Minimalistic flyers get their rush from thin air
Soaring freely through the air, with a pristine landscape below and nothing but blue sky over your head, produces a sensation that’s hard to beat – and if sensation is what you’re after, paramotoring is undoubtedly the way to go. We take a flip and get the lowdown on this exhilarating sport.
Long before Frenchmen Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes clambered aboard their hot-air balloon in 1783 to become the first bona fide aeronauts, mankind has gazed heavenwards and fantasised about soaring with the eagles. Their pioneering spirit lives on among a band of intrepid flyers who shun cosy cockpits and enclosed fuselages, much preferring the sensation of rushing air on their bodies while traversing the skies.
To get their fix, these adventurers strap motors to their backs, unfurl their nonporous nylon wings and run into the wind, relying on thin nylon lines and an air-filled canopy above their heads to carry them aloft and keep them there. Welcome to the fun-filled sport called paramotoring.
As intrepid flyers go, Tony Gibson – an avid fixed-wing pilot since 1985 – is up there with the best of them. One of the founders of paramotoring (also called powered paragliding, or PPG) in South Africa, he switched from paragliders to paramotors 22 years ago, effectively teaching himself everything he needed to know. It’s a young sport, coming into being only about 1990, when paragliders realised that by adding a backpack motor to their kit, they’d be able to take off from level ground rather than have to launch themselves off cliffs, hills and the like.
Now, with about 5 500 flying hours under his belt (that’s just on paramotors), Gibson co-owns Flying Unlimited, the country’s largest paramotor flying school. The man’s credentials are formidable: he’s won the South African PPG championships three times on the trot, he holds the standing world record for “speed over a closed circuit of 100 km without landing” (by a very big margin), and he captains the South African paramotor team.
I’m a shameless flying junkie, so when Gibson’s business partner and fellow PPG instructor, Riaan Struwig (who, incidentally, is also a member of the national PPG team), invites me for a flip, it’s a no-brainer: I immediately book my ticket on one of those boringly conventional sardine-can flights to Gauteng and prepare myself for some real flying.
The moment I arrive at Grasslands Sports Facility near Centurion – an old instantlawn farm comprising 150 hectares of obstruction-free soft turf and home base of Flying Unlimited – I can tell I’m in for a great day. Children, accompanied by a motley pack of good-natured mutts, are taking full advantage of the expansive area to let off steam, while the adults, clustered around various pieces of kit, are having just as much fun discussing the finer aspects of paramotoring (along with debates over the best time to light the braai fires).
Says Gibson: “This sport is very family oriented, so we’ve designed the club to include all our members. We even have a safe, enclosed play area for the kids and pets to keep them occupied while we’re flying.”
Although it’s already past midday, my hosts deem it too early to fly, so the fires are lit. Soon, boerewors rolls become the order of the day as everyone hangs around, waiting for the predictable Highveld thermals (which cause turbulence) to subside and the cooler, late-afternoon air to settle in. Says Gibson: “Although it’s possible to fly in turbulent conditions, it can get rather uncomfortable. We prefer to fly early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the air’s more stable.”
Freedom to soar
The beauty of paramotoring lies in its accessibility. In fact, it’s by far the cheapest form of motorised flight, making it an excellent option for wannabe flyers on a budget. To give you some idea of costs, if you can afford to spend about R100 000, you’re ready to go. This buys you a new, if somewhat basic, backpack kit comprising motor, wing, helmet, radio and student pack as well as training fees and a radio course. Throw in an extra R20 000 and you can get your hands on a basic trike. If buying used, expect to spend anything from R60 000 to R80 000 for a decent second-hand backpack rig. Once your gear is in place, the only real expense is incurred by a modest fuel burn of about 4 litres per hour.
Gibson elaborates: “One thing about this sport… it’s a leveller. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or where you come from. Even if you’re a veteran fixed-wing or helicopter pilot, if you don’t practise much, there’s always going to be someone who performs better than you. This reality fosters great camaraderie among flyers.”
The gear is also surprisingly portable, something I couldn’t help but notice when club members began assembling their kit for their afternoon flight. The backpack, including engine, has a dry weight of about 32 kg and can easily fit into an average hatchback without needing to be disassembled. The wing, once packed, has the dimensions of a medium-sized tent. “We take our aircraft on holiday with us!,” quips Gibson.
