Why we fly

Every once in a while the air is eerily calm, and the wind is blowing 5-8 mph on the ground– but not up above– making for an easy launch into smooth conditions. Thursday evening was one of those days. I toured the coast and the plains, observing Maine’s beauty from the air.

I used to hike in the mountains here, but the trees are everywhere; I couldn’t see the views until I was above the trees. Most mountains here don’t have clearings on the top. It wasn’t until I started flying here that I was finally able to see the state.

Here are a few pictures from my flight:

Some kind of stonehenge the locals are building.
Pine Pollen choking up the river
An Island off Goose Rocks Beach
Goose Rocks Beach
A Couple more islands. Can you spot the fishing boat?
Mount Washington at Dusk
The Home Field
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Student Tows and Road Trip to Utah

The School of Personal Flight scooter tow. Constructed by Bob Chapman, architect of fine tow systems.

Right after I returned home from Beach Blast, I uncovered the Scooter tow, spooled the line onto it, and bought a new battery; I shouldn’t have left the old battery in the cold over the winter. The end result was a smooth-running, easy-starting pay-in tow system. With help from my neighbors and friends, we lifted the scooter tow onto my trailer and brought it out to the field.

Student Chris demonstrated excellent kiting skills from the beginning, so I knew it was time for him to fly. Chris’s wing hadn’t arrived yet, so he practiced kiting the school wing, which happened to be just the right size for him. My wife Diana also came out to the field to help with the towing (and get a flight herself). Chris got 4 flights– his first time piloting, and his first solos! His launches and landings were superb; the consistent launch technique he demonstrated comes from his kiting prowess. With the landing flare practice under his belt, I have confidence that he’ll perform gentle landings with the motor.

Chris on his first solo paragliding flight

Diana got a flight at the end of session. Though we didn’t have a lot of room to tow and the helpful wind had died down, Diana got much higher than Chris, owing to her light weight. She pinned off at the top of the tow and glided to the end of the dirt road.

This week, I’m in Utah, practicing Cross Country paragliding in drier, windier, higher conditions than I experienced in Florida. I helped my friend Norm move out to Utah, and now he and I are laying down some miles. Last night we ended our XC practically in Norm’s new backyard– a school next to his house. It doesn’t get better than that!

Paragliding can greatly improve your Powered Paragliding skills. Cross Country paragliding requires the spot-landing skills that are so important in Maine (Maine has small fields lined with tall trees). Learning to fly just the wing– with no motor– gives you control and feedback from your wing that is sometimes hard to notice with the motor.

The path Norm and I took home. Norm's flight was more interesting, as he had to pull off a low save at the beginning, where he was practically on the ground!
The path Norm and I took home. Norm’s flight was more interesting, as he had to pull off a low save at the beginning, where he was practically on the ground! [Click picture for larger size]
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Beach Blast 2016 – Wings

At Beach Blast this year I flew a bunch of different motors, but also a bunch of wings. I didn’t take notes or pictures, and I haven’t deeply studied any of these wings. These are my impressions of the wings I remember:

