PARAGLIDING IN SOUTH AMERICA
Paraglide Colombia with Tim Scott
Tim Scott paraglding in South America gives us an insight to flying Colombia
Part 1. General info on...
FLYING IN BUCARAMANGA, COLOMBIA.
There are many different ways a pilot can assess and grade a flying site, but for many the most vital criteria revolve around dependability: "if I turn up, say, on a Thursday afternoon around three o'clock, will I be certain to fly". In the changing conditions of Europe with it's meteorological highs and lows, that would seem to be a pointless question -"wait until you get to take-off" is the nearest ready answer. However, in Bucaramanga, a city in Eastern Colombia, the answer is "YES", and in the two months I flew the site, there were only two days when p.m. flying was washed out due to rain or lack of wind- and even then one could have flown in the morning.
Bucaramanga (900 m: pop 400,000) lies on a series of mesas about 160 kms from the Venezuelan border. To the east there's a steep climb up to the paramo, a high altitude plateau shrouded in mist. To the west lies a mountain range thats eparates the city from the steaming valley of the Magdalena, the largest river in Colombia. Between these ranges,facing SSW, lies the mesa of Ruitoque, a plateau about 3 kms long overlooking the city. Behind the mesa, about 20kms away, lies the Cañon of Chicamocha, another spectacular flying site (about two thermals away in the morning! More about this later..
In terms of a ridge it doesn't look like much, but it's great strength lies in the almost 100% dependability of the conditions. It's almost like 2 or even 3 sites in one. Due to the topography, almost every day starts with the wind at altitude moving S>North. However, as the first thermals kick in they come along the valley N>South - a good time to get to take-off is around 10.30, just in time to see the "chulos" (vultures) forming up. Pilots here tend to use the 'chulos' as their aiming points - you see a swirl of black specks off over the city, you wait as they drift closer, and then launch when they're within reach - bearing in mind that the take off at this point is only 180 m above the valley floor, you have to get it right first time or you're landing in the 'garapatera' (literally the tick-place), full of very inquisitive cows and the size of a large tablecloth!
Once launched and in a thermal, you need some 500 ms ATO before going back over the mesa, and into the valley of Piedecuesta behind. From there a convenient hill in the middle of the valley provides the trigger for the next thermal and suddenly you're over the Mesa de los Santos, which leads back to the Cañon of Chicamocha and one of the most spectacular flying sites in S. America. About 30 kms further SSW the Cañon ends and the mountains slope sharply up towards another plateau: at the moment the distance record is from Bucaramanga to San Gil, a town on the edge of the plateau, some 65 kms, not great by European standards but good enough given the terrain and the unpredictable behaviour of the thermals. The only drawback to flying Ruitoque in the morning is that the thermal wind increases rapidly: usually at 1100 am it's 0 - 5 kms, by 11.30 it's 20 kms and by 1200 you can be flying backwards, although on many occasions conditions are good away from the hill - a lot of morning flights go forwards over the city rather than back over the mesa, especially on the days when the cloudbase is under 500m ATO. The official landing site at the base of the hill can be tricky in the gusty thermals of midday, it usually makes for an interesting end to a morning flight as there is no facility for under- or overshoot, just an enormous clump of bamboo that has seen it's share of optimistic landings. Unfortunately some years ago the Hang-gliding landing site was cross fenced, so at present flights for Ala Delta are rare - however a lot of the paraglider pilots started out on hang gliders, and there are still plenty of opportunities in the Cañon.
Afternoon flights at Ruitoque are the stuff that ridge-soaring dreams are made of. The thermal wind, which proved so troublesome in the am flight, now provides the afternoon's attractions. Although it can be a bit strong at 2:00, usually by 3:30 it's levelled off enough to take off and penetrate - (on some days you can fly from 2:00 - 6:00 without a problem)- and there's enough thermal activity out front to make it interesting for all levels. Some afternoons you might be restricted to classic ridge soaing, but on most days 300 meters above t/o is the norm, and on good days I got to 800 m ato. The take-offs areas are perfect for practising high wind launches: two of them have generous width and breadth, forgiving the occasional mistake, and are also perfect for practising landings in strong conditions. All students are taught by the Tandem method here. The first days are spent flying with the instructor, getting the feel of flying, and learning the basics, until the instructor is satisfied they have enough experience to solo: it seems to work well, and despite the strong conditions on takeoff they have a good safety record.
As the shadows lengthen the winds die down - usually by 5.00 p.m. thermal activity has ceased, but there is still a good breeze on the hill and pilots fly the ridge, which with all it's ins and outs must be around 3 kms long, plenty of room for all. During the week I was often the only 'mono' pilot flying although the schools flew tandems almost every day, and at the weekend a busy Sunday might see 15 - 20 gliders in the air, but such is the nature of the site that one rarely felt any proximity stress - although occasionally around 5:30 the wind dies away and then there is a bit of a scramble for lift - the official landing site is not directly below the take offs and in a dying breeze your best option is to top land - otherwise it's the "garapatera" and a long walk home scraping ticks and cow shit off your legs. I doubt that I've ever flown site better suited for practice - Take-offs, landings, spirals, wingovers, b-lines and other maneuvers can be safely attempted, with plenty of ground clearance and the certainty of picking up some lift at the bottom of the dive. I also took advantage of the cheap tandem flights to get some intermediate instruction - all the schools are very friendly and helpful to foreigners, although there's little English spoken. A past Venezuelan National Champion, Leopoldo Turco, who has flown both hang-gliders and paragliders around the world described this site as 'probably one of the best' - so good in fact he came and taught here in the mid-nineties, attracted by the predictability of the conditions.
A 'must' for any pilot is a flight in the Cañon de Chicamocha, probably one of the most spectacular sites in S. America.
So here follows the story of one flight.....To follow