Flying with raptors at the Indian Open
by Andy Maloney
A chance to fly in a competition in India, all expenses except getting yourself to Delhi covered by the US$100 entry fee, was too good an offer to miss. Himachal Tourism were sponsoring the competition - the 3rd Pre-World Cup event held at Bir in Himachal Pradesh, in the Himalayan foothills.
I’d been warned that although the flying was excellent, the organisation could be haphazard. Travelling with my partner Chris by train from Nepal, I had the first inkling of this when I phoned up Himachal Tourism to arrange a pick up from the station. The conversation went something like this:
“I’m arriving on the train from Ghorakpur at 2pm” “OK Sir, which flight number?” “No, I’m arriving by train, at Delhi Station” “Yes Sir, by train. What is your flight number?”
I gave up on the pick up, and we made our way to the Himachal Tourism hotel (where the bus was leaving for Bir) by ourselves.
The bus was a marathon 15 hour overnight journey- on twisty, bumpy roads. Not a good night’s sleep! We arrived in Bir (pronounced Beer) late morning the next day. A tent camp had been set up, but nobody was there to greet us, tell us where to go, what to do, etc., which would have been a nice touch!
We dumped our gear in a convenient tent, and with Zabdi and Jamie (UK pilots), caught a taxi up the hill to Billing for an afternoon flight.
Billing is the name of the smallest village in the world (one tea shop, one Tibetan family, and a take-off site), at 2450m, a vertical kilometre above Bir. The launch was nice and big with short grass, looking down on beautiful Rhododendron arboretum forest.
I thought a nice boat around the hill would be enough for the day - I’d had no flying since Annecy (France) 3 months previously. The local vulture population had other ideas, though. Shortly after take off, I felt a vibration through the wing, and looked up at my deformed canopy - a vulture had landed on top! Another was just behind the trailing edge with its claws out. I had no idea if they liked shredding canopies for fun (I found out later they are okay), so I did some sharp turns to dislodge them. They followed me closely, with movements synchronised to mine. I left the thermal to shake them off, but they just followed me out above Bir, staying within beak-reach of the canopy, showing off their superior flying ability. I tried shouting “I’m not dead yet!” but they obviously didn’t speak English (and I don’t speak Hindi). They only left me when I was a couple of hundred metres above the landing, at which point I suddenly realised I’d missed the best photo opportunity I was ever likely to get!
I was right about the photo opportunity. For the rest of the comp, I often flew in thermals with dozens of Himalayan griffon vultures, steppe eagles, Egyptian vultures, pariah kites, and various other raptors - but never again so close, and always in rough air where I couldn’t take photos! The main problem with them was doziness- they don’t always look where they are going, and vigilance and occasional shouts are needed to avoid collision!
Back at Bir, Himachal Tourism were starting to get organised. Our tents were allocated - Chris and I shared a huge tent , one of over 40 erected for the pilots. (Himachal tourism never realised that Chris wasn’t a pilot- and after hearing of the crazy (hotel) prices they wanted to charge non-pilots for staying in the tents, we didn’t tell them). A catering company produced the first of a series of excellent meals - with a range of Indian and European dishes served ‘canteen’ style. We got to meet the other pilots, including Colin Iles and Ken Anderson from Wellington, Brendon Duffy (formerly of Wellington but now a JAFA), and Jug Aggarwal (another former Wellington pilot, now living in California). The only other New Zealand pilot present was Bill Brooks, now from Western Australia. He made me promise not to tell anyone that he was born in the Waikato (Don’t worry, Bill, your secret is safe with me!). Colin, Ken and Brendon had been flying in Bir for a couple of weeks, and not content with just flying, Brendon had tried out the sport of power-line swinging too - leading to a back injury that put him out of the competition (but luckily it wasn’t too serious).
By the following morning, the plumbing for the toilets and showers was connected too - no more accidental treading in poos in the dark - Oh joy! Our taxis up the hill were allocated for the week - rather inefficiently, I ended up in a minibus on my own (which could have seated four), and our taxi drivers got very upset at any sign of ‘unfaithfulness’, so some poor pilots had to wait around for everyone in their bus to appear while I went up in an empty bus.
The first two days of the comp were practice days, a good chance to familiarise yourself with the landscape. In front of take-off, a huge valley runs from east to west. Spurs running down from the main range of foothills to the valley provided the thermal triggers, and proved very reliable sources of lift. Jumping from ridge to ridge it was difficult to sink out - flying usually ended when the thermals died at about 4 or 4.30pm. Landings were more tricky- the valley sides sloped away in steeply terraced rice fields at 90 degrees to the upslope breeze, if you could find a bit not strung over with the crazy spaghetti of power lines! I quickly learned the value of an airbag harness in rice-paddy landings, after my first accidentally downwind landing had me bouncing down the hill from paddy to paddy, finally landing in a heap at the feet of a surprised woman harvesting rice! Packing gliders had to be ultra-quick, as hundreds of kids would materialise from nowhere within seconds, and crowd round, making it impossible to fold the wing without catching them in the fabric. Generally, though, the locals were very friendly, even when I stampeded their water buffalo, which were ploughing a field at the time.
