Launching William Shatner
Added May 22, 2009:
Powered Sport Flying article by Jeff Goin from Sept 6, 2002
Of course I wondered what he would be like.
Hey, this was William Shatner and yes, I grew up on Star Trek. But at
this point, I was far more concerned with helping him stay alive. We didn't know if
he'd be up to it, if ego would be a
factor and, most of all, would it be safe to have him fly into
the planned location. Neither Nick or I wanted want to be known as the
ones who killed William Shatner.
Thankfully my worries were overblown.
This opportunity came about when California
paramotorist Greg Anderson, who helped Francesco DeSantis train Mr. Shatner initially, asked for my
help on a proposed flight. The location was
practically in my back yard and I thought it would be fun. I do own a
motor home dubbed the “Enterprise.”
He wanted to fly into a
charity fund raiser at an unlikely spot—a paintball field near Joliet,
IL. The event would be populated by, not surprisingly, paintball players.
They had devised a large tournament pitting the Federation, led by William Shatner as
Captain Kirk against the Borg and Klingons.
Mr. Shatner wanted to arrive
via powered paraglider.
I’m sure the
imagery held appeal, and when I finally talked with him, his motivation
seemed simple...he wants to have fun. It was an excuse to both
fly PPG and play paintball. This would be perfect and would be fun for me.
I asked paramotor instructor, Nick Scholtes, to help and,
thankfully, he obliged.
It also happens that, on the day the event, our
Illinois fly-in was going on. This three-day annual event garners about 40 pilots
at Nick Scholtes' Paradrome on labor day weekend. Some were already there
by Friday afternoon as is usually the case.
week prior gave me a chance to check out the site...a large park where
players act out their military fantasies around realistic sets of battle
fields. Their guns shoot washable “paintballs” and combatants exit the
game when hit. It’s quite fun actually (although a lot of work!).
A plan was developed that turned out too
complicated when test flown. A simpler plan was drafted then flown. This
was kind of cool...flying with purpose. Not that I need a reason to get
airborne but it was a nice variance. So diagrams were made and sent off
to the organizers and Mr. Shatner.
The new plan involved only one necessary turn
from cruise and kept open the option of a straight in approach from
either direction. They acknowledged the critical need to avoid flying
over the crowds. It was also understood that if the area was not clear
we would land elsewhere...an alternate LZ was decided on but proved
This plan, along with concerns, was sent to the
organizer (JJ Brookshire), producer (Eric Mittleman) and Bill Shatner
himself. They all agreed on it.
Shatner agreed to do some USPPA video promotions on Friday, one day
prior to the big event. Details of that will be in a future issue of our
Powered Paragliding newsletter. They would precede the practice. The
timing was perfect as it allowed us the evening for getting him on a
Initially I hoped to get in a practice flight
on Friday but alas his schedule only allowed about an hour of kiting
Once at our flying field we got him strapped into a harness and Eden II
wing courtesy of Marc Damon, a local pilot. The wind blew a gale at
first but then mellowed enough to allow good practice.
Nick’s “dance” technique of kiting came in handy and, while quite rusty
at first, he quickly improved to the point of keeping the wing up for a
couple of minutes.
The morning’s flight though would be an
assisted forward launch with two people pulling. So when the wind died
down a bit we tried that. It was wobbly but workable. It instilled
sufficient confidence that we felt we had a reasonable chance of pulling
Unfortunately time did not allow a practice flight. In Mr. Shatner’s
words: “the stage is set and opening morning will have to be the first
This event had potential to be extraordinarily
good or bad and we wanted to have the best chance at success. So two
alternative plans were in place to relieve pressure on completion...one
was to fly in by helicopter and the other was an alternate landing site
if crowd control didn’t work.
Sleep was fitful for me as my imagination
processed every conceivable problem that could remotely affect our
efforts. The RDM Sky Cruiser that he was to use had been running
perfect…I’d flown it and so had Nick…but not in my imagination. Winds,
launch problems, radio problems (I carried two radios and wasn’t even
the one doing the radio work!) and a host of others churned in my
thoughts. They were mostly little things but any of which would scrub
Morning dawned perfect. Flight Service was
called and excepting a 12 mph headwind to the destination it was
forecast to remain so. We headed out to the launch field and set up.
