Paramotor Monument Valley
2009-Oct-10 Powered Paragliding in this incredible place is
beautiful but fraught with risk
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It's breathtaking. You can easily see why film crews found this a
perfect backdrop for so many John Wayne and other westerns. They had to
love it when Technicolor replaces monochrome. Red rocks and others mix
light and shadow in ways that our mind's eye paint as art. Beautiful
And its amazing to see it all from the variable perch of our little
3d machines. Unfortunately, that freedom comes at a price.
I pulled in well after the morning but pilots reported that it was
quite bumpy at Gouldings, where we launch from, as early as 9am. That's
not surprising since a west wind aloft was spilling over the huge mesa
just to our west. But those pilots who went out early reported good
conditions and gorgeous flights.
What a diverse group of pilots. Pilots are here from as far away as
Eastern Canada and Florida and I suspect that they are not disappointed.
In spite of challenging flying conditions, it's tough not to appreciate
the place--especially with the beautiful weather tossing up brilliant
blue skies that interact so well with this incredible terrain.
Friday afternoon I was anxious to get in the air. By 5pm pilots were
getting their gear positioned all over the aircraft parking area and
runway but it was still quite gusty, ranging almost calm to 15 mph. I
watched some of the kiting and it was telling. Not yet.
By 6pm I figured that, even though it was still kind of gusty, at
least the thermals would be diminished and I launched. The best way to
launch a paramotor in switchy conditions, in my opinion, is to consider
it a two part process. Get the wing up and moving nicely then, when all
is well, go for it. Don't linger in the run since inflation and running
are the most vulnerable times, but take stock of your readiness for
flight before committing. Running briskly, wing overhead and tracking,
then power up using necessary but minimum brake inputs. Sometimes
locations make this assessment period very brief, especially in zip
Not long after launching it became obvious I probably shouldn't have.
The wind aloft was westerly and much stronger than anticipated, curling
over that huge mesa a half-mile to the west. I headed east towards the
monuments and away from the rotor.
Wow. What a sight!
Two other pilots joined me and I did get some video and pictures in
spite of nearly continuous level 2 bumps. The video will be nearly
worthless but some of the stills worked out.
Meanwhile, back at the field, there was some minor trauma when a
trike pilot got wind-whacked and flipped over with the usual damage and
a scraped up arm. Pavement is not forgiving. Other pilots wisely watched
the shenanigans and decided against flying.
The strong west wind also meant that I would be taking a long time to
come back so I returned pretty early. I'm trying out the Ozone Viper 2
and appreciated having the reflex available. I came down to find a
reasonably smooth altitude and motored in. It wouldn't be pretty near
the airport with nearly the same turbulence as when I left so chose to
land farther away from where I took off and come in under power. Landing
with power gives you more control in shifty air but at some extra risk
of damaging the gear. Good thing I had the power because on short final
a gust tried to dump me but a good goose of Mr. Black Devil at the last
minute averted what could have been a firm arrival. I was happy to be
Others launched with varying results. One pilot got airborne only to
be dumped just a bit before the fence. He wisely chose land and reset
instead of pressing on in hope of clearing the fence.
Landings were even more exciting. One pilot took 3 approaches before
finally getting a good window and setting down nicely. Another came in
power off, got lifted then dumped and landed so hard that he tumbled,
bending his cage. He's an extremely experienced flyer who just got
weather-whacked. This place, in this wind condition, is not very
Three pilots didn't make it back because there were unable to
penetrate so they landed out. Good move.
I'm glad to have gotten my one flight, and it was spectacular, but it
was not an ideal choice. If the wind is like that again I'll just do
video taping from the ground! Morning beckons and is supposed to be
better. Winds are typically oozing down the runway, forcing an uphill
launch but I'll take that over turbulence any day.
1) Getting ready. 2) A worthy view. 3)
John Black kiting to test. 4) Looking back at the airport nestled in
between the mesas and their rotor. 5) Johnny Fetz sets up but then
wisely decides not to try. 6) Sometimes this, other times limp.
Saturday Oct 11
Ah, now this is more like it!
Morning was perfect and nearly everybody flew. It was tough launching
uphill with shifting light winds but, once aloft, many pilots made the
monument trek as did I. Good thing, by the way, my exhaust bolts were
safety wired in.
Wow, now this is some amazing scenery. Calling them monuments is
It's weird how spooky being next to, and just over, these monoliths
is. I mean its not like they're going to suck you in, especially given
the relatively mellow conditions. They look so hard, so utterly
unconcerned about my wellness, so unforgiving of any misstep. I held the
brakes just a bit tighter. It took a couple circuits before I'd let go
to snap pictures.
It wasn't perfectly smooth, by any measure, but 2-level bumps are
smooth relative to the sharp nastiness of yesterday evenings flights.
That this is an airport became abundantly clear when an airplane,
coming in for a landing, had to abandon his approach due to a bunch of
gliders on the runway--trikes getting ready to launch. He circled for
probably 5 minutes while everyone pulled off to make room.
An easterly breeze made everything quite smooth for launch and
landing, perfect for trying stuff out. I tried out Chad's Miniplane with
Mo's Spice. That's my all-time favorite combination. I also tried his 19
meter "ultralight" wing which was incredible. Mo tried it too. Six foot
something Mo Sheldon weighs about 185 pounds and he was tasking a Top 80
with hefting aorund on a 19 meter wing at 6000 foot density altitude.
