Madeira may not be the best know flying destination in Europe, but pilots who go there often seem to go back time and again.
On my first trip in October last year, it started scoring points as soon as I stepped out of the airport. There’s nothing quite like the feel of sunshine just a few hours after being stood on a rainy English train platform.
The first thing that surprised me about the island was how different it was from anywhere else I’d ever been. Red cliffs tower from the sea as you come in on the plane. There are banana plantations everywhere along the coast. Inland, the island climbs steeply and the banana plantations are replaced with eucalyptus forests. Then, most surprisingly of all, you come out through the top of the eucalyptus to find yourself on an enormous plateau that seems more like the Brecon Beacons than somewhere off the Moroccan coast!
This rapidly changing environment is a result of the island’s different micro-climates. While the top of the island can often be in cloud, the sun is invariably shining somewhere on the coast. The volcanic ridge down the middle of the island acts as a defence from the weather, so we regularly saw different weather on the north and south sides of the island.
So what’s the flying like?
Regardless of what the wind is doing over the top of the island, most of the flying takes place on the south coast, often flying in a leeside bubble created by the sharp volcanic landscape. Here by the coast you have the grassy take-offs of Arco de Calheta and Canhas which lead you out into thermals from the 450m cliffs. Just inland, above Arco de Calheta, you have an 800m take-off with plenty of opportunity for thermo-dynamic flying. This is at the top of a bowl which drops away all the way to the coast 2km in front and is known as an XC launch point.
Eastwards along the coast, there is an awe inspiring flight to be done over one of Europe’s highest sea cliffs – taking off 550m directly above the sea. Landing here is on a beach which can only be accessed (or exited) via cable car. Further inland, up above the eucalyptus, you have large smooth grassy take-offs and huge areas for top landing for thermalling and soaring.
The north side of the island is a stark contrast to the grass take-offs and red cliffs on the south side. With sharper cliffs, darker rock, the scenery is stunning. The flying sites are a bit more technical and not used so often, but do provide an interesting alternative for those few times when the weather patterns shift to bring damp weather in from the south west.
The landings on the beaches are a little more interesting. They are long and safe enough, but for those used to flying inland, making your landing approach over the crashing waves can be intimidating. Rocky beaches demand good landing technique to avoid injury particularly in light wind.
Hartmut Peters has been living on Madeira since 2000 and built the take-off at Arco de Calheta. He is always happy to offer local advice and I can’t recommend this enough. I asked him to describe flying on the island:
“Flying on Madeira island is like flying the whole Alps in one day, a lot of airtime with a lot of manoeuvres and many flights per day over impressive steep colourful landscapes along the blue coastline with permanently variable flying conditions, a great new experience even for the most experienced pilots, never boring, no time for routine flights!
“The weather conditions are under the same meteorological law like everywhere in the world. The extreme topography strongly influences the air circulation, so the wind situation is quite variable and always affected by the sun exposure and shaded areas all over the island. It follows the physical principles but in a kind of nano climate compared to flatland or Alpine conditions
“Paragliding on Madeira is good under high pressure weather over the Azores islands. From April to October nearly every day possible. It is quite easy but less spectacular than between October and April. In wintertime the air temperature gives much more potential for strong thermals and longer XC flights or better acro.”
Swiss pilot Peter Hurlimann is a long-time visitor to Madeira:
“The flying itself is brilliant on this island. You have plenty of options, depending on the conditions. I enjoyed flying on top of the island above inversions, thermalling on the north side, night XC as well as the usual days taking off at Arco da Calheta. It’s not the easyest place, because you have to thermal up close to the cliffs sometimes.
“The conditions can change quickly. Always keep an eye on smoke! Wind can change direction a couple of times during the day. You can see the north wind coming down the narrow valleys on the sea. It’s very very micro-climatic!
“I can’t remember how I got the idea to fly there. However, it’s one of the best playgrounds I’ve flown ever. And I will go back again and again.”
Location: In the Atlantic Ocean approximately 800km west of Morocco and 400km north of Tenerife.
Highest point: 1862m
Number of take-offs: 26
XC record: 74km
When you’re not flying – there was plenty to do – swimming in natural pools, go-karting, exploring desolate corners of the island and enjoying the cheap seafood restaurants. In my opinion, one of the strengths of Madeira is that even when it isn’t flyable, the sun is usually shining somewhere on the island.
Photographs by Hartmut Peters, Peter Hurlimann, Jenni Fleming and Graham Grant