"The Compliant Swan" By O. Lee Floyd III
As Published in "KITPLANES", July, 1997 Edition
(reprinted with permission from the Para-Cycle web site)
Have you ever pondered the serenity of an early morning Hot Air Balloon flight? Perhaps you've even been lucky enough to experience it as I have several times. While I have always enjoyed the notion of Hot Air Ballooning immensely, I could never consider owning such an aircraft because of its inherent impracticality; i.e., the need for a ground crew, chase vehicle, and all those uncertain landing locations. The list of obstacles to having fun just keeps on growing while trying to commit aviation.
Have you ever admired the modern Parachutists gliding
wherever they please? If you are like
I have been watching these unique aircraft develop out of the corner of my eye (while managing to keep them at arm's length) for over ten years now. Having been "ga-ga" about all things aerial since when that and "whaa-whaa" were the only words in my vocabulary, I have now been lucky enough to fly almost every type of aircraft I care to (well O.K., there is that antique German Fleicher Storch I'm hoping to get a ride in someday). I maintain a Private S.E.L. (single engine land) and an Instrument rating, have flown Antique Warbirds, Exotic Competition Aerobatic Aircraft, Sailplanes, Helicopters, Homebuilts, Hang Gliders and yes, even Parachute jumped once in a row (gulp)! This writer's quest for adventure has now dispatched with almost all popular flying machines as a "new thrill" candidate.
At last year's Sun and Fun fly-in (in Lakeland, Florida) The Power Chutes caught my eye as never before. They are now achieving climb rates on a par with Phil Lockwood's climb-out-king: the very buoyant Air -Cam, as well as the Kolb line of homesick angel Ultra-light aircraft. Wow! They were much more impressive than the original wimpy-wimpy-wimpy Para-Planes from the days of yore. I do admire the freedom of the newer foot-launched variety of Powered Parachutes. I believe however that these machines are better suited for the "young bucks" who have yet to personally experience what deteriorating spinal disks really feel like.
Until lately, I confess that I have harbored prejudice toward these seemingly unwieldy Powered Parachutes. They seemed to be: 1. Too sensitive to the wind for my taste. 2. Too slow at only 26 M.P.H. in climb, cruise, and descent. 3. Not exotic enough (read as in: not sexy enough) to be very inspirational.
To put it more in perspective, with a wing loading of approximately 1lb. per sq. foot with 525 Sq. feet of wing area, you really need to respect the atmospheric conditions. It's a relatively easy study in the subject of "Micro-Meteorology". It will help you visualize what happens to us "scud running bottom feeders" in the altitudes at which we normally operate. It will also help you with situational awareness as in predicting turbulence.
With a "Ram Air" chute producing lift, the term "flight envelope" takes on a whole new meaning in these babies! Just maybe I have been missing the whole point of why this aircraft has launched a whole new category of "Sport Vehicles". On the very positive side of the coin, Powered Chutes have a reputation of being one of the safest aircraft ever invented. Safe, I like that word. It's catchy, it's got a nice beat, and your significant other can dance to it! The most obvious attribute in the Powered Chute's safety, lies in the fact that you are already flying in a fully deployed Parachute. You are taking off and landing on level ground (as compared to having to expose yourself to the dangers of running off a gusty cliff in a Hang Glider).
To me the flying quality that sets this aircraft apart from all others, is the stability that comes from its "Pendulum Effect". Your weight keeps automatically returning to the bottom of the pendulum's arc, thereby giving the aircraft a tremendous mechanical advantage. This process keeps the wing in a non-stalled "people-friendly" flying condition. When you climb, the extra thrust pushes you ahead of the chute pulling the Parachute's angle of incidence upwards to the relative wind. This automatically generates more lift. The combination of this lift and the added power propels you skyward. Shazamm! When you reduce the power, the cart comes back and the chute levels out. Wow! Even at 26 M.P.H. If you were to accidentally hit anything at full speed, I imagine it would probably be survivable in most instances.
