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Motor Units

Them dar motor units look like driving a go-kart through the sky, the Jetson’s right here and now. Although a little more difficult than it looks; with a solid start you’ll have a riot using a motor to get you skyward. You can do everything from surf the terrain, and with a little headwind sometimes look as though you’re hovering, to gaining many thousands of feet of altitude and flying long distances. The photo opportunities are unlimited and the scenery from altitude opens up a whole other world. If you’re into “getting away from it all” for a few hours, paragliding can really give you your own “space.

Will Gadd, Othar Lawrence and Jimmy Grossman made huge treks across the US with their motor units. The motors got them going in the morning and then helped if they needed a “low” save. They often went many miles and hours with the motors turned off, over 50% of the time while West of the Mississippi and then about 40% of the time while Eastward. Will had one day where he flew non-stop for 10 hours and landed with fuel left over. They are fantastic free-flight pilots and there’s no doubt that all of their experience flying without motors helped them be more confident as motor pilots.

I’ve launched from my own backyard, grabbed a thermal less than 200 feet off the ground and thermal hopped 10 miles over to my kids school, then flown over to my brother’s house for a coke and then flown home to my own backyard. I’ve flown for miles down the beach, just a few feet off the sand, playing at staying on a steady course. With just a little throttle and little brake I had a hoot trying to manage a 3 dimensionally perfect line through the air, and then zooming up to 5,000’agl to grab some landscape photos. The motor has also helped us research some new flying areas for free flying, to see where the “house” thermals might live. You can experiment with soaring dynamic lift and thermals, then use the motor to keep you in the air when the lift diminishes.

Let’s review some important concepts. The uninitiated to paragliding might think it would be easier to use a motor than to fly without. A sailboat involves more skill than a motorboat, harnessing the wind and using that energy is much more complex than simply using a throttle, it seems like motorized paragliding would be similiar. We’ve actually had folks call, more than once, asking if they can drop by and rent a motorized paraglider to take to the lake for the weekend – yet they’ve never even flown before, it looks super easy to most people. With a motor you can chose when to launch, where to go in flight and where to land, you can change your mind about staying in the air longer with the simple use of the throttle, it does seem like it would be super easy. For experienced non-motorized paraglider pilots the motor does make flying easier, but then there’s the fact that wearing the motor really complicates ground handling, and that’s a BIG deal.

The “monkey wrench” (“wrench” your ankle and knee, you might) is that you’ll be taking off and landing on your own two little feet, so certainly be sure you’re wearing really good boots and possibly knee pads. Things get serious if you biff while launching or landing, even if just a little. If you don’t keep the glider within a manageable zone overhead while taking off or landing you can easily get into trouble, and this is much worse with upward to 90lbs on your back. You’re going to need confidence that you can make every landing as though you’re simply stepping off a curb. If your landings are occasionally as rough as jumping off the back of a pick-up truck you may want to practice this skill a bit longer before adding the motor. The gear is expensive, mishandling can result in loads of wallet damage – just a prop can be as much as $450. I think you should have a Novice license prior to working with the motor, which should indicate you have solid academic and athletic training. By starting your motorized paragliding training with loads of non-motorized practice you’ll refine many important skills prior to putting yourself at risk. Without a motor you should be able to make every launch and every landing easily.

When we add a motor you’ll change your launch posture to an upright position so that the thrust angle of the motor will work to your benefit. We can practice this without the motor running with an instructor helping to provide the thrust, he can also spot you so you don’t stumble and cause injury or damage. Not a bad idea to remove the prop while getting the feel for things. You’ll want to drag a toe while leaving the ground under power, this will help keep your posture correct. When landing you’ll want to be upright and in a PLF position out of the seat, keep an eye on the horizon, same as you would when landing non-motorized, and be careful to stay right into the wind. You don’t want a crosswind or downwind landing with the motor on your back. Anytime you’re near the ground, under 100 feet, it’s best to stay into the wind, just incase you have an “engine out” or sink down to the ground you’ll be set up correctly. When you actually step onto the ground you want to lean forward a bit, a perfect upright landing isn’t a good idea because you’ll suddenly be supporting the motor weight on your back, which means you may fall over backwards, the “turtle”. This is a common mistake that damages the motor unit.

