Flatland Flying in Romania

After moving to Bucharest, I have dreamed for long about flying in the Romanian flatland. The flats stretch for over 350 km West to East and for over 100 km in North-South direction. Even with the restricted airspaces: Bucharest TMA and Craiova CTR there is enough free space left to fly our paragliders as much as we can and even break national records.

The maps in this article were generated using XC Planner.

Hill Takeoffs

The major issue is taking off: the only natural takeoffs usable for flatland flying are located at Breaza and Mizil.

Breaza is a very good flying site for SW to W wind directions of up to 25 kmh and for thermal conditions. Breaza has great XC potential, with possible flights to Braila/Galati (to the East) or Focsani/Vaslui (to the North-East). The only issue is the military base located at Bobocu with a NOTAM set for most weekdays blocking most realistic cross-country flying routes. So Breaza is an option only for the weekends. For ridge soaring, it usually has some very nice magic air in the evenings with the sun setting behind the plains similar to soaring at the sea coast.

The takeoff hill at Mizil is rather small (less than 100m difference between the hill top and the base), where conditions can get pretty crazy with strong lift and sink and lots of trees, houses and cables at the bottom of the hill to worry about. When flying to the North-East the pilot must fly over hills with lots of forests, and somewhat difficult terrain with few options for retrieval.

Winch Towing

The third and most flexible option is winch towing. Owning and operating a winch is a pretty costly and time-consuming affair, so I was more than happy to hear that in the last couple of years there were two guys/groups who purchased and started operating payout winches. For those who don’t know, a payout winch is mounted in/on a car. At takeoff only 50-100m cable is paid out. The pilot hooks up to the cable. The car is moving during takeoff at a speed of 20-50kmh, pulling the pilot at the end of the cable. The winch pays out the cable with a certain brake pressure applied. The pilot is lifted to approx 500-700 m above takeoff altitude. For towing you need a reasonably flat and reasonably straight road of around 2 km in length without cables, forests, tall trees, where an offroad car can go with a speed of up to 50kmh.

Winch Takeoffs and Flying Regions

The winch has the advantage that it can move to any area from where paraglider pilots can fly long cross-country flights along the prevailing wind, thermal conditions of the flight region and restricted airspaces. We usually have very good flying conditions after a cold front coming from the West or in the cold and dry air moving in from the East or North-East.

Flying along the Danube

The easiest flying route in the Romanian flats is located in the West to East direction along the Danube. We usually take off near the towns Caracal or Alexandria and fly towards Calarasi. The only challenge here is a rather narrow section bordered by the Bucharest TMA and the Danube (14km at its narrowest) especially in case of strong wind. The longest theoretical cross-country distance possible here is 265km. Flights of up to 200km are pretty realistic if the conditions are right.

Flying East to West on this route (i.e. backwards) is also possible from a takeoff near Calarasi (have not tried it yet as of writing this article in July, 2018).

Flying along the Sub-Carpathian Hills

The Bucharest TMA stretches well into the Carpathians in the North. The TMA starts at 4500Ft AGL (up to FL175) in this area. Cross-country flights are possible by not going over a maximum altitude of 4500ft/1350m AGL, but they are still pretty difficult. We therefore leave the TMA to the West towards Pitesti and take off right at the border of the TMA and fly to the West or South-West. Possible cross-country distance is 200km to the West or 130 km to the South-West.

Flying East to West along the Sub-Carpathian Hills

Flying to the West (above) and to the South-West (below).

Flying Triangles in the Flatland

Flying triangles in the flats is rather difficult. In the flats there are no mountain ridges to organize thermal activity. If there is no wind to organize them in rows of lift and sink, pilots may need to fly in a zig-zag pattern to connect thermal sources/triggers or cumulus clouds which makes cross-country flying very inefficient. With that said, flying triangles in the flats is still possible and much fun. In the Romanian flats, we have a big area bordered by the Buchatest TMA (in the East), Craiova TMA (in the West), the Danube (in the South) and the Sub-Carpathians (in the North). 300km long triangles are theoretically possible here, but pilots can reasonably expect to fly 100 to 150km triangles.

A reasonable route (already flown in 2017) starts at Alexandria, continues to Rosiorii de Vede/Dobrotesti, then to Turnu Magurele and back to Alexandria.

Flying in the East

We have not explored flying in the Eastern part of the flats, but it is also possible, from Galati to the South/SSW. This area is delimited by the Danune (flowing from the South to the North) and the Buzau/Bobocu NOTAMS and the Buchatest TMA.

Flying in the flats is not less technical or easier to do than in the mountains, but it is probably safer. There are lots of unexplored opportunities in the Romanian flatlands, so make friends with pilots and groups operating winches and fly.

With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania – Day 1

How it all started

It all started with a chance encounter in the parking lot. I was heading home on my home-built recumbent bicycle, Barni was working on one of his businesses or hobbies. These two overlap for him most of the time, and one of them included building a paramotor trike to take passengers with him in tandem flights. I love the company of passionate people with sufficiently crazy ideas, and he needed someone with creative welding skills. We knew each other remotely from the paragliding scene, but a partnership and friendship quickly evolved of these mutual interests.

