© John Heiney 2007

I attended the first official FAI World Aerobatic Paraglidng and Hang Gliding Championships held in Villeneuve Switzerland in August 2006. I had a good time in a beautiful place with a great group of people. The following is one American freestyler’s perspective on this milestone competition.

I give a great deal of credit to those who organized this event, and to those responsible for securing the FAI sanctioning as the official World Championships. I have heard something about the hoops (loops?) you have to jump through to run a sanctioned meet and it sounds like way too much work. I would like to recognize them here by name, but I am not sure who they are.

I do know that local flight school owner/operator Alain Zoller has organized this event for many years. Over the past several years “RC Dave” Freund made many trips to Europe and did a great deal of work on the rules for the HG portion of the contest. It was a pleasure to meet Olivier Brughelle of the CIVL who I believe had much to do with obtaining FAI sanctioning along with Alain.

It is a matter of historical record that from 1981 until 1999, the pilots of the Telluride Air Force ran the unofficial World Aerobatic Hang Gliding Championships. They were the first to do it, they were serious about it, and they did it every year for a long time. I figure it was the de facto World Aerobatics Championships. I am guessing the FAI would not have considered sanctioning such a wild aberration of freeflight even if someone had asked.

So, what has changed to allow it to happen now? I think it has more to do with the desire and hard work of those who made it happen than simply a gradual greater acceptance of freestyling over time. I wonder how much the relatively new discipline of aerobatic paragliding had to do with it. The youth and enthusiasm in that sport is undeniable, and helps get things done. There were more than four para-tics for every hang-luni in the contest. I guess that tells the story.

Villeneuve's main drag Free flight art from the
local school kids
Old-world side street Recycling station inside
the shopping mall

What a beautiful venue for a gathering of freestylers is Villeneuve. There are spectacular mountains, a great road up to launch and a quaint and hospitable town to enjoy. If they could just arrange to drain the lake in time for the contest, we would be able to land in front of the crowd.

Arnaud Bondallaz "flying" his toy PG in the Red Bull spectator area Competition PG pilot(and Arnaud's mom) Nathalie Bondallaz launching tandem Float landings at sunset Someone was doing a brisk tandem business during the festival

The spectator area bordering the lake had two Red Bull tents with bars, several food stands, vendor booths, a stage for the bands, and was a flurry of activity most of the time. Olivier and Nathalie Bondallaz' son Arnaud had great fun "flying" his toy paraglider through the crowd. The always gregarious RC Dave allowed interested passers-by to fly his electric model flying wings.

Adrian Koenig, who lives near Zurich was the fifth pilot to order a new Predator back in 1996 when I was first building these hang gliders. He had offered to let me fly his in this contest for some years, relieving me of traveling on the airlines with a glider. By the time I finally took him up on his offer, the sail was old enough to have lost some of its energy conversion capability.

When I arrived at Zurich airport I rented a car and found my way to Adrian Koenig's house in Adliswil. The car was brand new, and the man informed me that there were no scratches on it. Little did he know that I intended to strap a hang glider on top. I considered it a challenge to do it without scratching the car. I used lots of foam padding and returned the car in Lausanne two days later as good as new. I was relieved to be rid of that car.

You can fill your water bottles in the centuries-old fountains


I slept in a tent in the landing zone all but the first two nights. I tried to sleep in the bomb shelter, but some of the paraglider pilots were very exuberant and tended to be loud at all hours of the night. They are very nice people, but I need my quiet time. Hotels are expensive since this is a resort area. It is obviously one of the beautiful places of the World. I decided to take my chances with the weather and pitch the tent that Adrian Koenig had lent me. I knew it would rain since the countryside is gorgeously green.

It rained about three nights, but Adrian's double-wall tent protected me well. I was lucky enough to have pitched on high ground. I learned where to walk the high ground to and from my tent to try to keep my socks almost dry. The LZ was soggy the whole time. I went back to the bunker for showers. It was one kilometer from town to the LZ, and one kilometer to the bomb shelter in another direction. I got plenty of exercise.

