Monday, November 2, 2015

Paragliding in Himalayas, Bir, India

Flying in Himalayas
Bir Billing is a small village surrounded by big mountains famous for paragliding in Himachal Pradesh state of India. The best time to visit is either fall October - November or spring in April. Fall is more popular because of milder and more consistent weather.

Getting there. It's a long way to get there from US, it took me 42 hours door to door. You can fly west through China or Japane or east through UK, UAE or Germany, but in any case it's around 20-24 hours to get to New Delhi. From Delhi you have few options. Most convenient and most expensive is taxi, which cost $120-$150 depending on car size and it will take around 12 hours. You can order through hotel in Bir where you plan to stay. Bus is only $20 departing from Kashmiri Gate and time is similar to taxi.

Visa. Most nations including US and Russian citizens need to apply for visa. You can apply for regular visa $100 and it's good for 10 years or e-Tourist Visa $60 single entry up to 30 days only, stamped on arrival.
Sangrai Guesthouse
Accommodations. I was staying Sangrai Guesthouse, neat hotel 2 km from main landing field. There are a dozen other places where you can stay with very affordable prices $5-$15. You can make reservation via email or phone, some even provide Wi-Fi, but in my case it was available during 3 days out of 12. Since most of the places are in Tibetan Colony Protected/Restricted Area Permit also required. This year was different because of PWC, permits was available in Bir, but normally you have to go to Dharamsala to get it.

Food. My favorite places was Garden Cafe for breakfast, Nyingma Kitchen for dinner. Hotel Surya also serves excellent food, but it's slightly more expensive and crowded. Typical meal cost is around $3-$5. Make sure you try Ginger Lemon Honey tea and Masala chai. Because in the religion of Hinduism, cow is thought to be sacred animal there is no beef food, but you can order mutton or chicken. I also recommend to try Momo (dumplings) and Thukpa (soup) delicious Tibetan food. Expect 30-40 minutes delays if place is crowded.
Bir launch
Flying regulations. On the way to launch there is a block station and a person check and issue flying permits. It cost $8 per week and you will need to provide copy of passport's main page, copy of Indian visa, 2 pictures and copy of your national flight license. As long as you pay money you can get through and bring missing documents later. You also sign a waiver stating that you are not going to fly into big mountains.
Flying main range in Bir, India
Flying main range. On the good days you can launch as early as 10:00 am. Typical flight is 60 miles Flight to Dharamsala and back. Overdevelopment is common and cloud base getting lower during the day. Conditions are relatively mild compared to South California and especially Sierra Nevada and Owens valley. In terms of skills you should be at least P3 to fly comfortably. Most of the time launch is in no wind conditions. Main landing is huge, but it's on the slight down slope, so overshoots and stalls close to the ground are common here among unprepared pilots. I recommend to walk LZ before your first flight. If you fly to Dharamsala and not make it back landings become very difficult with lots of power lines running in all possible directions. There is also a military base near Palampur. I recommend to upload a list of good LZs into your GPS and rely on them. Another good and common flight is to Mandi, opposite direction from Dharamsala. It's more technical because of lowering terrain, but usually this area stays clear from overdelopment later in the day.
Main Bir LZ
Flying back range. Big mountains are inviting, but don't underestimate your skills and risks involved. The deeper you fly the less people and roads you encounter with prospect of hike out can take several days or in case of serious injury your chances to survive are slim. Even if you push "SOS" button on your SPOT or lucky to have cell phone reception no one is going to come and rescue you, there is no such service in India, you can only rely on yourself and your good friends. Our group was fully prepared with bivi gear, water and food for couple days, tree recuse gear, first aid kit and most importantly we had support team in Bir. Both SPOT and DeLorme satellite trackers works fine, but unfortunately they are illegal in India. Worst thing you can do is to call from satellite phone another phone with Indian sim card, police will show up sooner than you think. Now back to the flying. From the start you cross first valley to the north and climb up using a ridges to 14K peaks. Typical wind aloft is from north east (head wind), and wind strength is very important. If it's more than 5 miles per hour on 14K you don't want to continue and can just glide out south back to main ridge. If wind is light you cross next valley to the east and continue to the lake. From here you can keep flying east toward Manali or turn south and exit to the main ridge. Later flight called "Big Loop", which is 25 miles FAI triangle. I did this flight 3 times with highest cloud base been 16K and lowest 12.5K.
Big Loop 1, looking east

