What to do if the towns are full, the countryside is crowded and the beaches are packed, but you still want to enjoy the lovely weather? The answer: go flying! This month Enjoy the Algarve gets away from the summer crowds and takes off in an ultralight airplane in Marim, near Olhão. (Spoiler: it’s absolutely amazing!!!)
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2017
My favourite part of flying to the Algarve is crossing over the Ria Formosa. Not only because it means I can almost get out of the aircraft after a three-hour journey spent in an uncomfortable position listening to kids nagging for candy, but also because when I’ve got a window seat and we come in from the east, there’s this fabulous view. In preparation for landing, the aircraft flies low enough to see all the islands that make up the nature reserve; sometimes I’m even able to distinguish Pedras d’el Rei, Tavira, Fuseta and Olhão when making the way down to Faro airport. It’s literally a bird’s-eye view of the Ria Formosa.
Ultralight flying, however, gives you this sensation times by 4 billion. Something I didn’t know yet when arriving at the airfield. Which is exactly that, a field in Marim, just off the N125. Not that I was expecting customs and baggage handlers, but maybe something more, well, runway-like…
Instead, it’s an ordinary meadow you’d expect horses or goats on. It’s empty though, apart from red wind socks flapping on poles in the corners and runway markings on the ground that are made out of old water bottles. The planes, a Quicksilver MXL II Sport (pictured above) and a Kolb Twinstar, seem too tiny to go up and look more like toys than actual modes of transport. Especially the Quicksilver, with its bright coloured yellow-red wings made out of sailing cloth, but without any sort of cabin. No floor, windows or doors either. Nada. “You see, it’s fully air-conditioned!” laughs George K. Owen (74, pictured above). Comparing his plane to Ryanair’s 737, I notice there’s definitely a difference between flying and flying.
I’m scared, but George isn’t. Which is a good thing, as he’s the pilot. Although he’d refuse to go up a ladder with a paint brush as “It’s too high”, he’s very keen to get up 1000ft in the air in what looks (and sounds) like a lawnmower with wings. George learned to fly when he was 50 years old. “The children had left the house, the mortgage was paid, and I wanted to do something for me.” He started in a glider and then went on to get his microlight licence. Originally from the UK, he has lived in Portugal for 12 years, in Moncarapacho. In Pegasus Flying Club, a non-profit organisation and the only flying club licensed to fly in the Ria Formosa, George shares his passion with others and generally flies whenever he can. “I got bitten by the bug and if I don’t fly for two weeks, I really need to get in the air. It’s like a drug. I don’t use cocaine or marihuana; instead I fly,” he laughs. He logs all his flights in a map, which is looking pretty full as he tries to fly at least every other day.
Although the previous passenger returns from her short flight with a massive smile on her face, I’m still afraid and decide to ask George if he’s ever been scared. “Never,” is the answer. “We’ve been trained on what to do in an emergency, and if the engine stops, for example, you can’t be scared as you need to concentrate on landing it safely, which could even be done on the beach or in a salt pan.” So that’s just in the hypothetical case the engine would ever stop, which is obviously never ever going to happen, isn’t it? “No, that has happened before.”
Great. I decide to stop asking stupid questions and just get in the two-seater Quicksilver. Georges buckles me up and provides me with a headset so we can communicate with each other during the flight without being bothered by the engine sound. I promise to try not to scream too loud. He gives me a quick pre-flight briefing about the dials and controls, while I regret eating that massive late lunch and practise turning my head to the right so I don’t projectile-vomit all over George in case I’ll need to throw up. The ride across the field is a bumpy one, and I can hear Gustave the Dog whining over the engine sound, unhappy to be left behind. As the field isn’t that big, I still don’t believe we’ll actually get this thing in the air.
