Friday, 27 December 2013

Gliding in Bahia Brazil, 2012

Note: This post was first published as an article in the Canadian Free Flight magazine, but without all the pictures that you can find at the bottom of this page. ( scroll down to page 6).

How it all began
My first ever trip to South America happened in January 2012 in order to take part in the Pre-World’s contest at Adolfo Gonzales Chaves, Argentina, where I represented my country of origin Serbia. I decided to take part in the Pre-World’s in order to learn something about the local conditions and improve my chances for a good result in the subsequent Club Class World’s, which will be held in the same place in January 2013. I could have written a long article about my first trip to Chaves, but since I will be going back there again for the World’s next January, suffice it to say that my first trip there far exceeded all my expectations.

At Chaves I made a number of new friends and this story is about one of them. I met Guilherme Purnhagen – Gugui, a member of the Brazilian gliding team, the day I arrived in the Chaves airfield cafeteria. It was immediately obvious that we had something in common, being the two tallest pilots in the contest (me at 6’-4” and Gugui at 6’-5”). By the luck of the draw, we also ended up in the same row on the grid, which gave us time and opportunity to have chat and socialize every flying day before takeoff. After the contest, Gugui and his crew gave me a lift back to Buenos Aires on their way back to Rio de Sul, in a Canadian made school bus! Gugui also invited me to join him and his friends in Bahia province in September, where they go every year for a month of cross-country flying. He said that there were only two types of weather in Bahia in September: good and great. I agreed in principle, subject to being able to find time and money to make the trip.

After returning home, we kept in touch by email and by late July I had to make a decision on whether I was going to Bahia or not. Gugui also had to know in order to plan the 2,300 km road trip from Rio do Sul - Santa Catarina to Luis Eduardo Magalhaes – Bahia. If I was coming, he would also bring along the Jantar Standard 2 (the same one he flew in Argentina) in addition to his Nimbus 3T. Not being able to find a good reason why not to go, I purchased the airline tickets on-line to fly from Vancouver to Brasilia and then on to Barreiras – Bahia on a local Gol airline. So, the trip was on and I was looking forward to a new adventure in South America.

Flying and socializing
I arrived to Barreiras municipal airport in the morning of September 15th, after a 26 hour trip. Marcel Juppa, Gugui’s good friend and ground crew chief extraordinaire, was there to pick me up and bring me to LEM (Luis Eduardo Magalhães), about an hour and 15 minute drive on a busy local two lane highway. Once there, I had a quick lunch and we were off to the airfield, a couple of kilometers West of LEM, to join up with Gugui and the rest of the group. Gugui’s Jantar Jantar Std. 2 (JB) was rigged and tied down behind the hangar, ready to go. With all that excitement, I didn’t feel tired at all and decided to make a short local flight to get a feel for the Jantar, since I’d never flown the type before. The day was blue with a strong Easterly wind which made the thermals somewhat difficult to center, but this was perfect for getting some practice on the glider before loading it with 150 kilos of water an heading off on a cross country flight. The 2 hour and 45 minute flight was enjoyable and uneventful. Afterwards, we tied down all the gliders and headed back to the apartment for a welcome shower and a barbecue supper.

The whole group, including Gugui’s family and friends, stayed in a small 3 bedroom apartment located in a corner of Tomé’s hangar and they made room for me in one of the rooms. Tomé, who owns a local crop dusting operation with two Piper Pawnees and three Cessna AgWagons was our host and, with September being an off-season for crop dusting, also our tow pilot with one of the Pawnees. While the accommodations weren’t very fancy, the breakfasts and suppers made by Gugui’s mother-in-law Araci were fantastic. One day we went to a local farm and picked 80 fresh coconuts for some freshly extracted coconut juice. Several times Tomé invited the whole group to a nice little resort with a swimming pool on the banks of the local stream, for good meal and a swim.

Had the flying been unremarkable, the wonderful hospitality of my hosts and the good times we spent together would have made the trip worth wile. However, during the week that I spent in Bahia I enjoyed some of the best weather and made some of the best and most memorable flights of my gliding career. The first one, which turned out to be the shortest at 457 km, was still good enough for the 7th place on the OLC Worldwide Daily Score. That was followed by a 660 km flight in the Jantar Std. 2, 684 km and 817 km (805 km FAI triangle) flights in the Nimbus 3T/24.5 and another 574 km (537 km FAI triangle) in the Jantar. These four flights ended up 1st, 2nd, 1st and 1st on the OLC Worldwide Daily Score tables!

Local conditions for gliding
The facilities at the new LEM airport were superb, starting from the brand new 2000 meter long paved runway, to the spacious hangar with the tiled floor, bathroom and a water cooler. In the area around LEM there are several other airfields, one of which is a dirt runway just on the other side of Tomé’s hangar where we stayed. My last flight was from Tomé’s field.