  • Dudek Hadron XX 22:
    • There are a lot of controls on the risers, which is something I love about Dudek wings. There are trimmers, wingtip steering toggles, “2D Steering” in the brake toggles, a speed system and flaps. I was advised to leave the flaps in the “out” position during the whole flight for safety reasons (maybe there’s such thing as too much control over a wing’s shape?). All in all, it was a magical wing in many ways- it was fast, but efficient. It had an energetic landing like other Dudek reflex wings with their trimmers partially out. The weirdest part of the flight was while I was trimmers full-out, looking at the wing as I pulled the tip steering toggles: the wing barely appeared to deform, but I was changing direction.
  • Dudek Nucleon XX 20:
    • This wing felt like my old overloaded Synthesis 25- extremely solid and fast, except that the controls weren’t as heavy. I forgot to hook up the speed system when I launched, so I didn’t fly it full fast. Nevertheless, I felt my head dragging through the air when I turned to look to the side on trimmers full out. It was hard to gauge the wing’s efficiency, as I wasn’t flying my own motor. It may be my next wing (choosing is hard… I have 6 wings in my closet right now).
  • Paramania GTX 24:
    • Not as fast as I was expecting; I probably should have flown a smaller size. Despite its size, this wing was easy to swing around in the sky, and it felt rock solid the whole time. I haven’t studied the wing profile, but I suspect it’s quite reflexed- launching took some running, even with the beach breeze.
  • Ozone Sirocco 19:
    • I flew this one with the Air Conception Ultra 130, and I had more than enough power to launch with ease, leading me to think the Sirocco is a pretty efficient wing. It was fun, too! I didn’t go to wild on it, and I didn’t hook up a speed bar, but it reminded me of my MacPara Chronos 23 only faster. It dipped into turns and felt intuitive as to when it would come out of oscillations.
  • Velocity Nitro 18:
    • Michael Mixer generously allowed me to fly his Nitro 18, and my impression was that it was a very sporty and responsive wing. At launch it came up over my head quickly and with a little checking of the brakes stayed there, feeling quite light. Top speed, without a speed bar (I didn’t hook one up), was satisfying. I was on a Blackhawk Talon 175, which is really different than my own motor, so I didn’t get a good feel for the efficiency of this wing. The fabric was very crispy and light-feeling. Mike Robinson explained the unusual shape of the wing to me (it’s got a flat middle section). The center of the wing is more pitch-positive than the wingtips, giving the center section greater stability with the wingtips flying like efficient, classical wings. Control pressure was light, and this wing was agile.
  • Air Design UFO 16:
    • Whoa. This thing actually flies, and it felt much more solid than I expected! It’s a bottomless glider with only a few enclosed cells to give it shape. You can’t get sand in this wing! Beyond that, it weighs around 3 pounds, and it flies slower and with more docility than I expected from a 16 square meter wing. This could be owing to its bean-shaped aspect ratio. My 180 lb self and a 45 lb Top 80 were able to launch with ease. Climb rate was adequate with this setup. The motor-off landing was totally unlike the other wings– there was no flare… none that I could feel. I typically drag my feet on landing, but not with this one. Instead of rounding out as I pulled brakes near the ground, the wing just continued flying on its linear glide path; just slower.

Those are my impressions– completely unscientific and anecdotal, but combined with others’ impressions you might get a full picture of any one of these wings.

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Beach Blast 2016


I’m here at the Beach Blast 2016 Powered Paragliding Convention in Panama City Beach, testing new wings and motors from a variety of manufacturers. I think the general theme of the new wave of paragliding gear is “lightweight.” Everything here is pretty light, seemingly without respect to power output. I feel like some classic aviation compromises between power and weight are disappearing!

Air Conception

The AirConception paramotors are fantastically light (as light as the Miniplane Top 80), yet produce enormous amounts of power. I flew the AirConception Ultra 130 with a variety of wings (Dudek Hadron XX 22, Ozone Sirocco 19,  Ozone Rush 4), and my climb rate was more than adequate. I could have been a much heavier pilot and yet still flown this 45ish-pound motor. I think even a 260lb pilot would find comfort with it. There is also an AirConception 200 “Nitro” which I have yet to fly.

Miniplane Top 80
Miniplane Top 80

I flew the Miniplane Top 80 on its lightweight ABM frame and the Miniplane Minari on the larger, tougher Minari frame. The Top 80 had plenty of scoot for my 180lb body, and paired with my efficient Rush 4 ML, it had more than enough climb rate, too. Just for fun last night, I flew the Miniplane Top 80 with the Air Design UFO 16m (look it up- it’s a crazy bottomless mini wing!). I was flying the lightest equipment available with the least power available on the smallest wing I could find. The result? Adequate climb rate and great sensation from the air; I could feel every little disturbance in that mostly smooth ocean breeze. The UFO was a real trip! It is harder to keep it on the ground than to launch it; it just wants to float away. The ABM harness was surprisingly roomy- I could mess with stuff under my seat while flying.