Excitement in the garage when the trike started to take shape.

We built the trike in less than a month using his design ideas and my technical skills. It all happened in a small garage, the way other great ideas are born. The maiden voyage in a foggy October morning was an adrenaline rush. We both knew that it would work, but taking off on something we have just built with the weld seams still warm definitely gave me the strongest combination of thrilling attention and joy. The trike quickly became a taxi for many, but we had some more ideas with it for sharing another adventure.

Before the first takeoff.

We started discussing about going on a paramotor trip of several days. We would take up in the morning, fly for several hours, get down, refuel and fly some more. The theory was simple. We chose to explore a region in Transylvania once inhabited by German (Saxon) people who fled in the Communist period of Romania and in the chaos that followed immediately after the regime change. The Saxons left behind a beautiful network of tidy villages with precisely crafted houses and fortified churches.

We chose the triangle between Sighisoara (down, right), Agnita (down, left) and Medias (middle, top).

Except for a few touristy areas like Sighisoara or Biertan, most villages in this region are frozen in time. They are located in side valleys with the access road in a very bad shape, very few tourists reaching them and the Romanian and Rroma population left behind living off subsistence farming.

Fortified church in Biertan (DE: Birthälm, HU: Berethalom)

Note: All place names are given in three languages: Romanian first because we live in the present, then German, because they built these villages, and then Hungarian, because this region was under Hungarian administration for most of the time when the Saxons lived there.

The fortified churches in the village centres are beautiful combinations of a fortress and a church. Each of them is different. They are obviously the result of the effort and ideas of a closed community without a central authority directing them using force, taxes or subsidies. There are similarities, especially in neighboring villages, but each of them is very unique.

So we set off to explore this historic area. On Google Earth I created a kml file with all the sites worth visiting and the petrol stations in the area. This was all the information we used for planning our day trips each morning. As Barni had some tandems to fly on the day we were supposed to start our expedition, we arrived late in the afternoon to Agnita (DE: Agnetheln, HU: Szentágota) in the middle of our target zone. It was just right to do a one hour of flight before sunset. We visited the village of Iacobeni (DE: Jakobsdorf , HU: Jakabfalva) and Agnita.

At Iacobeni we got low in the calm evening air, and made rounds around the church tower. It was exhilarating, like flying around 800 year-old pilons in a paramotor competition. People in the village were cheering and waving at us. Visiting these untouched and innocent places with a paramotor trike and getting low above the villages felt very intense. To keep the intensity of the experience, we decided to sleep in Barni’s van instead of looking for a motel/hostel.

Having an open fire and barbecuing in the dark felt intense indeed. Even more, the sub-zero temperatures that made our beers freeze. The next morning we waited for the sun to melt and burn off the frost and off we went to visit Medias (DE: Mediasch, HU: Meggyes), some 50 km away.

I had to add this pic below, because it was imprinted in my mind when getting to sleep in the car (whenever I was not focused on keeping the cold out of my sleeping bag.)

With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania – Day 2 – to Medias

Flying to Medias

Day 2 started with frost covering everything like snow. We crawled out of the van like lizards and waited for the sun to heat us up. But we rather felt like butterflies. Carnivore butterflies after the beers and the barbecue of the previous evening.

Preparations before takeoff

We had some very nice places to visit en-route, and had to land at Medias to refuel before getting back. As we took off pretty late, thermals have already started. We had to fly high above the forested ridges and inhabited valleys to avoid the rough air and occasional sinking air near the ground.

The bird’s eye view from high above gave a different understanding of the region. The most striking difference was the reduced mobility of the people who built these places, and even of those who live there today. There is very little arable land in these narrow valleys, so I can only wonder what people lived of here centuries ago. It is striking from far away that these Saxon villages had very special rules of living together.

Bethlen castle at Cris (DE: Kreisch, HU: Keresd) built in the 15th century, now mostly in ruins. It has been given back to the Bethlen family (nobles and historic governors of Transylvania) in 2007 and restoration work has been started and the castle is given a new life and purpose again after decades of Communist neglect.

Fortified church in Valchid (DE: Waldhütten, HU: Váldhíd). It is in a state of disrepair (according to the news; we could not go down to check with our own eyes because of the turbulent air) after the Saxons leaving the village, and its South tower has collapsed. Even Prince Charles intervened about the lack or bad quality restoration work done in this area.

Passing over another fortified church at Brateiu (DE: Bretai, HU: Baráthely). The village is already in the main valley of the Târnava Mare river (DE:  Große Kokel, HU: Nagy-Küküllő) with the main road connectiong Sighisoara with Medias. Brateiu is best known now for its Rroma population of artizans manufacturing copper distillers and building intricate palaces in their own style.

Arriving at Medias.

