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    Taking Flight With a Back-Packed Motor

    By Lisa Ulmer
    Photos by Reginald A. Pearman Jr. Staff
    Wednesday, July 1, 1998


    The red control buttons on Eric Marzewski's powered paraglider:
    The red control buttons on Eric Marzewski's powered paraglider: "Stop" and "Run."
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    As a child, Carlton Hoskins would look to the sky and dream of flying, planning to become a commercial aviator or a fighter jet pilot.

    As an adult, he joined the U.S. Air Force, but was denied entrance to the pilot program because of a low blood sugar condition.

    Only this year did the 27-year-old Army officer finally realize his dream of piloting his own machine: He became a powered paraglider, and the child in him got what he wanted.

    "The sport is the closest thing to actually being a bird," Hoskins said of powered paragliding, which allows enthusiasts to fly with a motor strapped to their backs and a banana-shaped canopy billowing above them.

    Hoskins, a D.C. resident, is one of 30 members of the South-Mid-Atlantic Pilot's Club, a newly formed group of local powered paragliding enthusiasts. The club meets at the Baltimore Brewing Co. for beer and "fly chat" and assembles for group flying sessions at Oregon Ridge Park in Hunt Valley, Md.

    The club is so much in its infancy that no monthly dues have been set and a monthly meeting schedule has yet to be established. The sport itself is so new that it isn't even listed in a revised Webster's dictionary.

    "The worst thing about being a PPG pilot is the dearth of useful information," said Chris Wolf, a 47-year-old Seattle resident who is a member of the International Pilot's Club. "Unpowered PG pilots and PPC [powered parachuting] pilots all have strong support groups. Except for the Pilot's Club, American PPG pilots have almost nothing."

    Powered paraglider Eric Marzewksi with a power motor and canopy (behind him).
    Paraglider Eric Marzewksi with a power motor and canopy (draped behind).
    The Pilot's Club was launched in 1996 as an international e-mail list serv, or electronic bulletin board. More than 700 members – living anywhere from Tampa, Fla., to Cape Town, South Africa – have posted notes and questions, exchanging paragliding advice, instruction and experiences.

    "It has been a great help for me to connect with these guys," said list serv member Ben Fleming, 48, a researcher for the University of Arkansas Department of Mechanical Engineering in Fayetteville.

    The list server was established and run by 27-year-old Eric Marzewski, a computer-engineer-turned-Internet-entrepreneur. Marzewski is founder and president of Green Mountain Unlimited, an online supplier of an odd collection of "lifestyle products": pewter flasks, yards of ale glasses, wine goblets, cigars and cigar accessories, mahogany humidors and gourmet beef jerky.

    When the company's biggest sales began to ring in for powered paragliding equipment ordered by local pilots, Marzewski had a brainstorm: Why not muster up a group of local enthusiasts to meet, chat about flying experiences and fly together?

    "The best way to promote a sport is to be active in it and hook up with other enthusiasts," Marzewski said. "Flying alone is fine, but flying with other people is much more fun."

    Hoskins agreed, citing the nature of the sport as reason enough to connect with a group.

    "With paragliding, you need a buddy system," he said. "It can be intimidating to go up there alone."

    And so the local Pilot's Club was born in the spring of 1998.

    Strapping on a motor.
    Strapping on a motor.

    With a large fanlike motor strapped to his back and a multi-colored canopy trailing behind him, Marzewski tugs on a hand pull, dashes across a grassy field and takes off toward the clouds, gaining altitude in just a few steps.

    In the air, he would look little like a feather-winged creature and more like an unusual superhero attached to a runaway air conditioning fan.

    "It actually looks like you have a lawn mower on your back with a zip-lock bag shaped like a banana above you," Marzewski said. "People are always stopping their cars to look up in the sky at you."

    The equipment may look strange, but, according to pilots, flying it provides an intense rush and a lot of stress relief.

    "I fly anytime the weather and wife permit," Fleming said.

    The term paragliding can conjure up images of extreme sports athletes or daredevils hurling themselves off cliffs for a natural high.