The Miniplane Minari 180 had the most power of the machines I’ve tested so far- I launched at a higher than normal angle with only 40% power. When I squeezed the throttle, the buildings got smaller… Speaking of throttle, both the Top 80 and the Minari 180 had the smoothest, most linear throttle response I’ve tried- I was particularly impressed that there was no “sweet spot” on the Minari 180, allowing me to reflexively moderate my power during launch. The Minari 180 had a clutch and an electric start motor on it, but the battery wasn’t hooked up. Pull starting was soft and smooth. I would want a motor like this for tandems (and, they make a 200cc version too!).

Fresh Breeze Polini 80 water-cooled engine
Fresh Breeze Polini 80 water-cooled engine

The most interesting motor was from Fresh Breeze- an 80cc WATER-COOLED Polini motor. I expected the motor to be heavy with all that extra water-cooling stuff, but it was in fact only a little heavier than the Miniplane Top 80, and it had power- more than my tuned Solo 210, but less than the old Fresh Breeze Simonini- all at two thirds the weight. Fresh Breeze has made some modifications to the engine to tune it and improve it for flying. It runs at very high RPM, but does not overheat thanks to the cooling system. Since it’s a tiny piston moving really fast, the vibration isn’t very noticeable. It’s not a loud motor either.  Fresh Breeze has an excellent weightshift system on their Sportix frame, so flying was comfortable and intuitive.

The wind just turned on shore again, so I’m heading out to demo more motors and wings. My next post will be wing-intensive, since this post was mostly about motors. So far, I’ve flown the Dudek Hadron, Nucleon, Air Design UFO, Ozone Sirocco, and some others.

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Second Place Sports Division in East Coast Paragliding Championships

A pair of bad Jacksons with my new Silver ECPC wings!

From the Spring Fling last week, I cruised right into the East Coast Paragliding Championships with only a day of rest in between. I had a couple of tasks where I made goal, and then 3 tasks where I completely bombed out, early. I was not the model of consistency that I demonstrated the week before. I think I got obsessed with racing the faster pilots in this competition and I didn’t focus on staying aloft. The two times when I made goal, though, I got there fast! Despite my mistakes, I took second place in the Sports division (EN A & B certified wings). Federico Wood Behrens (“Fast Fede”) took first in sports, and Roland Sanguino took third. In the Serial division (EN C & D wings) Augusto Espinosa took first, David “El Cuervo” Prentice took second, and Jaro Krupa took third.

Augusto Espinosa (right), our East Coast Paragliding Champ!

The turnout for ECPC wasn’t as high this year, so I found the competition was a bit more relaxed before launch- instead of trying to get 30 wings in the air, we only had 13. I’m sure this was a welcome break for the tow drivers, who had been launching pilots all day every day the week before. A huge thanks to everyone who made these two events possible- Steve, Neil and Kristina Sirrine, Luis Ameglio, Nathan Beane, Brigeita Lei Balsimo, Audray Luck, and David Prentice!

Toward the end, some doodles showed up on the alternate task board.

With both competitions finished, I’m staying at Neverland Flight Park for the next 2 days, then heading on to Beach Blast 2016 in Panama City Beach. I’ll try out some of the latest wings and motors and publish my thoughts. I also look forward to comparing the social environments of the paragliding scene vs. the powered paragliding scene. If anyone in New England wants me to pick up something for them at Beach Blast, send me an email!

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I Won the 2016 Spring Fling

The wings and prize money allotted to the Spring Fliht champion.
The wings and prize money allotted to the Spring Fling 2016 champion. You CAN get paid to fly!

I won the 2016 Spring Fling handily, consistently making goal when goal was possible, and staying on top of the overall scores for the duration of the competition. Though I only won one task, I was routinely in 2nd or 3rd place for the other five tasks. Consistent high performance is rewarded, and I never had a bad day. There’s some luck involved in finding lift, so multiple days of competition average out competitors’ skill at finding lift. It’s less like a running race and more like poker. You can make strategic decisions and trade-offs to increase your odds of winning, but you can’t just will yourself to win.

I didn’t make goal every day. Here, I landed in the so-called “Square of Despair,” a desolate, hot, swampy tract of land miles across and inaccessible to retrieve vehicles.

