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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Nov 4, 2018, 12:18 AM; last updated: Nov 4, 2018, 2:59 AM (IST)

That first flight from Billing

Since 1984, when Bir-Billing was first chosen to be venue of a paragliding cup, it has come to be known as one of the best sites in the world

Lalit Mohan

Once a tiny hamlet having no connectivity with the world is today a colourful canvas with paragliders from all over the world taking to its skies. Bir-Billing, which is among the top 10 paragliding sites of the world, attracts more than 25,000 flyers every year. Billing ridge, located at a height of 2,430 metres from the sea level, is the perfect take off site for solo or tandem flights in the Dhauladhar mountain range. Bir, 14km away, plays the landing site.

Road to the hilltop

Octogenarian Navin Sarin, the Palampur resident credited with bringing hang gliding to Himachal, gets nostalgic as he begins to talk about the discovery of Bir-Billing. Employed with a Scottish company in Kolkata, he left his job to pursue tourism business in 1975. He was to soon introduce angling and hang gliding in Himachal.

A few years later, in 1982, Western Himalayan Paragliding Association was formed in association with Air India. Two famous hang gliding pilots — John Bowman, from London, and Pankaj Mahajan, from Mumbai, were roped in to carry out a study of various sites across India that were fit for hang gliding. The duo carried out a survey of various sites, including Naina Devi temple ridge in Bilaspur, Bijli Mahadev temple in Kullu, Bir-Billing, Triund, Segli, Rohtang Pass and Dharamsala Cantonment. They listed out the advantages and disadvantages of all these sites and concluded that Bir-Billing was the best of all.

The first hang gliding world cup was organised at the site with the help of state and Central governments. To attract pilots from across the world, award of $10,000 was announced. It was among the highest awards for the sport at that time, Sarin tells. Forty three hang gliders from 13 countries across Europe, Israel and the US, participated in the event. The ceremonial hang gliding flight to mark the start of the event took off from the Ridge in Shimla. Thousands gathered to watch the inauguration by the then Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh.

There was no road to Billing at that time. The Indian Army helped in constructing a temporary path and stationed its helicopter at Bir to carry out rescue operations during the 10-day tournament. It also provided its vehicles to carry men and material to the take-off site.

Sarin says that despite the spectacle that the start was, it failed to make it big during the successive years. One of the major reasons was that the event coincided with Operation Bluestar in Punjab. Due to that, the promotion material of all the sponsors could not be brought to Bir-Billing for display during the tournament. This led to dispute.

International spotlight

After 1984, not much was done by the government to promote the site. However, the event brought the site into prominence among adventure sports enthusiasts across the world. As word regarding the site spread through articles published in reputed magazines such as Cross Country, flyers started thronging Billing. Foreign visitors would hold small, local-level championships promoting the region. With time, however, paragliding gained traction at Bir-Billing.

Gurpreet Dhindsa, an international paraglider certified by the British Paragliding Association, says that the open valley beyond Billing enables fliers to cover long distances. Presently, the record of flying 257 km in a single flight from Billing is in the name of India’s Debu Chaudhary. The long distance that can be covered from Billing makes it attractive for free flyers from all over the world. Dhindsa says nowhere else in the world can such a long distance be covered in a single flight.

Nineteen years after the first event, the site once again shot into prominence when the Himachal government organised the first Pre-World Cup Paragliding Championship here in 2003. The second and third Pre-World Cup Championships were organised in 2006 and 2008. For around a year, the official championship at the spot remained suspended due to political rivalry between the local paragliding association and the state government.

In 2015, the first Paragliding World Cup was organised at Bir-Billing under the aegis of the then Congress minister, Sudhir Sharma, who is also the current president of the Bir Billing Paragliding Association.

Bir-Billing is now an international paragliding site, recognised by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), a France-based World Air Sports Federation. Paragliding is allowed about nine months in a year, except during the monsoon months from June to August. In Bir-Billing, there are 150 paragliders licenced by the Tourism Department to provide tandem flights to tourists coming here. Most of these are locals doing a brisk business. They charge anywhere between Rs 1,800 and Rs 3,000 for a single tandem flight. With an increasing numbers of tourists, many hotels and guest houses have also come up in the Bir area to cater to foreign and domestic tourists. However, the accidents are making the success story end on a sad note.

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