Before the entourage arrived we had to move our
initial staging area out of concern for neighboring horses. I launched
Mr. Shatner’s gear to both reposition it downfield and test the air. It
was an easy reverse inflation into a steady 5 mph Easterly. But just a
few hundred feet above, it was blowing a smooth 12-15 mph. Under that
big wing I was barely moving...it was looking like a potentially long
As happens frequently when plans meet PPG,
fickle winds laid waste to them. Just before Mr. Shatner arrived the
wind dropped, then went tailwind. Uh oh. I landed in the opposite
direction of takeoff just as the entourage pulled up.
We explained the predicament to Mr. Shatner and
he fully understood the concerns while pondering the alternatives.
Besides a difficult launch there was the amount of time it would take to
get there. It was decided to go to the top of a small rise in the field
(our original location) and give it one try. If that didn’t work we’d
fly him in the helicopter which was back at the “Paradrome” (Nick’s
Thanks to help from fellow pilots we had everything set up in fairly
short order and the wind actually started to cooperate...going from calm
to a steady 3 mph in the right direction. What a world of difference a
few mph can make in easing the launch.
Mr. Shatner did well given the amount
pressure to perform. With half a dozen people gawking and at least one
camera turning, he counted down, “3…2…1” and bore down into the harness,
giving throttle when instructed. Ed Mondek and I were pulling him with
Nick Scholtes on the radio giving commands.
Phil Russman was getting video and was in front
and off to the side of the intended takeoff run. But when Mr. Shatner
swung a bit left at liftoff, Phil had to jump out of the
way. It yielded some interesting footage as the camera continued
recording even as Phil’s feet bounced into view during his rolling fall.
Nonplussed by that, Mr. Shatner concentrated on the task at hand…flying
his aircraft. Phil kept the camera rolling and the entire thing is on
video (see sidebar).
Power lines lined the West edge of the field
and he stayed well clear of them. Nick continued on the radio too and
these instructions were heeded quickly.
Now the fun part.
As soon as Mr. Shatner was safely on his way, I
launched to join him followed by Nick. We did some turns until Nick
formed up then headed East to the park. It was smooth with only the
occasional ripple. That was fortunate given how I was busily shooting video.
My Sky Cruiser had good weight shift which let me body steer while using
my hands for the camera. Of course that’s only for mellow
Pilots from the fly-in soon joined us for the serenity and freedom that parting air with little more than
your body offers. Mr. Shatner could receive on his radio but not
transmit. Words weren’t needed, though, to see that he was enjoying it,
that it was worth putting himself in the hands of complete strangers to experience this most unique form of
Cruising about 300 feet offered a spectacular
view of civilization’s handiwork while having outs in case of motor
Once we neared the river, we climbed to about 1000 feet so keep
those "outs" open. For being so industrial, even this area can be
beautiful from that high up. Now if we could do something about its
Reaching the park, he flew one circle just
South of the crowd then lined up for landing zone. Nick had already
landed to offer assistance via radio and I flew alongside with the video
camera rolling. The last part of the landing developed a slight
oscillation. He was correcting it but wound up sliding in on the cage. There was no damage and it certainly wasn’t hard.
Whew! Were we relieved. I flew by, continuing to shoot video while Nick
went up to help him, if needed.
On the ground, Mr. Shatner just sat there and beamed. Nobody was around at
first and his comments to Nick were of how much he enjoyed the flight.
Soon the “Federation” arrived (paintball troops in camouflage)
immediately got into his role, exited the Sky Cruiser and headed out for
8 hours of paintball. Jim Jackson picked up the motor and wing, Nick
launched from the park then we and the Armada headed back home in
Thanks to Jim Jackson for providing the paramotor, Marc Damon for the
wing and Nick Scholtes for agreeing to be the instructor.