Then, after only 40m ground roll, suddenly we’re flying. And strangely, the exact moment the wheels leave the ground, I stop being afraid. We do a low pass over the airfield, which is exhilarating. Calling this a ‘scenic flight’ would be an understatement. It’s absolutely incredible. We stay away from the airspace around Faro airport – “You don’t want to be in the way of an airliner taking off” – and fly between 40 and 50mph at max 1000ft, perfect to admire our surroundings. George, however, comments the visibility isn’t that good today. “Now it’s about 20km, but normally, you can see all the way to Spain.” The air is pleasantly cooler than down on the ground and as we’re flying east, I can see the shadow of the aircraft on the Earth. Also the various landmarks are clearly recognisable. I spot people, donkey carts and cars on the N125 and never knew there were so many salt pans in the area. You can see which houses have a swimming pool and which gardens are in need of a trim. It’s seriously amazing and George laughs about my enthusiasm. “Flying is the only way to get this kind of view. The closest you can get is driving your car up the São Miguel mountain and looking down from there, but that isn’t the same. I also like flying because you don’t have to stick to the roads.”
The prettiest scenery, though, makes the Ria Formosa, with its small creeks and sailing boats stuck in the mud, waiting for the tide to come. Because of the different water depths, yellow, green and blue colours merge like a painting. It’s indeed a perfect picture. When we get to Fuseta, underneath us the ferry departs for the island of Armona. On the small town beach, sunbathers lie crowded together, their umbrellas visible as green, red and blue circles in the sand. The roads are pretty full with beach traffic as well and that’s when I realise that here in the sky, we’re completely alone. I look around, stretch out my arms and feet and feel the wind against my fingertips. George doesn’t need any help controlling the plane, so I’ve got time to quite simply be absolutely in awe of the views. I already knew the Algarve is gorgeous, but I’d never realised this part of the world is also incredibly pretty when seen from above.
When we get over the Atlantic Ocean, the winds get calmer and George demonstrates some of the steering by moving the stick, which makes the aircraft dive down and back up. It doesn’t scare me at all; instead, I’m fascinated. “Part of what makes the Ria Formosa such a good place for ultralight flying is the calmer wind conditions over sea,” explains George. “If people are afraid of a bumpy ride, or there’s a lot of thermic over land, I just fly a bit more south, which makes for a smoother experience.” At one with the elements, George plays with the wind and adapts his input to the air conditions. To me, this open-air-flying seems like the ultimate freedom, but George prefers gliding even more. “Although gliding has the drawback of needing other people to help you get in the air and back in the hangar again, it’s even freer when you fly. It’s silent because you have no engine, and if you can find the right thermals, you could stay up all day. The best gliding compliment you can get, is when birds come and join you in a thermal, because normally the birds know the best spots.”
Coming around the western end of Armona, there are seagulls flying underneath us. George regularly sees dolphins and flamingos on his trips. I’m tempted to ask him to fly on all the way to Lagos and back, as there have been orcas sighted off the coast of Albufeira just a day earlier, but the aircraft only has fuel endurance for an hour, depending on the wind strength. As we head back to Marim and come down for landing, the aircraft goes so fast that I think we won’t make it to a stop before the trees. Of course we do. And just as the previous passenger, as soon as I get out, I’m bouncing around, giddy with laughing, hyped up to the max, telling photographer Kyle about the things I’ve seen before George takes him up for a spin as well. The only downside to this amazing experience: next time I’m flying into Faro airport in a Boeing, the views out the window will seem a whole less spectacular…
When to go?
That completely depends on the weather and wind conditions. Usually the best times are in the morning (before 11am) and the late afternoon (after 4pm). If the weather isn’t good enough, flying won’t be possible.
There aren’t any fixed times or dates, so best is to contact George by phone (912 671 551) or email in advance to make an appointment and ask about the weather forecast for the coming days. The length of the flight can vary from 10 minutes up to an hour.
To get to the airfield: drive from Olhão to the east along the N125. After about 1km, you’ll get to Marim. Turn right at restaurante Cavaleiro; the airfield is located just behind the restaurant.
For everyone who wants to escape the crowds and see the Algarve from a different perspective. It’s certainly great for daredevils who don’t get nauseous very soon.
This activity is suitable for children from age 8 and upwards (whether or not kids are allowed to fly actually depends on their height, as they have to be strapped in safely). Adults can be as old as they want, as long as they can sit in the chair. There’s a weight limit of 100kg though.
If you want to take your camera (recommended!), make sure to attach it with a wrist strap so you won’t drop it. George also has camera mounts on the aircraft.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2017