Travel: Taking flight in France
Vail CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: Greg Kelley, a local paragliding instructor traveled to Annecy, France in the spring of 2006. He wrote this story while there. Kelley will attend two paragliding competitions this summer and plans to write about his experience for the Vail Daily.
This could be a medieval setting. We see narrow winding roads and dark looming forests with giant cliff faces on our drive. A foreboding castle on the hillside graces our descent to a lake tucked amongst the backdrop of stark towering rock walls and massive mountains. It looks like a fjord in Scandinavia being fed by long glaciers, and the lake is teal blue. Being in this foreign country with little understanding of the native language, I am cautious about how I will approach the local people. I may look like I belong, but I am anxious about being accepted in these parts.
As I park the car, and walk into a local establishment, I speak with some broken franglais (French-English). I let my guard down when the proprietor greets me with a smile and a laugh, hands me an espresso, and says, “I speak English.”
I subsequently realize that there are as many folks from England as there are native folks.
Having let go of my medieval mindset, I look around with this new sense of relief. I am amazed at the lakeside beauty set in an amphitheater. Many local farms, clinging on the steep hills, supply the town with produce and meat. As I look higher above the farms, I now see why I have come here. A rainbow of colors dot the sky, like tiny specks of glitter on a 10-year-olds face on the 4th of July. We are in Annecy, France, a world-class paragliding and hang gliding center.
After I get the word of where the paragliders launch, my partner and I drive the quaint back roads around the farms, lush fields of alfalfa and crops and the occasional raging horned bull guarding a field, to our starting point. I will be flying tandem today with my travel partner Karen, who has flown with me before.
At the launching area, I am impressed with the infrastructure of the site. It is a large, perfectly graded, indoor-outdoor carpeted, smooth and clean launching pad I have ever seen. In Europe it seems that if an area is going to be used for a purpose, then we must make it the most user-friendly, pristine and functional area possible for the chosen activity. I am in awe, and very impressed.
There had to be as many as 30 pilots laying their gliders out and getting ready for their flight of the day. Conditions were perfect. Light wind cycles blowing up the face at a perfect launch speed of 10 miles per hour. Three hundred yards in front of launch, paragliders were climbing and gaining altitude in perfect thermals, several hundred to a thousand feet above where they started. Talk about a fairy tale flying area.
Karen and I began our pre-flight preparation. In Europe, you want to be prepared with harnesses on, glider checked, lines cleared and basically hooked into your glider when ready to go. Once the glider is laid out you must be ready to take off when a favorable wind cycle comes, or you risk being yelled at or run over by other pilots taking off behind you. No messing around here.
So with our pre-flight done, Karen and I proceed into the launch arena. With the two of us hooked together, our glider laid out, and surrounded by many other pilots waiting to “huck,” we prepare to take the next cycle. Basically, wind increases and decreases on a regular basis. With the winds light ” between cycles there is no wind to speak of ” we wait for the next thermal cycle to come up the face.
Finally the flags begin to wave, maybe about five to six miles per hour.
“Ready Karen,” I say.
“Ready,” she says.
Three, two, one, GO. We begin to run, and as the glider inflates, I am particularly happy that all looks great.
“Run, run, run,” I say.
Running into the air we gently fly away from the launch pad, and into the house thermal where about 15 paragliders are circling.
We begin to circle with the other paraglider pilots, and with the right-of-way rules, we should all be circling in the same direction. Unfortunately, half are circling to the left and the other half to the right. Based on what height each cluster of pilots is circling I then have to vary my circle direction as I begin to climb through the “gaggle.” Five left turns, two right, now left, right. Give me a break. I finally top above the group and can relax and circle at my own speed.
When flying at different sites, sometimes you don’t know the development or skill level of the other pilots flying. Some may have 30 flights, while others may have thousands of hours under their belt. So there could be a plethora of antics out there to keep you on your toes, but generally there is more organization than chaos, and you can relax and enjoy the sensations and amazing views.
Karen and I climb out to about 2,000 feet above launch, and decide to tour the area. We glide over Lac Annecy, toward the town of Annecy, toward the cliffs above launch, and then get a birds eye view of the castle we saw earlier.
Three hours later we circle over the landing zone, greeted by beautiful valley winds that allow for the perfect set up and tiptoe landing that dreams are made of. Spectacular!
The neat thing about flying in other countries is that foot launch aviation is embraced as a recreational sport. Like skiing there is an “Apres” flying. Every flying site that I have visited in Europe has a restaurant and bar at the landing zone. We folded the glider, packed it and the harness into the backpack and settled down at the local establishment for some sustenance and cheer.
We talk to pilots from around the word about flying. We share stories, questions on where are you from, exchange e-mail addresses and relish the sheer joy of camaraderie within the group. Pilots share a passion for this sport like none other, and all believe the quote from Leonardo Da Vinci: “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been, and there you will long to return.”
After the beer follies, Karen and I decide to go and chill by Lac Annecy for a picnic and to watch the beautiful sunset. We were graced with placid conditions, beautiful colors and a graceful swan, which I mistakenly called a goose. The swan was beautiful to watch, as the sunset was textbook perfect for a great end to a stellar day. I plan to visit Europe every other year now, and hopefully more. The environment is saturated with excitement and adventure just waiting for you to experience.
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