'Science, Freedom, Beauty, Adventure. Aviation offers it all.' -- Charles Lindberg
'Flying is learning to throw yourself at the ground, and miss.' -- The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Everyone has their pet fantasies - aero sports was certainly the top of my list of cool things to do. Few things could beat the thought of soaring through the sky in a craft that only I could control. But when I did finally try Paragliding, the experience was not like what I had imagined - it was better! So all you average Joes (like me), buckle up - here's a bird's eye view of something that could be right up your alley.
Yellow pages, websites and phone calls: With one more dreary weekend coming up, I idly call up the Orange Directory Services and enquired after Paragliding clubs. Much to my surprise, 'Nirvana Adventures', came the prompt reply. A follow up call and a look at the website (replete with info, photographs, the works) makes the whole thing look increasingly promising. This outfit was just a couple of hours drive on the Expressway - right in my backyard! And the website conveyed a comforting sense of professionalism. Some quick follow-up from Sanjay Rao (of Nirvana Adventures) clinches the thing - everything just seems to fall into place. After choking on the price for a bit, I confirm to Sanjay that I would be joining the beginner's course on the long weekend. Narayan, a colleague, decided to join the group. Friday morning, we are headed out for three days of discovery!
First things first, get your heading right: I pick up Srini, another would-be amateur pilot and a true-blue ‘Radio Mirchi’ patriot-employee, and we zip along the expressway towards Lonavla in my car. A couple of hours, a few Mac burgers and a string of Radio Mirchi songs later, we turn off the road and thread our way through unchartered territory. Thanks to precise instructions from Astrid (we got lost just once), we work our way through Govitri, Kamshet and other sundry villages to the Vadivali Reservoir. The road is bumpy and non-existent in parts, but such simple impediments do not deter us seasoned Mumbai travelers (Srini sleeps undisturbed through the turbulence). The landscape becomes increasingly breathtaking and pristine and we are finally there, in time for lunch.
Those magnificent men: 'The Native Place', set on the margin of a placid lake, surrounded by hills and forest, just about summed up my Shangri-La - no hard-boiled Mumbai weekend crowds, no shanties, no motor noises, no habitation at all! The house itself was unusual - neither a hotel, nor a lodge, house or resort - just a cozy nest for fledgling aviators trying to shed their fears and find their element. It is a bright white three level building, set on a gentle slope close to the water. Up closer, one can see that the entire facade of the building is open to the lake, delivering an unhindered view of a beautiful panorama. Inside, there are areas where small groups could gravitate to, with a central ‘club room’ of sorts, complete with pool table, a small selection of books and music. Hammocks in the backyard beckon the visitors to spend afternoons in sleepy abandon. Sanjay and Astrid, justifiably proud of their home, later told us about the crazy architect who dreamed up this house as exactly that kind of hangout for kindred souls - I would say that she certainly succeeded. They were still working on it though - water and electricity seemed to be a problem at times. One after another, we meet the natives - Sanjay and Ravi Dude, experienced aviators and trainers; Parmar, a calm man into film editing, who seems to give Jughead a run for his money; Pushkar, the king of the kitchen and Harish, lawyer-backpacker-glider from Mumbai. We also meet Shankar and Akhilesh, fellow students who are a couple of days ahead of us. Shankar is painstakingly pulling out thorns from his clothes - apparently, his last flight ended in a thorny shrub. Harish tells us about how he fractured his wrist a couple of flights ago - this is an adventure sport, after all. An interesting lunch, a couple of hours of rest and it is time to start aviating!
And their flying machines: Sanjay helps with ground handling. We drive to Site 360 and unload the gliders. The paragliders look deceptively simple. Colourful, stringy and layers of fine fabric - they remind me of Chinese kites. However, we soon learn that the apparent simplicity is really the output of painstaking design, keeping in mind the safety needed for amateurs to survive the sport. Reassuring!
Handling the ground realities: Site 360 was about the flattest piece of grassy land in that hilly landscape. Where the heck were the dizzy heights from which we were to take off? Moreover, the windsock (a flag-like streamer that shows the wind direction) is hardly moving - would the glider even inflate in such placid conditions? Sanjay seems to sense our bemusement and tells us that mastering 'Ground Handling' was our passport to the skies. If we can't handle the glider on the ground, we can't handle it in the air. Much subdued, we don our harness, helmets and glider krupa with glider mushroom and wait for Ravi to help inflate the glider. A pull at the right lines over my shoulder and the glider comes up into the air. Very quickly, it is apparent to me that this narayan and krupa is no toy - the glider pulls at my shoulders with tremendous force. We run with the glider, trying to keep it overhead, working the brake-lines and dancing around the field at the same time. There's a lot more to this than running off a cliff with a chute! We learn other essentials too- pre-flight checks, ‘mushrooming’ the glider (the right way of gathering up the glider as one trudges back to the take-off point), how to pack the glider and so on. Ravi shows off some superior ground handling techniques to broaden our horizons. At the end of a tiring session, Narayan and Srini seem to handle their footwork much better - I have some catching up to do in the next session. Akhilesh and Shankar are way ahead of us.
