22 Mar Icarus Training 2015
Don is catching up on some stories from the Icarus back in October 2015 before announcing his latest plans f0r 2016.
Never content to keep their ridiculous ideas on ground level, the Adventurists came up with the novel idea of a long distance paramotor race last year. For the pioneer edition of October 2015, the start line was just south of Seattle and finish line was the tiny California town of Valley Springs, near Sacramento. Covering roughly one thousand kms (622 miles) with no ground support, it is billed as the world’s longest and most difficult race of its kind ever attempted. Entry into the race was to be awarded to a group of savvy airmen with the skills necessary to at least make an honest attempt at the finish line.
So of course considering my complete lack of experience in paramotoring made me keen to participate. Putting my name in the hat a year ahead for the few spots open to intrepid volunteer pilots, I was delighted to be given a spot in the actual race. I felt a surge of pride that I had been chosen for this esteemed group so naturally I did a bit of research to see what it was all about. Wikipedia prattled on about wings and engines and google had a lot of great pictures of pilots serenely sailing through smooth air into glorious sunsets. Didn’t look all that hard to me and besides I had a year to get ready. One last look before sending that affirmative email claiming my spot found me staring at a video on You Tube titled “Paramotor Crash Compilation.” I recommend watching it and all others like it to anyone who is considering flying one of these beautifully engineered two cycle weed eaters. After viewing a bit of the carnage displayed on the compilation my mind was firmly made up. With a simple reply of “yes”, I set in motion the next year of my life.
Let it be known right up front that the entire sport of paramotoring is unregulated. No license or certification needed to buy or fly this high tech gear. No sir, nothing. Nobody cares. You don’t even have to have a physical to prove you won’t die of a heart attack while running across a field with a sixty pound industrial strength fan on your back trying to get your wing up. This fact let me know right up front that this was going to be a cake walk. All I had to do was determine what equipment to purchase and off I would fly into the wild blue skies.
I set about searching for the right gear to make this historic flight. My enthusiasm was at a fevered pitch as I muddled my way through page after page of manufacturers spec sheets and glossy pictures of pilot testimonials telling me why their sponsors gear was the best and the other guys was like your mom’s Hamilton Beach Blender. Weeks passed and I was no closer to sealing the deal and making a purchase. In desperation I turned from looking for gear to purchase to trying to find a qualified training source. I wasn’t quite sure why I needed training as the sport doesn’t require it and quite a number of sources on the web assured me that anybody with a pulse could fly these things with just a few hints and suggestions. I found myself in a quandary. Should I train? Should I buy a motor? More Research? What? So I did what I always do when faced with these types of dilemmas and procrastinated. I mean I still had nine months before the race which is like forever.
Three months before the race I stopped procrastinating and found a trainer. My choice required that I spend an introductory week in Warrenton, Virginia at Powered Powergliding USA just outside Washington, DC. After meeting my instructor, Michael O’Daniel on a beautiful summer day I was introduced to the sport of paramotoring by running around a field in ninety eight degree weather with a wing strapped to me. Being that I am not the most intuitive pilot I spent the next five days running around trying to keep the wing flying properly while sweating my body weight and never really got the hang of proper ground handling. On the last day I pleaded for the chance to try out a motor and actually fly. After much discussion and time spent hanging from a tree with a motor on to get a feel for operating the throttle and harness assembly I was strapped in and standing into the wind with my wing laid out. A puff of wind signaled me that it was now or never so off I went, wing up, full throttle, and run,run,run,run! Off the ground I soared with the wind in my face. Down I came with a tree in my path. I was amazed how quickly I had gone from euphoria over my first flight into emergency crash mode. The first thing to do in this situation is to kill the motor while trying to steer away from solid objects. I succeeded on both counts and slid to a stop slightly beyond the tree with my wing fluttering into the branches above my head. Success was mine! Three months before the longest paramotor race in history and I had successfully flown for the first time. Further inspection revealed that I had in fact gone the distance of a football field, which instilled a confidence in me that I could in fact make it from Seattle to Sacramento with just a bit more training.
Two months to go before the race and I find myself back in Warrenton. My instructor and I are putting the motor and harness that I purchased together while a dread of flying hovers over me. I realize that this sport gives me a bit of a quiver in the nervous system when I think on it too much. Discussing this particular reluctance to actually soar with the buzzards is met with sage information from Michael. He informs me that I should be nervous as it is completely unnatural for humans to fly and by the way get strapped in its time to go.
I actually get off the ground with little fanfare and have my first true flight by circling the airfield for the next hour while my instructor gives directions over our radio coms. This flight is so amazing that I actually forget about dying for a while and enjoy myself. Now to land. The Paramotoring Bible gives step by step instructions on landing. I had read this chapter no less than twenty times preparing for this, my first landing, which I had accurately determined would come after my first flight. While descending toward the ground everything I had read about landing seemed to escape my mind being replaced with nothing of use at the moment. Amazing how fast the ground rushes at you when your mind locks up. I did the only thing possible and skidded on my butt while turning sideways to keep the motor from driving into the ground. Success was mine. I didn’t break me or my gear. Get up, lay it all out and do it again, and again, and again. This went on for ten hours a day over the next five days. By the end of the week I had managed to take off and land over thirty five times. I only had to visit the welding shop one time for minor repairs after one particular nasty butt landing so I chalked the week up to an amazing success. The race was going to be a cinch.
Five weeks out from the race and I am back at Powered Paragliding with Michael. It is still hot and there is very little wind. This fact lets me practice zero wind take offs which are possibly the hardest possible way to get off the ground. Each take off required running for fifty or sixty yards with seventy pounds of gear and fuel strapped to you like a bumbling kamikaze. My confidence is building as I watch fellow students take off with only a few face plants and turtles. Turtles appear to be perhaps the last thing you want to try as it destroys your cage and prop while slamming you on your back in the most unpleasant quick take off abort.
I manage to get another thirty or so take offs and continue to work on my landings. The landings have given me the most trouble as I continue to miss my target and land on my back side as often as not. The week is winding down and I have to have my PPG2 rating to enter the race. It is going to be close as I struggle to meet the requirement to land within fifty feet of a target the required number of times. So far I have managed to get close one out of about thirty attempts which doesn’t bode well for me. Friday arrives and I am sore and both of my knees are torn up and bloody. Sometime during the week I managed to pull a muscle in my left leg and it is bruised and swollen. It is not looking good to get the rating as I can barely walk much less take off and land close to my targets. I make three attempts and manage to land in the field at least. I have done all I can as my injuries are starting to put a damper on further flight. Time to talk to Michael and get that rating. He and I sit down to discuss my progress. We talk about my trouble with reverse launches as well as my inability to land properly. He takes this opportunity to point out that I can’t hit a target at all. After much discussion of my shortcomings as a pilot he tells me I should back out of the race as I was probably going to kill myself at worst and at best possibly just maim myself. My thinking was that these were all technical problems I could work out during the race so I inquired about my rating so my trip home could proceed. After further discussions of my impending doom I at last garner my PPG2 rating and am heading south toward home knowing that I am going to California to Race in The Icarus Trophy paramotor race. Not bad for an old guy.
With just a few weeks before I was due to set off for the starting line, friends joined us for a proper party, maybe they all thought this was the last time they’d see me. Or at least they all wanted to tell me the legend of Icarus, in case I’d somehow missed that whole “burned up and crashed to earth” thing.