But are powered parachutes safe? "We've taught more than 50,000 people to fly since 1984, and we've had no fatalities attributable to the ParaPlane vehicle," says Snyder. There are, in fact, sketchy reports of several accidents, but it appears that pilot error was responsible in all cases. Nevertheless, the training course at New Hanover Airport emphasized safety. A ParaPlane should not be flown by students when the wind is above 10 mph. Or in rain. We learned to identify the signals that our instructor, using bright orange paddles, would make to guide us down should our radios fail. We took turns sitting in the scat of the ParaPlane, heels resting in stirrups attached to the turning levers, getting the feel of the throttle movements that are used to ascend and descend. In our minds we rehearsed the simple flight pattern of loose ovals and tighter circles that would keep us aloft for 15 minutes. I recalled that Orville Wright's first flight lasted all of 12 seconds.
The airfield wind sock began to fill. "Yeah, hopefully it will kick up some more," said Fran Kaminsky, sounding less than enthusiastic. But the wind calmed a bit, and by 9:30 a.m. we were out on the runway, where we were joined by a couple of the 10 or so ParaPlane owners who regularly fly out of the airfield.
"O.K., Jeff, what's your policy number?" said Rob Widaman.
But it was Judy Haudenschield who first strapped on the blue helmet and signaled with a big wave of her hand that she could hear her instructor, Pete Femia, on the radio. Shellington pulled two starter cords, one for each engine, and as the engines caught, two assistants lifted the parachute off the ground. Once in the propellers' wash, the chute began to billow outward and then upward. Through a receiver in her helmet Judy heard Femia's instructions to throttle up slowly, throttle up, throttle up....
The rig rolled along the grass for 40 or 50 feet, and then the craft was airborne. The ParaPlane rocked slightly as it rose higher and higher, heading toward a silo half a mile away.
"I want you to steer left now, Judy," Femia said over the radio, as he coached her through the first turn. "Now straighten out and fly straight. You're going to put these guys to shame, Judy. That's great."
"Gutsy lady, Jeff," said Shellington, who estimated that Judy was cruising about 400 feet above the ground. "We've had them up 10,000 feet. But it's not really much fun. Everything's so tiny. You want to stay down where your fan club is."
Groups of experienced Para-pilots sometimes rendezvous in midair, then land for a picnic. And local clubs hold competitions to determine who can drop a small sack of flour closest to a target on the ground or who can grab the string of a slowly ascending helium-filled balloon. Shellington enjoys flying in the winter, his rig outfitted with skis instead of wheels.
Judy made a fine landing. "Was I good?" she asked, yanking off the helmet. Like a child who had just braved a monster roller coaster, she was pumping adrenaline. "It was so great. You've got to do it," she said to me. "It's not scary. The only thing is, it takes a little while to compensate for the wind. When I heard [Femia] say everybody was taking bets on whether I would make it or not, I knew I was O.K."
Carl Ashton, a local ParaPlane owner, snapped open a jackknife and sliced off a piece of Judy's shirttail—an aviation ritual honoring her first solo flight.