Let's see now: safe , slow (as in non-scary), easy to fly, spectacular visibility, and easily a one man operation if you respect the wind rules. Before you buy one of these aircraft, your dealer will provide you with one-on-one instructions on how to safely operate it, as well as a thorough briefing on the legal use of Ultra-Lights within U.S. air space.
Regarding wind: usually 10 M.P.H. is about all a Powered Parachute can handle comfortably. The best indication of impending trouble will be when you unpack the chute from its protective bag. If you can not deal with it because the wind is blowing it in a huge, unmanageable, tangled mess, you might want to think of this situation as a "Clue"! Now roll up your parachute like a good little aviator, and learn to fly a Gyro-plane if you really want to ply the wind.
Now there's an idea for you. How about a: Gyrocopting-Amphibious-Roadable-Powered Parachute that morphs into its own tent? Any takers?
So far I'm beginning to really warm up to this new type of aircraft. I found myself approaching my new sport with a very calm attitude. I realized that this was just like what I had always wished for in a Hot Air Balloon. Unlike the Balloon, you can go wherever your heart desires and you do not have to lug around those pesky pressurized L.P.gas tanks. Wow! What a beautiful concept. No more self sales needed here. I was ready for action!!!
I met with the affable Hans Christensen and his good buddy Elmer Bailey who was visiting from Michigan at the local doughnut shop. The time was O-Dark -Thirty when we began the formal training session. This included a thorough discussion of F.A.A. regs, our mission for the morning, weather, this flying machine's nuances, and the merits of Boston cream doughnuts over plain ones. This was then followed by a 40 question multiple choice test, more discussion, and liability waver signing. Finally, the first phase of the morning's ceremony was over. It culminated with the all-important paying of the bill (for the doughnuts).
We caravanned into the foggy morning to a very flat obstruction-free Sod Farm some twenty miles south of the town known as "St. Cloud" (a likely name). After unpacking the machine which looks a lot like a miniature three wheeled Air Boat (without the boat), we extracted the chute bag that had been wedged in front of the propeller during transport.
As usual, there are procedures to follow with anything "Aviation". After pre-flighting and warming up the engine, the next task would normally be to lay the chute out with the trailing edge closest to the cart. Grab either the left or right bundle of lines, unfurl and shake gingerly until they seem to be tangle-free and in the right place. I came to believe that this ritual is not all that necessary, but rather intended to lull the user in to a relaxed " Zen" like state of mind very similar to Fly Fishing in Colorado. The practical side of this is that it gives you the opportunity to inspect your life support mechanism for any imperfections that could potentially lead to your unexpected premature departure from the planet. For example, frayed lines, tears in the envelope, loose stitching, etc. Wow, some more helpful cool "Clues"!
Hans has a new Buckeye "Dream Machine" on order with a whopping 65 H.P. available. However his current steed is the quite capable two seat "Harmening's High Flyer" sporting a Rotax 503 dual C.D.I.. It pumps out a respectable 52 H.P.. With a three blade Ivo Prop for propulsion. Total empty weight is around 300 lbs. The combination yields something close to 1000 f.p.m. rate of climb with one aboard. I was unable to tell exactly as the only instrument on board is the tachometer.
Hans elected to use his trainer as a one person machine
this morning. Could it be that he innately sensed my prowess as an all
knowing Aviation Overlord? Or was it that he feared our combined weight
would turn his Swan into a frustrated arthritic Penguin?
The fog began to do its predictable thing, so it was time to pre-warm the engine. With the chute still in its bag, Hans flipped the choke levers on the carburetors, primed, and pressed the start button. The stone cold Rotax had no choice but to come alive. The brittle powerplant seemed reluctant at first, but then fired healthily when the omnipotent starter would just not take no for an answer. It coughed-and-barked, sputtered-and-fired, and evolved into a mechanical cadence that sounded a lot like"the Caissons go rolling along" to me. When the all important R.P.M.s came up, Hans manually clicked off the choke controls. I can imagine trying to pull start this puppy cold, but I'd rather not!
