Paramotor pilots take in unique views from tiniest of aircraft
DULUTH — Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge, when seen from directly above, is an intimidating structure. The usual ground-view doesn't adequately show off its height and mass and the way it is put together, according to Whitney Horky, who has looked down from the seat of her paramotor to see the bridge directly beneath her dangling feet.
(Though, when flying, Horky refers to her feet as "landing gear.")
"It's incredible how humans on Earth get used to a certain view," she said.
Horky and her boyfriend, James Jensen, are among a relatively small group of adventurers taking in the vistas from hundreds of feet above the ground — motorized paragliders harnessed on their backs. He has been at it for more than a year; she started a few months ago, unable to sit idly by and watch him.
"I wasn't going to stay on the ground long," she said.
A paramotor looks like a relic from early aviation, falling somewhere between a pair of wings strapped to a back and a flying machine. A chair, similar to a car seat, is strapped to a protective cage and a propeller. There is a motor, fuel tank and 20-plus-foot canopy.
A pilot wears the 50-pound gear like a backpack and is strapped into the seat.
Horky and Jensen jokingly refer to it as flying with a glorified lawn mower and a bedsheet.
A pilot starts out running, described as a short-strided "turkey-hopping," and continues the motion into the sky, until about 15-20 feet above ground — in case the flight doesn't take.
"You want to be able to have your landing gear down," Horky said.
Accidents happen, but typically when the pilot is on the ground, according to Doug Buhr of Twin Ports Powered Paragliding. Because of the canopy, mid-flight engine loss isn't a disaster.
"It's the most fun form of aviation there is," said Buhr, who said he has been flying anything he can since the 1990s. "It's like you're flying your lawn chair."
He estimated that there are about 600 people actively flying in the United States. The niche sport is, at this point, unregulated.
Both Horky and Jensen are adventurers. His resume includes two careers, both extreme enough to be featured as televised reality series. He has jumped out of airplanes and recently tried to paddle the Mississippi River, but was thwarted when a storm took his canoe. He paramotored through the winter and once buzzed by a bystander who wanted a hi-five.
Horky, 31, has skydived, enjoys camping and has traveled the world alone. This is the first extreme sport she has invested in, she said.
Within the relationship, he is the wild one and she is the voice of reason. Her go-to in suspect weather: You never have to fly.
Jensen, who started paramotoring last summer, is self-taught. He used to wonder what the ground looked like from the air, he said, then drones came along. He thought that was good enough until he saw a video of a paramotorer in Dubai.
For his first flight, Jensen, 30, scouted out a private airstrip and got approval from its owner. On the big day, he knocked on the property owner's door and no one was home. No biggie.
"Send it," Jensen recalled thinking.
That inaugural flight, he said, was like experiencing the first drop on a roller coaster — for 10 minutes straight.
Horky opted for a flying mentor, Buhr, and began the early training phases this past winter. In the spring, she began working with the canopy, referred to as a wing.
"Once you grasp that, you throw an engine on your back and go for it," she said.
Horky got her groove during a fly-in — a meetup with other enthusiasts.
"It's amazing," she said. "There aren't a lot of descriptive words for it. It's very freeing. You pretty much always have a smile on your face."
They try to get out a couple times a week — though recently managed to hit five-out-of-six days — just before sundown.
"It's like really good sex," Jensen said. "You forget how good it is, then you have it."
Throwing wings to the wind
The couple met up with Buhr at the Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior in the early evening this past week. The temperature was in the low 80s, the wind on the brink of too windy. The crew waited it out. Waiting is so common in the sport that it has its own term: parawaiting.
After more than an hour, Jensen decided to throw caution — and his wing — to the wind.
"I'm going to go cool down," he announced.
Jensen fired up his motor, the whir consistent with a lawn mower, ran about 20 yards and ascended into the air — first buzzing close over the heads of his friends. Big grin. The head-wind slowed him; the tailwind sent him sailing back beyond his starting point.
Later, closer to sunset when the wind had died down, Horky, Buhr and Jensen all got a chance to fly. A photographer reported that a passing train whistled at Jensen, and his responding whoop could be heard from the ground.
It's really a sport for anyone, Buhr said. It isn't cost-prohibitive — gear is about the same as a decent motorcycle. A good judge of whether it's a match, according to Horky:
"YouTube paramotoring," she said. "That's a great place to start. Get out and see it in person. It'll either put you in love with it or scare you away."