Big Loop 2, looking east
Flight to Prashar Lake. I had the best flight of the trip on my last flying day in Bir. We started from "Big Loop" flight and then debated to continue to Manali or try to fly to Prashar Lake, located near Mandi. Flight to Manali would be more spectacular, crossing higher terrain, but 7 hours on the bus to get back was discouraging, so we choose Prashar. There is a distinctive mountain range going to the lake and there was a nice cloud street running above it, however with low cloud base it took me awhile to establish on the range.
Under the clouds

Ridge toward Prashar Lake
We was probably 7 miles from the lake when one pilot in our group had a cravat very close to terrain and was forced to throw reserve. She landed 100 meters from the top of the ridge in the forest, unscratched. There was a good field for top landing lower and after considering our options second pilot landed to assist with hike out.
Crash spot

Escape route
It was long night for the 2, covering more than 15 miles and navigating via goat's trails. I could not join the party since I was leaving Bir next day and attempted to fly back. I tried to cross main ridge near Mandi, but there was a strong valley wind from Kullu valley down low and I almost landed. Defeated I scratched for half an hour drifting back north to the higher mountains and eventually topped out under the clouds. Clock was running fast, day and conditions fading and shade from enormous cloud on my course line become bigger. I had one more attempt to cross main ridge near the only paved road across it and I failed. All was going well until I got closer to the ridge with probably 200 meters to spare, but flying though the lee I lost all my spare altitude and now was facing a difficult landing in the small village. Good approach, few wingovers and I'm on the ground in one piece, happy to be alive. Whole village was there to greet me and watched how I packed my staff.

Landing out in a small village
2 mans was enthusiastic to accompany me to paved road and also helped to carry my 50 pounds backpack. It took us 2 hours to get down to the canyon, cross small river and hiked back up to the road. 15 minutes later taxi stopped and after another 2 hours I was back in Bir buying my bus tickets. My flying buddies come back only in the middle of next day, we was very fortunate that no one get injured.

Camping at 360. It was a fun experience with 10+ pilots, tales around fire at night and waking up to see sunrise. The only challenge was to pack all camping gear and fly overloaded glider, I think I was at least 10 kg above max weight (105 kg total) and Mantra did not want to turn at all. Second time I managed to get less staff and at 102 kg it was much better.
360 camp site


Safety. During my stay there were 120 PWC pilots and probably 200+ free flyers and there was few accidents pretty much every single day with one fatality after I get back home. So let me list few very important items that most of you know very well, but worth repeating over and over again.
Unknown pilot descending on Beamer near Bir main LZ
  • Launch. Bir had an excellent launch in my opinion, but still some pilots had issues. Practice no wind launch.
  • Flights. Mostly they are straightforward, but there was at least 2 mid air, few cloud suck. Make sure you have a compass, GPS can freeze or simply does not work in the clouds. Pay attention to cloud development and have a good margin for escape if it's going to OD.
  • Landings. Don't stall your glider if you overshoot. Land as far from houses and villages as possible, since there are a lot of power lines. Practice top landing and spot landing at home site, it will be very useful in India.
  • Carry tree rescue kit and practice how to use it. I think that at least basic mountaineering experience is mandatory for any serious XC pilot.
  • Warm waterproof clothes, water and food for 2 days is mandatory, if you land on the tree or in the mountains don't try to hike out during the night.
  • Have fun. If it's not fun anymore go to land.

My Video.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

SoCal XC League: Laguna Mt. to Lake Hemet, 50 miles flight

I still remember my first flight from Laguna 3 years ago, when I made mistake not to follow convergence, so I had obligation to come back and flew entire route. 1 week before the league forecast was great, but we was unable to get a team since it was Mother's day holiday. Surprisingly second weekend in a row we had another window to fly Laguna. You need light east wind, which is very rare event.