During the warm-up period I stood in front of the cart and asked Hans to rev it up so I could get a feel for how much thrust was available. I faced off with the critter "Macarena style", dug my toes in the tundra, and wrapped my paws around the stabilizer bars. Hans gradually increased the power until about the half way point when I started screaming something indiscernible like "holy mother of something or another". I can not remember exactly what it was, but Hans seemed to understand that I had obtained the information I was seeking. Well, I was definitely impressed with its ferociousness. This was no "one short step away from the glue factory Horse" I was about to fly, but more like "Zee Raging Bull"!
With the motor now all warmed up, happy, and ready to
comply, the only thing remaining to do was to shut it down temporarily
and lay out the chute. We did this and I silently genuflected the lines,
pretended to sprinkle some holy water on the sailcloth, and hummed two
choruses of Do-ma-niqua-niqua-niqua while smiling knowledgeably at my mentor
and company. We peered into the sky looking for a tell-tail patch of blue
to appear. I was getting close to losing the will to live when at about
10:30 A.M. the fog and clouds gave up their stubborn battle with the sun.
F-i-n-a-l-l-y !!!!!!!!!!!!! it was time to fly. Hans hopped on the machine
flashing a big grin, and belted in. He snicked his heels into the wire
stirrups on the rudder bars, reached down and pressed the starter button
once again. The finely tuned Rotax obediently sprang back to life singing
its siren song. This time it sounded like "the Orange Blossom Special"
or maybe it was the Gene Krupa's Big Band version of "Sing Sing Sing"!
Hans walked about two hundred feet directly into the lightly puffing breeze. I could hear him uttering some instructions above the rumbling din of the Rotax on his one-way radio. He uses this system so he does not have to be writing letters of apology to the F.C.C. explaining why there are always so many erroneous expletives coming from his students over the airwaves. I think he wanted me to pat my head and rub my belly if I understood him. Or was it tug on my ear and stick out my tongue? It didn't matter, I knew what to do. My take-off sequence ate up no more than 50-75 feet! By the time I made it to where he was standing, I was almost at tree top level already. It felt like I was going up the first hill of a high speed Roller Coaster without all the clackity clackity.
Hans interrupted my thoughts with his first command to initiate a left turn. It was the first time I had felt any resistance on the rudder pedals. On the ground they were just floppy aluminum tubes attached to the frame with a bolt. The outer ends are where the chute steering lines are attached. You push on the left bar, you go left. Push right on the right bar, go right. Together to flair-out, or increase the drag and descent rate. What could be simpler? There are actually only two controls to think about. Throttle to go up and down, Rudder Bars, to go left and right. This has to be the simplest aircraft ever invented!
After I made my first left turn while still climbing, I estimated that I was already at about 600 ft. A.G.L. (above ground level)! I decided to reduce the throttle setting as I was certainly high enough to maneuver back towards a landing from where I had taken off, if need be. Ironically about that same time Hans's voice crackled over the radio. He suggested that I might want to reduce the throttle a tad, as I was would be required to file an I.F.R. (instrument flight rules) flight plan soon if I did not stop climbing. I did so, and immediately found a giant "sweet spot" in the power setting for straight and level. I confidently flew the down wind leg for about a mile. With just the teensiest bit of trepidation I reduced the throttle more and headed for a left base leg on Hans's command. I was slowly descending and it was not at all frightening since everything was in slow motion. Upon turning final, I was relieved to note that there were no significant side winds or gusts to upset my intended glide-path toward home plate. In this particular case it was Hans's forehead. Just a touch of left and right rudder kept everything in perfect order for my intended target. I did my very level best to hit him, but he instinctively moved out of my way for some reason. He told me to carry some power through touch down which I did. Hitting the ground fairly lightly, I bounded back into the air again. I was instructed to throttle up as soon as this happened.
