+VIDEO You can’t get a much simpler form of powered flight than strapping a motor to your back and attaching yourself to a wing. Rachel Ramsay spent the day with SkySchool to find out what’s involved in paramotoring
6 June 2023
Is replacing an undercarriage with one’s own legs ever a good idea? That’s the question to which I’m hoping to find the answer as I embark on a taster day with paramotor school SkySchool, which runs courses for all experience levels in the UK, Spain, Portugal and Italy and has taught thousands of people to fly paramotors.
In the days previous I’ve already completed the first five stages of a comprehensive online theory course, excellently put together and presented by SkySchool founder Alex Ledger. It comprises video, text and diagrams introducing the basics of paramotoring, as well as important safety pointers and quizzes to test your knowledge.
I begin to get a sense of what I’m letting myself in for when I read the instructions on what to wear: outdoor gear (no jeans!), ankle-supporting boots and preferably long-sleeved garments, as the lines can rub. I duly dig out my hiking gear, fill a small rucksack with water, suncream and snacks and make my way to Hinton-in-the-Hedges airfield bright and early on a Saturday morning.
Hinton, as ever, is a hive of activity: lots of skydivers walking busily about in their flight suits, families waiting to watch their nearest and dearest dropping from the sky after hurling themselves out of an aeroplane, and over on the other side of the airfield gliders being aerotowed by a EuroFox.
And then there’s our group of around 20, some of whom have previously completed a week of their course with SkySchool out in Spain and others, like me, who’ve never been near a paramotor before.
For us newbies, the day gets underway in the classroom with an introductory session led by Zeb Murcan, an experienced SkySchool instructor, who starts by asking whether any of us have any prior aviation experience. A couple of us have, but many haven’t, and something tells me that it’s not really going to count for much today anyway.
Zeb takes us through some of the basics, including safety: the six-point harness check, for example, and the importance of starting the engine only while it’s on your back, not on the ground. Some of the points are familiar to the pilot of other aircraft, such as the vital need to take off and land into wind.
After that, it’s out to our section of the airfield to try our hand at some ground handling. This is all about learning how to manage the wing, and we get strapped into harnesses and helmets and connected to ‘beginner’ wings, which are used specifically for these early ground-based exercises.
To begin with, I’m connected to the wing while facing it, and to keep it aloft I must run backwards after pulling on the ‘A’ lines (which are attached to the leading edge of the wing) to get it inflated and airborne. This is surprisingly taxing on the thighs.
The idea is to keep the wing airborne for as long as possible, and it’s harder work than it looks and sounds. There are several sets of lines that give me control of the wing, including a brake on either side, and they look to me as though they’d be a right faff to untangle if they became mixed up.
It doesn’t take me long to learn that the trick is to try to stay in the middle of the wing, moving with it if it starts to drift sideways. Having figured this out, my next exercise starts by facing away from the wing and running forwards, as one would do on take-off. This exercise requires a fair bit of grunt to get going, and you need some physical strength and fitness to maintain forward momentum into wind with an unwieldy inflated wing above you.
After being shown how to fold the wing to put it away, there then follows a stint of what I gather is known as “parawaiting”. It’s become too thermic and bumpy, so we need the sky to calm down a bit before any actual flying can happen. Inevitably, that means a patient wait for evening calm, but interestingly, we don’t want nil wind, as this makes take-off and landing difficult.
So we break for a long lunch and decamp to a local pub for a non-alcoholic interlude. Over tapas, I get the chance to chat to Alex about how he got into paramotoring – the answer, via skydiving – and to get his thoughts on what he sees as the future of this currently unregulated aviation sport. I get the impression that paramotorists enjoy the freedom that comes with being unregulated, but that they see the potential for better cooperation with other aviation sports that could come from being a more formally recognised and regulated activity.
Feeling restored after a good lunch, it’s back to the airfield. At 4pm we relocate to a corner of Bicester Airfield for the evening, as it’s not possible to paramotor at Hinton until the skydiving has finished. It’s a five-minute flight for us in a Robin DR400, and everyone else shows up by road in a convoy of about ten vehicles – including vans full of paramotors – some time later.
The wings and motors come out and those who are awaiting solo flights get the chance to practise some more ground handling ahead of their flights. As the light turns golden and the first students head off by themselves, I get an idea of what take-offs and landings involve for paramotors. Put simply: a lot of running.
As the sun sinks ever closer to the horizon I’m beginning to think we’ll run out of time to do my tandem flight before daylight disappears and we need to fly out in the Robin. But at the eleventh hour my name is called, my harness goes on and I’m strapped into a metal frame that will attach me to my instructor, Bruce Daniels.
At just 19, Bruce is the youngest instructor I’ve ever flown with in anything, but watching him fly on his own before we go up together, I can immediately see that I’m going to be in safe hands. I have less faith in my own ability to stomach the confident corkscrews he performs as he comes in to land!
Strapped to Bruce, who’s strapped to the motor, which is strapped to the wing, we’re ready for the off. In the pre-flight briefing, I’m told to “run, and keep running” on take-off, and not to get into the ‘seat’ until Bruce taps me on the shoulder. Before landing, he’ll tap me on the shoulder again to tell me to get out of my seat.
My heart is racing as Alex and another instructor, Rushi, grab hold of the metal frame, get ready to pull and count down three, two one. They start running, Bruce and I start running, and there’s a few seconds of pushing hard on the frame to drag us and the paramotor forward – all the while Bruce and I trying desperately not to kick each other as we run.
Then all of a sudden, we grind to a halt: take-off aborted. The wind has swung round and it’s not going to work. It’s a bit of an anticlimax, but we reposition for another attempt and this time we’re successful.
The take-off run, being literally a run, feels as though it goes on forever, and then suddenly my legs are running through the air rather than on the ground: we’re aloft in the mild evening air. Shortly afterwards Bruce taps me on the shoulder – my cue to wriggle back into my seat.
Everything’s much calmer once we’re airborne, and I marvel at the fact that my legs are just dangling there, nothing between them and the ground. It’s totally surreal. Bruce gets his phone out and hands it to me so I can take a video, which I do while holding onto it for dear life.
We climb higher and we get a wonderful view across historic Bicester Airfield – coincidentally where I’d first learned to fly 16 years ago. Gliding winch launches were an exhilarating novelty to me back then, when I had no flying experience, and I can’t help reflecting that what I’m experiencing now is an exhilarating novelty to me even with many years of flying different types of aircraft under my belt.
And that’s what makes paramotoring so worth experiencing for PPL holders. It’s radically different to the flying I’m used to: a far more elemental experience of aviation.
As Bruce cuts the engine and we float gently and quietly back to Earth, bringing a new meaning to the helicopter world’s idea of a ‘running landing’, it occurs to me that I’ve just experienced powered flight in one of its simplest forms. That’s something that every pilot needs to try at least once – just get yourself on a treadmill for a bit first.