Log

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.

Preparations

The 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 unnecessary.

This plan, along with concerns, was sent to the organizer (JJ Brookshire), producer (Eric Mittleman) and Bill Shatner himself. They all agreed on it.

USPPA Videos

Mr. 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 wing.

Initially I hoped to get in a practice flight on Friday but alas his schedule only allowed about an hour of kiting practice.

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 it off.
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 dress rehearsal.”

Safety

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.

Opening Morning

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 the flight.

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 flight.

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 field).

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.

“Throttle, throttle!”

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.

Flying There

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 conditions.

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 flight.

Cruising about 300 feet offered a spectacular view of civilization’s handiwork while having outs in case of motor failure. 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 industrial smell.

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) and he 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 victory.

Mission accomplished.

Thanks to Jim Jackson for providing the paramotor, Marc Damon for the wing and Nick Scholtes for agreeing to be the instructor.

1. Feeding the local Llama.

2. He agreed to sign my paramotorhome, the Enterprise. Yes, geeky but fun.

3. I had flown into Challenge park in the helicopter and Mr. Shatner flew with me over to our practice field. he's a private pilot and did a respectable job when I gave him the controls in route.

4. Nick Scholtes works with Mr. Shatner to get him ready for the flight and to determine if it was safe to pull off.

5. The IL boys enjoying a final feast after everything quieted down and Mr. Shatner left.

Some photos are frames from footage shot by Phil Russman who came in from LA to help with camera work.


© 2015 Jeff Goin   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!