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Published: Sunday, August 24, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Powered parachutes fun, safe and relatively affordable

  • Paul Beam flies a powered parachute over the Silvana Valley, with views of the Stillaguamish River and out to Camano Island.

    Jessi Loerch / The Herald

    Paul Beam flies a powered parachute over the Silvana Valley, with views of the Stillaguamish River and out to Camano Island.

I've always loved the idea of parachuting, but I could never get past that whole jumping-out-of-a-perfectly-good-airplane thing.
It wasn't the thrill of parachuting that interested me, just the soaring bird's-eye view. Turns out you can get that view another way: aboard a nifty little craft called a powered parachute.
Paul Beam of Northwest Light Sports took me flying recently.
My whole life I've had dreams about flying — an effortless, gliding flight that seems real even after I wake up. The powered parachute ride was the closest I've ever come to that. Except for one slight jerk during takeoff and some vibration as we climbed, the flight was smooth and completely delightful.
As we circled over the Stillaguamish River, a pair of bald eagles soared far below us, apparently unconcerned.
Beam has been flying powered parachutes since 2010. Last year, he became a certified flight instructor. He teaches new pilots at the Arlington Airport and works with Northwest Light Sports, which rents powered parachutes to qualified pilots in addition to lessons. Northwest Light Sports also offers 30-minute discovery flights, which are ideal for people who simply want to experience flying or are wondering whether they'd like to become pilots themselves. Northwest Light Sport is the only place in the Pacific Northwest to learn how to fly a powered parachute and get a license.
Andy Graham, one of Beam's students, earned his light sport license this past week.
“I've had a lifelong dream to fly,” he said, “I've just financially never been able to afford it.”
Then, about two years ago, he took a flight on an ultralight craft in Hawaii and decided “I just have to learn how to fly.”
He settled on powered parachutes for many reasons, he said. They're relatively economical to buy and to learn how to fly. Most importantly, though, he was impressed with their safety.
Graham bought his own craft a few months back. Now that he's trained and certified, he can fly closer to his home in Belfair. The trek to Arlington Airport made it hard for him to get out very often. He said he'll still come up from time to time, though.
“The field, the practice area, is just unbeatable. It's nice to fly somewhere that's dedicated to light sport aircraft,” he said.
Beam said powered parachuting is a great entry point for those who are interested in flying. The training is shorter than it is for planes and therefore less expensive. The crafts themselves are also more affordable than traditional planes, costing between $7,000 and $15,000 depending on if they are new and one or two seats.
The powered parachutes are forgiving and easier to master than traditional aircraft, and you can't stall one the way you could a plane. They also are maneuverable, require a short distance to take off and can fly extremely close the ground, offering an excellent vantage point for sightseeing or photography.
They do have limits. They can only fly about 30 miles per hour, so you can't go very far. And they can only take off in very low wind conditions. Beam likes to fly early in the morning, when the air tends to be calmer.
Beam flies year round. When we went up, it was a warm, bright day, but he said some of his favorite days to fly are in the winter. When the air is cold and clear, with a light covering of snow on the ground, the views are unlike anything else.
“I love the open feeling,” said Graham. “You're not confined at all by glass or walls. You can feel like you're a bird, like you're really flying.”

How it works
Powered parachutes include a cart, a prop, basically a huge fan, and one or two seats. The parachute is attached to the cart. The parachute is laid out on the ground before takeoff. The crafts require a very short distance to take off — around 100 feet to 300 feet depending upon how many people and how hot or cold the day is (there's better lift in cold weather). When the vehicle moves forward, the parachute is pulled up and opens, providing lift. The powered parachute is steered using foot pedals that adjust the angle of the chute.
Want to fly?
Northwest Light Sport based at the Arlington Airport is the only place in the Northwest to learn to fly powered parachutes and get licensed. Training costs $1,500 to $2,500, depending on the type of powerchute you would like to fly. Get more information at nwlightsport.com. If you'd like to simply experience the fun of a flight, a 30-minute flight is $65.
Story tags » Outdoors

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