THE DARN thing about an airplane is all that steel and glass between you and the rushing wind.
Despite all the lyricism about slipping "the surly bonds of earth" and chasing "the shouting wind along," flying an airplane just isn't the same as being a bird with wings. Too much "stuff" between you and those "footless halls of air."Now there's a way to get closer to the wind. For $150 and your absolute, most excellent promise not to sue anyone no matter what happens, you certify as a para-plane pilot. After that, $50 buys you a jaunt around the desert anytime you want one.
For $7,000, you can own your own paraplane.
Paraplanes - a combination go-cart and parachute powered by two chain saw motors - were invented in 1983. They have been available in Utah since September. The owners of Neptune Divers, a local dive shop, decided that flying provided a whimsical complement to diving, i.e., clients can now go as high or as deep as they want to go.
So Neptune's partially completed Sea Base, south of Tooele near the American Salt Co. became the Sea/Air Base. The diving ponds are to the south, the runways to the north.
Would-be paraplane pilots must show up at the Sea/Air Base early in the morning and watch a videotape on the horrible penalties the paraplane makers will exact from anyone who even thinks about suing them.
Pilots who get through that video (all but the most fainthearted do, said Neptune owner Linda Nelson) watch a video on how to fly the paraplane, listen to a quick lecture by a paraplane instructor and take a written test. It all takes about an hour.
Those who pass the test (again, most do), proceed to the runway and fly the thing.
Learning pilots get lots of instruction and support before takeoff and constant radio instruction during the flight.
"Power up," an instructor says into a radio as a new pilot takes off. "OK, now turn left. Push your left pedal. Push it harder. That's it. OK, now throttle back just a little. . . ."
Learning pilots fly two oblong circles over the field, staying about 100 feet in the air during the 10-minute flight. They also practice making two tight circles in the center of the field - one in each direction - to give them a feel for the pedals.
Then they land.
Despite the lawyerly threats in the first video and the scariness of it all, no one has been killed or seriously injured in a para-plane accident since the planes were invented in 1983, Nelson said. "Which is amazing for something this popular." How popular? "Over 60,000 people have flown them in the United States. We've flown a couple of hundred people out here," she said.
In all those 60,000-odd flights, "There have been a few scraped fingers and bumped knees," she said. "The worst thing that can happen is flying into a tree or power line." But at the leisurely speed of 26 mph, one has ample opportunity to see the tree coming.
If one of the planes' engines fails, the plane glides to earth in a shallow pattern, the preflight videotape said. "That allows enough time to turn to the landing field, face into the wind and make a normal landing," the videotape said.
While paraplanes get one closer to the wind and sky than conventional planes, they are so noisy only the most intent can commune with nature.
"It sounds like you are in front of a couple of lawn mowers," Nelson conceded. But despite the noise, she calls the flights "a super mellowing agent. They really lift the spirit."
The Neptune crowd flies the planes into the nearby foothills, sighting deer, eagles, rabbits, wild horses and mountain lions on their aerial jaunts.
Ken Hennefer, his daughter and son celebrated Hennefer's birthday with paraplane lessons one morning. "Hook, that was a rush," Hennefer told his instructor as soon as he landed. "I have never had so much fun."
Despite their jitters, all three Hen-nefers flew the flight pattern easily.
"For $50 and a little advance notice, you can go flying anytime," Nelson told the Hennefers.