Wow! I was on my way again. After my first successful circuit, I felt as though I already knew how to fly this thing and was beginning to like it very much. I took to the sky this time with a rush of joy in my heart, showing up at altitude and turning down-wind in what seemed like mere nana-seconds. Once leveled off I dialed in straight and level. I became supremely relaxed, almost euphoric (no Officer O'Malley, I am not on drugs). I can never remember feeling so at ease in any other aircraft ever. With all of twenty five minutes of experience in "type" I was truly impressed.
I exhaled very deeply and inhaled the fresh farm air that was surrounding me. Now that's what I really came here to do this morning. Come out here and smell someone else's dairyair! All kidding aside. I loved the smell of the grass and could almost feel the microscopic particulates in the warming breeze. I paused in my piloting actions briefly to inspect the almost non-existent airframe that was cradling me. Looking up, I reveled in the beauty of the two-toned blue, and white chute doing its yeoman duties directly above me. It was beautifully conformed and pressurized as it should be. Every guy (and gal) wire was perfectly taut, and I was at the center of this angelic winged chariot moving leisurely through the vaporizing haze. Peering over my Reeboks at the barns, the occasional livestock and greenery drifting away below reminded me of my hang gliding days in the 1970's. I would gaze down and imagine how majestic life would be as a Bird. The miracle of doing what I was now doing, is that it's the safest manifestation of one of mankind's longest held dreams. To Fly. To think that this gift of personal flight doesn't even rate a mild grunt from some, is truly a mystery to me.
The sport of Power Parachuting was rapidly becoming better to me than hang gliding. I could just fold my arms, sit back and do absolutely nothing. This baby was flying herself! If I had had my Banjo with me, I believe I would have taken it out and plunked out "Lazy Bones" or a whole dither of appropriate melodies. Now just try that, while flying your Beechcraft Staggerwing! Just then, a memory of the old T.V. show "The Life of Riley" came to mind. Come to think of it, I wonder if it would be possible to install a hammock in one of these things?
I reluctantly pulled my head out of the clouds and re-focused my attention to the job at hand. I think Hans left me alone in my thoughts for a while, so I could get hooked on Powered Parachuting. It's a ploy! That rascal! Hans instructed me to execute several 360 degree turns to the left and right at various power settings. He then encouraged me to experiment with these new skills on my own. It does take some leg power to turn and you can not do it by accident. I loitered as long as I possibly could, flying to the imaginary four corners of my allotted air space. I climbed, descended and turned like I was riding an invisible roller coaster in the sky. Hans finally blew the whistle and it was time for everyone to get out of the Pool (Drat!). More accurately, it was time for me to return his big toy back to him in one piece.
Again, I set up for final approach. This time I was very
high which suited me just fine. I came way back on the power (no carburetor
heat here) and started deploying both rudder pedals equally to control
the glide path. This has the same effect as spoilers on a sailplane. It
was very effective and allowed me to land exactly where I intended. Talk
about a "piece of cake".
As I drove away that unforgettable morning I remembered one important precaution Hans tried to make sure I would never forget. He repeated several times to "n-e-v-e-r e-v-e-r forget to take your Chute Bag with you on the aircraft". If you land somewhere other than where you took off and do not have it, it's downright irritating!!! He has done it twice. I personally hope not to have to follow in his foot-steps in this regard.
While winding my way down the road leaving the farm, I watched Hans flying through a canyon in the trees. He followed this graceful act by dropping low on the deck (Ag-Spray style), climbing just high enough to clear the dusty trail I left behind. We saluted each other as I turned around and drove off the road into a deep muddy irrigation ditch and destroyed my brand new car (just kidding with the bit about the car).
I knew that I would surely see him again soon because
I still owed him a lot of money. I also knew then that I would personally
work toward obtaining one of these dream machines for myself, my family
and as many special people I find with a desire to explore the world from
such a mellow perspective. As I drove on, I also felt a little melancholy
for the fear-of-flying crowd and the jaded pilots among us who discard
the notion of trying something new and different like the Powered Parachute.
They shall never know the magical charms of this most Compliant Swan.