Off Piste: To infinity and beyond

Fancy the matchless freedom of paragliding - but any time, any place, anywhere? Paul Chapman does, that's why he took to paramotoring

July 16, 2009

I'm standing in a field with a 180cc single-cylinder, two-stroke engine strapped to my back. A large fabric wing lies dormant on the ground in front of me. I look over my shoulder, shout "clear prop" and press the green start button. The engine roars into life.

I need to take off soon. There's only so much standing around you can do with 42kg of engine and fuel on your back. Controlling the 24m2 wing like a large kite, I make one last check of the canopy, turn sharply into the wind and start running. In a few steps I'm airborne. I slide back into my seat, check my lines and wing again, record the time and start climbing.

This is the ultimate sense of freedom. This is paramotoring.

A few years ago I was approached by a paragliding firm to discuss the possibility of building a virtual-reality paragliding simulator for the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. A paraglider is a free-flying, foot-launched aircraft that shares certain principles with hang-gliding and parachuting. The paraglider itself is an intricately stitched fabric wing. When inflated, it forms a rigid structure with an aerofoil section that allows it to develop lift. Suspension lines connect the wing to the pilot's harness, or in-flight seat.

The virtual-reality simulator would help promote the sport and enable people to train in safety. I was cheeky enough to say that we could build the simulator on the condition that they would teach me to fly. My argument was that I needed to experience at first hand exactly what needed simulating. The deal was struck. A few months later I started training amid the rolling hills of Cumbria.

Initially I learnt about safety, the wing and pre-flight checks. You start with bunny-hops down a hill and then slowly progress higher and higher up the hill until you're flying "top to bottom". As your skills improve, you learn to ridge soar, which involves flying along the length of a ridge feature using the lift provided by the air that is forced up as it passes over the ridge. Pilots also catch thermals, enabling them to gain altitude and fly long distances cross-country, or XC. Thermals can generally be identified by soaring birds, land features that typically cause thermals or by the cumulus clouds that mark the top of a rising column of humid, warm air. Learning to spot and use thermals is one of the characteristics of a good XC competition pilot. To gain my elementary pilot and club pilot qualifications, I had to demonstrate numerous flying skills, including rapid descent techniques, and to sit exams on meteorology and air law.

My first real paragliding adventures began in Morocco, and I had the time of my life. Perfect conditions and beautiful scenery mixed with fantastic food and Moroccan hospitality made this a holiday to remember. The views when flying were breathtaking, and the thermals meant I could stay airborne for hours.

While in Morocco, I bumped into three young French adventurers who unloaded a strange-looking device from their van. I remember being intrigued and captivated as they donned le paramoteur, a device that allowed them to fly without having to jump off a mountain; they could even fly in zero wind! I was like a little boy watching my next-door neighbour playing with the latest toy, or Toad of Toad Hall seeing his first racing car. As one of the Frenchmen took off ten feet in front of me, he turned in the air and flew over my head laughing and shouting "Anglais!" That was it - I had to get one.

As soon as I got back to England I started researching paramotor engines. I chose a manufacturer and placed the order. Frustratingly, two months late, two very large and very heavy parcels arrived. I feverishly unpacked them and stood all the bits up in my lounge. I gazed lovingly at the components and wondered how best to proceed. All my life I've tended to avoid instruction manuals; however, as I surveyed a flying machine lying in pieces on my lounge floor, I thought, if I were ever to read a manual, perhaps now was the time. Following the instructions, I carefully assembled the paramotor.

I then turned my attention to attaching the reserve parachute. The reserve parachute is simple yet ingenious in its design: it serves not only as the pilot's last chance in an emergency, but also as a compact flight deck that rests on the lap during flight. On my flight deck I Velcroed two of the most important tools for any pilot: an altimeter and GPS (a Road Angel, but with Civil Aviation Authority air maps loaded). Next I pondered the problem of not being able to see the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank under my seat. You can do the arithmetic in flight (knowing your burn rate and airtime), but that's not as reassuring as seeing a couple of litres of pink two-stroke fuel slopping away at the bottom of your tank. My solution was to attach a small convex mirror to some elastic. When flying, I could hold the mirror out in front of me, angle it down and view the contents of my fuel tank. Time to start paramotoring.

Professional training is essential with both paragliding and paramotoring. I had already been taught to fly paragliders but I needed extra tuition for the transition to paramotors. I had the advantage of having already done quite a bit of skydiving, parachuting and paragliding, so I found "ground handling" (controlling the wing on the ground) and landing relatively straightforward. Turning and running with a heavy weight on your back, however, takes a little getting used to.

