Running Into the Air
Some dreams are more real than you think
I spread my arms and ran. The air was always smooth and the prairie endless.
With minimal effort, I floated away from the earth. Sometimes I just soared, sometimes I flapped my “wings,” but always too soon my alarm sounded.
I loved when this dream entertained my slumber, but it was so unrealistic I never gave a second to consider its merit while awake. After all, who can run without growing winded? Who can take a few steps then magically oat into the air?
Well, this dreamlike form of flying does exist — yes, even on this side of the pillow. It is possible to run into the air after a few short strides, defy gravity, and oat away. I recently traveled to the white sands of Panama City Beach to watch a handful of powered paraglider pilots do just that.
These seemingly normal tourists hangared their aircraft in their cars and hotel rooms, then when they wanted to fly, carried their machines to the beach on their backs. They were ready for takeoff within minutes and only needed a few strides of sand for a runway.
Once airborne, they flew a few hundred feet above the surf. Beachgoers paused to admire the wonder before them. Expressions up and down the beach were uniform, as if we’d all had the same dream and were now together seeing it breach reality.
The pilots’ feet dangled carefree above the emerald waters. The view had to be amazing: the soft breeze, the bird’s-eye view of ocean life, the sensation of flying free — free of complexities, instruments, and cockpits — just pure flight.
It’s the kind of flying I dream about. Low, slow, wind-in-your-face, simple, safe, even affordable.
Powered paragliding might be the perfect blend of sport, recreation, and aviation.
HOW IT WORKS
The pilot begins by laying out the wing in an elliptical shape on the ground, followed by a preflight, where the lines are extended upwind and care- fully examined. The engine gets strapped on like a backpack with a beefy harness, and the lines are clipped into that harness with strips of webbing called risers. After an engine run-up, the pilot takes a step back, pulling the risers, and launches the canopy. With the wing stabilized, he turns into the wind, adds power, runs a few steps, and lifts away from the earth. It’s a beautiful sight to any- one who has ever dreamed of flying.
In the air, the pilot sits on a seat and steers using two handles called brakes and by shifting weight side to side. A small handgrip lever serves as the throttle.
This form of flying appears so natural, bystanders approached to ask where they could rent one because they wanted to do it, too. Pilots in this sport quickly become accustomed to questions. A crowd gathered every time a wing was unpacked.
“Training is highly recommended, but not required, before flying a powered paraglider,” one of the pilots responded. I eavesdropped on this conversation enough times to learn that training takes about a week on average, and most of that time is spent on the ground.
John Black owns Freedom Flight Center in Panama City Beach and told me powered paragliding is unique in that you learn to y on the ground. The aircraft is not the engine on your back, but rather the wing.
“Learning to control, maneuver, and master the wing happens without ever leaving the ground,” he said.
This is called kiting, a skill John focuses on with all his students. The engine simply provides thrust to gain altitude; controlling the wing is how you y. John likes kiting so much he told me he has about 3,000 hours flying and another 5,000 just kiting.
GIVING IT A TRY
Lance Marczak was one of the vacationers who I had met at the ultralight field in Oshkosh a few years earlier. He let me try kiting his wing one evening. He warned me his wing was “tired,” but would still give me a taste of kiting.
My first impression — it’s a workout (so much for the non-winded version of my dream), but as far as workouts go, it beats a treadmill any day.
Lance taught me the basic anatomy of the risers: The A’s go to the leading edge of the wing, followed by a second set called B’s, then C’s and D’s to the trailing edge. There are also “brakes,” which act kind of like ailerons. Pull the brake on one side and it changes the airfoil on that side, causing the wing to turn. Pull both at the same time and it acts kind of like aps: extra lift and drag at the same time.
Another way to control the wing on the ground is more aerobic — run under the canopy. It’s quite counterintuitive. If the wing is going left (and dragging you with it), the way to stop it is to run left. As John told me, “Go where you don’t want to go.” This relieves the line pressure on that side, decreasing its lift, and pulls the lines on the other side, causing the wing to go that direction. The goal: stay under the glider and keep it controlled.
While I didn’t get comfortable with the complexities of kiting using Lance’s wing, I was able to get it overhead for a few brief moments.
