Local pilots take to the sky

“The drone of flying engines is a song so wild and blue, it scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you”
— Joni Mitchell, “Amelia”

Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
A powered parachute comes in for a landing at the Allen County Airport recently. The aircraft will be the focus of a weekend fly-in there. The public is welcome to come to the airport Saturday to talk with pilots and learn more about the sport.

From 500 feet up, Allen County is a postcard paradise.
Corn is green corduroy carpeting the land.
Farm fields reveal that water, more than the plow, determine their contours. Scars of recent freshets snake through rows of beans and corn, wend through stubble wheat.
And all is at peace. From the air, Allen County hasn’t a care in the world — and that’s exactly why powered parachute pilot Ron Smail takes to the sky.
“I can have the most stressful day at the office,” he said. “Five minutes after going up, I’m smiling.”
The effect is universal.
Smail is one of several Allen County residents who have taken up the sport after being lured in by Iolan Bob Hawk.
Hawk began flying in 1994, after his wife, Ginny, spied a number of the craft aloft during a vacation in Colorado. Turns out, they were in range of a national gathering. The couple dropped in on the group, and Hawk purchased a magazine about the sport.
“I read that magazine all the way from Breckenridge to Iola,” he said. Smitten, he purchased his own paraglider.
Paragliders, unlike powered parachutes, need to be released from a height to float.
“I’d go out to Yates Center and there was an 80-foot high hill there” to jump from, he said. “I could get about an 18-second ride.”
Obviously, that wasn’t enough, so Hawk began researching other alternative aircraft.
He discovered powered parachutes can take flight from flat ground, a perfect match for Kansas’ terrain.
The craft itself is basically “a lawn chair and a bed sheet,” joked Smail.
A motor and rotor blades are encased in a large cage. In front of the engine is a seat or two.
Overall weight of the frame determines what size chute is needed, the men said. Smail’s two-seater has a 550-square foot parachute to give it stability. Hawk’s lighter, more maneuverable frame has only a 310-square foot wing.
Though made of tissue-fine ripstop nylon lighter than a tent tarp, the wings, channeled like an air mattress, go rigid once aloft.

THE ODDEST aspect to power parachuting is constant travel speed.
One typically thinks of things in flight — or any motion — as accelerating or decelerating. But PPCs, as they are known, travel at a constant speed of about 26 miles per hour, Smail said.
However, flight speed is relative.
Vaughn Walker, another pilot, explained it’s like swimming in a rip tide. The PPC is going forward, but a headwind can actually push the craft backward, relative to the land. A tailwind pushes the craft along faster. In a strong headwind, motion can be so slow that “I’ve had cows pass me,” Hawk said.
“I know someone who’s had butterflies pass them,” Smail grinned, referring to Walker.
It seems another factor in flight speed is total overall craft weight. Walker’s craft is an ultralight.
“The higher the weight, the faster you go,” explained Hawk. Relatively speaking, of course.
“On one of these, if someone’s going smoking hot, they’re going two miles per hour faster than you,” Hawk said.
In the air, neither height nor speed seem outlandish. At 40 feet above farm fields or 80 feet up skimming tree tops, flight stability is the same. At 140 feet, wildflowers are still clear enough to be identifiable. At 470 feet, plants become textures more than distinct forms, but still there is no whipping wind, no howling air one would imagine being at hawk height.
It is as peaceful as a cloud.
And that’s intentional.
Powered parachutes take off only in the morning, near dawn, and in the evening, about two hours before twilight, when winds are still. They can’t go up if wind speeds are more than 5 to 10 mph.
Still, Smail said, “We’ve all been there,” of getting caught in a freak storm or sudden wind burst.
Even with the engine cut off the craft does not plummet, but floats descending.
The combination of freedom and relaxation is appealing to a growing number of enthusiasts, but power parachuting is still a small sport, Smail said.
In part, that’s due to the costs.
“First you need the plane, then you need a trailer, then you need an RV,” said Ron Boren, another pilot. The planes themselves run about $20,000 new, Smail said. The RV is so you can travel to other airports when you get tired of your own scenery, Boren added.
Boren got hooked on flying after visiting a fly-in — a gathering of regional pilots — about five years ago, where he received his first flight aloft.
“I told my son we have to get one of these.”
And they did.
Boren and his son Cory began flying regularly, and within a month, he realized he wanted his own craft.
“I thought, I have 40 acres, I’ll fly on my own place,” Boren said. But half the fun of the sport is the camaraderie of the rest of the flock, the men said. “Usually, we’re talking to one another on radios,” while in flight, said Hawk. So Boren joined the gypsy ways of the pilots.
It becomes a lifestyle, with the group going to out-of-state fly-ins or nearby towns for breakfast.
And like the old hunting and fishing adage, Walker said, “If we’re not flying, we’re telling lies about flying.”

ALLEN COUNTY will host a fly-in Friday and Saturday at the Allen County Airport. About 35 pilots from neighboring states are expected. The public is welcome to come out on Saturday to better examine the craft and visit with pilots, Smail said.