out-again moments.

It was on this trip that I finally had flights long enough to experience the wonder and whimsy of it all, to be able to look down and think “omfg this is sooo cool!” and giggle with glee at the unlikeliness of being up there at all. Take a look back at that image of the flight path. Note in particular the one long slinky upward spiral. Not only did a helpful vulture show up, but it let me follow it about twenty feet away the whole time as it perfectly circled the tight thermal core. I never could have found the lift that effectively on my own, so I adjusted my spiral to exactly match the bird’s. And up we went, vulture and me, wings of feathers and fabric, playing in the currents, a dream of flight in a space beyond time.

Good Fly!

A brown pen and ink drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci of a flying machine with two bat-shaped wings and a triangular tail.
A brown pen and ink drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci of a flying machine with two bat-shaped wings and a triangular tail.
A brown pen and ink drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci of a flying machine with two bat-shaped wings and a triangular tail.
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