How we got “up in the air” together
My life changed dramatically when I met Basir December 2014 while I was holidaying with girlfriends in Rio de Janeiro. For one, after that day, I never looked at clouds in the same way. For me, clouds were background decoration that blended into landscapes. After just a few weeks of hanging out with Basir, I found myself mesmerized by the intricacies and depth of the sky. Basir would want to sit on the shores of the many beaches we visited while traveling south to Punta del Este, Uruguay and just spend hours looking up at the sky. He would point out local weather systems, over developments and call out names like cumulonimbus. As soon as Basir obtained his tandem license we were up in the air together and plans if any revolved around the unpredictability of the weather. Shortly thereafter I found myself waking up to the immediate insatiable desire to know the weather forecast. "Honey, what's the weather? Is it flyable?" were the first words uttered upon awakening.
After our South America encounter, Basir invited me to spend the European summer with him traveling around Europe. Our first tandem flight, summer of 2015 was on the west side of the Wasserkuppe, Germany. I looked on as others flew ahead of us and just remember being extremely nervous. Within minutes however, Basir got us all geared up and ready to go and there was no turning back. This is one quality that I greatly admire about him. When he makes up his mind about something he just totally goes for it. He wastes absolutely no time evaluating or hesitating. In these critical decisive moments, his focus and determination are razor sharp. It's like he has some deeper intuitive understanding that windows of opportunities are not endless and when they present themselves one has to step up and seize them. Our first flight was a sweet preview of so much more that was to come. The best part was the magical landing because he's a lot taller than me, one-foot difference, so my feet never touched the ground. And thus began our tandem flying escapades.
Shortly thereafter we found ourselves in Lüsen, Italy (Südtirol) for our first high (800 meter height difference) tandem flight. This was followed by a glorious sunrise flight from Plosen, Italy (Südtirol), which truth be told I don't know how the 4AM wake-up start nor the insanely cold weather didn't put me off forever. Then we were off to Lake Garda, Italy whereby we got our first tandem taste of some serious height (2K+ meters) taking off from Monte Baldo, Malcesine, Italy. Here we began to experiment with catching thermals, spirals and small wingovers. It felt good and I felt totally secure in the hands of Basir although perhaps a little cold, it's freaking cold at 2K+ meters even on a clear European summer day!
Basir stayed on in Europe for another month continuing to work guiding paragliding tours and instructing at Papillon Paragliding while I flew back to Sao Paulo, Brazil. During this month he excitedly told me all about the tandem wing and harness he was going to buy so that we could fly together this time in South America. Naturally the entire technicality of the specs of the equipment was totally lost on me. As far as I was concerned all wings were the same just different colors and brands. But the excitement in his voice and messages was obvious and contagious. Then he sent me information about Quixadá, Brazil in German (the extent of my German then was "hallo! Ich bin Maria") and followed it up with "Would you like to fly tandem with me there? It would be great to try to set a record." I had no idea what he was on about but it sounded like the ultimate experience and the competitive side of me was hooked on the idea of even trying to set a record let alone the random possibility of actually doing so. So I said Yes! A glimpse of the practicalities of what this actually meant came after. He eventually mentioned something about being up in the air potential for more than five hours at a time, being rescued in the middle of nowhere and extreme turbulent starts. He assured me for the rescue he would enlist Fly with Andy a pioneer in Quixadá distance flying and the undisputed best rescue service in Quixadá. Only now as I write this does it truly dawn on me the magnitude of what it really meant to even attempt Quixadá.
Basir arrived November 4th, 2015 to Sao Paulo, Brazil and by now Quixadá was already happening. The pressure was on and he frantically explained if we didn't arrive soon we would miss it all together. The thermic weather conditions, which allow for extraordinary distance flights in this particular part of Brazil in the state of Ceará run only from October to November. So with just days upon his arrival and only five tandem flights together we embarked on the notorious paragliding pilgrimage of so many experienced pilots around the world to famous Quixadá, Brazil. We arrived late in the afternoon after two connecting flights, a few hour bus ride and a 30-minute car ride to the hotel where Fly with Andy was headquartered. Basir ultra focused and anxious, wasted no time getting himself up in the air to check out the surrounding terrain. The weather forecast for the next morning was such that it was unknown whether wind speeds would allow anyone a chance to fly. As such, the next morning I was on stand-by not really knowing whether we would fly together or whether Basir would fly alone or not at all. Welcome to paragliding or "parawaiting" as I affectionately have coined it. You have to be patiently on standby just on the off chance that the golden window of opportunity presents itself. Conditions that morning were insane with wind speeds reaching up to 50 kilometers per hour. I literally thought I would be blown away while standing at the top of the starting field! Needless to say, no one even attempted to start and this said a lot given the abundance of experienced and really crazy pilots in attendance. This gave us a much-needed day to rest and work out the practicality of distance flying such as flight routes, snacks, water and bathroom options, you get the picture!