The competition itself ran for four days, and tasks were set up to 100km, out and returns with multiple turn points, finishing at the landing field at Bir. A mostly efficient retrieve system worked well - on two days I had out landings, the retrieve team were with me almost as fast as the local kids. However, another day they failed to see me, and I discovered that the retrieve frequency we had been given was useless, as none of the retrieve vehicles had a radio! (I caught the bus). The multiple, criss-crossing flying routes created another problem - inexperienced pilots were liable to GPS navigation errors. I lost points when my GPS took me to the final turn point rather than the first (both close together and, confusingly, both red-roofed temples), but luckily it was the one day I sank out a couple of ridges later, so I didn’t lose too many points! The cloudbase was relatively low (around 2800m most days - 4000m would be more usual), but thermals were reliable above the ridge, and often up to 5m/s. I flew three to four hours a day, and on three of the competition days did more than 60km. I didn’t make goal on days when tasks of 100km were set mostly because the day ran out - and I was flying too slowly.
The second day of the competition brought drama and politics, and, unfortunately, injury into the competition. Several accidents occurred. Marti Pacejka (Czech Republic) spiralled into the ground from a great height when his flight deck got caught in a brake line , but escaped injury. He never thought to pull his reserve! Kenici from Japan landed in a tree, and spent a night in a hill village, but again was unhurt. Xavier Murillo from France - one of the organisers - landed on rocky ground, and then realised that he’d broken his fibula (a small leg bone), which put him out of the competition. The worst injury, though, was a free flyer from England, who broke his back in three places. The 5kg rock he was using for ballast probably did the damage. A helicopter was called out to rescue him form the mountainside. The last report from the hospital I heard was that they thought he would avoid paralysis, but it’s a heavy price to pay for carrying rock ballast.
The next day, we were greeted by large signs saying ‘No free flyers’ on the road up to launch. We were stopped by police and checked to make sure we were in the comp, and no free flyers were stowing away with us. It turned out that Himachal Tourism were paying 300,000 rupees (about NZ$10,000) a day to have an emergency helicopter on stand by for the competition, and didn’t want it to be used rescuing non-competitors! There was a debate amongst the pilots as to whether to go on strike and refuse to fly in protest at the unilateral and totalitarian action by Himachal Tourism. It was decided by a small margin to continue the contest, though that evening there was a meeting with the Deputy Minister for Tourism, to explain our grievance. In typical politician weasel-words, she kept repeating the phrase “here is no ban on free flyers”, no matter how often people asked her why the police were stopping free flyers from launching! The meeting was, as a result, long and pointless.
The last day had a short task - just over 60km - which enabled me to actually reach goal - only my second goal ever achieved, and the first with a goal line. With usual efficiency, Himachal Tourism had scheduled the award ceremony before the land-by time! A huge pavilion had been set up near the goal, and thousands of people had gathered, many in the deep red robes of Buddhist monks from nearby monasteries. I flew over the goal line with lots of height, and came round for a second pass, losing height with wing-overs. In front of a crowd of thousands, I misjudged my height loss at the last wing-over, swerved to avoid the only rock within half a mile, and smacked into a metre high rice paddy wall downwind. A collective gasp rose from the audience, and people rushed over to look at my shattered body. Except the airbag took all the force and I was fine (just very embarrassed!).
Shortly after I landed, the award ceremony started. With typical Indian love of bureaucracy, speeches that lasted forever were given by lots of people who’s feet had never left the ground. The deputy Minister for Tourism gave an extended speech thanking just about everybody in India, except for Adie Kumar and Xavier Murillo, the paraglider pilots who really organised things, and without whom the competition could not have happened. It took a pilot to stand up and thank them - which received a standing ovation from the other pilots!
The whole competition was a unique experience. Competitors experienced amazing flying, fantastic scenery, friendly people, and more eagles and vultures than most of us had ever seen before, and all at a bargain price. Against that was some first hand experience of Indian red tape, politics, and inefficiency that beggared belief! Not an experience to be missed.
1 Shorokhov Nikolay Russia (4000)
2 Messenger Jamie England (3826)
3 BrettZaenglein USA (3702)
25 Jugdeep Agarwal England / New Zealand (2915)
51 Andy Maloney New Zealand (2031)
57 Bill Brooks New Zealand??? (1426)
69 Colin Iles New Zealand (839)
72 Kenneth John Anderson New Zealand (581)