From its humble origins to hosting the paragliding World Cup, world-famous Bir-Billing marks the full turn of the wheel for the sport in India. Maxim flies high to find out what the sport is all about.
By Vivek Mukherji
From the mythical Daedalus and his son, Icarus, to the modern jetman, Yves Rossy, defying gravity to soar in the sky has moved mortals and immortals alike to take leaps of faith through the dog-eared pages of history. That Icarus, trying to escape from Crete along with his father, got consumed by hubris and fell in the sea, while Rossy continues to fly across new frontiers with a jet-pack strapped to his back are two wildly different stories. But the myth and the modern marvel of technology are strung together by the same flight of fancy that motivates men and women to leap off mountain faces suspended from a flimsy nylon canopy.
Among the purists of flying, paragliding is as pure as it gets. There are very few more free-spirited endeavours than chasing the winds and riding thermals in the sky. And those who can appease the wind god (for travelling forward) and sun god (for generating columns of warm air that are necessary for vertical lift) fly far and high, much to the awe of mortals on the ground.
Though paragliding is predominantly dominated by Europeans, with the French in particular ruling the skies, Indians are slowly but surely warming to this finest form of aero sport. If anything else, the recently concluded AAI Paragliding World Cup—the first in South Asia—that was held in Bir and Billing in Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh put more wind in the sails of the sport in India.
The genesis of the sport in the country is intrinsically linked to Billing (the take-off point for paragliders perched at 3,400 metres) and Bir (the landing site). In between, hemmed by the towering giants of the Dhauladhar range in the north and the shallow and sweeping valleys in the south and west, this iis one of the most picturesque destinations for flying anywhere in the world. Created by the scalpel of nature, Bir-Billing offers a flying radius of more than 120 km in either direction, making it one of the most unique flying sites on the planet. It’s a fact that is endorsed by the aces in the sport. “There aren’t too many places like this in the world where you get such perfect conditions for paragliding on a good day. The high mountain ridges generate strong thermals that are ideal for gaining elevation and the shallow and wide valleys below generate very stable wind patterns that allow pilots to fly great distances in this area,” says Maxime Pinot, one of the top French pilots.
Unaided flying as a sport is of more recent vintage in India. At best, its roots
are just about three decades old. Among the many legends that float in the wind in these parts, the one about a solitary tea seller and two Europeans in Billing is particularly quaint.
The story goes that sometime in the early 1980s when two Britons, Neil Kinnear and Keith Nichols, wound their way to Billing with hang gliders in tow, which till then was known as a resting place for the nomadic shepherds of the Himalaya, little did they know that they were seeding the sport in the country. Cacha, as a tea seller is known in these mountains, offered the two foreigners shelter and food, while they leapt off the mountain faces, to soar high into the sky. As the news of two men flying like birds spread like wildfire in the neighbouring areas, men, women and children craned their necks skywards to see what to them appeared as nothing short of a godly feat.
As time rolled on, the fame of Bir-Billing and that of the tea seller as the guardian angel of paragliders spread far and wide. The tea seller has long gone on the great hike in the mountains, but his stone and mud hut, where his nephew, Puran, still continues to ply his trade, remains as a throwback to the years gone by when flying was just another pursuit in search of the unknown.
The paragliding World Cup, hosted by the Billing Paragliding Association, provided the opportunity to the best of Indian flyers to rub shoulders with the marquee names in the sport. Some of the biggest names in the sport such as Jurij Vidic of Slovenia, the legendary Julian Wirtz of France, Torsten Siegel of Germany, Andre Rainsford of South Africa, Xevi Bonet Dalmau of Spain were among the 121 pilots who jumped off the mountain face at Billing the in first paragliding World Cup to be held in India. “Irrespective of the result, I have enjoyed every moment here. Flying over 100 km during the tasks is what we paragliders yearn for,” said Wirtz.
Though Indian pilots lagged behind their European counterparts, they still managed to walk away from the competition with their heads held high. “In paragliding, learning continues till the last day a pilot flies. Flying in the lead pack with the best is a very valuable learning experience. It’s not that we don’t have the basics in place; it’s the finer aspects that make the difference in the final outcome. In this sport it’s all about finesse instead of brute strength,” says Ajay Kumar from Manali, who topped among the Indians by finishing the competition in 31st place.
The record books might show that one Michael Kuffer from Switzerland won his first World Cup title in Bir-Billing, but the sheer majesty of the place enthralled all, even those who featured way down on the results sheet. “Winning the World Cup is like the cherry on the cake. Obviously, I am delighted to win the first ever World Cup event to be hosted in India, but for me the beauty of the terrain, the near-perfect flying conditions that allowed us to perform long tasks and the generosity of the people in these parts are a lot more valuable memories that I am taking back from Bir-Billing,” said Kuffer.
There are very few more free-spirited endeavours than chasing the winds and ridingthermals in the sky.
The Zen of flying
Paragliding is perhaps the simplest form of flying. The pilot usually launches from a high point and lands on a lower piece of land, which ideally should be flat and without any obstructions.
A pilot relies on two things in paragliding: columns of warm air rising from the valley floor called thermals, and wind. Once a pilot locates a thermal, he or she gains altitude by manoeuvring the glider in wide circles. When pilots achieve an altitude of 3,000-4,000 metres, they gain horizontal distance by using the prevailing winds. When they start losing altitude during the forward movement, they hop on to the next thermal to repeat the process.
Every morning before the take-off, the tournament director assigns a task to the competitors. A task is the flight path that pilots need to take between the take-off point and the landing site. A typical task varies between 70 and 100 km. Points are awarded for speed, accuracy and leading a pack of pilots. A maximum of 1,000 points are awarded for collecting all the way points, leading and attaining the highest speed.
Anatomy of a glider
Canopy/wing: The canopy is made by stitching together strips made from high-performance double-layer nylon. The joints, called ribs, contain multiple cells that trap air that’s rammed through the leading edge of the canopy, which inflates the canopy.
Harness: It’s the seat of the glider in which the pilot sits. The harness is attached to the canopy with the help of carabiners. The harness is equipped with multiple straps that allow the pilot to adjust the sitting posture for optimum efficiency and manoeuvrability.
Lines: Rows of cords attached to the underside of the canopy that are used to control the canopy. Cords attached to the trailing edge of the chute are used for braking, while those attached to the sides are called risers that the pilot uses to manoeuvre the glider.
Speed bar: It’s a bar at the foot of the pilot that allows him to control the speed by changing the angle of the leading edge of the canopy, making it more streamlined.
Navigation: Competitive pilots are equipped with a number of devices such as GPS, altimeter, variometer and radio. The variometer tells the pilot the rate of ascent or descent by beeping, while the GPS helps them navigate the flight path (task) for the day.
Reserve Parachute: Pilots carry a smaller parachute that they deploy for emergency landing in case the main glider collapses.