Photo: Marcus King

The Naked Pilots: Family Von Känel

Friday 25 June, 2021

Patrick von Känel and his dad Fritz are from Frutigen in Switzerland. Patrick was eighth in the 2019 Red Bull X-Alps, at the age of 25. We caught up with them both after the competition, and asked them about their flying lives

Patrick: I started to fly when I was 15. My mum and dad both flew, so I grew up with it. As a child I spent summers with my grandmother up in the mountains, so I never had the chance to fly, but finally when school finished I got the chance.

My first glider was my mum’s old glider. It was an old Paratech, really yellow! My mum and father weren’t at home, so I took my mum’s glider and went to the slope and tried to take off. I crashed a lot! That was my first experience. I’d already been shown how to groundhandle and connect the wing, so I was thinking, “Now I can fly”.

As soon as I flew I knew that was it. My school glider was also a Paratech. Then the normal thing, EN B, EN C, EN D and two-liner. I’m now a full-time test pilot with Advance. I’ve been with them four years. It’s my dream job. We have such a good team at the moment. A very good spirit.

I work and fly with Chrigel Maurer. I can ask him anything, any time. Even during the Red Bull X-Alps this year, I asked him. He always shows us what he has learned over the years.

The next adventure is Brazil. I plan to go with Michael Sigel and Michael Küffer, two supercool guys. We are going at the end of September. I flew 500km in Brazil last year. We want to try to break the world record, but really I think that just adds pressure. I think if we go to have fun as the first priority, then we will also fly well.

I learnt a lot from my dad. I got to my dad’s level quite quickly, but I also learnt a lot about getting the right tempo. Like during the X-Alps I was really exhausted, and I had to hike up 2,000m to the Titlis turnpoint. My father went in front and set the right pace. It meant I could recover as I climbed. I just watched his feet, one step after another.

Fritz: I started paragliding in 1986. I was not interested in hang gliding. There was hang gliding in Frutigen, but it wasn’t for me. I saw paragliding in Kandersteg and I thought it was a farmer in a field with the bed sheets! A guy told me they were jumping off this cliff and I thought, “Sheesh! That’s a cool thing!”

I asked the pilots if I could join them. They said yes, they were starting a school. The wing was actually a parachute. It was a hard time. You needed a really steep slope. The material was porous. You had to run really, really fast!

I was about 25 when I took my first flight. We were all scared of the cliff. The teacher said, “Don’t look down. Just look at the forest on the other side of the valley.” My first flight was from about 500-600m. We had a gap in the forest and had to go through it. If you didn’t go through the gap, you were in the trees!

It was a good feeling. In the second year a guy from Engelberg showed us how to soar along the cliff in the dynamic wind. I remember, I made a turn towards the wall and then I had a collapse. And then the guy told me, “You never turn towards the slope!” And I did that for maybe half a year before we said, “Well, sometimes you have to turn towards the hill.” And we started to fly 360s.

I discovered thermalling in the second year. No vario. Back then we would all go up, fly down, and after five minutes we were all back on the ground together. And actually that was a good time, because it was very social. Then thermalling came, and you saw each other at the take-off, and then everyone went their own way.

In those days we talked about cells. We had seven- and nine-cell gliders. The first glider I had where I thought “Wow” was the Swing Prisma. I flew over the local mountain with that glider. It was light in the brakes, but it turned. Today I fly a Sigma 10.

I still have ambitions in flying. I like to fly in the high mountains, over the glaciers. I am not such a big cross-country pilot, I can fly 100km or so, but I like to go across the Alps and go as high as possible. When I look back on those days in Kandersteg, and now at what paragliding has become, I think it’s immense, just immense.

This article was published in issue 204 (October 2019)

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