You may have seen them buzzing overhead during the balloon festivals. You may have seen their shadows before hearing any sounds, and you would be forgiven if you had thought there had been an invasion of condors or pterodactyls. But the view from above is like nothing else imaginable, more exhilarating in many ways than the experience of floating in a hot air balloon.
Ultralight aircraft – defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as aircraft weighing no more than 300 pounds and which carry no more than five gallons of fuel – provide what is literally a bird’s eye view of the world. Veteran local ultralight pilot, Mike Theriault, distinguished the ultralight experience from other forms of flying, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be cruising along over 500 feet up and have a bird pull alongside and fly with you for awhile.”
Unlike hot air balloons, ultralight aircraft (paragliders, with and without engines; power parachutes; and – more common out west – fixed-wing hang-gliders) are steerable; while flyers ride air currents, they can control the flight path and are not strictly limited to whichever way the wind is blowing.
“I often land at the same spot from which I’ve taken off,” Theriault explained. No license is required (except for larger power parachutes that can carry passengers). The cost of participating in the sport is comparable to snowmobiling or boating, and is, according to Theriault, “completely safe; as long as you’ve had adequate training and you follow some basic rules, there’s no particular risk to ultralight flying, certainly no more dangerous than motorcycles.” And, the experience can be much richer than sports in which you never leave the ground (or the waves). And yet, there are only “a few dozen” paraglider pilots in Maine, Theriault estimated, with “maybe 30 to 40 qualified to fly power parachutes,” including fewer than 20 members of the Maine Powerchute Association.
Paragliding uses wind and air currents, much in the way geese and raptors soar. They can be flown at altitudes of up to a couple of thousand feet, even without power assistance, and flights can easily last for several hours. Engines can enable a flyer to take off from flat ground, or not have to wait for favorable wind conditions, but once airborne, most of the flight consists of gliding. The pilot is seated during flight, and once airborne, the weight of the backpack unit that holds the engine and fuel – something between 55 and 80 pounds – is completely alleviated by the lift of the air-supported wings. “There can be a little physical effort required for takeoff,” Theriault explained, “but actual flight, and even landing, are not strained at all.”
Power parachutes are actually more comfortable, even more luxurious, than paragliders, and can sometimes carry a passenger. “The difference,” Theriault said, “is that flying a paraglider feels like driving a sports car. It’s about going fast, shifting, sharp turns; very maneuverable. A power parachute feels more like driving a Cadillac.”
PPC flying is accomplished while seated in a three-wheeled buggy-like go-cart, equipped with wheels for takeoff and landing. Actually considered an “experimental aircraft,” parachutes are steered by feet, leaving hands free to take pictures. It’s easier to learn to fly a PPC, they are easier to launch and to land, and they carry more fuel and can travel longer distances and at much higher altitudes.
Paragliding uses no instruments, other than perhaps an altimeter and a compass, “but I usually carry an aviation communications radio as well as an altimeter, GPS system, and a system of heat sensors to monitor engine performance (when flying a PPC),” Theriault said. A brand new backpack paraglider system, without an engine, will cost under $4,000, and an aircraft and engine package under $9,000.
Either way, ultralight flying lets you experience Maine from the perspective of eagles and osprey, with no more commitment or risk than for more conventional, earth-bound sports. “There’s nothing like the feeling of being able to look straight down, with nothing beneath your feet,” Theriault said, not needing to add that he does so among some of the most dramatic scenery in the world.