The True Treetop Story

By Homer Talbee

Dedicated To:
Chris (my understanding wife and life long partner),
My friends and inspiration Hop and Marlyn Hochstetler

One early morning back in July of 1989 I felt the need to practice for an up coming event for which I was invited to display and show this fairly new and impressive flying machine, the Paraplane. It was their annual town event, The Touch of Dutch, and I was excited about being involved.

This particular morning the temperature was about 78 degrees, typical for July, but the humidity was extreme for 4:30 am. As all powered parachutist will agree, they were not the most favorable conditions, but flyable none the less.

It was still early and the sun was still hiding below the horizon. So I had plenty of time to prepare my machine. Preparation included: engine warm-up, an extensive pre-flight of the machine and a ceremonious, but meticulous, placement of the chute. As muggy as it was, I would need all the help I could get for the chute to inflate before I got to my go/no go marker that I had placed in my yard just for an occasion like this.

I suited up and sat patiently waiting for the break of day as I mentally rehearsed my flight and the details of the demonstration that I would be presenting.

Finally, the time had come. The sun was starting to illuminate the top of the trees with an orange tinted glow as it peered through the thick humid air. I buckled up my harness and seat belt and reached up behind me for the pull ropes and gave the first engine a pull. (For those not familiar with the old Paraplanes, they were powered with two post-hole digger engines.) It started on the first pull. I then pulled on the next one and it also started on the first pull. As anyone who has ever flown a Paraplane will attest, both engines starting on the first pull even after a good warm-up is one for the record books. I felt as if this morning was going to be a "text book" flight and practice session.

Everything was a go! I brought up the throttles and started my roll. Procedure is to start the roll and inflate the chute paying close attention to the end cells, especially with this humidity. The chute inflated in the center, but as expected the end cells were drooping almost to the ground like a wet rag. Remembering my training, I removed my hand from the throttle and leaned to the right for a better view of the chute as I jerked on the steering line several times to assist the inflation of the right side.... Success! Now I had to repeat the same procedure for the left side. As I was turning my head to the left, I gave a quick glance at my go/no go marker and a quick calculation indicated that things were still a go. I jerked the line several times and at first I thought an abort was imminent. Then suddenly it inflated. Another quick glance at my marker indicated that immediate full power was necessary. I made the snap decision to continue; I pushed my throttle full forward and as the "incredible thrust" pinned me to my seat I looked to the right and at the exact second my wheels left the ground I passed the marker. I had never lifted off this far down my runway before and I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have the rate of climb that I would need to clear the obstacles ahead. The obstacles were only "a small forest of oaks and maples", some towering as high as 80 feet. Although up until this point, it seemed that the takeoff was "text book" except perhaps the question in my mind, "Did I take all things into consideration when I placed my last chance marker?". I pondered that thought for a second or two and realized that it was a bit too late to wonder and it would be best to spend my thoughts on the business ahead, clearing the tops of the trees.

Then it happened. A powered parachutist’s worst nightmare was about to unfold and the next few minutes, seeming like an eternity, would tag me for the rest of my days.

Suddenly the rpm of my engines increased and I saw an object out of the side of my eye travel upward at an incredible speed. I looked up in the direction of it’s travel and was able to witness half of one of my props go straight through the right side of my chute, leaving a gaping hole. No need to worry about my rate of climb now. Then the engine’s pitch increased again and I watched the other half of the same prop plummet to the ground. I realized at that instant that I was probably about 100+ feet above the ground and not only was I descending quickly, steering was only a wish.

I then realized that my real fate stood tall and menacing in the form of treetops just seconds ahead. It was now time for me to get a grip on my mental state, which at this point and at very best, was unstable. I guess fear would be the term to use here.