I’ve been paragliding since 2008, but until a year ago, I didn’t fly hard. That changed in 2014 when I talked to Johnna Haskell, a competition paraglider pilot from Maine. She talked me into flying my first competition, the 2015 Spring Fling in LaBelle, Florida. On the first task, I followed my GPS backwards and thermalled across the Caloosahatchee river, far away from the course line, and far out of the way of the retrieve drivers (there aren’t many bridges in that area). I spent hours sitting with the Florida wildlife and contemplating what I could have done differently. That day I learned that competitions add an exciting layer of complexity on top of the already complex activity of paragliding.

Over the next year, I signed up for every competition that fit my schedule. I observed the decisions that the great pilots made. I lived with them and learned how they thought– I adopted their often Zen attitude. Though I was crushed in each competition score-wise, I didn’t let it faze me; Even great pilots sink out and blow a task sometimes. I was sinking out all the time, but as I accumulated days of flying, I made it farther and farther along each task.

I didn’t compare myself to the top guys; they were flying far more efficient wings anyway. I mostly compared myself to the pilot I was in the previous week. Did I fly more hours this week? Did I fly farther? Did I feel more comfortable in the air? Was I remembering to drink water more often? Did I make decisions based on logic rather than hope? Improving those factors made me a better pilot.

After weathering the end of the Maine winter, I returned to Florida last week to fly the Spring Fling, the competition which taught me the basics of Cross Country competition paragliding only one year earlier. I came with no expectations, only backed up by the unconscious knowledge gained from 6 weeks of intense flying in Latin America. Each day I vowed to have an adventure-filled flight, attempting to stay in the air long enough to make goal rather than racing against my competitors. For me, the winning move was not to compete.

Inside one of the Retrieve Vehicles. Audrey, Brigeita and Kristina did an awesome job of organizing pilots’ retrievals and rescuing us from the South Florida environment!


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Early Success at Spring Fling Paragliding Competition


I was able to make it to goal for the first 3 tasks of Spring Fling here in Florida. A combination of luck and practice reading the clouds and terrain (trees, buildings, fields, etc) made goal possible. I am, as of writing this post, currently leading the competition of 28 pilots. I just finished Task 4, and it might mix up the rankings; Nobody made goal, and I didn’t even make it to the first waypoint in the route, instead landing miles in to a region known as “The Square of Despair,” so named for its long hike out and locked gates all around it. Still, the competition rewards consistency, and I’ve mostly kept that up.

David Prentice runs the Spring Fling as a beginner/mentoring competition near LaBelle, Florida, every year. There is a lot of cooperation among pilots, many of whom are competing for the first time. Before each task, David (“Cuervo”) shares some tips and tricks about cross country paragliding and competitions. We have some more advanced pilots in the mix, as well as many of the tow operators, to guide new competitors in the dark arts of flying comps. Having a safe flight is emphasized over all other objectives. Personally, I’ve been helping folks with their Flytec varios, since I’m well-acquainted with mine.IMG_20160425_152718_413[1]

Contrary to most paramotor flights, XC paragliding flights often end in an unpredictable location- hopefully a soft, flat field. It’s up to the pilot to get themselves out of the field (often private property) and onto a public road where they can be retrieved. Trespassing charges are not uncommon, so discretion is key.


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Back to Neverland

Neverland Flight Park Camp
Home Sweet Home for the next 2 weeks.

After having such an educational experience at Spring Fling and ECPC last year, I’ve returned again, so here I am in the woods of southern Florida immersing myself in payout-tow paragliding. The past two days have been too windy to fly during the middle of the day. One pilot who brought his motor to camp took a quick paramotor flight this morning and came down after a few minutes, reporting high winds and unpleasant turbulence. Nevertheless, I am confident that the weather will get better soon. Late afternoons have been flyable, and calmer weather is in the forecast for next week, the start of Spring Fling.

Typically Maine is a frozen wasteland well into May, but this past winter has been extremely warm, and it’s been flyable a few times already in April. I did not anticipate such an early season, and I feel a tinge of regret and guilt that I can’t be in Maine to take advantage of the extended season.