A key to ANY success with piloting, as well with most things in life, is the ability to anticipate what might happen and be prepared for the worst, i.e. the motor fails NOW, can I easily make a retrievable place to land that is nice and open. To quote Will Gadd, “It’s all about scenario training”. Paraglider flying has many rules and situational realizations, so supervised tenure with the sport helps the new pilot absorb lessons and skills to an intuitive level, and this can take many days of lessons. Thoroughly develop your free-flight skills before attempting motorized flying both academically and athletically. Eventually you’re going to risk an injury if you aren’t really confident in predicting the weather, kiting, launching, landing and managing your glider in turbulence.

Although flying in the morning or late afternoon generally promises a more easy going atmosphere, you still want to do your weather homework. If it gets windy while you’re flying you might get blown away from your landing area and be stressed touching down in difficult conditions. Windy conditions are generally turbulent as well.

Turbulence is handled slightly different with a motor on your back. Many of us tend to fly pretty heavy, even slightly over the weight range of our gliders when using a motor. This means we get good penetration and a very solid glider, more resistance to folds. If you get caught with a large asymmetric fold you will probably need more altitude to recover as you’ll essentially be missing the weight shift portion of the recovery. So, if you do get a fold, without the weight shift characteristics of a non - motorized glider, the recovery can be a little more exciting. In addition, the inertia of the additional weight being flung around under the glider could enhance line twist and you may find yourself facing one way while the glider is facing the other, you’ll have trouble following the glider through an asymmetric fold with your body. Be sure you chose a certified glider, there are some really scary non-certified paragliders that seem like a “good deal”. Although many newer non-motorized pilots complain about their harness being slightly sloppy feeling, that ability of the harness to “give” a little does a bit to dampen the effects of turbulence on the glider. The motorized attachment systems aren’t nearly as flexible, although some are more flexible than others, so turbulence doesn’t get as dampened. It generally “feels” better to be under power through turbulence, but the behavior of the glider taking a fold while under power isn’t something I’m comfortable predicting. Some long time daily pilots of motors think that it’s virtually impossible to take a fold while under power, yet I know of at least one case where a very experienced pilot, while under full power, did have a fold with a tremendous surge while encountering a turbulent spot low to the ground– it all worked out, but it scared him. Remember to do your best to keep a “feel” for active piloting. Your arms are in a different position than normal, it’s not as easy to relax your arms, thus not as easy to have a feel for the wing. There’s a good chance that an asymmetric fold while under power could result in riser twist even more easily, so I tend to think that being a medium to no power in turbulence is better. When I spoke with other motor pilots they also had some concerns about what might happen under full power through turbulence, although Jose from Aerolight says, “The fact that the payload and angle of attack increases when flying under power makes the glider solid as a rock. I have never heard in 14 years flying paramotors of such a thing”. The DULV (same as the DHV for motorized paragliders) in Germany is the agency in charge of flight tests, certification and reviews on motorized paragliders.

We often hear from folks who have done a motor paragliding “fast track” training program, one long weekend and they now have spent $$$$ for a set of gear and just a taste of what it all about, yet they are now on their own. They tend to be very nave about the weather, active piloting, reserve use (they usually don’t even have one), wear sneakers, don’t believe in helmets, have virtually no scenario training and then claim that don’t mind flying on the brink of disaster, they think this attitude is part of the game. As a result they become stressed/damaged by numerous unnecessary situations, which shakes their confidence to the point they give up on the sport all together. It’s one thing to be professionally supervised for a weekend long training course and a whole other thing to be back home at some field across from your house – alone with the family video camera churning away. This is why I believe you should complete a Novice course prior to motoring. As you stand ready to give it a try are you determined to just “go for it”, or are you truly prepared to be a “pilot”, to handle this whole activity with confidence?

After confirming the weather and my “attitude” I fly my motor with a helmet, ankle protective boots, a radio, hook knife, a mirror for checking fuel, a reserve parachute (usually mounted in front, although you can’t get out of the harness as quickly after landing) and I pre-flight everything VERY carefully. If you’re prepared properly and stick to the rules, you’re going to absolutely love this aspect of paragliding!