It’s a lot like that dream you had as a kid — the dream where you could fly.
“I used to love that dream and was always disappointed when I woke up and couldn’t fly,” says Tim Meehan, a freelance digital designer and tandem paraglider pilot based in Boulder.
“And now, now I fly all the time, for real,” he says.
Meehan is a certified tandem paraglider instructor —the highest rating a paragliding pilot can have.
“It takes you a long time to get to where you are certified for that stuff. It’s arduous, expensive and difficult,” Meehan says. “But once you’re in, you’ve got a lot invested in that certification and there aren’t many of us in the world.”
Becoming a certified tandem pilot has opened up many opportunities for Meehan. From March 29 to April 10 Meehan is in Ghana, Africa, for the second time as one of three tandem paraglider pilots invited to the Ghana Paragliding Festival in the Kwahu region.
The first time Meehan traveled to Ghana for the festival, he never wanted to go again, he says.
“I was there in 2010 and came home from that thinking, man, I’m never going to do that again, because it’s hot, it’s humid, it’s uncomfortable, it’s dusty, it’s dirty, and you can’t avoid getting any number of unwanted parasites living in your gut,” Meehan says.
But after a threat of the festival not happening at all this year and all the work that had been invested in creating the festival eight years ago, Meehan says, he decided to join his close friend Ed Stein in Ghana for another go at it this Easter season.
“Initially we were not going to have the festival, and then we were going to have a reduced presence at the festival, and then again we weren’t going to have it at all,” Meehan says. “Finally [the Tourist Authority of Ghana] said, ‘OK, we can only afford to have three pilots come over,’ so I was one of those three.”
The Ghana Paragliding Festival was started in 2005 by Walter Nesser, according to Stein, a rated paraglider pilot and one of the festival’s founders.
Nesser was living in the area while working for a telecommunications company, Stein says.
“He was working on this tower that was in the perfect location for flying, so he started flying a little bit, and then he came upon the idea that it’d be nice to maybe start a little flying activity there,” he says.
In areas like the Front Range, flying conditions are inconsistent and flying may be suspended multiple times in a day because of high winds. But because of its equatorial location, the area where the paragliding festival is held has rare flying conditions that are very smooth and consistent.
“It’s one of the few places in the world where you can really fly from 9 in the morning ’til dark consistently,” Stein says. “The meteorology there is really phenomenal.”
The Easter Festival in Kwahu | Photo courtesy of Tim Meehan
Nesser started flying his paramotor from a launch spot just below the towers and caught the attention of Jake Tonka Obetsebi-Lamptey, who was Ghana’s minister of tourism at the time.
Nesser started working with the Tourism Authority of Ghana to create the paragliding festival as a way to attract tourism to the west African country.
“That was the vision and still is the vision of the [Tourism Authority] — to entice people from around the world to come there for that activity,” Stein says.
The area of Kwahu is in the eastern region of Ghana, not far from the cities of Accra, the largest city in Ghana, and Kumasi, another densely populated area in Ghana. The end of March is a time of carnival for the people, and they come to Kwahu for the Easter Festival and recreation, Stein says.
“It’s a wild festival event. Not just the paragliding, the paragliding is just one part, but it brings a lot of people up here,” Stein says. “It’s always been a festival event with street festivals. They go there to party.”
Working with the Tourism Authority is a struggle for Stein and Meehan, even after eight years of practice. Meehan says he’ll board a plane to Ghana without really knowing what will happen once he gets there.
“Just keep your fingers crossed,” Stein tells Meehan via Skype. “It’s now Wednesday, we’re leaving Monday … I haven’t heard from them … but it will happen.”
To bring the international tourism the Tourism Authority of Ghana staff have said they hope to bring, they’ll need increased launch space, which currently can only host one paraglider at a time, seriously limiting the number of people pilots can take out in a day.
“They could do a lot more. I think there, like with every area, a lot of it has to do with their funding and who is in charge and the politics,” Stein says.
Even with all the uncertainties, it’s worth it, Meehan says.
“After 20-plus years of paragliding, I’ve kind of been there, done that, seen it all,” Meehan says. “I get a bigger kick out of seeing those saucer eyes, wide open mouth and smiles of people seeing the world from the air for the first time.”
While being invited to fly in such a pristine flying area, Meehan and Stein have tried to give back to the people of Ghana. One year, after receiving some extra funding, they bought a cistern to put into a school. Another year, co-pilot Honza Rejmanek, a former Red Bull athlete, had some extra time during the festival and gave one lucky Ghanaian student a free flight.
“He walked into the nearest school and asked the teacher who was the best student of the day,” Meehan says. “We took the student flying and made his day.”
Meehan was first introduced to paragliding in the late ’80s, when he traded his windsurfer for a very old, very dangerous paraglider.
“I got started back before there were instructors, before there were helmets, reserve parachutes, back protectors or even wings that can fly the way we do today,” Meehan says.
Without any training or great physical health, Meehan hiked up his first hill and took a running start off.
“I wasn’t in very good shape back then and it was a real challenge to hike up that hill. … By the time you got to where you wanted to take off, all you could think about was, ‘God this is horrible. Who would do this?’” he says. “Of course, the first time my feet left the ground, I was like, ‘I’ve got to go back and do that again!’” When Meehan first started paragliding, he says, it may have been a bit unsafe, but the sport has come a long way since then.
“With passengers, nobody has ever been hurt except for an occasional twisted ankle,” Meehan says. “The fact is, well, you can’t get hurt in the air.”