I had a few interesting paramotor flights in the early days. On one occasion, the wind picked up 20 minutes into my flight and I ended up flying backwards over the M18. I decided it would not be possible to penetrate the wind and fly back to where I'd taken off (and where my car was), so I carefully selected a "friendly"-looking farm to land in: one devoid of dangerous-looking machinery and dangerous-looking animals! I landed gracefully (a small consolation for 15 minutes of flying backwards) and waited for the farmer to come out with his shotgun. Two minutes later, a friendly young mother emerged with toddler in tow. The little boy was overjoyed that a spaceman had just landed in his garden. After many cups of coffee with my new friends, I managed to get a lift back to my car. Unfortunately the car's battery was flat but I was intact.

I had another sticky moment when, midflight, I let go of my brake handle to adjust my seat and harness in flight. As soon as I let go, I heard a bang and realised that my brake handle had been sucked into the propeller behind me. Luckily it just sliced the handle into smithereens and I was still able to land. I'd read recently about someone in Asia who suffered the same misfortune but the propeller had pulled the entire brake line and wing into the engine; needless to say, he didn't make it. I'd learnt my lesson. As soon as I got home I constructed a tight protective mesh around my cage, and I have since taken great care whenever releasing a brake handle in flight.

My first real paramotoring and cross-country flying holiday was in Porthmadog with a group of fellow adventurers. There's something awe-inspiring about flying with your friends 500ft above the beautiful Welsh countryside. One day we flew for about an hour and landed all ten paramotors successfully in a field and enjoyed coffee and bacon butties at Eric Jones' Cafe. Eric, now in his seventies, has climbed the north face of the Eiger, the Matterhorn and South Col on Everest. He's also a talented skydiver and base jumper who has thrown himself off skyscrapers and plummeted down numerous mountainsides. His coffee-house is decorated with hundreds of photographs of past adventures and jumps and includes a magnificent picture of Eric putting out a fire midflight as he successfully co-piloted the first hot-air balloon over Everest.

A few years later, two friends and I attempted to fly over Snowdon in Wales. A 6.30am launch was needed before the winds built up and the slate and rock on Snowdon started to spit thermals into the air. Our paramotors were exceptionally heavy prior to launch. I had an extra 14 litres of fuel in my tank, which was necessary for the long climb up to 5,500ft, some 2,000ft higher than the summit to avoid turbulence. This was going to make take-off with no wind quite challenging.

I took off second and immediately ran into problems. The extra weight of fuel had changed the orientation of my harness and I was struggling to get into my seat. At 200ft, just 60 seconds out, I heard a loud bang and the sound of metal tearing and snapping behind me; a truly unpleasant experience. I quickly killed the engine and radioed to the others that I was in difficulty and was going to land. For at least ten seconds I was ready to pull my reserve in case I began to plummet.

I didn't have time to turn into the wind because of my low altitude, which meant I was going to have to do a downwind landing with a heavy motor and full tank of fuel on my back. I chose the nearest field and watched the ground approach at an unwelcome speed. As I hit the ground I found myself unintentionally skiing over the wet grass in my size 12s. My Eddie the Eagle landing effort evolved into a sprint, a jog and finally a stop. Over my shoulder I saw my splintered propeller and speedbar, an aluminium control device that should have been by my feet, now bent and wrapped around the cage behind my head. I radioed my friends and told them I was OK and that they should continue with their Snowdon trip.

My little adventure, however, was over. Or was it? Within a minute of landing, a large herd of exceptionally inquisitive bullocks came to greet the stranger who had landed in their field. They decided that my bright orange wing looked delicious and so invented a game: lick and nibble the visitor and his colourful paraglider. I needed to get my wing and engine out of the field pronto, but there was no way I could lift both at the same time. I left the paramotor and carried the wing towards the gate. A few minutes later, I threw the wing into the adjacent field and ran back to the cows huddled around my paramotor. By the time I got there, they had managed to lick every conceivable part of my engine and harness, which was now a salivary, sloppy mess. I remember thinking how surreal the past ten minutes of my life had been. I was disappointed that I wasn't flying with the others but, more than anything, I was happy to be in one piece.

Just a few hours later, after replacing the mangled speedbar and propeller and wiping down the cattle-kissed harness, I was flying again. I've discovered that if I don't jump back on the horse immediately after an unpleasant ride, I find it infinitely harder to get back on.

Flying is a wonderful escape. There's a real feeling of freedom and independence as you take to the air leaving any troubles you have on the ground. A lot of my friends think I'm a bit loco (including my skydiving friends!), but the risks are controlled ones that can be minimised with common sense, good training, well-maintained equipment and a healthy respect for the sport. I'm also a qualified skydiver and the adrenalin from experiencing freefall is unbeatable, but paragliding and paramotoring tick very different boxes for me. Paragliding and paramotoring have something for everyone from cross-country flying to high-adrenalin acrobatics.

As far as I'm aware, this is the only sport where I can throw my (disassembled) powered aircraft into the back of my car, drive to a field, assemble it and fly for hours on end. I try to fly every week, with a couple of flying holidays every year. And I'm currently fighting off the temptation to start microlighting.

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