The next morning the wind had died down a bit but the conditions were still too rough for a tandem start so Basir decided it was best to fly alone especially given this would be his first attempt at Quixadá. As Basir stood in line waiting his turn, I watched the experienced pilots and record holders one after another withstand the treacherous wind conditions and rise straight up as if their souls were being exorcised straight to heaven. It was sincerely like this and unlike any other starts I had previously seen during my travels to the paragliding sites in Europe. By the time Basir was third in line the inexplicable happened. A pilot rose beautifully to his ascend but unlike the rest, he had a massive collapse and was projected backwards like a missile flying straight into bushes just missing the hut where I stood frozen. His body continued to be propelled backwards straight over the mountain. Silence and fear of the unknown filled the void. Did the pilot manage to regain control of his wing for a turbulent but safe landing or did he descend to the dry rocky terrain plummeting to his death? With uncertainty still in the air, many began to step out of the starting line including the pilot waiting in front of Basir. Yet I looked on desperately as Basir held on to his position to remain and wait his turn. My heart was in suspense with every pilot that took off after that, truly realizing what a miracle it was to rise and fly without complications and understanding for the first time the stakes at play. Basir's takeoff was a safe one and I was briefly at ease but staying behind on the ground waiting anxiously with anticipation was unbearable. I tracked him online and as long as the spot was moving I knew he was ok. That evening during dinner news of the pilot who had the incident circulated the table. He had been extremely lucky and managed a safe landing rushed to the hospital only for a check up on his heart as he was pretty shaken up by the experience.
For the next consecutive three days, we would fly together with an entire support crew around us. Two people to hold down each side of the wind, Paulo, the notorious master of ceremony at the top of the starting field signaling the best window for taking off and one guy to secure my body in place for those critical seconds when the wing is pulled through the power zone. In addition to the wonderful entire Fly with Andy team that tracked us while we were up in the air and on standby to rescue us wherever we might land. Two of the starts were seamless and the third dragged us up and knocked us down to the ground. Startled by how quickly the sequence of events had unfolded I shouted to Basir "Are we still going for it?" He responded, "Yes" and without second-guessing his judgment I propelled my body forward just ever so slightly missing the bushes underneath us trusting we would be lifted to the sky. The first hour of our flights was spent fighting to gain and maintain height hovering right over the starting field waiting for the unpredictable golden moment when at best judgment the thermals were starting to take off. Thermals are created when variances in air temperatures exist.
Here in Quixadá cold air is powerfully dragged in at dusk coming in from the seacoast of Fortaleza. By 6am, the rise of the powerful sun blazing over the dry, rocky and desolate landscape of Quixadá starts to heat things up and thus you get incredible and very powerful thermals. To catch a thermal first you have to find one and then circle into it withstanding the volatility and turbulence. Imagine flying in a circle round and round and round with the occasional 6+ meter per second unexpected drops, lifts and bumps. All while maintaining your wing inflated and maintaining alertness to any sudden collapses. Reaching heights of up to 3,000+ meters of freezing cold air and then slowly feeling the air warm up in line with your descending ratio as you search for the next thermal, if you find it. And this is where the exhilaration of distance flying lies. "A Save" being the most exhilarating of all moments. It happened so many times rising to incredible heights from one thermal to the next "a winning streak" from which you deem it's almost impossible to fall. Then unexpectedly it's followed by a dry spell whereby your search for the next thermal turns up unfruitful and you plummet with every passing second. This is where the psychology of the sport comes in and it truly tests your inner centeredness. Remaining calm during this critical phase can be the difference between bombing out or saving the flight. When you are hovering just a few meters above ground with the only certainty being that nothing is certain and you have moments to make a decision with limited information, the pressure is on. Do you risk it and fly over water and/or even over the next mountain range in hopes that you will get picked up by a thermal and thus save the flight or do you search for the nearest and safest landing option in sight. It's a delicate balance of risk assessment and the ultimate challenge of decision making with very high stakes. While flying solo you carry the consequences of your decisions solely on yourself tandem raises these stakes, as your decisions have consequences for two.
We flew up to 70 kilometers of distance spending more than five hours up in the air. This might seem endless to most people but with very high levels of alertness and adrenaline there is nowhere to be but in the present moment and as such the hours up in the air passed by effortlessly. We had a few miraculous saves and many spontaneous landings anywhere from someone's backyard attracting curious crowds of children from the neighborhood to desolate dessert fields with nothing in sight but thorny bushes and the occasional horse or cow. Upon landing, besides the immediate bathroom break, we would desperately strip off the multiple layers of clothing required to stay warm at high altitudes but completely superfluous on the scorching hot dessert grounds. Basir was free to make all of the decisions even though occasionally he would brief me on the potential risks "what should we do babycakes?" he would ask. My response was always the same "I trust your judgment."
