Parachutes flying this weekend

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 14, 2009

VIDALIA — From 1,000 feet in the air, houses in Vidalia looked a lot like Barbie Dream Homes complete with turquoise blue pools and shiny convertibles.

The perfectly straight rows in the fields were apparent, and the Mississippi River bridge looked more like an architectural model than the monstrous structure it is.

Nearly 50 pilots in their powered parachutes took in these views Saturday afternoon after taking off from the Concordia Parish Airport in Vidalia. The group of pilots from as far away as California and as close as Baton Rouge have been staying at the airport since Wednesday and will be in town — flying in the mornings and evenings — through Monday.

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The five-day event is the inaugural Redneck Fly-In, started by event organizer Wayne Spring. Spring, from Albany, La., said he was searching for a place to host an early season event and came across Vidalia.

“I was on Google Earth and started circling out from my house looking looking for a place to have this,” Spring said. “I spotted this huge area of flat open land and said ‘Where’s that? That’s it.’”

The flat land Spring was looking at was Vidalia and after picking a town, Spring found the parish airport, which he said has been “more than accommodating.”

The aircraft are made up of a lightweight three-wheeled cart and parachute and is powered by a two-stroke no-stall Rotax engine.

“It is the same type of engine used in jet skis and snowmobiles,” said Kevin Manuel, a 10-year veteran pilot from Baton Rouge. “It is a lot like a four wheeler — just in the air.”

From the ground looking up, powered parachutes look like overgrown birds circling above. They have the ability to fly high over the tree line and power lines or lower closer to the fields on the ground.

Flights are most likely to happen in the morning, soon after sunrise or in the evening as the sun begins to set because that is when the winds are the calmest.

The most active flying season for powered parachutes is fall when the weather is a little cooler, Spring said. But most pilots try to fly year-round he said.

When taking off, all that is needed is flat, straight land without a tree in the way. The powered parachutes take off much like an airplane but are not limited to a runway for take off.

Take off is quick, normally taking less than 30 seconds, depending on the weight inside the aircraft. Two-seaters can carry around 500 pounds of passenger weight and single seaters are limited to around 250 pounds, Manuel said.

Since the aircraft are so light weight, the height at which they fly and whether or not they fly at all depends on wind. A little wind is fine, but too much can wreak havoc on the small powered parachutes.

“With winds up to 5 mph, most pilots will go up. At 10 mph some will still go up,” Spring said. “But at 15 mph, you’re gonna get your world rocked.”

When conditions are ideal, flying in a powered parachutes is “the safest way to fly,” Spring said. That’s because they don’t fly much over 30 miles per hours.

“Low and slow, that’s how we fly,” Spring said.

They are fueled by regular unleaded gasoline and can fly for as long as two hours. But that time in the air is only recreational.

“Because the weather can change so quickly, we can’t really fly to get anywhere,” Manuel said.

But on days when the weather is right, Manuel said flying is an addictive adventure that provides both an adrenaline rush and relaxation.

“It’s like sitting in a big lawn chair in the sky, but with a parachute as wings,” he said.