I lived very frugally, and spent about $1250 total on the trip including air fare and the rental car. The organization provided food and I use the term loosely. The bag lunch at noon was usually an unpleasant surprise comprising a hard roll, brie cheese(totally unacceptable) or a short, fat hotdog or two skinny square hotdogs. I ate one and gave one to Olivier’s dog. They did include a piece of fruit which I saved for the morning.

I ate things I have not eaten in 20 years, but mostly I did not eat much. I weighed 138 pounds when I returned home. RC Dave bought me a nice fish meal at his hotel after the awards ceremony, and it was excellent. There is good food there, but it is expensive. In the US you can go to McDonald’s for cheap food. The Swiss McDonald’s are not cheap. There is a McDonald’s close to the LZ and I was desperate, so I tried it. A big burger and a salad cost around $11.00. I believe the burger tasted better than an American one. Must be the Swiss beef.

The grocery store did have one of my favorite bakery items, the grand pretzel. I had had them years ago in Germany. You will see something in the malls of the USA that look similar, but are made in a central factory and frozen for distribution. In Europe they are baked fresh every day locally. The difference is striking. Americans do not know what they give up for convenience and low prices.

One night the organizers threw a grand banquet at the sports arena. While gliders dried in the gymnasium and pilots ate appetizers, RC Dave Freund was the life of the party as he let people fly his twin-motor tailless oblique-wing RC model. It was essentially a flat piece of Styrofoam cut in a very unusual shape(for an aircraft) with two electric motors glued on. Several years ago Dave designed and developed an “oblique” flying-wing RC model glider, of which this is a variation.

The pilots of the first three placings: solo PG, syncro PG, and HG LZ with launch in background There were large slugs in the LZ which made tracks all over the tents while we slept


The town had opened their official nuclear fall-out shelter for foreign pilots who are poor, and there were many of us. The best paraglider and hang glider aerobatics pilots have little money since they spend much of their time practicing rather than working. If you want to be good, something has to suffer. There might be some paraglider manufacturers paying pilots to loop their wings, but no hang glider companies will touch it for liability reasons.

If paraglider companies are sponsoring acro-pilots, it is because they are new in the business and have not yet been sued. Aerobatics has always been considered a fringe activity in hang gliding. Manufacturers have been reluctant to endorse it openly. The International Aeronautics Federation has not recognized it until now. A good crowd of spectators showed up, but not much larger than in the hay-days of Telluride.

I would like to believe that if intelligent beings from elsewhere came and observed the sporting activities on Earth, they would consider aerobatic paragliding and hang gliding to be far more interesting than golf. But, top golf competitors sleep in luxury hotels while we sleep in tents in the LZ. What is wrong with this picture?

It is too bad that we have liability issues to consider. Does the potential for fatal accidents scare sponsors away from free-flight comps? It is hard to get killed playing golf; although, I would guess that more people die on golf courses from lightning strikes than die from hang gliding and paragliding accidents. There is more to it than the danger factor. Auto races attract spectators and sponsors. Why is it OK to die in a car crash, but not on a hang glider or paraglider. Maybe we do not have enough accidents.

It appears that there are so many activities to choose from today that nothing gets through to the masses unless it has a highly-funded promotional campaign convincing people that it is the latest cool thing they must do or have. We might just need to admit that only a tiny fraction of the people on this planet have the mentality for flying. Some non-flyers find it interesting, but the vast majority just does not care.


It was a different format contest than I am accustomed to, so I was like a fish-out-of-water for a while. I did manage to finish third, so I got the bronze medal. The winner was a former pupil of mine (Jon Gjerde) whom I taught to loop a few years ago when he came from Norway to study with me. Now he is flying better than I.

I feel that those who pursue freestyle hang gliding at the highest level are artists of the sky. What we do is for the visual pleasure of others, and for our own edification and satisfaction. It involves creativity and personal, individual expression and interpretation. To ask us to conform our flying to a constrictive format that requires compulsory programs and eliminates free expression, is like giving a master artist a paint-by-number set and saying "we like your art, but can you do it this way"?