After Quixadá, we continued our tandem streak while traveling around Brazil. We ventured to Canoa Quebrada in Fortaleza and Caraguatatuba, Camburi, Sao Vicente and Antibaia in Sao Paulo state. Followed by Pedra Bonita, Niteroi, Sampaio Correa, Secretario and Petropolis in Rio de Janeiro state. At some point along the journey, we decided to base ourselves in Rio de Janeiro increasing our chances of the possibility for a "Cristo" flight. By "Cristo" I am referring to the iconic Jesus Christ statue better known as "Christ the Redeemer" perched at the top of the Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro. This was something that Basir had already attempted while flying solo the previous year but had yet to achieve. It was an unspoken thorny elephant in the room. It's an understatement to say he was "Christ" obsessed. As a Rio pilot described the odds to me when I naively mentioned we were hoping for a "Cristo" flight, "I have been living and flying in Rio for 16 years without ever reaching "Cristo", It's every pilot's dream, good luck!" During our entire stay in Rio upon awakening along with the usual "honey, how's the weather?" I now followed it up with "Is it a Cristo day?" If there was even the slightest chance, then up to Pedra Bonita we went to play the "parawaiting" game. The weather conditions have to be just right for it even to be possible. This required a cold front to come through followed by rainless sunny days creating air temperature differences necessary for sufficient thermic activity to carry you all the way to Christ. If these unique weather conditions align and on average it only happens a few times per year, then you've got yourself a classic Cristo day. As so many pilots can attest, this however does not actually guarantee you a Cristo flight. In fact prior to our triumphant achievement, we had two prior classic Cristo opportunities one which didn't work out because we were too late and missed the window and another for which we were away in the countryside to Basir's immense disappointment.
Just one week before our one-way flight to Germany and on the morning when we were scheduled to travel to the beaches of Camburi in Sao Paulo state with Basir's visiting mother. I woke up to "Babycakes it's a Cristo day!!!" So instead of driving south to relax on the unspoiled beaches of Sao Paulo's northern coastline, we were geared up and driven up to the top of Pedra Bonita by Basir's mother. So there we were circling for at least 1.5 hours after take off and yet we couldn't get past Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela with sufficient height to clear the massive sea of congested concrete. When our height dropped beyond the safe limit we disappointedly headed for a beach landing on the northern side of Sao Conrado Beach. Most people would have called it a day and started their beach holiday. We had already invested the time up the mountain, an hour of waiting for a flyable window and 1.5 hours of fruitless thermal circling with a bomb out less than 5 kilometers from where we had started! It was now high noon and we were sweating like pigs while packing up the gear. But relentless Basir would not give up. He knew this was it, the last opportunity before our flight back to Germany so we hailed a cab and made our way right back up the mountain. It was just incredible the second time around, each segment of the journey patiently unfolded itself step by step. First, we made it past Rocinha and over a pivotal point with just enough height over a massive row of power lines. We circled patiently right up to the power lines until atlas we had enough height to clear them. Then the next challenge was past the dense jungles of Parque de Tijuca clearing yet another set of power lines. This part required the most amount of patience because the thermic activity was right above the power lines so it was a delicate dance between harnessing the desperately needed thermic activity without getting tangled up in the power lines. The entire time looking down at the forest trying to keep images of a tree landing out of my mind especially in those moments where the bottom of my shoes almost brushed up upon the treetops! The last mountain range lined with telephone antennas was the last challenge keeping us from Cristo and it was probably the most psychologically challenging point of the journey. When we cleared this point we could finally see the Crist statue in the distance and we approached it slowly with a steady descending rate arriving just at the feet, shortly thereafter catching what seemed like endless thermic activity and rising above the head. We enjoyed a good 45 minutes of flying around the Cristo statue with visitors at the statue looking on and waving at us with excitement. It was an exhilarating and surreal exchange of greetings. Ironically the way back to Sao Conrado Beach only took a small fraction of the time as we continued to catch the now uber vibrant thermic activity.
A mental barrier had been broken. The impossible was now so clearly possible opening up the mind to so many more infinite possibilities. As if a farewell Christ flight was not sufficient on our last day in Rio de Janeiro when we clearly should have been packing and preparing for our departure, Basir impulsively and without proper planning other than the weather report suggested it might be flyable, announced we climb Gavea with our gear in the hopes of flying down. The 850-meter hike up at high noon in the steamy jungle was a killer and midway with little water and no food we simply crumbled to the ground for a 30-minute nap. Recharged we finished the last and most difficult part of the hike to the top of Gavea. At which point I have never been so motivated to fly down as the idea of hiking back was enough to suicide jump no matter what. It would be a tricky start but Basir said it "should" work if all went well. Luckily it did and it was the best start ever. We had a little bit of free a fall before the wing fully inflated and gently floated us up. It was a spectacular ending to an amazing and memorable Brazilian summer. So this is how I ended "up in the air" flying in the arms of an angel at the feet and over the head of the Christ statue and then some.