Another reassuring aspect of this sport is its good safety record. “Remember,” says Gibson, “we’re always gliding. We just add a motor to get us into the air. If the engine fails, no problem – you can land easily, anywhere. Because landing distances are so short, typically only about four steps, you could land on a street corner if necessary.”
In the unlikely event that the wing collapses or suffers cataclysmic failure – something that has never happened to Gibson in all his years of flying – there’s always the hand-deployed emergency parachute to get you out of trouble. “Although having a reserve ’chute isn’t required, almost everyone flies with one. I carry mine all the time but I’ve never had to deploy it.”
Up, up and away
At long last, it was my turn to get airborne, and Gibson strapped me into the tandem seat XCitor trike. Manufactured in Germany by Fresh Breeze, this beautifully engineered machine (it costs R380 000 – an absolute fortune in paramotoring terms) is without a doubt the Rolls-Royce of power paraglider trikes. Features include a streamlined aluminium aerocage, a wide wheelbase (for more forgiving take-offs and landings) and a low centre of gravity. The economical 52 kW engine is equipped with a digital motor management and digital injection system, and it comes with full instrumentation. Cruising speed is about 60 km/h.
Another cool feature is the integrated trailer coupling, which allows you to transport the trike to your chosen launch site without a special trailer. Perhaps most reassuringly, it also comes equipped with a ballistic rocket recovery system that guarantees safe landings from altitudes as low as 30 metres.
Gibson cranks the throttle and in no time, we’re airborne. Now, I’ve done a lot of flying in small aircraft in my time, so I imagine I know what to expect. I’m wrong; the sensation is much gentler than anything I’ve ever experienced before.
The afternoon air is still a bit bumpy, but that doesn’t detract from the experience at all. The flexible, air-filled wing, along with its accompanying mass of nylon lines, seems to absorb the harshness of the turbulence, making it feel, well, as if we’re floating.
Gibson throws us into fast and high bank-angle turns close to the ground, puts us into head-spinning spirals at altitude and performs a series of touch-and-goes. We also spend a fair amount of time formation-flying with another XCitor trike and a few “footlaunchers”, giving me an opportunity to shoot some aerial photos, not to mention savour the oncoming sunset and the hazy Highveld landscape far below. Throughout the entire hour-long flight, I find myself distracted by a struggle to come up with appropriate adjectives, finally settling for something on the lines of “it was an absolute blast!”.
After landing, I mention my dilemma to Gibson, who laughs. “Even with all my years of experience, I still struggle to describe the feeling. The best explanation I’ve been able to come up is that it’s like running into the air… you know, when you’re dreaming. What I do know is that it’s like a drug. If you miss a few weeks of flying, you end up making every excuse under the sun to get out and fly.”
Learning the ropes
Fortunately, learning to fly isn’t rocket science. Training is broken down into three modules: ground handling (where you learn to control the wing), engine training, and learning to fly – that is, from going solo up to the point where you’re awarded your licence. According to Struwig, the most difficult part is learning to handle the wing. “Keeping it stable and above your head is the trickiest part. This can take anything from one to three weekends, depending on the individual. Only once you’ve got that right do we move on to the motor.”
You need a minimum of 35 flights under your belt before being considered ready for your final flight test. This involves performing spot and emergency landings, spiral turns and crosswind take-offs. Struwig says most trainees are ready to tackle crosscountry flights with experienced pilots by flight 15. “It all depends on how comfortable they feel, really.”
As we went to press, Gibson and his teammates were training flat-out for the 2012 Paramotor World Championships taking place in Marugan, Spain. Considering that the South African team can muster only nine pilots (a full team comprises 18 members), their track record is pretty good: they came 9th overall in 2007 and 6th overall in 2009.
Says Gibson: “Although we hope to improve on our 2009 results, we can’t expect to win because we don’t have a full team. The reason is simple: we just don’t have enough competitive pilots in this country. We need to draw more people into the sport.”
If you’d like to know more about the thoroughly invigorating sport of paramotoring, contact Riaan Struwig on 082 653 7504. Alternatively, visit Flying Unlimited’s site at www.ppg.co.za