x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Paragliders' passion for the UAE desert

A small but enthusiastic group of paragliders has formed in the UAE, based around the unique aerodynamics of a man-made hill in the desert outside Abu Dhabi.

Shoaib Ahmedjan glides down from a man-made hill at Al Wathba. Ravindranath K / The National
Shoaib Ahmedjan glides down from a man-made hill at Al Wathba. Ravindranath K / The National

"The thing to remember about paragliding," Mark Anning explains, "is there's lots of para-waiting and not so much paragliding."

Beside him, a wind sock hangs as motionless as a puppet with broken strings. Around him are a dozen or so people who have gathered on a man-made hill that stands 140 metres above the rolling desert outside the capital, waiting for the afternoon winds to appear.

Usually the wind will pick up a few hours before dusk, powered by the air in the desert heating up through the day. But sometimes, it doesn't come at all and at other times, it arrives so powerfully there is only a brief window when they can launch their paragliders before the wind becomes too strong.

Patience, it turns out, is as essential a trait for a paragliding pilot to have as is knowledge of aerodynamics.

And persistence. The paragliding community in the UAE is a tiny group of fewer than 30 people. They don't have a proper name or organisation, other than being an informal network of friends with a Facebook page.

But every weekend and several afternoons each week, they can be found on this bizarre hill, which is shaped like a truncated cone and was constructed in the desert near the Al Wathba Camel Racetrack by a sheikh who has a farm nearby.

None of the pilots is entirely sure why the hill was built, but what they do know is that an unintended consequence of its existence has been the creation of the perfect launching point for paragliders. With empty desert all around, landing is possible almost anywhere.

Its potential was first spotted by Anning, an Australian helicopter technician who has been living in the UAE for 22 years and is effectively the father of paragliding in the UAE.

He did a paragliding course in the United States in 2000 and would practise in the UAE by driving deep into the desert to launch from the top of dunes.

"We used to drive for miles and miles to Al Ain or Liwa for a one or two minute glide down a dune," he says. "Then, one day in January 2007, we were just driving up the highway and saw this hill being constructed. It was about one quarter of the size then. They didn't finish building it until two years ago."

Once permission to launch from it was obtained from the sheikh, they discovered that, instead of flying for a few minutes from a dune top, they could now fly for hours and could take off in whatever direction the winds came from.

"I flew for an hour and 45 minutes yesterday afternoon and I only landed because I was getting tired, and that's quite common for us," Anning explains.

"We're using the dynamic wind up the side of the hill."

In the morning, the wind comes from the south and a few keen pilots will exploit that before the breeze dies away.

But it's the afternoon wind from the north-west that everyone relies on - and which so far today has remained notably absent.

By now, the wind sock has flickered a few times, but the LCD display of the wind-speed device is still showing a mean wind speed of 0.0 kilometres per hour.

Another of the enthusiasts waiting for the wind is Etihad pilot Faizal Sayed, a Malaysian who has lived in the UAE since right after the airline began flying. He qualified as a paraglider pilot in 2007, enthused by a sport which is simultaneously related but also different from his day job.

"It's free flying. It's more fun and not like a job," he says.

"The free-flowing feeling is totally different to flying real aircraft, which is bound by procedure, procedure, procedure.

"For me, flying is now very rare. It's growing here. I remember when it was only a couple of crazy guys who flew every day.

"Now it's regularly twentysomething people. Most of the time, people hear about it by word of mouth."

One of those is Ali Al Hosani, an Emirati who lived nearby and flew microlight aircraft in his spare time. Then one day, he saw the paragliders circling the sheikh's hill. He managed to find some of those involved.

"After I saw people flying near my house, I found this nice group here. I was lucky.

"I was flying a microlight aircraft then, but paragliding is more interesting than a noisy engine.

"I was really interested to start. Now it's four years. I bought my first wing in February 2009. I started two months before that with an instructor.

"It's not a course that you learn in one or two weeks. It's long and the course will never finish. Every day it's learning. Whenever you fly, you learn something new. I'm here almost every day, even in summer - we never stop.

"To be confident about flying takes about two months. Confident to be crazy - I still don't reach that point. There are a lot of crazy things people can do. I don't like to do it. If you're overconfident you'll get in a dangerous accident."

Al Hosani is now qualified as a PL2 pilot, one level below being an instructor and able to take a passenger in a special tandem harness he bought specifically so he could introduce others to the sport. (The wing, harness and backup parachute, which all flyers must use, can start at about Dh14,500 for a basic package and go up from there, depending on features.)

His ultimate goal is to create a national team that can formally represent the Emirates in flying competitions overseas rather than competing as individuals - as they have been so far.

"We already compete in international competitions," he adds. "We've been in many, many countries, and a lot of international competitions."

While everyone is standing around chatting, a gust of wind suddenly arrives and all eyes turn to the wind sock and the wind meter.

The body language of the waiting paragliding pilots instantly changes and there's a flurry of action as they ready their wings, only for the wind to die away again before anyone is airborne.

This process is common as the afternoon wind arrives, so when the wind arrives for good, a short while later, they're ready and waiting.

One after the other, pilots stand with their backs to the wind, facing their paraglider, which is arranged in an arc with the cords untangled, and then shift backwards. If their timing is right, the wing will suddenly fill with air and rise up.

They then turn around and run towards the wind. Sometimes, if the timing is wrong, there's a chorus of "No!" from those watching, and the wing will land on the ground and collapse into a heap.

But more commonly, the wing will fill with air and they'll struggle into the wind to the edge where the land falls away. As often as not, they will be airborne before they reach the edge and will manoeuvre through the air until they are over the drop.

It's a spectacular sight, watching a series of paragliding take-offs, but the biggest impact is when the pilots are in flight and there is utter and complete silence as they glide through the air, exploiting the lift from the wind flowing up the side of the hill.

The appeal of the sport is instantly and powerfully demonstrated.

As well as the regular flyers, there are a few newcomers who take turns being strapped into the tandem harness and are taken for a flight by one of the qualified tandem pilots. The extra weight requires a slightly more convoluted launch procedure, but then they join the others in the sky, with the newcomer facing the front.

One of them is Olga Tulei, a Moldovan and US citizen teaching art in Abu Dhabi. One of her friends had a paraglider, so she came out to the hill to photograph him using it and decided to try it herself.

When she lands afterwards, her eyes are wide open and her smile is enough to light up the afternoon.

"I was just, like, flying. You feel like everything is at your feet - you feel the air and you have the adrenalin going," she gushes.

"I really loved it and want to do it again."

The flight was part of the appeal, but she said that was amplified by the informal community that has formed around this man-made hill.

"The group that's here, it's just so wonderful that everyone's helping each other. It's like a big family. When you're abroad you're missing your family, so to have something like that here is so rewarding."

For the rest of the afternoon until the sun dips below the horizon and dusk takes over, a dozen wings glide through the sky, traversing backwards and forwards across the windward side of the hill.

After squeezing out every last minute of flyable light, members of the group gather at the car park below the hill and compare notes about their flights. Then they drive off into the dusk to share a meal while expanding on their experiences, planning a trip to fly in Nepal that's coming up and arranging when they will return to the hill to wait for the afternoon winds.


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