By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Todd Wolfe, Fort Rucker, Ala.August 12, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (August 12, 2013) - While home on R&R leave from Afghanistan, I ran into my old friend, Reed, who I hadn't seen in years. Our conversation turned toward aviation, and he told me he recently bought a powered parachute. Since I had never seen one in person, I suggested we head over to his place and check it out.
If you are unfamiliar with a powered parachute, it's basically a go-kart with a big fan on the back and a parachute overhead. Your feet work the parachute risers, so you simply push the pedals in the direction you want to turn. The throttle changes your altitude, and if the motor quits altogether, you simply float down to a hard landing. Sounds simple enough, right? If I can fly a multimillion-dollar Black Hawk, this thing should be no problem - or so I thought.
With a 10-minute briefing on the finer points of powered parachute piloting techniques, I found myself rumbling down the field behind Reed's house and launching skyward. This little craft was a pleasure to fly, and even though it was a little windy, I was having fun. I did a couple of patterns and then came in for a respectable landing. It was awesome! Reed came over and said, "Go ahead and take it out for a while."
I launched back off and headed toward my parents' house for the obligatory flyby. As I headed in that direction, I noticed my ground speed seemed a little fast, but I didn't think too much about it. After flying over my old neighborhood, I decided to continue on to Lake St. Clair to check out the boats. By now, the wind seemed a little gusty, but I figured this was normal for a lightweight, open-cockpit machine.
Lake St. Clair defines the border between the U.S. and Canada, just north of Detroit. As a popular boating destination, there are often big groups of watercraft rafted together. I spotted one of these groups on the Canadian side of the lake, so I headed over to have a look. With a direct tailwind, which seemed a little stronger than I remembered, I zipped across the water in no time.
Awaiting me was a flotilla of very cool looking boats loaded with people having a good time. Everyone was waving and I could see all the bathing suit-clad revelers enjoying the afternoon. After spending a little while observing, I decided it was getting windier and I should head back.
As I turned directly into the wind to make my way back across the lake, my groundspeed dropped to nearly zero. I was practically hovering, with a couple miles of water in front of me. During all my screwing around, I hadn't noticed the wind had continued to build. With a top speed of 20 mph, the powered parachute was unable to make any progress back across the lake and toward my friend's house.
As I sat there with the engine screaming and barely making any headway, it occurred to me that I had no idea how long a tank of gas would last me. So, with a great deal of shame, I headed back toward Canada to make a precautionary landing. A large field close to the shoreline was available, so I carefully set it down, turned off the engine and made the phone call I was dreading.
"Reed, I'm in Canada," I said. "I need you to come pick me up."
After a long while, Reed arrived with the trailer. We then loaded up the powered parachute and headed back. It took me a while to explain to the U.S. border agent how I found myself in Canada without ever clearing Canadian customs. Eventually, though, we made it back across the border.
Because I was having so much fun, I allowed the weather to sneak up on me. Although there were plenty of signs available, I didn't know enough about flying a powered parachute to recognize them. Once it became clear there was a problem, my ignorance of the machine's fuel endurance left me with few options.
If you are going to try out a new activity, it's important to take the time to learn as much about it as possible before you start. While you are still learning, be especially cautious of hazards and distractions. Until you build a foundation of experience, you may not have the skills and ability to recognize and correct a problem until it's too late.