Palm Springs is a good goal for such flight, since it's shaded from Banning Pass wind, which normally picking up later in the day to dreadful 30+ mph. But to save 1:30 hours on retrieve time Aaron set goal just north east from Anza, so we don't need to drive down to Palm Springs and back. We also was thinking to tag Mt. San Jacinto outside of official task. Elapsed time, meaning you can start flying task as soon as you want was helpful too.

Mt. Laguna PG launch
I launched first at 11:16 followed by Len and Mark. We flew to start way-point at SPINES, but then Len took more straight line to Granite, while me and Mark spend more time trying to get higher before long transition.
Laguna launch from air

Flying with Len and Mark
I got pretty nasty 75% asymmetric collapse just near the spines, it came out ok with quite a surge.

We topped out at 7500 ft over Granite Mt. and went left toward VOLCAN to join convergence, which was already marked by nice fluffy clouds.
Getting into convergence near Volcan
I can see Len in front and Mark with Peter to my right with Aaron, Jason and Jerome following in a short distance behind. Ridge was working great and we all flew fast here, but split in the end of valley. Peter, Jerome and Aaron took left (west) route along San Felipe Rd., Mark right (east) toward Ranchita, Len and me center. Greg and Jason followed Mark shortly after.
Looking toward Ranchita from Volcan ridge
Crossing S22 highway, Ranchita on my right
Mark got low and landed, Jason and Greg turn left and was following me. I hoped to follow Len, but lost sight of him. Turned out he chose the best line in the middle of mountains. Warner Springs flats was not working, strong west wind was pushing through, Jerome and Peter landed way out in flats. Aaron was able to adjust his line toward the mountains quick enough and then 4 of us (me, Aaron, Jason and Greg) all meet in the same thermal.
Aaron on his blue Delta 2

Jason on orange Niviuk Artik
Greg left first taking a deep line even more east then Len. Jason apparently did not like strong wind and significant drift toward the mountains, he tried to push forward and eventually landed. I end up flying with Aaron, taking small climbs and fighting with west wind. Altitude was only 7500 ft, ridiculously low for crossing Hot Springs Mountains.
Flying near Warner Springs
Slowly we was making our progress to the north. Russ had a slow start, he had a cravat, spent a lot of time fighting it, end up low and behind everyone, but keep flying and eventually catch up with us. Aaron missed one of the best thermals, which allow me and Russ to fly over the back to Chilhuahua valley, but recovered and was following us, however never catch up again.
Gliding to Chilhuahua valley
Flying with Russ
After we crossed Chilhuahua valley and climbed on the other side we had enough altitude to transition to Anza valley, which was completely shaded, regardless we can glide for 10 miles without a single turn maintaining our altitude.
Flying above Anza
We crossed Thomas Mountain range already in 4 km goal cylinder, but still need to tag last way point 5 miles north of us. Wind was strong from the west. Russ opted for lee side of Thomas Mt. and I crossed valley first to be on windward side. While climbing I spotted Len who tag the last waypoint and was heading for goal. Huge cloud was growing over San Jacinto and even on full speed bar, hurrying to waypoint I was going up quite fast. Just 1 km before waypoint's radius I decided to bail, cloud was below me and small exit to my left toward the sun start closing as well, I have to spiral down few times to lose altitude slowly pushing out from the monster cloud.
Monster cloud.
My track:

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Cayucos to Morro Rock flight

