Flying and not flying in Bulgaria

Sopot Travel Blog

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the magical multi-purpose moskvitch. A true sports untility vehicle...
I have just returned from a most eventful and enlightening week in the small mountain town of Sopot in Bulgaria. I have been living in the small community of dedicated flyers who are involved with the Skynomad school of paragliding, though it is a full-time engagement, and school and play pretty much overlap each other from day to day. The school is the invention of Niki, a former army officer and cross-country record holder, and Olin, an expert pilot and high-achieving competitor in this year’s paragliding world championship (held, by virtue of the area, in Sopot!) Also involved in the school are Hristo (‘Christo’) - another instructor, Khrasimir (‘Kressi’), Evo, Reto and Fonzy - all great pilots and brilliant people to be living, flying and partying with.


I flew out on the evening of the 13th September and arrived, bleary-eyed and missing two hours in Sofia Airport at 4 in the morning the following day. After dodging the attentions of many sleazy-looking taxi drivers I managed to bump into Nahna, taxi driver and brother of Niki, who was prepared to drive me the 190km to Sopot - at speeds my sleep-deprived eyes were happy to miss - as I settled down for 2 hours uncomfortable sleep in the passenger seat of his car, waking occasionally to the screech of brakes as another pack of wild dogs scampered for the bushes. We arrived in Sopot at about 6:30 am and I snuck into a room and grabbed a bed for a few hours’ kip, awaking a few hours later to overcast skies and glum-looking pilots.

The first two days were a bit of a disappointment in terms of the weather - it rained on and off for most of the time but we were able to sneak a few flights in here and there.
Shambala chairlift. Built by the Kalashnikov rifle co., formerly the main employer in Sopot
The rest of the time we spent hanging out with the guys at the school; driving around in their crazy LPG-powered cars and getting up to all sorts of mischief. We went hunting for mushrooms one day, and returned triumphant with a good haul. While Kressi was preparing them we got boxed on the local weed and in the pouring rain and decided to take a dip in the hot springs pools that were originally developed by the Romans, who treated the area as a kind of health spa for their centurions. We piled into one of the Moskvich cars (basically a Lada, but all of them are converted to run on LPG which is readily available) and aquaplaned off down the road, squinting through the rain. At the first spa - which was an outdoor public pool - we very democratically stayed in the car sending one person at a time to check the temperature of the water.
I make aeroplane noises when i fly...
One corner was warm enough, but the prospect of peeling off in the bouncing rain was a little beyond us at the time. By this point we had been joined by some other pilots in their various cars, all now corralled for a free-for-all argument about where to go next. When our little traffic jam had reached a decision we set off en convoy for another pool nearby, which turned out to be the property of a local hotel. When we arrived, dripping in the lobby we would have been easier convinced that the place was a sanatorium. Heavily-draped windows and blank, uninspiring corridors lead off in all directions, and as we trooped single-file down one of them I started to count off the door numbers: 104…103…102…and outside room 101 we found the most forlorn-looking specimens sat on a bench that lined the opposite wall.
We observed each other cautiously until (furthering this bizarre illusion) an orderly dressed all in white clucked up to us and shooed us out like the trespassing kids we were!

I got a very positive impression of the area from my initial two days; the former communist government had serviced the area well, with frequent litter and recycling bins on the streets, and mountain springs plumbed to running wells in the villages where we filled our camelbacks - basically Evian on tap for free! The old Kalashnikov factory is the most noticeable testament to the days past, and the valley still has a couple of large military bases. It was past one of these that I rode the roof of a Moscvich on one of our ‘off’ days, a feat that was going well until Hristo, who was driving at the time, opened his door to lean out and enquire if I was ok! Well, up until that point, yes…
The factory had also facilitated the construction of the Shambala chairlift, initially to allow workers easier access to the mountain trails and then for the development of hang-gliding in the region. These days it is rented from the socialist government by a Russian businessman, in collusion with the local pilots to prevent a developer turning the land at the foot of the lift (including the landing field which is lent by an abbey close by) into a theme park….unbelievable, in the lap of nature’s finest adventure playground!