Medias is a town of regional interest, with more urban structures, especially fuel pumps that we were interested in. At the first fuel pump we could not find a proper landing place, so went on to the town centre, where there was a fairly decent grass field (in the above picture in the middle) surrounded by high and low-voltage cables, cranes, houses, and trees. Barni landed effortlessly and I was grateful for his high-level professionalism. Together with crazy ideas, it makes an excellent package.

The gas station was only 400 metres away from landing, but we still managed to gave local people a great show cruising to it. People shot videos of us riding our wheeled hovercraft on the ground to the gas station. What could be less normal than that? We parked our strange craft at the gas station and went for a light stroll and a strong coffee in the city centre disguised as normal people.

With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania – Day 2 – from Medias

Flaying back from Medias

Medias city centre.

The takeoff from the patch of grass surrounded by everything you don’t want to crash into was anything but normal. There was no wind to help us. With his competition-pilot skills, Barni managed to cruise around in tight circles to avoid all obstacles and still get enough lift to climb out and above the cityscape. No filming, sorry for that, I was terrified enough not to care about the camera.

As we checked out in Medias while having a coffee, there were enough empty spaces without overhanging cables to land in the city center, so we went back to visit it again, this time in the air.

On the ride back we could fly low and get personal with a few villages with an outstanding architecture. These are still in the mainstream, with tourists visiting the fortified churches and generating income to the villages. Biertan (Birthälm, Berethalom) was the first with its castle-like church, which is the most elaborate and poetic rural fortified church in the region.

At Biertan we got down and close to the church tower again, so after visiting the village, we had to climb up again with the paramotor. We were quite heavy and the motor had a hard time pushing us, so to climb out from the valleys we needed to hitch a ride on thermals too to help us get high.

Above picture: getting some height in thermals after Biertan. Next stop: Malancrav (DE: Malmkrog, HU: Almakerék). At Malancrav they have an almost Spartan church, the complete opposite of the romanticism of Biertan (Ok, I did it, I used this word in the non-historic meaning). There is also a manor house of the Apafi family (then owned by the Bethlen family, then by the communists, then by the Evagngelical church and now by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which renovated it properly).

Our track at Malancrav. By this time we had a pattern to our visit: arriving high, burning some altitude in spirals and wingovers, next the tour of honour around the church tower and leaving low, almost scratching the roofs.

On the way back we visited Iacobeni again. I enjoyed this low-level approach so much, that I need to share the video here too. I have a feeling that there are too many churches and towers in this post already, but hey, that was our focus here on this trip.

Landed at our base camp. That’s me, signing the picture in the lower right corner with my shadow.

With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania – Day 2 – Sighisoara

Flying to Sighisoara and back

It was already late in the afternoon, but we did not stop after our trip to Medias. We refuelled, ate something and off we went to visit Sighisoara (DE: Schäßburg, HU: Segesvár), another major attraction of this region.

It was a magic flight with the setting sun flooding every building of Sighisoara with orange light, but it did not end there.

On the way back we made a small detour and flew over Noiștat (DE: Neustadt, HU: Újváros). Check how the roof on the building next to the church has collapsed.

We were after another hidden gem, however, the small village of Movile (DE: Hundertbüchlen, HU: Százhalom). They didn’t even have an asphalted road leading to the village, just some gravel full of potholes. The village is misnamed even on google maps/earth (it is called Iacobeni, which around 10 km from here).

But the church in the village has two towers spaced exactly like pilons in a paramotor competition. On the approach to the village, we came up with the brilliant idea to fly figure 8-s around the two church towers just like at a competition. Barni did not shy away from the task.

At the end we moved our camp from this lovely field to Sighisoara and stayed overnight simply in his van in a parking lot. Plain and simple.

With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania – Day 3

Flying above Rupea Fortress

After spending the night in the van at the walls of the Sighisoara fortress (Burg in German) and some butter croissants at the supermarket, we headed off to do the final leg of our paramotor trip around the Rupea fortress. When we found a good field to serve as our takeoff, the early morning mist was still rising in the whitish light. It was a deafening silence as we had breakfast sitting on toolboxes, only interrupted by my phone chirping that I had new e-mail and his customers calling him to supply them with coffee.

It was time for us both to confess that neither of us could hold a regular job for too long. Getting ready for takeoff on Monday morning when everybody is in an early-hour frenzy is an experience that you cannot have if you care too much about your 9 to 5 job.

The fort at Rupea (HU: Kőhalom, DE: Reps) was the first on our trip, followed by the fortified church at Homorod (same name in all other languages).

We left the main road then and climbed across a few hills to get to Roades (HU: Rádos, DE: Raddeln). It was a completely different site cut off from the busy motorised society.

We found a fortified church with a collapsed tower. I was wondering while filming from above: how much time would it take for the German locals to rebuild this tower two hundred years ago? But it would have not collapsed back then because they maintained it properly.

We had one last stop on our journey at Viscri (HU: Fehéregyháza, DE: Weiskirich). It was a beautifully preserved robust church with thick walls and towers, a UNESCO world heritage site.

I really enjoyed that we still have so much wild beauty in this country and you can still do whatever you like to experience it. We have almost complete freedom of handling, just not hurt anybody or cause too much damage.