Aerobatic or freestyle hang gliding has been a huge part of my life for the past twenty years. Being one who does not dance on the ground, I enjoy this wonderfully free form of sky dancing. It is troubling to see it moving towards something that is barely recognizable as the sport I love.

We should keep in mind that the success or failure of a discipline rests in the hearts of the spectators. If we bore them with compulsory flying, same sequence of maneuvers and nothing left to wonder, do we risk losing their interest? I have flown in more than twenty aerobatics contests, and the spectator buzz was always about what the new youngster might pull out of his bag of tricks to try to beat the old masters. Not knowing what outrageous maneuver might come next is where the excitement lies for the onlookers. If we get it wrong, aerobatic hang gliding will be on the scrap heap of freeflight history next to speed gliding.

For those who like strict and regimented flying competition, there are already airplane and sailplane aerobatics competitions, whence the format for this contest was borrowed, I presume. Hang gliding and paragliding are at the free-spirit end of the aviation spectrum. I hope to see our flight disciplines held for the unrestricted expression of the joy of fundamental human flight. In a world that moves inexorably towards regulation, we, the stewards of foot-launched free-flight must strive to maintain our privilege to fly freely in all respects.


I was fortunate to finally meet the designer Ignazio Bernardi who works with Icaro. I have admired his work over the years. In addition to his designing and photography, he turns out to be one of the top freestylers. He won a round and made me struggle to get to the podium.

I had met Guido Gehrmann in Spain in 1996 in his early days of competition. He struck me as a cool guy who had great potential. And what a class act he is. He is last year’s Redbull Vertigo winner, XC world Champion, Airline pilot, Redbull sponsored pilot, photographer, helicopter pilot, and I am sure he has many other credits unknown to me. Guido has built an ideal for new pilots to aspire toward.

I almost felt like a member of Team Norway after hanging with the Norwegian pilots in their country two years ago. And they treated me as one of their own. I am one fourth Norwegian after all. Johnny Nilssen drove his BMW down from the north country towing his self-made hang glider / motor-cycle / camp trailer. He brought Jon’s and Jorgen Kjellberg’s gliders, so his team-mates could be rested after a short plane ride. What a noble sacrifice for the team.

I think Andrea Iemma has been flying aerobatics for a long time. I believe I saw some footage of him looping at the Ilinix Meet on youtube. Andrea and Ignazio took their two-man Italian team to a first place finish.

Switzerland was generous to me. Fredy Bircher and Martin Von Holzen of the Swiss Team made me feel very welcome in their country. They made sure I had plenty of beer to drink at the tent-bars each evening. I did not get around to telling them that I do not drink. The third Swiss team-member, Rolf Gruber is the most dedicated aerobatics pilot I know of.

A hang glider pilot named Franz from Zurich gave me a ride back to Adrian Koenig’s place with the glider after the contest. He was very generous and would not accept gas money from me. Gas is about $6.00/gal there. Adrian and his wife were very hospitable. They invited me into their home and made me feel part of the family.

Many years ago in the town of Montreux, several miles north of Villeneuve, a little-known band named Deep Purple was scheduled to open for Frank Zappa in a large old casino with a high wooden-truss roof structure at the lake's edge. I rode past it on the train after dropping off the car in Lausanne. Someone shot a flare-gun inside the building and the flare hung up on a truss and set the place ablaze. This was the genesis of the song "Smoke on the Water". I thought of this song as we did our maneuvers out over the lake with our smoke bombs on our gliders.

I enjoyed hanging with the European pilots. It always happens when I travel. I feel as though I have become part of a family, and then must leave. Attending this contest and flying with enthusiastic fellow freestylers has reinvigorated me. It has reminded me that I need to manage my time better and fly more.

On my return trip we flew the northern route. I shot these photos of the receding Greenland glacier through the window of the plane. The captain said the land is nomally covered by ice. Note the icebergs.


First published in July 2007Hang Gliding & Paragliding Magazine