High flyers: Paragliders find paradise in Armenia’s highlands

The small first-floor room in Yerevan is full of people who describe themselves as “just a little crazy” because they prefer to float through the air like birds instead of sitting firmly grounded at the café or home watching television.

Nearly every weekend, the men and women of Armenia’s Paragliding Club trudge up mountainsides with 16-kilograms of equipment on their backs—then glide gently back to earth. “It’s just not possible to put in words,” says 25-year-old Harutiun Achemyan, who was asked to describe what it is like to fly like a bird on a wing of colorful nylon fabric.

“There are people who drink, there are people who smoke, there are people who play backgammon and there are people who fly on the week-ends,” says paraglider Alik Galstyan, 30.

So every weekend when the weather is good they come to this room, pack their things, buy some food and go to the mountains to fly.

There are about 30 members of Armenia’s Paragliding Club, including seven women. A number of foreigners working in Armenia paraglide with the club members.

Pilots have to climb up to 300 meters or more carrying a large backpack containing the wing, body harness, helmet and a radio to communicate with other pilots. The kit can weigh 16 kilograms.

It is a tiring hike, but the exhaustion doesn’t show on their faces as they unfurl their wings and prepare to take flight with their big, colorful and almost noiseless gliders.

Paragliding is a recreational and competitive flying sport. In Armenia it is mostly recreational because only a small number of people are interested in it. But the sport is popular in France (with an estimated 25,000 paragliders) as well as Germany, Austria, South Korea, Japan and Switzerland.

Paragliding is viewed as a higher risk sport than it actually is. Accidents happen mainly because of pilots flying beyond the limits of the training or experience.

“It is not an extreme sport at all,” said Harutiun, whose sunburned face shows his devotion to the sport. “Just the opposite, the flight in a paraglide is a very calm process.”

Paragliders must be carefully trained in how to set up their equipment and to fly. But Rafik Sokhoyan, president of the Paragliding Club, adds that even qualified gliders should be careful but enjoy the flight.

“The air is not a human element and when you consider your flight as heroism, the air won’t forgive you that,” said Sokhoyan, who is 48.

Even well-trained and responsible pilots suffer from minor injuries like twisted ankles, back injuries and occasional pounding heart.

On a recent Sunday, paraglider Cedric Roussel of Belgium said that the most attractive thing about the flight is being able to escape from all other thoughts than flying.

“In everyday life your mind always works,” said Roussel, 37, who works for an international medical organization. “When you drive you can notice the signs, the shops, people … But when you fly you can’t think about anything else.”

The first paraglide lifted aloft in Armenia in 1997. One of the first pilots was Sokhoyan, now the president of the Paragliding Club. Officially the club started in 2004 but it has functioned from 1998 with different names like Aero Club or Technical Sports Section.

A paraglide is free flying, foot-launched aircraft with wings of rip-resistant, impermeable nylon. The pilot sits in a harness attached to the lip-shaped wing by spaghetti-like strings. Rising air is needed in paragliding to keep a glider aloft.

Rising air comes from two sources: when the sun heats the ground, columns of rising air are generated, and when wind encounters a mountain ridge the air is forced upwards, providing dynamic lift.

Paragliding enthusiasts say the landscape and weather of Armenia are ideal for the sport. The most favorite place for Armenian paragliding pilots is Mount Hatis near Akunk village in Kotayk region. Other places convenient for paragliding are Mount Ara, the foothills of Mount Aragats and other mountains around Lake Sevan.

The club offers courses for new pilots. Anyone who is over 18 and has normal health and also his/her parents’ agreement to fly can become a member of the club.

“It took me a month to make my parents to sign that paper,” said Nata Turovceva, 21.

Safety is of paramount concern. Pilots wear heavy helmets to protect their heads in the event of a fall. They are not allowed to drink even a sip of alcohol before a flight because it can cause impairment of the senses, movement and thinking.

It can be an expensive sport. A full kit—including the wing, harness and helmet—can cost 2,500 dollars. In addition, a month of training costs 4,000 drams (9 dollars), but students pay half that. And one flying day costs 2,500 drams (6 dollars) with all expenses such as food and transport.

Siranouish Gevorgyan is a journalism student at Yerevan State University and participates in a training program sponsored by USAID/Armenia (http://armenia.usaid.gov), administered by the International Center for Journalists (www.icfj.org), and supported by ArmeniaNow.