April 26, 2009 — -- The skies of Valle de Bravo, Mexico are famous for their swarms of monarch butterflies. But earlier this year, the sky was filled with a colorful display of something else -- paraglider pilots.
The event was similar to a traditional sailing competition -- but in 3-D. For 13 days and 10 tasks, pilots raced to the finish line, zig-zagging across canyons and plains, under towering cloud streets and above church spires and cattle ranches.
Paragliding is one of the simplest forms of human flight -- and it is flight, not just an extended jump.
At this competition, the longest course was 70 miles. Many pilots were in the air for 4 to 5 hours during a racing day. And that's without an engine -- using just the power of wind and sun. Paragliders harness "thermals," invisible columns of warm air rising from the ground into the atmosphere.
Philippe Broers, a member of the Belgian team, explained how it works: "There's megawatts of power, gigawatts of power that we don't see," Broers said. "It's right out there. We just go into it and go up. And from there, we use that to go to the next thermal power plant and fill up the tank."
A decade ago, pilots used maps and photographed the race's turn-points -- such as a mountain peak, a town square -- to prove they had flown the course.
Today, these stripped down aircraft have a high-tech side -- a mini cockpit pouch with computers and GPS that maps out the course and delivers instant racing results.
Paragliding occasionally grabs headlines with accidents and stunts. The more serene, disciplined side of cross-country racing is less prominent.
But don't be fooled: Once the starting shot is fired, it is a race. Pilots swarm like bees in the columns of rising air, gaining maximum altitude before speeding to the next turn-point.
Jim Orava stepped away from his day job as a motion picture stunt performer to fly for the Canadian team. Yet, the trip was hardly a vacation.
"The level of intensity is very high," said Orava. "You're flying a glider at 70 kilometers an hour, you're passing each other at over 100 kilometers an hour, wingtip to wingtip -- in a gaggle, under a cloud.
"But life is quite forgiving a lot of the time," Orava added. "You can get away with a lot of adventures with a smile on your face and live well and probably never take a nick -- hopefully!"
After 10 race days, Swiss pilot Andy Aebi and French pilot Elisa Houdry, using patience, finesse and consistency, finished in front -- taking the gold medals for overall individual champion, in the men's and women's divisions, respectively.
American team pilots Matthew Beechinor, Kari Castle, Brad Gunnusico and Eric Reed placed 5th in the ranking of 44 nations, winning three of the 10 individual days.