    But, Marzewski said: "I'm not an adrenaline pumper or a thrill seeker. I just like the idea of flying like a bird. It's complete freedom; you're under your own control."

    Control is the term most often used to differentiate powered paragliding from other parachute- or glider-dependent sports, such as parasailing or hang gliding.

    Parasailing is what you do at the beach in a quasi-parachute-tied-to-a-boat contraption – sometimes in the Virgin Islands after one too many piña coladas. The parasailor is dragged around the harbor, like a sack of beach pebbles. (If you want to offend a paragliding pilot, just refer to his or her sport as parasailing.)

    Hang gliding is a "committed" sport, meaning once you jump, there's no going back.

    Club: The South-Mid-Atlantic Pilot's Club
    Address: Green Mountain Unlimited, 1463 Graham Farm, Severn, Md. 21144-1086
    Telephone: 888/629-6742
    Web site:
    Membership Cost: None.
    How to Join: Contact Eric Marzewski at Green Mountain Unlimited. You must have powered paragliding training before flying, if you have never flown before. Green Mountain Unlimited provides training for $250 a person a day. Training is free if you purchase equipment. Prices of equipment range from $5,000/minimally equipped to $10,000/fully equipped.
    Upcoming events: Aug. 4, noon: Powered Paragliding Festival, Oregon Ridge Park, Hunt Valley, Md.
    Powered paragliding allows for a change of mind; if you want to stop your launch, you just turn off your motor, stop running and let the canopy float down behind you.

    The motor in powered paragliding also can be turned off once the pilot is in the air to allow for free-fall. At any point, it can be turned on again.

    The main component parts of a paraglider are a canopy, or the wing; risers, or the cords by which the pilot is suspended below the canopy; a harness; and the hand controls, which provide speed and directional control.

    The equipment itself is very easy to transport, an important advantage powered paragliding has over other air sports.

    "It's cheaper than hang gliding and portable – the equipment folds and fits in the back of my Explorer," said Chad Houck, 27, president of Christopher Ryan Designs Inc. in Baltimore.

    Paraglider Eric Marzewski readies for takeoff with a motor and a prayer.
    Paraglider Eric Marzewski readies for takeoff, with motor humming and canopy billowing behind.
    Powdered paragliding is also heralded by its frequent fliers as safer and easier than most air sports, as well as more enjoyable. They can hover at 500 or more feet, taking in the scenery.

    "Once you fly, you're hooked," said Houck. "I used to go skydiving, but this is much better."

    The National Transportation Safety Board reported fewer than 10 accidents since 1985 for professionally built ultralights, the classification for powered paragliders. Up to 1997, reports from a Powered Parachuting (a similar ultralight) Incident Database recorded fewer than six fatalities, a dozen minor incidents and one "messed pants" incident.

    The novelty of the sport prevents an accurate reading on how many pilots fly powered paragliders. Jim Stephenson, president and CEO of Aerosports Connection – a national association for ultralights – estimates that there are 2,000 to 5,000 pilots in the United States.

    An additional reason for the lack of statistics is that because powered paragliders are classified as ultralights by the Federal Aviation Administration, no license is needed to operate one. Proper training is highly recommended and takes one to two days, depending on the student's ability.

    "When the initial training is over, a PPG pilot is usually on his own," said Seattle pilot Wolf.

    Flying alone can be intimidating. And that's where the Pilot's Club comes in.

    "I wanted to have a bunch of guys to fly and swap stories with," said Leonard Wallace, a Beltsville real estate agent, on one reason why he joined the club.

    Marzewski is eager to draw attention to the club and the sport.

    "The sport is so new and the market is small," he said. "Right now, we're trying to promote powered paragliding, make them aware of how easy and enjoyable it is."

    There are no women in the local club, but "we're working on it," Marzewski said.

    A majority of the men in the club are like Hoskins: guys who have dreamed of taking flight since they were young.

    "My father was a pilot, so I've been flying in small planes since I was 2," said Houck. "Powered paragliding feels like the closest thing to having a pilot's license for me. I'm actually trained to fly a machine."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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