My recreational rèsumè, you should know, is a lot closer to Walter Mitty's than to Evel Knievel's. I surf with body, not board. New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 6,288 feet, is the highest I've ever climbed above sea level. And I've yet to push the two-wheeled, motor-driven envelope past leisurely excursions on mopeds in Bermuda.
So I had always considered my chances of flying solo in an aircraft as slightly better than, say, the likelihood of my going bungee jumping. Then I read a newspaper article about something called a ParaPlane. My first reaction? Here's an aircraft even I might be able to handle. The ParaPlane's speed is 26 miles per hour. It takes only an hour or so of flight training to solo. No pilot's license is required. To go up in the ParaPlane, you just push forward on the throttle. Descend? Pull back on the throttle. To turn right, push on a lever with your right foot. To turn left, push with your left foot. I also liked the part about the parachute. It somehow sounded safer.
A ParaPlane, as its name implies, is a power-driven parachute. The power is provided by twin 15-horsepower, two-stroke engines with counter-rotating propellers located, airboat style, behind a three-wheeled rig not much more elaborate than a go-kart. The canopy is a rectangular parachute similar to those used by sky divers. It functions like a wing, providing more than enough lift for the pilot and the 200-pound craft. In the unlikely event that both engines fail, a ParaPlane can drift earthward with no loss of steering, descending at less than half the vertical speed of a sky diver with a chute deployed. There would be no harm in at least checking out the ParaPlane, I figured.
"I never met a person who hasn't dreamed of flying," says Barry Shellington, 44, an effervescent financial and insurance consultant who runs Para-Flying Inc. in Paoli, Pa. "I read about ParaPlanes in 1985, went up in one, and a month and a half later I bought a dealership." Shellington's is one of some 50 ParaPlane dealerships around the world; there are outlets in Japan, Australia, Israel and Turkey as well as the U.S. Shellington invited me to a Saturday-morning training session for beginners, promising, "You'll fly. I guarantee you'll fly."
Around 7 a.m. on a crisp spring morning, two instructors and five would-be fliers assembled near the grassy airfield at New Hanover Airport, not far from Potts-town, Pa. The instructors wore ParaPlane polo shirts. The students wore looks similar to those you might see in a high school hallway half an hour before the "Begin work" on SAT morning. Although Shellington's classes often draw New Yorkers, everyone in this group hailed from Pennsylvania. There was Fran Kaminsky from Philadelphia, who owns a commercial cleaning service. And Judy and Jeff Haudenschield, from the town of Moscow. Judy is an advertising executive; Jeff, an insurance agent. They brought a friend, Rob Widaman, a register representative for a financial services company, who lives in Mount Cobb. Jeff, who has the build of a linebacker, had dropped a few pounds during the week to get down to 230, the upper limit for ParaPlane pilots flying the model the school used. "He's been like a wrestler trying to make weight," said Judy.
Directed to an unprepossessing yellow building just off the runway, we were soon seated in a small office, 20-page training manuals in hand. An instructor slipped a cassette into a VCR. Reveille sounded "to make sure everybody's awake," said a man on the tape who identified himself as an attorney. "I'd like to welcome you to the adventure of powered-parachute flying. Notice the word I used: adventure. Adventure implies risk...."
Slowly, in plain English, not legalese, he led us through a 20-paragraph document. He told us that in signing the document, we would assume all risk and agree not to sue anyone connected with the aircraft or the flying school should there be an accident. Though unspoken, the word "death" hung in the air. I thought of my wife and two young children.
Thanks to the video, the flight manual and a 15-question multiple-choice test, we students quickly became acquainted with the ParaPlane. We learned that it was invented in the early 1980s by Steve Snyder, an aeronautical engineer in Pennsauken, N.J., who is known in aviation circles for designing an automatic opening device for recreational and military parachutes. An accomplished commercial and instrument-rated pilot, Snyder created his powered parachute with three goals in mind: simplicity, affordability and safety.
Simple it is. The instrument panel consists of a single small mirror the pilot uses to check that the parachute is properly inflated before takeoff. When collapsed, the whole rig is small enough to fit in the trunk of a midsize car.
Shellington sells a ParaPlane (manufactured at Snyder's factory in Pennsauken, N.J.) for $7,395, minus the $135 cost of the first lesson. There's no cheaper way to own your own wings. (Several of Snyder's competitors offer kits, which vary in price but usually cost slightly more depending on the model. Most of these companies also sell kits for two-seaters, but only a licensed pilot is permitted to carry a passenger.)
But are powered parachutes safe? "We've taught more than 50,000 people to fly since 1984, and we've had no fatalities attributable to the ParaPlane vehicle," says Snyder. There are, in fact, sketchy reports of several accidents, but it appears that pilot error was responsible in all cases. Nevertheless, the training course at New Hanover Airport emphasized safety. A ParaPlane should not be flown by students when the wind is above 10 mph. Or in rain. We learned to identify the signals that our instructor, using bright orange paddles, would make to guide us down should our radios fail. We took turns sitting in the scat of the ParaPlane, heels resting in stirrups attached to the turning levers, getting the feel of the throttle movements that are used to ascend and descend. In our minds we rehearsed the simple flight pattern of loose ovals and tighter circles that would keep us aloft for 15 minutes. I recalled that Orville Wright's first flight lasted all of 12 seconds.