Hmmm, I thought, that won't be a stellar climb. But at least he was
launching uphill. Mind you, the climb was pretty marginal, there was a
steady 5 to 8 mph breeze and Mo knows his way around a wing. But still
it was impressive. I had a pretty decent climb rate on my flight of the
wing but I'm 35 pounds lighter, too. That wing weighs a grand total of 5
pounds. Five. The risers look like clothes lines. Talk about easy
The evening was a bust. Once I found out the winds were again coming
over the back I begged off flying altogether and, in fact, didn't even
get my wing out. Surprisingly, several pilots flew in spite of all that.
One pilot took a 40 percent collapse just over the airport and I
happened to be videotaping. "Happened" isn't exactly right since I
figured there was a pretty high likelihood of badness which was why I
was taping. A 40% collapse, without any cravats, is very benign as long
as the pilot doesn't overreact. Thankfully, he didn't and came around,
rather suddenly, for an uneventful landing.
One other piece of excitement was a pilot who landed at the other end
of the runway and got whacked just as he was running it out. He fell and
his throttle hand mashed into the dirt such that the motor stuck on half
power or so. We saw the landing but not the fall. John Black sped down
there in his truck, saw what was happening, couldn't get the kill
switch, so he reached in and yanked off the spark plug. Nice going.
When this airport is in wind shadow, not surprisingly, it's no fun to
be flying. That's why I, and most others, didn't go up. Plus, I'd had a
great morning flight, why go bounce around in this.
Saturday night we all gathered at Goulding's restaurant and told
lies. It was a great time.
Sunday morning, as I write this, promises to be nice early but, with
winds forecast to be strong over the back by noon, I'm going to stay
pretty close if I fly at all. It's been a great trip, I've had 5
flights, and could easily end it on this most happy of notes. There is
the matter of my now fully fueled motor...
1) Spooky up close, but spectacular. 2) Don't forget that this is an
airport! 3) One PPC joined us. 4) Smoke signals. 5) Rusty along West
Mitten's east side. See how small he is? Row 2: 6) Sunrise. 7)
Perry along the mesa just west of Gouldings, 8) Mo Tip Toeing. 9) Bob
Peloquin and I taking the monument tour.
A gorgeous sunrise belied the unsavory swirls aloft. Southwesterly
winds put us, again, in rotor. I had no interest in itóbeen there, got
the T-shirt, didn't like its fit.
Joe Onofrio sent up a helium balloon and, surprisingly, it didn't
look as bad as we feared and, even I agreed that it probably wasn't
dangerous but wouldn't be smooth and, with a forecast strong wind at
noon, feared that conditions could suddenly grow teeth.
When one intrepid pilot did elect to launch I got the camera. The
good one, with the big lens and good stabilization. Sure enough, I was
treated to show. He did a nice launch, barely cleared the fence
then landed (well, kinda whacked) into the hill just south of us.
Neither he nor his equipment suffered any damage beyond a flight suit
tear but it wasn't a good start to the morning.
That put a damper on
launches for a while but then we noticed that there wasn't anything
sharp to the wind although it occasionally did gradual changes to the
opposite direction. Yup, better time that one right!
Then John Black starting playing around with his quad, inflating and
taxi/kiting up to the ramp, turning around, taxiing down the runway and
finally launching into a short flight. It was an exquisite display of
what's possible with good throttle and wing control. You've got to keep
enough airspeed over the wing and lead your turns. When he offered it up
to me I jumped at the chance. What a hoot. I did one run up to the ramp
with a 180, came around between the guys and launched down the runway.
God that's cool. No potholes, either.
A digression on Quads
I saw some extreme examples of the
incredible stability offered by low CG quads. John's Paracruiser was
the most graphic, though. When another pilot was taxiing it, he got
into some turbulence which started him swinging left/right. He
lifted off and wound up hitting the pavement sideways, skidding
to a stop. Had that been a trike or a anything with a higher CG,
it would rolled immediately. In fact, there were two trikes that
rolled and were damaged. But John's and another similar unit, which
endured highly tipful encounters, just skidded around.
Both incidents that I saw would have tipped most trikes. Mind
you, I like trikes and, for experienced pilots, they're fine. Quads
have drawbacks, too, of course, namely in rough terrain because the
wheels hit bumps unevenly. But overall, the evidence is overwhelming
that you're less likely to flip a low CG quad than a trike. And of
course it makes sense given their broader overall base. Trikes can
be improved, of course, by having a low CG and wide rear wheel base,
but, all things being otherwise equal, quads are the best tool for
beginners learning wheels.
Eventually other pilots launched into increasing turbulence and all
landed after collecting too many bumps in too little time. One pilot got
into enough turbulence that he decided to land a quarter-mile down the
runway. His last 40 feet was rapid, pounding in hard enough to wreck the
cage and prop. That was hard to watch. He didn't add power and didn't
flare until way too late. Fortunately he was fine and hopefully will be
able to get his gear repaired since he's part of a French group visiting
here. Wish I could speak French! I'd love to welcome them in the same
way I felt welcomed in France. Language barriers suck.
Rusty was among the last to fly, putting on a great show of foot
dragging and generally playing around. He's the one who built this
incredible green motorhome that mated a 1950's truck to a GMC motorhome
and has a matching trailer.
Overall, it was an incredible experience. Just being here is worth
it. Thanks so much to Joe Onofrio, the "non-organizer" as he calls
himself, for getting us all together. It has etched out a fine
memory that will, no doubt, enjoy frequent visits.