Backpack paramotors are great fun to use and are certainly the most compact and portable powered aircraft on earth. However, like almost all designs they are a compromise of many design criteria, and in addition to the complications of adding power to the aerodynamic equation we should also consider the effect upon the piloting requirements.
Launch: A paramotor can be launched in the same two basic ways as an unpowered canopy. It is generally done with the engine already warmed and running on tick-over.
If there is a little wind then the reverse launch is a better bet as the rotating prop and lines are kept away from each other, until you are happy to turn round for take off. You also have a far better view and control of the canopy prior to committing yourself to take off. With heavier motors a snatched launch in too strong a breeze can result in the pilot falling backwards resulting in the aptly named “turtle” position. An expensive and embarrassing situation to be avoided. When reversing ‘cross brake’ technique should be used so that your brakes remain firmly in each hand for the entire launch. The older style alpine method of letting go of brake lines while turning, runs the real risk of brake lines being sucked into the prop. Scrabbling overhead for handles while trying to run is a sure fire recipe for failure.
For nil wind conditions a forward launch must be executed. Careful preparation of the wing in clean crescent, with all the lines untangled and free can not be over emphasized. A hurried launch where the wing comes up asymmetrically usually results in an aborted take off. This then requires the pilot to unclip to relay out the wing. It will only take a few failed attempts like this before exhaustion leads to frustration, and we all know where that leads! Take your time, do not let yourself be rushed. If necessary stop for a few seconds, compose yourself and then continue.
In a forward launch the arms must be held out at the 10 to 2 position to hold the lines clear of the propeller cage. On larger machines this can often require a concerted amount of arm work. If you are not used to launching on flat ground, be aware a paraglider may need a more committed pull to get it all the way overhead as the tendency to drop back if you let off the pressure can be more marked. If your wing has speed trimmers always check that they are correctly set for take off. Once again your choice of wing is important here as some wings are distinctly better at flat field launching than others.
Once the pilot is running forward and satisfied with the wings overhead flying position full power can be applied to commit to the take off. To avoid any sudden torque effects care must be taken not to “blip” the throttle, power must be introduced swiftly but smoothly. You must be able to run fast enough to kept the wing solidly inflated and in control until it is flying at its required take off speed. This part of the launch is the most energetic and the correct posture is important. The natural inclination is to lean forward, but if the position is too exaggerated then the thrust will drive you down rather than along. When you can feel the wing starting to provide lift, you must move to an upright running position with your shoulders back. This allows the propellers thrust to take over, and to push at the correct angle. In the next few paces the thrust should provide enough airspeed for the wing to lift you cleanly off the ground. On some wings a small dab of brakes at the critical moment of ‘rotation’ will help promote a swift departure from the ground. Use of techniques like these will depend on your wing and will be advised in your training. Do not retract your undercarriage until well clear of the ground. During the launch procedure the thumb should be poised over the kill switch to stop the prop spinning if anything goes wrong. Once fully airborne sit back into the harness and make a few post takeoff checks. Look and listen for anything that may indicate a problem.
For motors that produce torque steer you may immediately feel the wing starting to fly slightly off the desired line. Whilst you can compensate to some degree with the brakes, it may not be possible to hold the wing perfectly straight. For this reason your launch “runway” should have adequate space to allow some deviation. Once you are happy that everything is as it should be, tuck in and make your self comfortable for your flight.
Flying a paramotor is virtually the same as a canopy in free-flight but with the distinct advantage that you will be able to explore your horizon almost immediately
As a new paramotor pilot I found that my tendency was to treat the motor as something that might pack up at any moment, which is perhaps not a bad thing. Having witnessed experienced pilots turning down wind at almost zero altitude an then climbing away, it became apparent that some had more faith than I! It has demonstrated that the free flight pilot’s first reaction to cut the throttle in a stressful situation is not always the best thing to do. Flying under power does require a slightly different mindset, but the advantage of being able to fly more regularly in smaller windows of opportune weather makes using power to get up into the sky a very worth while skill to master.
Instability situations: A paramotor is really a light wind machine. Any paraglider is hard pressed to make much headway into wind and a powered wing is no exception. For this reason they are not generally flown is strong wind conditions. However, it is perfectly possible to use the motor to put yourself above previously unreachable terrain, flying up a narrow valley for example or contacting high altitude wave, or viewing cloud base from above! Of course turbulence may still be encountered and occasionally cause closures of the wing.
Because the motorized wing is likely to be more heavily loaded than in free flight it will retain a higher degree of stability. However, the additional weight and the complication of thrust may work against you in some situations, such as a spin. The best advice if conditions become rough is to escape the area as soon as possible, which may well mean a landing out. In the event of non-critical asymmetric closures it is preferable to keep the power on whilst you clear the tuck if at all practical. In serious instability situations, however, it is better to cut the power. This is primarily to reduce the effects of thrust and torque. Tucks etc should be dealt with in the same way as for free flight by maintaining course and pumping out the collapse. But above all enjoy the flight and put faith in the mechanics on your back. Allow it to take you places and experience views that very few people will have had the opportunity to experience in the same way that you will as a paramotor pilot.
Because the ground speed of a canopy is so slow, the noise from the motor lingers for some time. Though not noisy by aircraft or even micro-light standards, the paramotor does have a very large “acoustic footprint”. At the time of writing the Ministry of Transport has yet to impose a maximum noise level on these machines, but it likely, as is already the case with micro-lights in the UK that a level will eventually be set. To minimize the noise for residents of your launch area it is important to vary your flight patterns and to avoid high revs for long periods at low altitudes. The very portability of the machine should make using a selection of different launch sites feasible. Noise affects the pilots too. If a radio and headset is not used then ear defenders are certainly a good idea for prolonged flights. Maintaining altitude at minimum revs is the most comfortable way to fly!
Landings: As a general rule landings should be made “dead stick” – with the power off. As you land the weight of the unit being transferred to your shoulders can make keeping your footing more difficult. In the event of a slip or stumble, a dead stick landing avoids the obvious hazard of a spinning propeller. Good landings are essential, so ensure your landing area is suitable and that your approach is accurate. There is no excuse for losing the wind direction with a paramotor as you have the facility to examine the area and fly a complete circuit to establish drift before entering your final leg.
Flying a heavily loaded wing requires a committed and well-timed flare. Unlike a PG you are not restricted to one approach for landing. So remember your final circuit checks, if you feel unsure, keep the power on and go around again. With practice you will be able to execute a perfect final approach with a paramotor into a flat field and demonstrate a spot landing as easily as stepping off a small box. Once safely down, smile; you've just realized mans oldest dream!