The airfield wind sock began to fill. "Yeah, hopefully it will kick up some more," said Fran Kaminsky, sounding less than enthusiastic. But the wind calmed a bit, and by 9:30 a.m. we were out on the runway, where we were joined by a couple of the 10 or so ParaPlane owners who regularly fly out of the airfield.
"O.K., Jeff, what's your policy number?" said Rob Widaman.
But it was Judy Haudenschield who first strapped on the blue helmet and signaled with a big wave of her hand that she could hear her instructor, Pete Femia, on the radio. Shellington pulled two starter cords, one for each engine, and as the engines caught, two assistants lifted the parachute off the ground. Once in the propellers' wash, the chute began to billow outward and then upward. Through a receiver in her helmet Judy heard Femia's instructions to throttle up slowly, throttle up, throttle up....
The rig rolled along the grass for 40 or 50 feet, and then the craft was airborne. The ParaPlane rocked slightly as it rose higher and higher, heading toward a silo half a mile away.
"I want you to steer left now, Judy," Femia said over the radio, as he coached her through the first turn. "Now straighten out and fly straight. You're going to put these guys to shame, Judy. That's great."
"Gutsy lady, Jeff," said Shellington, who estimated that Judy was cruising about 400 feet above the ground. "We've had them up 10,000 feet. But it's not really much fun. Everything's so tiny. You want to stay down where your fan club is."
Groups of experienced Para-pilots sometimes rendezvous in midair, then land for a picnic. And local clubs hold competitions to determine who can drop a small sack of flour closest to a target on the ground or who can grab the string of a slowly ascending helium-filled balloon. Shellington enjoys flying in the winter, his rig outfitted with skis instead of wheels.
Judy made a fine landing. "Was I good?" she asked, yanking off the helmet. Like a child who had just braved a monster roller coaster, she was pumping adrenaline. "It was so great. You've got to do it," she said to me. "It's not scary. The only thing is, it takes a little while to compensate for the wind. When I heard [Femia] say everybody was taking bets on whether I would make it or not, I knew I was O.K."
Carl Ashton, a local ParaPlane owner, snapped open a jackknife and sliced off a piece of Judy's shirttail—an aviation ritual honoring her first solo flight.
Rob took off next. Fran had disappeared. "She ran out of time," said Shellington. Since Jeff was set to go last, I was scheduled to fly after Rob. Suddenly, my palms were moist. I felt as if I had swallowed a cantaloupe.
Rob, too, landed well. He handed me the helmet. Somebody helped me strap on a watch-style altimeter. Before I knew it, I was harnessed into the seat. I took a couple of deep breaths.
"John, give me a wave if you can hear me," said Femia over the radio. He was standing 100 yards or so down the runway. "Big wave, big exaggerated wave. That's better. O.K., here we go.
"Add a little power now. Power up. Power up. Good. Steer toward me a little. Reduce power just a bit. Toward me. Come on, push the pedal. Power up. And full power...."
I was off the ground. My left hand was on the throttle. My right hand was between my legs, squeezing the seat.
"Nice takeoff, buddy. That was great."
Thank god for Femia's voice. And thank god my helmet didn't have its mike hooked up. I wasn't sure I would want anybody to hear what I might have to say. Such as "Get me down!" Already, I was several hundred feet in the air. I could hear the engines. I knew there was a parachute above me. But I wished I could see wings on either side of me.
"I want you to steer to the right a little bit," Femia said. "Fly straight into the wind. You're rising, rising, rising.
"Now throttle back just a little bit. Little more. Perfect. Now steer left and come on downwind. You'll feel yourself getting whipped around."
The foot lever was hard to push, but once I got the hang of it and the ParaPlane responded, I felt better. Flying with the wind now, a bit more in control, I began to look around—down on a farmer plowing his field, up at sky divers descending under their colorful chutes, and to my right at the twin cooling towers of the nearby Limerick nuclear power plant.
A few moments later, after I completed the first oval, a gust of wind jerked the ParaPlane sideways and the cart began to swing, as it is supposed to, like a pendulum. My heart began to swing with it. The wind had picked up, and I had to work to hold a straight course. I didn't have much more time for sightseeing.
Femia coached me through a 360-degree turn and away from the runway well before a plane took off with another batch of sky divers. I felt my grip on the seat loosen, and I even managed a decent wave as I passed over the other students in my group. It was time to land.
"I want you to steer to the center of the runway," said Femia. "Aim for Joe with the orange paddles. Reduce power just a hair. That was a couple of hairs, but that's O.K. Aim right for me. Don't touch the throttle now. Let the plane land itself. Keep yourself straight. When all three wheels hit the ground, cut your power and push both levers forward."
The orange paddles got bigger. The ground came up, slowly. I touched down smoothly, rolled forward for a short distance, cut the engines, and pushed hard on both levers, deflating the chute. I was glad to be down.
It was only when I handed the helmet to Jeff that I realized I hadn't once glanced at the altimeter. Five hundred feet? Six hundred feet? Who cares? I flew.
Parachute meets go-kart in a contraption that offers even novice pilots a smooth ride.
At around $7,300, Snyder's is the cheapest set of fully assembled wings you can buy.
John Grossmann lives in Jamison, Pa. He has written several stories for Sports Illustrated.