That evening I shared an elevator with some older ladies at the hotel who were delighted to see me. “We were all cheering for you from our balconies,” one told me. “When you finally kept the chute up, we started clapping. We heard some others cheering, too,” she said. I told her I was glad I could provide some cheap evening entertainment for the hotel guests.
The next day, John gave me my first real lesson at kiting, and I quickly discovered why quality training is worth every penny.
He began by reviewing a proper athletic posture: knees bent, hands up, butt down, weight forward, head up. He insisted this stance was foundational to flying powered paragliders — after all, it’s a sport and my sore muscles from the night before reminded me of this.
Jeff Goin, U.S. Powered Paragliding Association founder, writes in his manual The Powered Paragliding Bible (which I highly recommend), that you don’t need to be an athlete to fly powered paragliders. In fact, “Flying itself is almost relaxing once air- borne, but the early stages will produce some sweat. Fortunately, as skills improve it gets much easier…a skilled ‘kiter’ can go for an hour with minimal exertion, whereas a neophyte will be winded in a few minutes.”
I was definitely a neophyte, but within minutes John had successfully taught me how to keep the wing overhead and stable. “Hands out, butt down, right brake, move,” John would yell. His voice became softer as I stabilized the wing. “Anticipate what the wing is doing. Lead it. Fly the wing.”
With the wing overhead, it was a pure delight feeling each small breath of air and doing whatever was required to keep it controlled.
“Don’t let the wing fly you; you fly the wing,” John reminded me. Kiting felt similar to flying a tailwheel aircraft. You fly by feel. You can’t think about what needs to happen; you need to feel it, anticipate, and make slight corrections.
This was proven a few minutes later when John had me close my eyes while continuing to kite the wing. “Feel it. The harness will tell you where it’s going,” John said.
After a few minutes I was allowed to open my eyes again. “Nothing else matters right now except flying that wing,” John said. “If you say the right things, in the right way, she’ll always do what you want.” With those words, he turned his back and walked away.
The sea breeze was strong, and I knew if I let the wing drop, it was capable of dragging me across the beach. I had only been kiting a few minutes; I wasn’t ready for John to leave.
This felt like my first airplane solo when my instructor turned and walked away. My instructor’s confidence exceeded my own, and his walking away was a critical step in my progress.
“The basics, Brady,” I said to myself. “Butt down, load the wing, arms out, move under, feel it…” John never looked back, and with a lot of small movements at just the right time, the wing stayed overhead.
John directed me to move 50 yards left and forward. This began by first taking a step to the right to swing the wing left (remember, go where you don’t want to go), then I carefully moved under the wing, keeping my hips square to the wind, finally stopping the movement with a little right brake and a large quick step to the left. The small calculated movements felt similar to stopping a turn while taxiing a taildragger. It’s critical to stay ahead of the aircraft.
Once John had me in position, he instructed me to turn 180 degrees and run into the wind. “Now pull both brakes,” John said as he ran behind me, pushing my waist forward. My feet lifted from the sand, and John continued to run forward as I steered the wing, floating 3 feet in the air. He was my engine, pushing but not lifting. The wing was lifting me; it was my aircraft, and I was flying it.
I was airborne for a mere 15 seconds, but it was a glorious first flight. We did a few more “flights” before my motor became tired.
As I unharnessed, John stood on the beach, arms crossed, silently observing everything around him — the clouds, the flags up and down the beach, the color of the water, the birds. An osprey flew overhead, holding perfect altitude without a single flap of its wings.
“The birds will tell you all about the wind, thermals, and rotors, if you watch them,” John said. Some nearby pelicans flapped their wings in between the ocean- side buildings, and then rode the invisible wind as it lifted up and over the buildings on the upwind side.
John was a student of nature. He taught me how to feel with my ears when my head was facing directly into the wind.
A few minutes later, John had a real engine on his back and was flying into the sunset over the surf. I sat on the sand and watched him enjoy the last rays of light. The best part: His half-hour flight cost only 0.4 gallons of auto fuel — less than $2.
Couples walking along the beach collecting seashells again stopped to watch John fly. Flight will always turn heads, but powered paragliding causes people to stop. Why? Because it’s pure and simple — the kind of flying we all dream about.