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International Air Festival El Yelmo (FIA)

If Parisian Marc Petiot hadn’t flown his paraglider over Segura de la Sierra in the 1990s, the International Air Festival in Jaen wouldn’t exist today. Inspired by the Saint Hilaire du Touvet Festival in France, this event brings together some of the best aerobatic pilots performing stunts with their airplanes, paragliders and paramotors who congregate around the 970-metre-high El Yelmo mountain peak to the delight of nearly 15,000 spectators each year.

By:  Elsa Cabria
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Aerobatics festival
2011 Programme
Founded: 2000
Location: Segura de la Sierra (Jaen)
Stands out for: flying shows, acrobatics, paragliding, film screenings, music and workshops for the whole family
Did you know? attending the festival is free, except for half hour tandem flights

Petiot, a resident in Jaen since 1998, launched a small festival that aimed to promote tourism and aviation sports in the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park, an area he discovered thanks to paragliding champion Raúl Rodríguez. Fascinated by the topography of the El Yelmo Mountain, the pine and olive trees that cover it and the architecture of Segura de la Sierra, he decided to make it his home.

The decision allowed him to fly over “this extraordinary mountain” whenever he wanted, but it wasn’t enough: “At the time, the only thing anyone knew about paragliding in Spain were the accidents shown on Impact TV”. The situation pushed him towards a decision and he soon found himself looking for European funding. With the support of the town hall, county council and the Association for Rural Development in the Sierra del Segura, Petiot founded a festival with its sights set on the sky.

Less than a thousand people, mostly pilots, attended the first edition of the International Air Festival El Yelmo that took place on a small basketball court in the village. At 10:30 on the 8th June 2000, seven planes from the Patrulla Águila (Eagle Patrol) of the Spanish Air Force flew into the valley for a display of aeronautical prowess. “It was the first time they’d ever performed in Jaen and they did it for free,” recalls Petoit.

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The three-day festival was initially intended to promote films about flying and the natural world amongst both children and parents in order to counteract misconceptions about flying in the media. The untimely death of Paco García, pilot and co-founder of FIA, when flying over El Yelmo, helped Petoit define the project. “Paragliding isn’t dangerous. It depends on the pilot.”

After moving the event, in its second edition, to the Cortijos Nuevos football field, the concept of the festival expanded to become what it is today: an event made up of air shows, activities for pilots, concerts, workshops for kids, industry stalls, falconry and bird displays, a photography competition, mountain trekking competitions, a Toyota 4×4 test run, bowling championships… Best of all, entrance to the festival is free. Visitors only need to pay for the chance to go on half hour tandem flights in order to feel the wind in their hair for themselves.

FIA attracts famous pilots from every direction: Raúl and Félix Rodriguez (creators of the majority of aerobatic stunts used today), Paco and Javi Guerra (well-known on the paramotor circuit for his risky stunts), Ramón Morillas (world altitude record holder for powered paragliders) and even Horacio Llorens (2010 World Paragliding Champion). Most of them can be found on the programme year by year, but they aren’t the principal attraction. According Ramón López, to coordinator of the festival since 2006, “they are the actors” in a complex show.

Between 275 and 325 pilots, of which about a dozen take part in aerobatic shows. From twelve to fifteen thousand visitors. A rise in the use of paramotors in the exhibitions. Two hundred thousand watts to power the concerts. Movies from as far as China, Argentina and New Zealand. The Air Festival is on the up, the product of an idea of a Frenchman who wanted to change public opinion about a sport that has more than twenty-five thousand registered members in France (compared to the three thousand in Spain). Lopéz concludes: “This sport is an adrenaline rush. It’s not about superheroes. It’s a passion”.




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