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Cockpit Chronicles: St. Elmos Fire, Falcons and Segway-ing through Paris

Rich, the relief co-pilot, looked over my shoulder and pointed to the radar.

"Looks like you're painting some weather there." He said.

I looked down, noting the sea of green ahead.

"It doesn't have much vertical to it." I replied, which meant the clouds hadn't developed into anything that would produce much in the way of bumps.

"I think it's just heavy rain." I said.

After flying around Hurricane Ike and Hanna, it was nice to get away from the Caribbean weather by escaping to France. Sure, there may be some specks of yellow among the green Rich had pointed out, but this was no real thunderstorm from what I could see.

Soon we entered the clouds from above. The sunrise we had been enjoying was gone now and the cockpit was a bit darker. As we descended towards 20,000 feet, St. Elmos fire began to sparkle on the front windshield. This phenomenon looks like lightning, but it's actually static discharges occurring right on the glass just in front of our faces.

Rich grabbed my camera to film the scene. [Video after the jump]



As we approached Paris on the arrival, we broke out long enough to see the sun trying to peek above the cloud layer. Moments later we flew through a few small build-ups. This weather was hardly painting on the radar, yet these were some powerful little clouds. The airplane bumped and shook for the next ten minutes causing Rich to give up with the camera. He couldn't film much longer anyway, since we were about to reach the 10,000 foot sterile period.

Checking in on the radio behind us was a U.S. Airways flight that was beginning to pick up the same ride conditions we had. Since I was working the radios, I gave a quick pilot report about the moderate turbulence we had just flown through, hoping the U.S. Airways flight might do a better job avoiding it than we did.

It turned out Rich made a good call. The green weather with specks of yellow turned out to be rougher than anything I'd ever experienced in Europe. Fortunately we were through it by the time we reached 10,000 feet.

Captain Frank finished off the approach with a nice landing at Charles de Gaulle.

We talked about our plans as we rode the bus into the city.

I've always wanted to do it. Maybe this was the layover to give it a try. The reflective vests and helmet makes you look so goofy. Could I get past that? I mean, it is a form of transportation, and I do like gadgets. But I wasn't sure I'd be able to convince Rich to join me.

Of course I'm talking about taking a tour of Paris on a Segway. City Segway Tours offers as many as three of these tours a day during the summer with the rides tapering off as winter approaches. So I would have to do it on what would likely be my last Paris trip, number 17, of the year.

At 70 Euros, it doesn't come cheap, but amazingly Rich really wanted to give it a try. He's a bit of an adventurous type, who's currently heavily involved in his new hobby of beekeeping. Since touring around Paris on a Segway wasn't something he'd done yet, it didn't take much to convince him.

Fat Tire had an opening on their 6:30 p.m. tour, so Rich and I had some time to roam around the city. I told Rich that Grant Martin, the editor of Gadling who normally resides in Michigan, was just a few miles from the hotel playing a competitive game of Frisbee at the Cité Universitaire.

We had some time to kill and we agreed that it'd be interesting to see what was involved in a competitive Frisbee game, so we walked over to the park where he and his girlfriend had met up with his sister and some others for a game.

It was apparently the nicest day of the summer according to the local media with warm 70+ degree temperatures, perfect for hanging out in a park and I suppose ideal weather for a Frisbee match.

Unfortunately, we wouldn't see a real Frisbee match, since a local falconer was out flying two of his birds at the field. It gave Rich a good opportunity to take the pictures below while I shot some video.



Grant trying to determine if this bird would be using the field for the rest of the day...



The falcon unexpectedly took off after a kid ran towards it. (See video below)



We agreed to meet up with Grant and the ladies later that evening if we survived our Segway experience.

We met Lisa at Fat Tire Bike Tours and City Segway Tours at their office near the Eiffel Tower and she immediately made us sign away any rights and agree to pay for any damage we may do to the machines. That didn't dissuade us, so we took the next step and picked out helmets before joining the five other riders.

Our guide, Dana, was an enthusiastic American who was rather adept at Segwaying through Paris. She gave us a good thirty minutes of instruction on how to operate the Segway.

Before we knew it, we were all getting comfortable with the motions needed to step on, move, turn and most importantly, stop Dean Kamen's amazing little invention. The tour takes four hours and covers the major sites of Paris. Rich and I had seen these landmarks before, but we couldn't stop grinning.

In just a few minutes we completely forgot just how dorky we looked on the Segway and we began enjoying the freedom it provided.

Our concerns with the €70 per person had been put to rest almost immediately. This was worth it.

It's easy to underestimate just how fast 12 miles an hour is, until you're on a Segway. We flew through the parks, mostly at a comfortable 1/2 speed, occasionally 'opening it up' a bit to feel the wind blow through our hair while demonstrating our prowess to the other riders.

I struck up a conversation with one of the riders who had his new camera damaged a few days earlier. He wondered if I might forward him some pictures and video, and I told him I was writing this up for a blog, and I could at least send him a link.

Much to my surprise he was a fan of Gadling and he was pretty sure he'd read a Cockpit Chronicles. Or at least he thought.

So I vowed to send him this story–a post I'm sure he'll remember, if only because he was actually there.

Dana gave everyone the option of stopping for a drink and an appetizer at a café, or simply taking a rest break at a Creperie/Bistro so we could spend more time running around the city.

Everyone decided to keep the rest break short and continue our tour as we were really enjoying the zippy little wheels. I was amazed that battery life wasn't an issue even though we were almost constantly moving for the four hours. These machines never seemed to slow down.

For a novice, riding a Segway is almost more demanding than a bike tour, since your feet and calf muscles aren't used to the corrections and weight-shifting required to speed up and slow down.

I was able to balance the device, even while shooting video along the way. I may regret this, but I'll go ahead and share the video:



I know I've recommended the Fat Tire Bike tour of Paris and Versailles in the past, but you just might have to forgo those, and give the Segway a try. No one in our group regretted it.

We met up with Grant and his girlfriend over at the Latin Quarter at almost 11 p.m. Grant's sister Chi twisted her ankle playing Frisbee and couldn't join us for drinks and dessert. I would have enjoyed talking with her–to get her viewpoint on what it's like as an expat living in Paris for the past few years. I guess I'll just have to keep reading her blog. Here's the day from her perspective along with some great pictures of the Falcon demonstration.

We're no longer flying to Paris for the winter, so it's time to bid farewell to this amazing city. It was more expensive this year than in years past, but far more memorable, too.

Now it's back to the Caracas, Miami, and who knows what other trips we'll see this winter. Stay tuned...

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent's trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.

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