It was the Shambala lift that we would ride, for 3 Leva (approx £1.11) and 20 minutes a time, to 800m above the valley floor for our big flights. The normal pattern was either to take off and head straight out to lose height near the landing field through a series of manoeuvres designed to do exactly that (sometimes it helps to be able to go down quick too!) or, if the conditions were favourable (and frequently were) then we would beat across the south-facing slope searching for lift and trying to stay inside any thermals we could find. On my second flight, I was fortunate enough to catch one thermal straight up to cloud base, about 2km over the valley floor! This was the most amazing experience, and the calm voice of Niki on my radio helped me to keep my nerve right into the cloud itself. I was flying a more advanced wing than I have flown previously, designed to offer higher performance and speed at the cost of less stability in flight and a greater tendency to collapse if not properly controlled; so when I did get into the cloud it started to thrash about like a wild thing, but he had anticipated this, and I followed his earlier instructions and folded the tips of my wing in to reduce it’s surface area and steered towards the light and the landing zone. In total I made 10 flights in three days from that take-off point, in varying conditions and with varying success - I learnt and became comfortable with a number of new techniques, including steeper wingovers, spiral dives and stalling the wing and controlling the resultant surge (which if left unchecked can cause the wing to shoot ahead of you, and you to fall into it as it flies under you), tucking my wing in by about 50%, and then making steep spiral dives to really scrub off the height. This last technique especially came in handy on our last flight, when with the rumble of thunder to the north, a big no-no - storm clouds can be incredibly powerful and their influence can be felt in the air for miles around - we launched for the final flight of the day.

As I launched with Paul and Andy a few seconds ahead of me streamed off towards the landing area, we could see a huge wall of cumulus building about 30km to the east and the greying anvil head of the storm cloud reaching across the higher level of the troposphere to the West. Our air was relatively calm, and I felt sufficiently in control to take a few pictures. As we flew over the landing field, and Olin came on the radio to direct us each into different manoeuvres to organise the 4 gliders in the air (Ricky, in his first week of flying, had launched behind me) into some form of a landing pattern. At the top of the stack, I was really starting to feel the air begin to move, and found that neither I, nor the gliders circling behind me, was losing height at any great speed. I had read accounts of clouds sucking paragliders in and in the best cases depositing a scared and frozen pilot many miles away, and steepened my turns to lose height at a greater rate. When I saw Paul at my level and Andy well out to the west of our approach, I pulled in my tips and spiralled down to an approach height in double-quick time - jumping the queue by two but very happy to be back on terra firma!

Flying with the Skynomad team was highly inspirational - they are all passionate, experienced and active flyers, and felt a great deal of confidence in attempting manoeuvres I had only dreamt of in my previous training and flights in the Shetlands. I also would not have initially flown in the conditions I did without their advocacy, but for the sake of a little faith I now have a much better idea of what I am comfortable with, and how to get out of it if the opposite becomes true. I am aware that, at my present skill and experience level I am likely to over-estimate my own abilities as my enthusiasm for flight grows. I am truly hooked on this sport, and faced with 5 months in the French Alps over the winter, am now looking to buy my own wing. The torture of being there for nigh on half a year and not being able to get a few feet off the ground on my snowboard is incomprehensible - though fear not, dear readers…I have every intention of being an Old pilot, as opposed to the rarer Bold variety! I shall be like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, perfecting the simplest moves to greater understand my new medium on only the clearest days - I have 5 months, after all…

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the magical multi-purpose moskvitc…
the magical multi-purpose moskvit…
Shambala chairlift. Built by the K…
Shambala chairlift. Built by the …
I make aeroplane noises when i fly…
I make aeroplane noises when i fl…
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photo by: samsmith_ndt