You’ve no doubt seen them flying just above the trees, sometimes just above the vineyards, trailing a colourful parachute above and behind them, sitting on what looks to be a lawn chair in the sky. Perhaps you heard them first, the distant engine’s soft whirr, bringing to mind a nearby lawn mower trimming the fields.
According to Power Paragliding Ontario instructor Andre Zeman, it’s the most “captivating” type of flying. “The fact you don’t even see any part of the aircraft as you move through the air, you feel like a bird.”
There is equipment, of course, but it’s mounted on the pilot’s back. It includes a gas motor (a paramotor) on a harness, attached to a ‘wing’ parachute. Direction is controlled using steering lines attached to the wing. The motor provides enough thrust to take off, usually in still air and on level ground with a short run. The entire rig can weigh anywhere from 45 to 90 pounds, which can take some getting used to at first.
Once up, a paraglider can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour at a legal height of about 6,500 feet. Depending on the weather and the amount of fuel in the back-mounted tank, a paraglider can fly for up to three and a half hours.
Forty-year-old Stan Wall remembers as a child having a recurring dream of taking off from the ground with a running start, waving down to his friends below. He figured one day he would learn to fly a “normal” plane, until one day in 2012, a customer of his business invited him to come out to a field to watch him paragliding. He was immediately hooked.
Wall signed up for lessons with Zeman, and within two weeks he was flying.
Now in his ninth year of powered paragliding, Wall has earned his ultralight aircraft license, which is a must for anyone aiming to pursue the sport as a hobby. He has hundreds, if not thousands of flights under his belt, and often chooses travel destinations based on where he might like to fly. Three years ago, he and his wife Carlee built a new house on a rural plot of land that, not by coincidence, was perfect for take-offs.
Last Wednesday was a perfect night for flying. According to Wall and Zeman, the best time to head up is early morning, late afternoon or early evening. That’s when wind conditions tend to be ideal.
On this particular evening, Wall’s homemade windsock, more of a wind ribbon, really, is gently waving northeast. Graham Speck, a Welland city councillor and business owner, comes into focus on his own powered paraglider (PPG) just below the escarpment. As he approaches Wall’s backyard, he begins to perform expert acrobatic loops and flips, circles the property a few times, then comes in for a flawless landing on the grass strip.
Speck has made the trip from his Cooks Mills-area home on his PPG. He started flying in 2013, a year later than Wall, and recently took a week-long trip to Quebec, where he was able to fly nearly every day.
“Remnants of that hurricane (Isaias) came through,” explains Speck, “but I got two flights in near Quebec City, and eight flights at a fly-in (in St. Cuthbert), which is specifically a flying event. But there were mornings where I’d take one wing out, fly around, do a cross-country, land, then take the other one up, because the weather was still nice.”
He’s been flying with Wall since his early days in the sport, and flying to each other’s homes is a common occurrence. Today, they are joined by a relative newcomer to PPG, Evgeny Derkach.
Wall and Derkach met through their work. It was Stan’s enthusiastic descriptions of his hobby that piqued Evgeny’s curiosity enough to come out and see for himself.
Before going up, the 38-year-old Niagara Falls business owner removes his equipment from his van and takes care of some minor repairs to his gas line. He is the first to head up this evening. Speck and Wall help him with his wing, and pinpoint the exact moment of take-off for Derkach, who makes it up on his second attempt.
Not yet comfortable enough to attempt the riskier maneuvers that Speck displayed, he patiently circles the surrounding area, awaiting his flying companions.
Speck takes off next, followed by the host, Wall, and his high-end PPG rig. The three of them gather together in formation and begin their trek above the vineyards between Concessions 1 and 2, toward the sunset.
“The first picture I took from up there,” enthuses Derkach, “was of the sunset. It was amazing.” Their goal tonight is to snap a photo or two for The Local.
It’s hard to imagine a more enthusiastic booster of powered paragliding than Stan Wall. He’s used to the pointing, staring and picture-taking from ground level, and he loves the attention. “It’s a show-stopper,” he says, “everybody’s got a camera out. It’s kind of cool, everybody’s looking at you, you wave and acknowledge them.”
“I’m surprised,” Wall continues. “I go up, and it just doesn’t get old. I’m getting old, but this is one of those hobbies, I can’t turn back, this is what I love. And my wife knows, if it’s a good day, and there’s no wind, I’m going up.” On a beautiful, nearly cloudless August night like tonight, it’s easy to see why he is so enamoured of his hobby.
There are a few others in Niagara who actively participate in PPG, but Zeman estimates it’s only another handful or two. He’s been teaching since 2001, and runs his ground school in an out-building next to his St. Catharines home.
Zeman says he instructs about 20 students a year, meaning he has probably trained close to 400 PPG enthusiasts. His students have come from across Canada and the U.S. They range in age from 14 to 73 years old, though he pinpoints the ideal age to be between 20 and 50.
“Anybody can get involved,” he says. “If you are an adventurous person, and have done sports like scuba diving, parachuting, mountain biking, you have a much better chance of succeeding and enjoying the sport. There is definitely a physical aspect to this type of flying.”
Training through Zeman costs $4,500 and involves 35 training hours. He provides the training equipment for his students. Visit poweredparaglidingontario.com for information and training dates.