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Gliding the friendly skies

By Jeffry Boatright

Carson Rhodenizer of Suwannee County prepares to land near the Suwannee County Airport. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright

There is an undeniable fascination in watching aircraft takeoff and land, but watching a pilot maneuver his or her machine with the engine strapped on their back is simply enthralling. It is a pleasing sight to aviation enthusiasts of all ages, as some local pilots casually soar about with their backpack units and inflatable wings.

Following an early morning flight on the morning of July 14, Carson Rhodenizer, Robert Schaffer and Ralph Sparks took a few minutes to describe the pleasure found in the sport of powered paragliding. Bonded with a love for the unique activity, these local pilots described the tranquility they find in guiding their gliders above land.

Powered paragliding, according to the United States Powered Paragliding Association, is the simplest form of flight. It merely consists of a backpack unit with a small engine, usually between 12 and 25 horsepower, and a propeller. Weighing approximately 50 pounds, the unit is ergonomically designed for the pilot’s comfort. The pilot, who wears a helmet, is clipped into a comfortable harness, which attaches to the inflatable wing for suspension. With no rigid construction, the wing can be easily transported and stored.

According to Rhodenizer, who is a licensed pilot, the time needed to prepare for a powered paraglider flight can be as little as five minutes. That ease of preparation, coupled with the convenience of easy transport and cost efficiency, provides Rhodenizer with ample opportunities to quench his relentless thirst for aviation. “It is definitely relaxing and enjoyable,” the Suwannee County resident said with a huge smile.

Sparks, who is also a licensed pilot and familiar with multiple types of aircraft, recently reentered the sport of powered paragliding. Although he experienced joy and relaxation in the sport in past years, Sparks felt his engine was no longer reliable and put the hobby on hold. After several years, he purchased new equipment and is amazed at the improved technology and reliability in today’s equipment.

While any engine is capable of failure, powered paraglider enthusiasts insist that because it is a glider, it will glide without power, allowing for a safe, but possibly inconvenient landing.

The sport of powered paragliding involves individuals from diverse vocations and varied levels of experience. It is suited for anyone with a desire to fly. Rhodenizer, a professional horse trainer, explained that while ordinarily uncomfortable with heights, he never feels that discomfort when paragliding.

L-R: Ralph Lee Sparks, Carson Rhodenizer and Robert Schaffer share a moment after an enjoyable morning flight. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright

Schaffer, an ecomm manager with Corporate Graphics International, simply cannot hide the passion he has for the sport either. Observing him maneuver his glider over the airfield, is thrilling and inviting within itself. “It is something that is relaxing to do,” Shaffer reflected the sentiment of Rhodenizer and Sparks.

Another advantage that all three pilots find in their sport is the limited area required for launching and landing their gliders. According to the USPPA, the required area for a highly experienced pilot to launch or land is 40 by 300 feet. Beginning pilots, however, require an area of 300 by 900 feet.

Ralph Sparks of Suwannee County after a peaceful morning flight around Live Oak. - Photo by Jeffry Boatright

Although strong winds and turbulence restrict the sport of powered paragliding, a slight breeze can drastically reduce the area needed for launch to just a few steps. Once a flight is launched, he can legally fly at altitudes up to 18,000 feet. Although most powered paragliders are flown at altitudes of 100 to 2,000 feet, Rhodenizer is aware of one pilot who soared to the unfathomable height of 16,000 feet.

A powered paraglider would not be the likely choice for a quick cross country flight, but there have been lengthy trips taken by way of a powered paraglider, according to Sparks. With a cruising speed of 20 to 40 mph, about two hours is all one should expect to yield from a tank of fuel. Sparks added that the pilot is usually ready for a break by that time anyway.

Powered paragliding is basically a self-regulated sport and does not require a license, but training is required to safely fly and navigate airspace, according to the USPPA. It is a sport for all ages and while risks are involved in anything we do, enthusiasts insist that it is the safest form of flying.

According to Rhodenizer, most injuries associated with powered paragliding occur when starting the engine. The USPPA points out that paragliding can be as safe or as dangerous as the pilot makes it. The primary safety factors are personal judgment and attitude, according to the USPPA website.

Sparks, a Suwannee County resident, handles his wing with much finesse. The 73-year-old easily makes the sport look simple, exhilarating and inviting. According to Sparks, anyone who is somewhat physically active and has a taste for adventure can explore the friendly skies with a powered paraglider. The startup cost to do so is around ten thousand dollars. More can be learned about powered paragliding by visiting the USPPA website.

Rhodenizer, Schaffer and Sparks agree that powered paragliding offers adventure, tranquility, and a birds-eye view of our picturesque North Florida. They do, however, understand the importance of training, safety and sound equipment in operating their gliders. Furthermore, these pilots recognize and consider the safety of others in the sky and on the ground. It is a sport they each hope to continue enjoying and would like to see others enjoy as well.

Carson Rhodenizer straightens the wing’s lines after a flight. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright