is an adaptation of an article entitled "The Compliant Swan" by
O. Lee Floyd III, which originally appeared in the July 1997 edition of
Have you ever marveled at an early morning hot air balloon flight? Perhaps you've even been lucky enough to fly one, as I have. While I have always enjoyed hot air ballooning immensely, I could never consider owning one. Balloons seem inherently impractical: the need for a ground crew and chase vehicles, uncertain landing locations... the list of complications goes on and on.
Have you ever admired the modern parachutists gliding wherever they please? If you are like me, you like the idea, but you can't see yourself letting go of a perfectly good airplane in flight.
Enter the "powered parachutes." In Oshkosh in the summer of 1996, I met a gregarious German fellow, Hans Christensen — one of the new breed of powered parachute dealer/instructors. It turned out that he lived near my home town of Orlando, Florida. I promised him I'd look him up one day when the urge to fly his little aerial "go-cart" became too great to ignore.
I've been "ga-ga" about all things aerial since "ga-ga" was the main word in my vocabulary. I have now been lucky enough to fly almost every type of aircraft I've cared to. (Well, okay, there is that antique German Fleicher Storch I'm still hoping to ride in someday). I maintain Private S.E.L. (Single Engine Land) and Instrument ratings, have flown antique warbirds, exotic competition aerobatic planes, sailplanes, helicopters, homebuilts, hang gliders — and yes, I've even parachute-jumped, once in a row (gulp)!
At last year's Sun and Fun Fly-In in Lakeland, Florida, the power chutes impressed me as never before. They were now achieving climb rates on a par with Phil Lockwood's climb-out king, the buoyant Air-Cam, as well as the Kolb line of Homesick Angel ultralight aircraft. They'd come such a long way since the wimpy, early Para-Planes. (I also admired the freedom of the new foot-launched powered parachutes. However, I believe these machines are better suited for "young bucks" who have yet to experience deteriorating spinal disks.)
I have been watching these unique aircraft develop for over ten years now. I admit that, at first, they didn't inspire me much. They seemed too sensitive to the wind; too slow (only 26 mph) in climb, cruise, and descent. They weren't exotic — i.e., sexy — enough.
As the vehicles evolved and I learned more about them, I began to get a better perspective. With a wing loading of approximately one pound per square foot with 525 square feet of wing area, you really need to respect atmospheric conditions. It's a relatively easy study in the subject of "Micro-Meteorology". It will help you visualize what happens to us "scud running bottom feeders" in the altitudes at which we normally operate. It will also help you with situational awareness as in predicting turbulence.
These aircraft have launched a whole new category of sport vehicles. With "ram air" chutes producing lift, the term "flight envelope" takes on a whole new meaning. And there is the very positive point that powered chutes are one of the safest forms of flight ever invented. The most obvious reason is that you are already flying a fully deployed parachute. And in contrast to the dangers of running off gusty cliffs with hang gliders, with powered chutes you are taking off and landing on level ground.
To me, the quality that sets this aircraft apart from all others is the stability that comes from its "pendulum" effect. Your weight keeps automatically returning to the bottom of the pendulum's arc — keeping the wing in a non-stalled, "person-friendly" flying position, and making the aircraft naturally stable. When you climb, the extra thrust pushes you ahead of the chute, pulling the parachute's angle of incidence upwards to the relative wind. This automatically generates more lift. The combination of this lift and the added power propels you skyward. Zoom! When you reduce the power, the cart comes back and the chute levels out.
To sum up: Powered chutes are safe, slow (as in "non-scary"), easy to fly, and allow spectacular visibility. They're easily a single-person operation, as long as you respect the wind rules. When you buy one of these aircraft, your dealer provides you with one-on-one instruction, and a thorough briefing on the legal use of ultralights within U.S. airspace.
Regarding wind: Usually 10 mph is about all a powered parachute can comfortably handle. The best indication of impending trouble will be when you unpack the chute from its bag. If you can't deal with it because the wind is blowing it into a huge, tangled mess, take the clue: Roll it back up like a good little aviator, and learn to fly a Gyro-plane if you really want to ply the wind. (Now there's an idea for you: a gyrocopting/amphibious/roadable powered parachute that morphs into its own tent? Any takers?)
I eventually warmed up to this new type of aircraft. They were what I always wished for in a hot air balloon. Unlike balloons, you could go wherever you wanted, and you didn't have to lug around those pesky pressurized l.p. gas tanks. What a concept!
It was "O-dark thirty" when the affable Hans Christensen and I met at a local doughnut shop. His buddy Elmer Bailey was there, too, visiting from Michigan. We began my formal training session, which included a thorough discussion of FAA regs; our mission for the morning; the weather; this flying machine's nuances; and the merits of Boston cream doughnuts over plain ones. This was followed by a 40 question multiple-choice test and more discussion. I then signed a liability waiver, and the first phase of the morning's procedures was complete.
We drove out through the foggy morning to a very flat, obstruction-free sod farm twenty miles south of St. Cloud. (What an appropriate town!) We unpacked the machine. It looked a lot like a miniature three-wheeled air boat, without the boat. We extracted the chute bag, which Hans had stored in front of the propeller.
As usual with any kind of aviation, there were set procedures to follow. After pre-flighting and warming up the engine, the next task was to lay out the chute with the trailing edge closest to the cart. You grabbed either the left or right bundle of lines, unfurled them, and gingerly shook them until they seemed tangle-free and in the right places. This purpose of this ritual seemed to be to lull the user into a relaxed, Zen-like state of mind — like fly-fishing in Colorado. The practical side, however, is to give you a chance to inspect your parachute "life-support system" for frayed lines, tears in the envelope, loose stitching, or any other problems.
These days, Hans flies a new Buckeye "dream machine" with a whopping 65 h.p. engine. His steed back then, though, was the quite-capable two-seat Harmening High Flyer. Its Rotax 503 dual-CDI pumped out a respectable 52 h.p., with a three-blade Ivo prop for propulsion. Its empty weight was around 300 lbs. with one person aboard. This combination yielded close to 1000 fpm of climb. (I couldn't be sure, as the only instrument on board was a tachometer.)
Hans chose to use his trainer as a one-person machine this morning. Did he sense my innate prowess as an all-knowing Aviation Genius? Or did he fear our combined weight would turn his "swan" into a frustrated, arthritic penguin?
Hans's plan was to fly first so I could observe his actions. We had to wait for the fog to burn off, so there was plenty of time to pre-flight the entire aircraft. I happily inspected every nut, bolt, and safety wire. This craft was new to me, and I wanted to study its technological secrets. Hans, Elmer, and I talked at length about flying, systems redundancy, structural strength, and coon-hunting with a Blue Tick hound. (I don't know how this last item related to our mission, but it didn't seem to matter.)
The fog finally lifted, and it was time to pre-warm the engine. With the chute still in its bag, Hans flipped the choke levers on the carburetors, primed, and pressed the start button. The Rotax came alive. The cold power plant seemed reluctant at first, but then fired healthily. It coughed, sputtered, and barked, and evolved into an almost musical cadence. When the all-important rpm's came up, Hans manually clicked off the choke controls. I could imagine trying to pull-start this puppy cold!
During the warm-up period, I stood in front of the cart and asked Hans to rev it so I could get a feel for the thrust. I faced off with the cart, dug my toes in the tundra, and wrapped my hands around the stabilizer bars. As Hans gradually increased the power to half, I started yelling something I can't repeat here. I was definitely impressed with its power. This was no lame horse I was about to fly, but a raging bull.
With the motor warmed up and ready, it was time to shut it down and lay out the chute. We watched the sky, waiting for telltale patches of blue to appear. At 10:30 a.m., the fog and clouds finally gave up their stubborn battle with the sun. It was time to fly! With a big grin, Hans hopped onto the machine and belted in. He snicked his heels into the wire stirrups on the rudder bars, and reached down and pressed the starter button. The finely tuned Rotax sprang obediently back to life.
Hans then demonstrated the critical phases of the takeoff sequence that we
had discussed earlier:
1. Face the machine directly into the wind.
2. Smoothly increase the throttle till the chute starts inflating.
3. Advance the throttle to about half. The cart now begins to move forward.
4. As you begin moving forward, the chute lifts up and overhead.
(This seems to be the biggest mystery about this machine. Everyone wants to know how this happens. The answer: the Ram-Air chute is shaped like an airfoil. As it moves faster through the air, the openings in the front of the chute gather air and pressurize it inside, filling out the airfoil shape. As with all flying things, the cambered upper surface creates the lift. As you move faster through the air, this miracle of physics causes the chute to rise, and ultimately creates enough lift to overcome gravity.)
As Hans emphasized, is imperative to look up during this part of the takeoff and verify that the chute is inflating fully. It must not be tangled in any way. Just like the astronauts, this is the time when you are making your "go" or "no-go" decisions.
5. As you accelerate, stay headed into the wind, while steering with the ground steering lever. When you are confident that all is well — that the craft is functioning properly, and that there are no obstacles in your path — you may advance to full throttle. After what seems like only another few feet, you're airborne! You're also climbing out like a Banshee at a thirty- to thirty-five-degree angle.
Hans proceeded to fly a couple of docile patterns, followed by a feather-light landing in front of me. At long last, my years of self-denial and procrastination with this unusual aircraft had ended. I belted in. It was then that I noticed something unusual: When flying a new type of aircraft, I always got butterflies in my stomach. This time, there were none. I was relaxed. This machine felt very comfortable.
Hans walked 200 feet ahead of me, into the light breeze. Above the rumbling din of the Rotax, I listened to the instructions he was giving me on his one-way radio. Soon I was taking off. Even in my first-timer's hands, the craft needed no more than 50-75 feet of "airstrip." By the time I got to where Hans stood, I was at treetop level. It was like going up the first hill of a roller coaster, without all the "clickity-clack."
Hans interrupted my thoughts with his command to initiate a left turn. It was the first time I felt any resistance on the rudder pedals. On the ground, they were just floppy aluminum tubes bolted to the frame, their outer ends attached to the chute's steering lines. Now, in the air, you pushed on the left bar, you went left. You pushed right on the right bar, went right. You pushed them together to flair out, or to increase the drag and descent rate. What could be simpler? There were only two controls to think about: throttle to go up and down, and rudder bars to go left and right. This had to be the simplest aircraft ever invented.
After I made my first left turn while climbing, I estimated I was already at about 600 ft. a.g.l. (above ground level)! I decided to reduce the throttle, as I was certainly high enough to maneuver back to a landing, if necessary. Ironically, Hans's voice then crackled over the radio. He suggested that I reduce the throttle, as, if I did not stop climbing, I would soon be required to file a flight plan. As I lowered the throttle, I immediately found a giant "sweet spot" for going straight and level. I confidently flew the downwind leg for about a mile.
On Hans's command — and with just a teensy bit of trepidation — I reduced the throttle more and headed for a left base leg. I descended slowly. It was not at all frightening; everything was in slow motion. Upon turning final, I was relieved to note that there were no significant sidewinds or gusts to upset my intended glidepath toward my landing target — which, in this particular case, was Hans's forehead. Just a touch of left or right rudder kept me perfectly aligned. (Unfortunately, as I grew closer, Hans instinctively moved out of my way.) He told me to carry some power through touchdown. Hitting the ground fairly lightly, I bounded back into the air again. Quickly, Hans told me to throttle back up.
Wow! I was on my way again. After my first successful circuit, I felt as though I already knew how to fly this thing, and was enjoying it tremendously. I took to the sky again with a rush of joy in my heart, reaching altitude and turning downwind in what seemed like mere nanoseconds. Once I'd leveled off, I dialed in straight and level. I became supremely relaxed, almost euphoric. (No, officer, I am not on drugs.) I couldn't remember ever feeling so at ease in any aircraft. With all of 25 minutes of experience, I was truly impressed.
I exhaled deeply and inhaled the fresh farm air. I loved the smell of the grass, and could almost feel the particles in the warming breeze. I briefly paused my piloting actions to inspect the almost non-existent airframe that was cradling me. Looking up, I admired the beauty of the blue-and-white chute floating above me. It was beautifully conformed and pressurized as it should be. Every guy wire was perfectly taut. I was at the center of this angelic winged chariot, moving leisurely through the drifting haze. Peering over my Reeboks at the barns, livestock, and greenery below me, reminded me of my hang-gliding days in the 1970s. What I was now doing, though, was the safest manifestation of one of mankind's oldest dreams: to fly.
Power parachuting was much better than hang gliding. I could just fold my arms, sit back, and do absolutely nothing. This baby was flying herself! If I'd had my banjo with me, I could've taken it out and started playing tunes, way up in the air. (Try that in your Beechcraft Staggerwing!) I thought of the old TV show, "The Life of Riley." I wondered if it would be possible to put a hammock in one of these things?
Obviously Hans had left me to my thoughts for a while, so I would get hooked on powered parachuting. That rascal! I reluctantly pulled my head out of the clouds and refocused on the job at hand. Hans instructed me to execute several 360-degree turns to the left and right, at various power settings. He then encouraged me to experiment with my new skills. It does take some leg-power to turn; you can't do it by accident. I loitered as long as possible, flying to the four corners of my imaginary allotted air space. I climbed, descended, and turned, like I was riding an invisible roller coaster in the sky. Hans finally blew the whistle: time for everyone to get out of the pool. Drat! It was time for me to return his big toy to him.
Again I set up for final approach. This time I was very high, which suited me fine. I pulled way back on the power — no carburetor heat here — and applied both rudder pedals equally to control the glidepath. This had the same effect as spoilers on a sailplane. It was very effective, and allowed me to land exactly where I intended. This time I carried a little more power on landing, and touched down very gently.
As soon as the wheels touched, I immediately hit the two ignition "kill" switches to stop the prop and shut down the engine. The craft rolled to a stop in no more than ten feet. I looked up at the chute. It hovered straight overhead for a moment, then lightly drifted down to the ground behind me. Hans informed me that it was not necessary to touch your "dead" parachute after landing if you intended to go right back up. Providing it hadn't blown into a tangle after landing, you could just restart the machine and fly away. Hans took my place on the machine and did just that. I would have done the same.
As I drove away on that unforgettable morning, I remembered an important precaution Hans had mentioned: Never, ever forget to take your chute bag with you on the aircraft. If you land somewhere other than where you took off, and you don't have it, it was quite irritating. He had done that twice.
While winding my way down the road leaving the farm, I watched Hans flying gracefully over the trees. He dropped "low on the deck" (Ag-Spray style), and climbed just high enough to clear the dusty trail I'd left behind. We saluted each other as I turned around and drove off.
I knew I would see Hans again soon (I still owed him a lot of money). I also knew that I would work toward obtaining one of these dream machines for myself, my family, and as many special people I could find with the desire to explore the world from such a mellow perspective. I felt sad for the fear-of-flying crowd, and for the jaded pilots who discard the notion of trying something new and different like the powered parachute. They will never know the magic of this most Compliant Swan.
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