Motor Mania - February 10, 2004Dixon White with permission granted for publication to Paraglider Magazine
As a fulltime 14 year paraglider pilot with over 2000 days of flying/teaching only 322 of my 7,441 flights have involved motors. Although I've owned and motored powered paragliders since 1991, I've never felt all that connected to that aspect of the sport, I don't usually wake up and want to go mix fuel and turn money into noise. Two years ago I got my BFI triking (motorized hang glider) and then last year I got my H2 (Novice Hang Glider license) down at Quest in Florida. I like being a student once in a while just to keep that perspective. For a variety of reasons I decided to head on down to the Salton Sea Motor Paragliding event and see if maybe I was missing something. With over 300 motor flights and my background in paragliding I’m not really all the confident, I tend to be pretty insecure when it comes to flying.
The location was truly sweet with wide open fields and beaches for miles and a nice clubhouse next door to the main take-off area. Food aplenty, pool, and hot tub were right at our fingertips as we played all day. It’s a different feel when everyone has ALL their stuff parked right at the flying field. Free flight usually involves leaving your vehicle in some remote spot, and who knows what you may have forgotten, but 30 minutes away bouncing in the back of a pick up you usually remember. If I wanted to give someone a brochure or just chill and sit, my truck was 20 yards from my flying equipment, AT ALL TIMES.
I had a fantastic time! What a hoot! I flew and flew and then flew some more. It was truly cool to simply fire up a machine and head down the beach at 20 inches AGL or to climb up 4000 feet AGL and play with some light acro. We would fly in formation with who knows who just clipping along, just like riding motorcycles in a 3 dimensional plane. It reminded me of the Star Wars scene where they rode the “bikes” through the trees. Everyone was friendly and relaxed, help was always easy to find and the state of the art in new motoring equipment is light years a head of where we were 10 years ago. The machines are durable, lightweight, powerful, have rechargeable electric starts and MOST importantly, we can get parts and service from a variety of solid vendors. Most of the main motor vendors had booths and were great at answering questions.
There was something unusual about the kicked back “atmosphere” and it didn’t occur to me for a couple of days that no one was worried about flying in big bad-ass air. There’s an edge to pilots who are waiting for strong conditions for soaring, this was completely missing. There wasn’t any more stress in these motor pilots than what you’d find at a ski area. Yea, you could get hurt, but at least it wasn’t likely an invisible monster would manifest itself out of rotors or thermal sheer. I still went out and free flight thermaled the day after getting back from the event with a huge smile, but I could clearly see how relaxing motoring could be in comparison. Besides, you can easily combine motoring with thermaling anytime you want. I once launched out of my backyard with the motor and didn’t use it after I ran into a thermal just 100 feet agl, and then did a 20 mile out and return without ever using power.
Competition in motoring has my attention as it is completely accessible for every motor pilot, you don’t have to spend years perfecting your thermaling/xc skills, you can get involved right away. Motoring competition involves spot landings, touch and goes, flying through a course, making distances on specified quantities of fuel and kiting. I spent hours practicing all these things on my own a few miles away from the main flying area at my own little secluded piece of sand. I’d climb up 500 feet and circle down to nail a spot landing and then simply power back up to altitude. I could cruise through the bushes just a few feet from the ground running a race course, getting my aircraft around a turn point as efficiently and quickly as possible. Foot dragging quickly became a “no-no” for me when I realized I was sandblasting my prop, but it was way fun! Although I didn’t practice fuel management, I can see where that would be challenging and interesting – here you would use your soaring skills and think through how far you could go out before heading back – the best out and return on exactly 2 liters of fuel wins. There are even more challenges, and certainly all sorts of things can leap to the imagination. I must admit, although no one got hurt in the process, there was certainly more damage to machines when the competitors were doing there best to beat each other, but then that’s only natural in most competitive situations. The guys who had the most experience had no trouble coming in the top spots, I wasn’t surprised.
I was warned before heading to the Salton Sea event that I’d be surprised at some of the non-traditional attitudes. Seeing so many people without helmets, with only sneakers, without reserves, lack of weather concepts and with such incredibly poor kiting skills did stand out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, they weren’t getting hurt and supposedly they are having less accidents as a group of pilots when compared to free flight pilots. Yea, some motor parts got dinged, but that was about it. One key motor trainer at the event complained that helmets keep new pilots from being able to look up and see their wing as they made inflations. He claims he recommends they wear helmets after they get their training finished, yet I met many of his graduates who still chose to NOT wear helmets, habits are hard to break. He also felt that it was easier to start someone on a motor than to convert someone from free flight paragliding – I interviewed many other long time dual activity trainers (those who teach free flight and motorized paragliding) and they all disagreed. I too still feel that there are loads of idiosyncrasies that should be handled prior to adding about 65#’s of extra weight, but I am trying to “listen” to what’s going on out there and am willing to watch folks get trained on motors from the get-go. I’ve only taught 41 people to fly a motor, which makes me pretty inexperienced in this area of flight training.