PM’s daredevil-at-large Jeff Wise learns to fly a powered paraglider under the auspices of veteran paragliding pilot Paul Czarnecki
I’m standing at the edge of a field in southern Florida, USA, strapped to another man in a harness of aluminium tubing and nylon webbing like a pantomime horse. I’m in front; veteran paragliding pilot Paul Czarnecki is at the back. It’s early morning, and the air is calm and quiet except for the roar of the 11 kW two-stroke engine strapped to Czarnecki’s back. Behind him, over 21 m² of ripstop nylon lies spread out in an arc. “Let’s go!” he says.
I can feel him pressing forward in the harness as we both start to run. Then we slow down, the wing pulling up into the air behind us like a kite. Now it’s overhead, and we surge forward again, the engine roaring louder, the lift of the wing making me light on my feet. It’s hard to gain traction, but I run until my feet are bicycling in the air as if I’m a cartoon character who’s just run off a cliff.
The ground moves past in a blur. We’re climbing, the grass of the field and then the line of trees and the canal beyond it all fall away. And now we’re several hundred metres up, with the islands of the Gulf Coast stretching to a misty horizon. It feels as if we’re dangling from the troposphere, with nothing between us and the fatally distant ground but the thin fabric of our seats. All I can do is concentrate on not freaking out, because if I do, I could bring us both down.
I met Czarnecki at the Sun ’n Fun air show in Lakeland, Florida. He was drumming up business for the ultra-light aircraft school he operates out of a grass airstrip near Fort Myers. It’s one of the few in the US to instruct in powered paragliders, or PPGs, a minimalist approach to aviation that involves no aircraft per se, just a propeller, a motor, and a fabric paraglider wing. The fuselage?
The whole rig costs less than R100 000 and can fit into an SUV. If you can find a field a couple of hundred metres across, you can take off, and you need even less real estate to land. The idea fascinated me, but given how little there is to keep you in the air, it seemed terrifying as well. Czarnecki, however, assured me that flying a PPG is easy. “Come down on a Monday,” he told me, “and I’ll have you soloing by Friday.” So I went.
The week starts just after dawn on Monday. Twilight is prime time for PPGs: Because they’re light and slow – designed to fly around 30 km/h – they can be tricky to control in a brisk wind. So, they’re really only used a couple of hours after sunrise and before sunset, when the air is most still.
We start by laying the wings out in an arc, getting familiar with the skein of lines that connect the wings to the pilots’ harnesses, and learning how to pull the lines.
Though they look like parachutes, they’re actually wings that are inflated by their passage through the air. Once we get them up in the air, we practise “kiting” – pulling the control lines to move the wings where we want them to go. It’s tough, but crucial to the most difficult phase of PPG flying: getting off the ground. It turns out that the whole “flying a PPG is easy” idea relates only to the part where you’re in the air. Jeff Goin, a veteran PPG flyer who is also a helicopter pilot and an airline captain, describes launching a PPG as “the most difficult thing in aviation”.
When the wind rises, we do classroom work in the tin-roofed shack that passes for a hangar at Pine Island Airport. The theory of the sport couldn’t be simpler.
You’ve got a hand throttle, which determines whether the PPG climbs or descends. (The wing is rigged to always fly at the same speed.) To turn, you shift your weight from one hip to the other while pulling on one of the two brakes. And that’s it, basically. Of course, there are a number of unwise things you could do to collapse the wing and send yourself plummeting to the ground, such as pulling too hard on both your control lines at the same time or flying into turbulence.
Czarnecki has us strap on a 20-kilogram engine and walk around, playing with the throttle. At half-throttle you have to lean way back against the thrust of the propeller, so you feel as if you’re walking down a steep hill. Tuesday we continue to practise our kiting. On Wednesday, we take things a step further: Czarnecki ties a rope to my harness and uses it bare-handed to pull me into the air. I’m only a few metres high, but the sensation is unmistakable: I’m flying.
Finally, on Thursday it’s time to tie it all together. My fellow students and I take turns strapping into the front of Czarnecki’s two-man rig. Even with his expertise, getting off the ground is no sure thing; the student before me tries four times before giving up. My first time, Czarnecki and I run half a dozen metres before the wing slips sideways and collapses. On our second try we’re airborne, and it’s another world – a terrifying one. Czarnecki hands me the controls. I’ve spent plenty of time in the cockpits of planes and gliders, but now I’m so alarmed that if I were on my own, I’m sure I’d panic and die. As it is, I’m using all my brainpower just to focus on breathing.
Suddenly the engine goes quiet and Czarnecki takes control, spiralling us down for an emergency landing. Thanks to a loose spark plug cable, the engine has died.
Once we’re back on the ground, Czarnecki says I’m ready: tomorrow I’ll solo. I sleep poorly that night. A part of my brain tells me that it’s a remarkably safe form of aviation; another part tells me aaaarrrgghh! The day dawns clear and calm. Out in the takeoff field, I lay out my wing and strap in. Czarnecki pulls the starter cord, then faces me and grabs my harness. “Stand close,” he says. I sidle up. “Ready?” We move together as the wing fills and rises. Already I’m light on my feet. Czarnecki steps aside.
Even as I squeeze the throttle, I feel the wing getting off-centre, pulling me to the left, so I run at an angle until the pressure on the harness straps becomes more even. “Add power! Add power!” he shouts. My speed picks up, I lift my feet, and the grass whooshes past. I’ve done it. I’m up. I’m a metre up, 2 metres, 3… . Through my earpiece, Czarnecki tells me to add thrust to keep climbing, then to pull on one brake and shift my weight to turn. I’m surprised at how much less scary it is to fly solo.
Under Czarnecki’s direction I fly up and down the length of the field. I’m concentrating so hard that I barely notice the sunlight reflecting off the ocean to the west or the subtropical greenery all around. Slung under the wing like a pendulum, I’m being pushed this way and that by burbles of air, but I manage to dampen the swinging by adjusting my lines. I’m in complete control. It’s a childhood fantasy come to life.
After a quarter of an hour, Czarnecki has me fly upwind along the middle of the field, easing power all the while. I descend as if on an elevator. Thirty metres up, the world seems to shift focus, from aerial view to you-are-here, every blade of grass crisp and discrete. At two metres feet I pull the brakes to slow my descent and step on to the green carpet of the runway. The wing settles behind me. I’ve done it. I’m alive.
Half an hour later I’m rigging up to go again. This time, I promise myself I’m going to enjoy the scenery.