We was visiting Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, great place to spend few days with family. I also brought my paraglider and climbing gear to dilute hiking. Tim was in town and agreed to give me Cayucos introduction. As he explained it can be ridge soaring, thermals, convergence flying or any combinations of the 3. Launch is 700 ft above sea level, so if it's not working sled ride to LZ across highway 1 is just few minutes. We waited patiently while morning offshore north east switched to WNW.
Cayucos Launch
It was obvious that even after the switch it does not work near launch, cycles was too light, but first pilot decided to verify his luck anyway. 4 minutes later he was packing glider on LZ. Tim was next to go, but he was able to push upwind across highway and maintain altitude. I launched next at 11:34 ready for sledder. I spent few minutes near launch and then went on glider to join Tim.
Cayucos Launch from air
Going upwind through strong sink with only few hundred feet to spare was quite worrying moment. By highway 1 I only had 300 ft, but luckily that's where I entered convergence. William Delay my old friend from San Francisco and North Cal. XC league pilot was flying with us as well. He was able to join us shortly after, but next pilot after him could not get through sink and decided to land on side of the hill.
William Deley flying over the beach
First we attempted to go north, but convergence disappear and we turned around. After half an hour Tim and William departed southbound toward the Morro Rock and I followed. I wasted some time trying to thermal, but soon realized that even 1 cycle put me lower, so I stop doing it and just fly south.
Tim and William landing on the beach
10 minutes later we all arrived to the Rock. Wind was already picking up and no one want to tag a rock, because you can easily end up parked in the strong wind with only option to fly over the back.
Morro Rock
It was hard to get down, but after some maneuvers I landed at 12:20. Tim's friend gave us a ride back and few hours later when driving back to San Luis Obispo out of curiosity I decided to check wind at the Rock. It was at least 25-35 mph by that time, so good thing we landed early.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

SoCal XC League: Marshall to Soboba, 34 miles

After flying from Marshall to Soboba and back last year I want to confirm that route works even without clouds and with moderate SW wind. Crossing I-10 between Redlands and Calimesa is far enough from Banning pass (with strong Venturi effect). Even if wind does pick up there is a plenty of space to land before the pass. After Redlands terrain is raising and line along this little ridge provides buoyant air, which is pushed from valley below by west wind.

Aaron was kind enough and agreed with the task, cloud base was good, but not epic, the best altitude I get was only 7K. It was great to see Len Szafaryn old time comp pilot decided to join us. We need PWC level pilots to learn from and I'm certainly missing flying with Eric, Josh, Dean and other top pilots. Flying his M6 Len was leading with Aaron and Peter close behind, then Mark, Me and Russ in the second gaggle. Our gaggle stop by at McKinley while lead gaggle skip it going directly to Harrison. While we was climbing Dmitry and Ziggy joined us as well and then both gaggles merged at Harrison.

Aaron decided to leave first, but flying more toward the Dam, not the route I want. Everyone else went directly toward Redlands airport and Brewery, climbing here and there, Aaron turn around and flew back to re-join the gaggle, but arrived much lower then everyone else. Lesson: don't get too far from the gaggle, especially when flying flats and route is not obvious. Len also could leave Harrison just by himself, with probably 10 minutes lead, but he choose to wait for a gaggle.

Our new lead gaggle was Len, Dmitry, Peter, me, Russ and Ziggy, but we split just before crossing I-10. I took more south line pushing upwind and Russ joined me, while everyone else opted for more direct line going south-east. Len and Dmitry did not get anything and pushed all the way to the ground landing near last way point (Fisherman's Retreat). Ziggy and Peter took a climb with strong drift toward the pass and become new lead gaggle of 2. We got separated with Russ and I took another climb, while he missed my thermal, pushed forward and landed too. Jeff, Tom and Paul took completely different line flying over Yucaipa.

There was interesting battle happening in front. Ziggy was now leading with Peter not far behind him, however Peter's line was better and Ziggy eventually stuck in the ugly looking canyon with power lines he could not cross and have to land. Peter made it first to Soboba with 2:42 time.

Crossing bad lands. Soboba visible ahead.
I spend too much time tanking up with altitude before crossing bad lands, so Peter was unreachable for me, I only hear him on radio reporting been on final glide to Soboba. I successfully crossed lad lands, but should probably take more direct line (faster and more buoyant based on Peter's track).
Banning pass, San Gorgonio (left), San Jacinto (right)
I had low save right over Gilman Springs Rd, climbing from 2500 ft to 5800 ft and then finishing second with 2:57 time. And two more pilots made goal. Jeff 3:06 and Tom 3:12, Ziggy was only 5 miles short and could easily win the day with one more thermal.
Peter, me, Jeff and Tom
Soboba Fly-in was in full action when we arrived. Cold beer was well deserved refreshment (Thanks Steve).