Rabbit or Bird? Next morning, and we are at Shindewadi, a gentle slope that promised more than site 360. We wait for the East wind to pick up while downing sandwiches and coffee. Cattle browse drowsily around us and the local boys stare and stare. 'Parawaiting', says Sanjay, ‘is an important component of the sport'. We were getting quite good at it. Finally, the wind picks up and we are back to Ground Handling. I run down the slope with the glider on top, concentrating more on the uneven ground. Suddenly, I hear Ravi shouting 'faster, faster!'. Before I could wonder if he was talking to me, I feel a push on my harness and look down to find my feet no longer touching the ground - I am flying!! For a few seconds, I just freeze in the air, my brain full of the moment. Then, I desperately work the brake-lines and try to control the flight, with indifferent success. Before the feeling sinks in, I am down and running like a hare once again. Ravi repeats his instructions with an air of long suffering patience. “KrupaJi, you are pulling the brakes - your hands need to be up and back.” Alright, Alright, I get it! 'Bunny Hops', short flights on gentle slopes, help us get familiar with the feeling of flying - and besides, they are fun! Srini is still best among us, running down the slope with gusto, time and again. We watch Akhilesh and Shankar go up the small hill behind us and fly down – I feel a stab of excitement and anticipation watching them. “You will be doing this tomorrow, same time.”, Shankar assures us. We are not so sure. Lunch at Kamshet, and we are back at the Native Place. We loll about in the lake for a while in the afternoon and go for a row. More ground handling late afternoon, and I am finally comfortable with handling the Glider.
Flights of Fancy: We spend the evening in subdued revelry, nervous with anticipation about our maiden flights on the morrow. The sunset is captivating and we can actually make out constellations in the clear night sky, unheard of in the city. Narayan tries to read our fortunes in the stars and comes up only with the direst of predictions (What if the glider stalls in the air? What if I land on a bull and break a leg, What if the wind direction changes at the last second? What if the glider lines get tangled?). We conjure up some more worst case scenarios and discover that we have missed our calling in life - we should have been script writers for the worst kind of horror movies, given our fertile imaginations. We finally hit the sack, all wound up.
Flying Solo: We are back at Shindewadi, sitting on top of a 100 ft. hill, waiting for the wind to pick up. A small hill, yet everything looks small on the ground. As the Sun rises, the summit offers us a panoramic view of mist covered plains and the Kamshet town, and looming mountains on the horizon. We hear motor noises and the clattering of the trains in the distance. Narayan is noticeable nervous, and is having semi-serious second thoughts. Srini is looking impassive, all set with Ganguly-style shades and sunscreen to ward off the morning Sun. The take-off point is a short bank of grass at the edge, with the ground falling off as a steep incline beyond (the incline was some 70 degrees below the horizontal). When Ready for take-off we ask him if the ‘runway’ isn’t too small (it is just a few feet across) , Ravi tells us that it is adequate in good wind conditions. But, if we do not take off by the time we reach the edge, he says, we are to continue running down the steep slope till we are lifted up. That sounds very challenging. Finally, the wind is up, and Ravi insists that Narayan is to go first. Pre-flight checks done, the glider in place, Ravi straps a radio to his harness and asks him to follow all instructions explicitly. Sanjay is on the ground, to help him with the landing approach. Narayan is looking strained, but determined. The glider comes up, and Ravi shouts ‘RELEASE!’ and ‘RUN!’. Narayan rushes to the edge, and Ravi gives him a push from behind. He is in the air! Ravi starts giving him instructions on the radio and helps him navigate to the landing spot. A few smooth turns later, Narayan is close to the ground, and Sanjay takes over the radio. Moments pass, and Narayan makes a perfect landing, pulls in his glider and starts jumping up and down with glee - we can hear him shouting on the radio - ‘It is fantastic guys, and no problem at all, it is easy’. And this from a man who was a nervous wreck a minute back. We are cheering with him. My turn next.
The Toreador in the sky:Clumps of thorny bushes are rushing towards me with threatening speed. Sanjay on the radio asks me to be calm, and that I will pass over the bushes. My second flight is not going so well after all, unlike my maiden flight. My first flight was near perfect. Gliding in the air, 100 ft above the ground, I had felt literally on top of the world. And I had made a smooth landing - I couldn’t Krupa's first solo flightstop grinning as a smiling Sanjay came up to me and cordially welcomed to me to the world of paragliders. But I was now onto my second flight (I could hardly wait to go up once again), and had not taken the right turn at the required moment. As a result, my flight path looks something like an obstacle race. After a few tense moments, I do actually cross over the bushes – and find myself lined up on a collision course with a grazing bull! I am too near the ground to try and turn away, yet I am trying. My groundspeed picks up and bulls comes closer and closer - I am going to crash into it! At the last moment, I manage to veer away and land on the seat of my pants right behind the bull. Whew! The comedy of the situation hits me - I am splayed on the ground, on a pile of cow dung, surrounded by three bulls. The bulls don’t seem to like my company and start moving towards me, perhaps attracted to my red glider. Sanjay advises me to mushroom the glider and get out of the area as soon as I can, the glider would not stand a bull fight, even if I could. I get out fast, and find the whole crowd grinning their heads off - no doubt, I am not going to live this down ever!
Hooked: We are back at the Native Place, celebrating our first flights with a ‘solo party’. Srini had completed his runs with élan, no mistakes at all. As I weather the digs about bucking broncos from various quarters, I have no doubts I am coming back for more. There are many things to learn about the control of this silent, graceful aircraft before I can call myself a pilot - and I hope to be there one day, pretty soon.