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Published: January 22nd 2009
K7 Glider below Imbabura
Getting ready for my first launch in Ibarra with the dormant volcano Imbabura in the background
Remy Davalos and his family met me Saturday at a gas station beside the Pan-American Highway, about 3 blocks from where I am living in Otavalo. Remy is an active member of the “Club de Planeadores del Ecuador”, but is not a glider pilot himself. He is a pilot for Columbia Helicopters, and flies one of those big Chinook twin-rotor jobs doing mostly oilfield work. He and his wife have two sons, about 22 and 16. The older son, David, is a glider pilot and also holds a commercial power license. We drove from Otavalo to Ibarra, where the gliding club is based, in pouring rain. It didn't look good for that day.
Ecuador is probably about the last place you'd ever think about going to fly gliders, and it was certainly with me. I picked Ecuador as a place for a winter escape last year based on its climate, cost of living, to improve my Spanish, and for the possibilities for adventure and sightseeing in the mountainous terrain in the Andes. Gliding didn't even fit into my search. While explaining to someone in Cuenca that I was a glider pilot , I found out that there was a gliding
club north of Quito in Ibarra. After a bit of a web search and a few emails that stretched my command of Spanish, I had some contacts and an invitation to come to the only gliding club in Ecuador.
Gliding in Ecuador got its start with some help from some French pilots that helped arrange delivery of an older K7 two seat glider and a winch to do the launches. That K7 is the only glider in the country. There are about two instructors and about 3 other licensed pilots. I met some of the other people involved in the club, and it is just like an extended family. I was heartened how much they made me feel at home, suffered my Spanish, and extended their friendship and aircraft for me to fly. I should note that there is enough English spoken by core club members that that language would not hold you back from enjoying the club (It might, however, make getting to Ibarra a bit of a challenge...). Remy and his family are all fluently bilingual.
The Ibarra airport is lonely to say the least. It is about 6000 feet of pavement, and apparently is rarely
used. Remy said that the weekend glider flights are usually the only aircraft movements there all week. Despite the lack of activity, the government still staffs an air traffic control tower there. The airport elevation is 2250 metres, or about 7300 feet.
Saturday turned out to be a wash out, the rain and low cloud shut down any chance of flying that day. I was given a tour of the area surrounding Ibarra. We stopped for lunch at a hotel on Laguna Yahuarcocha. This lake has an interesting history, the name means “blood” in the native Quichua language. Apparently there was a great war between the Inca and the local inhabitants some 500 years ago, and they estimate that as many as 50,000 bodies were dumped into the lake. The other item of note about this lake is that there is an automobile race track around the outside of the lake. Most of it doubles as the public road when races are not in progress. We booked into a motel-like place just above the lake ring road, that was actually a resort for police to holiday at. It was secure(!) and had nice clean rooms. Cost was $11 for
the night. That evening, we all went to a bar and had a couple of beers and the guys played foosball while I watched.
Sunday morning we got up early to high broken clouds and sun, and got to the airport by about 9. After the usual kinds of routines found at glider clubs to get the aircraft out of its hangar, the winch organized, and we waited for the airport bureaucracy to permit us to start flying (as if there was anyone else), I launched with David for my first flight in Ecuador. I was going to say my first flight south of the Equator, but alas after checking I found we were about 0.33 degrees north of it. Here's a google map link to the Ibarra Airport
The resolution isn't very good there, but if you switch to satellite view and zoom in you can see the runway.
David and I had three winch launches together, but didn't find any lift that could sustain our flights. We were getting about 500 meters of altitude off of the winch, which didn't give us much time to look around. There is also literally nowhere to land off-airport around there,
so extra caution is necessary. I had some conversion issues to deal with myself. First is that I am not current or checked out on winch launches, and secondly the aircraft instrumentation is all in metric. I didn't have any problems converting my speed-to-fly into kms per hour as I am used to driving with metric speeds, but the metric altimeter takes some getting used to. The altimeters I am used to do one complete revolution per 1000 feet. The altimeter in the glider did one complete revolution for 3000 meters. So, the altimeters I am used to have a 1/10 of a circle span for every 100 feet, where this altimeter had a 1/30 of a circle span for 100 meters. I really had to pay attention because a tiny bit of movement translated into a significant change of altitude!
Later on the afternoon with the help of a bit of a headwind, David, flying a passenger flight, managed a higher launch and was able to make it over to the mountain range to the east of Ibarra where he caught a bit of ridge lift. He was just able to hold altitude with a bit of up
and down, but was unable to really gain much altitude. It did extend his flight a bit though. The ridge to the east is a popular place for parapente, and I saw 3 or 4 going at the same time at various points during the day. Later on, a parapentista landed at the airport close to us.
I decided that day that I would pay for a complete membership in the club and formally join this happy gang. I'll plan on spending more time with them when I return to South America later this year on my motorcycle trip. I'm going to blog more about gliding in Ecuador as I get more experience down here.
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