I thought; "Ok, time for emergency measures. Tighten your harness and take any evasive measures possible to miss the trees". As I began to perform my just processed thoughts a terrible reality and answer to my prop failure came to light. I had no harness. It had come unbuckled and had been sucked in to my props. I didn’t dwell on the reason why because; the next experience was the brushing of the bottom of my Paraplane with the first treetop. I looked slightly ahead and saw a clearing. I had a gut feeling called "the truth" that there was no way I would make it. I was sinking fast. I swung to the right and then to the left using only my body weight as a means of steering around the treetops.

I estimated my altitude at approximately 45 or 50 feet and I was definitely below the canopy of the woods. Then directly in my flight path was a perfect specimen of a large healthy oak tree. I quickly calculated my E.T.O.D. (Estimated Time of Disaster). I know that everyone has either heard of or experienced the sensation, "My entire life flashed before my eyes." It’s a natural element of fear, and a prelude to a dangerous situation. Well, my situation was no different. There was one exception. At the speed of a Paraplane not only did my entire life pass before my eyes, I also had plenty of time to see reruns!

As the tree was rapidly getting closer and with no time or means of missing my inevitable target, I made a decision that was probably developed as a kid watching too much TV, particularly Superman. I raised both arms and leaped into the air as if I could fly. I felt at that moment, and I’m not sure why, that having a choice of eating oak or taking my chances at another type of flight, I would chose the latter. All of this snap decision making had taken its toll and became obvious after making the above choice, that I failed to take two very important factors into consideration; the distance to the ground and I can’t fly. Too late, I was airborne and the ground was approximately 30 or 35 feet below. At almost the same instance that I left my craft it collided with the trunk of that very healthy oak. Down I went in what seemed like slow motion. I landed belly down like a stalled aircraft in a thicket of briars about 3 feet tall with tens of thousands of thorns not only puncturing my front side, but also deflating my ego.

Although stunned and the wind knocked out of me my Paraplane was foremost on my mind and I could hear it still screaming for my help. It was hanging on a limb by the chute and the throttle control was within reach. I immediately jumped up and killed the engines. It fell to the ground and its wounds appeared to be fatal at first glance. My heart was broken and shadowed my pain and punctures. Leaving her in the woods while I walked back to the house for rescue equipment seemed inhumane.

My morning flights always included a low altitude fly over of the house, which served two purposes; to let the wife know I was in the air and ok, and to perhaps wake the children so I could show off.

My wife, bless her heart, would hear me flying and would either get up to make me breakfast or at least have my coffee ready. This morning was going to be way out of our usual routine. As I reached the edge of my yard, with my helmet under one arm and my pride under the other, and my skin perforated by ten thousand thorns, I could see her in the distance standing on the patio looking to the sky for my flying machine and me. I yelled to her to get her attention and her first questions were; "Where’s the Paraplane?" "Are you OK?" I gestured with my hand that it was in the woods and that I was fine.

I went directly to the garage to gather up my rescue gear, rope and a hatchet, and headed back for the woods. My wife went back into the house and put on a robe and asked if she could help. I then realized what a partner she really was. Up until this time all I had heard is what most married Powered Parachute pilots hear, "You’re going to get hurt in that thing." This morning’s adventure put the true meaning in that phrase. Like a real trooper, in her robe, the humidity extreme, and the mosquitoes swarming for their morning feeding, she followed me to the crash site. As I would clear a few feet of brush she would pull my lifeless machine forward. We finally got it back to the garage.

I went into the house and the kitchen was filled with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and the smell of bacon hovered in the air. Breakfast was ready. As I was finishing breakfast my wife turned to me and once again I heard those all so familiar words, "I told you that you were going to get hurt in that thing one day, now what are you going to do?". I, without a second thought, instantly replied, "As soon as I get finished with breakfast I need to get on the phone and order some parts." She just shook her head.

Thanks for reading this story and as my trainer/mentor Wyman "Hop" Hochstetler and his wonderful partner Maryln would say, "May God bless and keep ‘em flying!"

Fly safely,

Homer  a.k.a. "Treetop Taulbee"
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