Powered Paragliding

By: Ken Wallingford, Aviation Focal Point

Besides being the Aviation program leader here at the Caribou Weather Service office, I am also an active participant in aviation activities. I am a licensed pilot and have flown numerous types of aircraft, from small single engine planes to hang gliders and recently became involved in a new sport called Powered Paragliding. Powered Paragliding is not one of those new extreme sports we often hear about nowadays, but rather a very safe and affordable way to see the world from above. What appeals most to me about this sport is that you can skim right along the ground at about 20-25 mph or climb several thousand feet into the air. There is also complete exposure, meaning you are not confined by a pod or fuselage, rather you are suspended in a harness with nothing between you and the ground but a lot of air.

Powered paragliding involves wearing a motorized backpack unit and using a parachute as your wing. The motor provides the thrust and determines whether you climb, descend, or maintain altitude. The parachute provides the lift and ability to maneuver; you use two brakes, which are nothing more than lines attached to the upper left and upper right corner of your wing. Simply pull down on the left brake and it pulls the left corner of the wing downward. This slows this side of the parachute and enables you to turn left. Pull down on the right brake and you turn right. Landings are usually made at engine off or engine idle and involve a relatively slow descent back to the ground, just as is seen with skydivers. Just before touchdown, one pulls down aggressively on both brakes, providing a slowdown in descent and usually a very soft landing.

The units typically weigh 40 to 50 pounds and the wingspans of the parachutes are usually around 30 feet. The units are foot launched and given the weight involved, do require a participant to be physically fit with good coordination skills. However, this does not imply that one has to be a top athlete to fly one. Desire is the most important requirement along with a lack of fear of heights.

Since you are dealing with a parachute, these machines are very wind sensitive and flying them is usually done in light or no wind situations. Thus, early mornings and late afternoons/early evenings usually provide the best conditions. Take-off involves laying out the parachute behind you, running the engine at idle and then when conditions are favorable, the pilot applies a bit of the throttle and begins to move forward, pulling the chute up and into a stable position overhead. This is the most difficult part of the entire flight, as the chute produces quite a bit of resistance and it takes a bit of strength to bring it overhead. (The chute must also be stable overhead before full throttle can be applied and lift off achieved i.e., fully inflated and not leaning to one side or the other.) The pilot takes a quick look overhead to make sure everything looks good and if so, applies full throttle, runs hard and in just a few steps leaves the ground. At this point you are safely secured to your harness and backpack motor but are in the hanging position. This is not very comfortable and would not be a very enjoyable way to keep flying. To allow the pilot to get seated in a much more comfortable position, hanging about two feet below the harness, there is a horizontal bar attached by two straps to the seat of the harness. After the pilot reaches a comfortable altitude and everything appears stable, the pilot carefully releases the two brakes, reaches down with one hand and places the bar beneath his feet, then uses it to push himself up into the seat. He then reaches back up, grabs the two brakes and continues on his way. This procedure sounds a bit tricky but is actually quite easy after it has been done a few times.

Flying is usually done with both hands on the brakes, with arms bent at the elbows at about a 90-degree angle. However during the maneuver just mentioned or during periods when the air is very smooth, releasing the brakes is not a problem and gives the pilot a chance to relax and rest his arms, returning to the brakes only when needing to make a turn. When it is time to land, the pilot simply picks the spot, turns into the wind (if any), kills the engine or reduces power to idle and descends. About ten feet off the ground you aggressively pull down on both brakes, land with just a few steps needed and then watch your chute slowly deflate and fall to the ground.

Though these machines require no license to fly, good training is a must! I received my training at a school in Florida this past May, one of several schools across the country. I soloed on the second day and by the end of day 7 had logged 51 flights. I have since flown over a dozen times from various locations across northern Maine. I am not sure how many powered paragliding pilots there are in Maine, or in the U.S. for that matter, but I know it is not a lot. The sport is still in its infancy but sure to grow given its simplicity, affordability, and fun!

Powered paragliders should not be confused with powered parachutes, which though quite similar in some ways, are also quite different. Powered parachutes have a pod suspended below the chute in which the pilot sits. These pods have wheels and a weigh a considerable amount. Thus, they are not foot launched and many can carry an extra person unlike powered paragliders, which can only carry one person at a time. They are, however, not nearly as maneuverable and cost about twice as much as a powered paraglider, which incidentally cost about as much as a mid range snowmobile or high end ATV.

If you have any questions or would like further information on powered paragliding, feel free to contact me at Kenneth.Wallingford@noaa.gov.

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