A pilot preparing to reverse-launch his paraglider while connected to a pay-out tow line. In a few seconds he'll be pulled to nearly 3000 feet by a pickup truck.
A pilot preparing to reverse-launch his paraglider while connected to a pay-out tow line. In a few seconds he’ll be pulled to nearly 3000 feet by a pickup truck.

The day prior to driving south with all my paragliding and powered paragliding gear, I enjoyed a laminar but strong-winded flight with a friend. As the sun set, the air on the ground became cold (40’s) while the wind up high remained comfortable warm (50’s to 60’s). After a downwind leg to the Saco River, we turned into the strong headwind and climbed high into the warmer air above. Three thousand feet above the ground the headwind wasn’t as strong, yet the temperature was still warm. We were experiencing an inversion, where the air closer to the ground was colder than the air up high. This often happens in Spring here, at sunrise and sunset. The Earth is still very cold from the winter, so as soon as the sun stops heating the surface, the earth absorbs all the residual heat from the air around it. It’s not unusual for these two air masses to be moving at different speeds, or even different directions.

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A preseason flight

Last Saturday 3 pilots snuck in a flight between wind and rain storms and it was beautiful, if only a little cold. The weather forecast websites were completely thrown off by the 24-hour lull in storminess, and at 1000 feet, windyty.com was even drawing a square-edged micro-weather pattern over us. The sky was telling us that the winds were light and laminar, and knowing that real weather doesn’t swirl in perfect squares, we discounted the forecast and drove to the field to check it out.


The real weather turned out to be excellent. Usually the jet stream precludes most flying (most comfortable flying) until May because it is still shifted South from winter months. On a typical early Spring day, a PPG pilot in Maine can expect 30-40 mph winds just over the tree tops, with extra gnarly rotor between ground level and 100 feet. This Spring, we have been getting breaks from that typically strong wind approximately every two weeks. These breaks seem to coincide with the shifting of temperature- We’ll get two weeks of mild weather, and two weeks of typical winter weather. The wind is strong during the shift, but there’s a one- or two-day lull while the temperature stabilizes. On Saturday, the windsocks indicated 5-7mph, varying in speed by 2-3 mph and direction by 45º.

Our flight path took the three of us down a river and out to the ocean. The tide was going out, and the beach was wide. The first pilot to the beach noted that a high school student piled debris to form the question “PROM?” on the beach sand. We all flew over to take a gander and play on the beach. This time of year the beaches are mostly empty, and we had plenty of space to drag our feet in the sand and carve around low. There were other messages written in the sand; most of them were romantic in nature. Since the tide had only just started to recede, I figured that the messages were carved recently. I made it a game to guess which walking couple had written it.

During this flight, I had a hole in my left glove, at the tip of my index finger. It was the only part of my body that was cold to the point of pain. Earlier in the evening I flew low to stay in the warmer air near the ground, but as the sun set into a red, blue, orange and purple sky, the temperature dropped as well. After landing, I took my glove off and saw that the colors in my hand matched the colors of the sunset!

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Migration to a WordPress-based website

Hi Folks,

Though I think my bootstrap-based website was elegant and functional, I feared that maintaining it would be become a hassle as the school grows and the website expands. I decided to move to a real content-management systems, WordPress.

WordPress was a blogging platform– and still is– but it’s exceedingly common for businesses and organizations to gang-press its content-management attributes into an effective website. If you’ve been watching the web closely, every website is approaching the same look and feel, particularly small-team upstarts. This is with good reason; successful websites haven’t changed, and became role models for the future. Even the big boys like Apple have the same “little menu – big picture – call-to-action button in the middle” visage.

This move also allows me to change my online store to something I hope will be refreshing and simpler to navigate. The existing store (www.schoolofpersonalflight.com/shop) is still functional and is taking orders. The new store will have new equipment and a stocked “Used Gear” section for those on a budget.

In order to grow the functionality needed by School of Personal Flight, I’m using a WordPress Framework called “Beans” that enables me to remove the parts of WordPress that I don’t need. In the end, I hope to have a website that offers quick performance and small-screen (phone) functionality similar to the bootstrap site.

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