Thursday, July 02, 2009

Wearable Aircraft and Dancing With the Wind

My loyal readers will know that when the wind gets to howling here in Western Oregon, you can often find me in the first open space I can find to fly one of my two Parafoil stunt kites. If you're not sure what these are, they are not pleasant little toys your grand-kids fly, no, these are serious lift-creating, wind catching machines attached by two high-test cords to the ends of your arms.

I have always been sort of a Charlie Brown kind of kite flyer, and may even hold the world's record for trashing just about any kite I get my hands on. If there's a tree, I will find it, if the kite has a stick in it, I will break it. But these Parafoil kites are different, they look exactly like the canopy-style parachutes you see most skydivers use these days, and are flown by abrupt but controlled yanking on the two control lines. Yank hard in a stiff wind and the kite spins a quick three-sixty, yank the other line and it spins back around - thankfully - so you don't have to become instantly insane trying to fly it with crossed lines.

My two kites both handle the same, but with one major difference. The 4-foot Spectrum Parastunter handles quick in a brisk wind, and if you let it get too high directly overhead, it can lose lift, stall and ball up in a mess of ripstop nylon and tangled control lines. My big 12-foot PowerFoil is a beast, it catches large amounts of wind, pulls very hard on its operator's extremities, and with the right amount of wind, it could haul a large child all the way to Hawaii.
Both of these kites are tremendous fun to fly, but are as unpredictable as they are astonishing. One minute they are rocketing through my airspace, and the next minute when the gust dies down or when I'm trying a three-sixty at maybe 50 feet AGL, they come crashing to Earth. I can't EVEN imagine what it would be like to actually use one of these wings for human flight, but then again, I am not a Paraglider pilot. Yes, people get great pleasure flying a much large equivalent of my kites, and the thrill they get when doing so must be ridiculous!
After a recent Tweet on my afternoon's kite flying, I received some great information from Shannon Lucas, a paraglider pilot who is soon moving to Corvallis, Oregon just 45 minutes away from here to attend Oregon State University and complete his doctoral studies in aviation human factors. And from the following, you can just sense this pilot knows a few things about the human factors required to keep a mammoth kite wing in the air. Here is Shannon's verbatim description of paragliding:
"The exhilaration of leaving the Earth is common to all forms of flying. Leaving the earth under your own power, however, sets paragliding apart by touching humanity's ancient dream of spreading our arms and floating on the wind. On the ground, you learn to dance with the wing as it kites, beginning with clumsy, sudden, and exaggerated movements. In time, this erratic dance becomes a fine waltz with the finesse of a martial arts kata. A few steps into the wind, and you're flying.
But the paraglider is an aircraft that you wear, and in the air, it becomes a part of your body and mind and embeds itself in your psyche. Leaving the ground, you sit back in the harness, the wing is above you, and you're flying like you fly in your dreams with a full view of the ground below you and the horizon ahead of you. The wind in the lines is the only sound apart from the occasional beep on the vario to let you know you've found rising air.
Each flight is an experience with infinitude, and each carries the power of the first. Even the short flights down the training hill remain exhilarating."
Now that is eloquent writing, my flying friends. When I read this today, I thanked God I am a pilot, and am able to surround myself with people like Shannon and his Paragliding buddies. It is this kind of enthusiasm for flight that gets me up each morning, and when he makes it up here to Oregon, I can guarantee you I am going to chase him and his posse down and go watch them as they dance with the wind in their wearable aircraft through the pristine skies of the Willamette Valley.

Of course, the keyword here is WATCH, because I know I don't have a set big enough to actually fly a strap-on kite with my ass attached to it as ballast.