Due to its unique geographic location, Bahia offers the best weather conditions in the World for long cross country flights in the period between mid-August and mid-October. During this peak season, the cloud bases are typically between 10,000 to 14,000 feet ASL, which is the kind of weather I experienced. Some years there are more blue days, but on those the thermals tops can be even higher, up to 16,000 feet ASL. The thermals typically produce between 5 and 8 knots lift, but it is not unusual to find 10 knots or more. My best one was a 14 knot boomer! Because of the closeness to the Equator (LEM’s latitude is 12° South), the wind in the convective layer is almost always from the East, with the strength anywhere from 5 to 25 knots. The average maximum daily temperature in September is around 34 °C, while the relative humidity is usually between 10 and 30%, making the heat quite bearable.

The rest of the year is also flyable; however, during the rainy season which lasts from mid-October until April, the cloud bases are lower and isolated CB’s develop every afternoon. On the flip side, the lift is generally stronger than during the dry season and the thermals are spaced closer together, allowing for some very fast and fun flying.

During the peak mid-August to mid-October season the days with non-soarable weather are extremely rare, although I did experience one day with overcast skies that didn’t clear until late in the afternoon.
The terrain around LEM is a plateau at around 2,500 feet ASL, generally flat with many cultivated fields suitable for out-landing. About 60 km West of LAM lies the border between Bahia and the neighboring Tocantins province. Once inside Tocantins, the terrain drops to about 1,500 feet ASL and becomes mildly undulating and covered with dwarf trees and wild shrubbery. In Tocantins there are very few places to land and not many roads for retrieval. However, the weather in Tocantins tends to be somewhat better than in Bahia, so a good strategy seems to be to first go West and cross about 20 km into Tocantins before turning North or South for the second leg of the triangle. You can then continue flying inside Tocantis, parallel to the Tocantins-Bahia border in excellent weather, but still close enough to the landable terrain in Bahia. The last leg-and-a-half is flown in Bahia.

Both the terrain and the weather are quite uniform within at least a 300 km radius from LEM, allowing for long flights and large FAI triangles. There is no altitude limit and there is only one small area of controlled airspace around Barreiras, some 90 km East of LEM. I spent most of the time en route out of radio range, but I had my Spot tracking turned on and it worked without a hitch.

Weather wise, there are only two minor downsides. One is the smoke from brush fires, which can in some places reduce the visibility to only a few of kilometers. However, the smoke is not all bad news, since the brush fires also provide a reliable source of lift, especially towards the end of the day. On my last day I used a very strong thermal generated by a big wildfire to climb from 1,200 feet AGL (the lowest I’d been the whole week) to some 8,000 feet, enough for the final glide with the McCready set at 6 knots.
The other downside is that the days are shorter than in summer at higher latitudes. The sun sets at 6 PM sharp and by 6:15 it is totally dark. All of my cross country flights lasted between 5 ½ to 6 ½ hours and I made my final glides into the setting sun, landing between 5:10 and 5:40 PM. Given that on most days I could have taken off between half an hour to an hour earlier, the maximum flight time one can count on is around 7 hours. So, in order to complete a 1,000 km FAI triangle, one must use up every bit of the flyable weather and average no less than 140 km/h. This can probably be done several times per season in a high performance glider. For example, the day I did my 800 km FAI triangle I could have taken off about 45 minutes earlier. Also, my average speed of 128 km/h could have been better had I had the full water ballast on board and had I been more familiar with the glider (this was only my second flight in a Nimbus 3 and the first one with ballast). On the plus side, 300, 500 and even 750 km FAI triangles can be flown on many days and completing them doesn’t require the latest and greatest equipment.

Plans for the future
For my last day at LEM Tomé threw a good-buy garden party with traditional Brazilian cuisine and some refreshing swimming in the river. I ate just about enough to last me the whole trip back to Vancouver. We talked about the future flying in Bahia and the upcoming World’s in Argentina, where both Gugui and I will be competing in the Club Class.

I got an invitation to come back to Bahia for 2 to 3 weeks every September, which I will find very difficult to resist. Gugui also told me about his plans to establish a gliding centre somewhere near LEM, with a private runway and resort like accommodations for pilots and their families. One of the reasons for moving away from the local airport is the expected increase in the general aviation and commercial traffic, which would not mix well with foreign glider pilots who don’t speak Portuguese. Gugui is also planning to acquire a Wilga tow plane and several high performance single and double seaters, which he would offer for rent to visiting pilots. If everything goes as planned, this should all be in place by September 2014.

Currently very few glider pilots outside Brazil know about Bahia and its potential. However, judging by the comments made by most of my gliding friends, there seem to be a lot of potential interest in visiting Bahia to do some quality cross-country soaring in the future.

Pictures and Photos
Google Earth map of Northern Brazil showing the traces of my five cross country flights in 2012
Google Earth map pf My 2012 flight traces, zoomed in
"LEM International" Runway
On the grid at LEM international with Marcel
With Gugui just before my first flight in his Nimbus 3T
An aerial view of the "LEM International" airport
My best thermal of the week - 6.1 m/s average.
A view of the cloud street ahead from the cockpit of Nimbus 3T
Posing after my first flight in the Nimbus
Posing with Peter Volf and Gugui after my first flight in the Nimbus
Flying towards the last thermal on the last day 
Marcel picking coconuts
Nimbus and the setting sun

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