Results and Tracks:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Marshall to Kagel flight, 63 miles

Finally I was able to link these 2 sites with a great flight. Usual 10:00 am meet up at LZ and we was ready to fly at 11:00, but conditions did not look optimal with some cycles coming from north and some from south. On the switch day I would like to have at least 20 min of consistent wind from south before launching, but this was not the case today. In fact poor HGs who choose to launch from Crestline that day was not able to launch because wind never switched. Despite north cycles I decided to launch at 12:22 (actually Tavis was 30 seconds ahead of me) with few other pilots including Russ, Eric and Paul. It was a good timing because north wind got stronger and other pilots including Ziggy stuck on launch for another 30 to 60 minutes. I climbed right to 8300 ft and start my journey westbound. Russ was first to cross, but stuck near Glen Helen and me, Eric and Tavis was able to catch up.
Eric crossing highway 15
Jonathan was rushing to Pine Mt., getting low there, flying all the way back to Cloud, recovering and making a second lap also catch up with us around that time. He choose deeper line toward Cucamonga peak and I joined him, while everyone else took more south line over the crest. Our line was better because wind was from the north and we stay on windward side, plus it was shorter. Then we all meet over Cucamonga except Jonathan who already crossed Mt. Baldy Rd. and had serious lead on us (does hang gliders fly faster or what?). We topped out around 11K and went over Ontario Peak. Beautiful scenery, especially snow on the peaks. I noticed blue Delta 2 flying deep line and was pretty sure that it's Ziggy flying with me. Only after we made it to Kagel I learned that it was Paul. Same glider, same color and the same flying style leaving thermals early and committing to deep lines without landable options.
Baldy Mt. (middle), Ontario (left)
There was north to north easy wind, so pushing upwind toward Baldy was out of the question. Next section was the most difficult part of the route, I know it very well from my previous Kagel to Marshall attempts. Surprisingly all of us made it though, but via different lines. Front points typically very windy and you can stuck there forever, so I and blue Delta 2 choose deep line, Eric and Tavis went to the front and Russ split the difference. We got a good climb with Paul after crossing highway 39, but still not enough altitude to glide directly to Monrovia on the back ridge and made slight detour toward Mt. Bliss.
Looking south toward Azusa

Monrovia Peak ahead
Now I was in the lead and pilots who took front line have to climb out from low altitudes and catch up. Time was 15:45 near Monrovia Peak and I start worrying about SW breeze. It could materialize any minute and that's pretty much end of the game. I pushed bar and stop taking thermals with few exceptions where they was absolutely necessary.
Mt. Wilson
As it turned out taking climb near Big T to 7.6K was important for making goal. It's near Big T where I first encounter SW breeze, strong and laminar air blocking thermal activity and slowing down my progress. I can't even clear Trash and have to go around and ridge soar to the top. But finally I flew by Kagel launch:

Jonathan was first to complete the route landing at 16:30 after tagging West Towers as well, I was second at 17:30, then Tavis 5 minutes later and finally Paul. Russ was only 1 mile short from LZ, he landed in front of Trash and hiked to LZ. Eric landed in Big Tujunga Canyon. I also met Greg Kendall (HG) near Monrovia Peak who flew opposite direction from Kagel to Marshall.

Me, Jonathan and Tavis at Kagel LZ
Tracks: AlexTavisRussGreg
Discussions: Kagel ForumCrestline Forum

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Palomar Fly-in

Palomar launch
My first time flying from Palomar. It's around 2:00 hours and 115 miles drive for me. Good large launch, excellent LZ, but XC potential is not very interesting. Site is located in the middle between Horse/Laguna Mt. and Marshall/Crestline and typically way off of east/west convergence line, so there is no point to start XC here unless this site is next to your home. Longest flight in Leonardo 33 miles by Eric Kolberg to Borrero Springs track

Palomar flying along the crest
Fly-in was a great event with many old and new friends. Conditions was weak during afternoon, but improving later in the day. I was able to punch though the inversion and flew with Dmitry few miles east along the crest and then come back. Nice party afterwards.
Palomar LZ
My track: