He soars through the sky, then descends to skim the surface of ripening alfalfa and wheat fields.
He swoops through the calm evening air, silhouetted in the setting sun. With legs crossed, he’s suspended in space, as if sitting in a swing set in the sky.
But Lafe Bissell is flying, not swinging. And he’s doing it with a motor strapped to his back and a brilliant, inflatable wing overhead.
Bissell flies a powered paraglider.
From his vantage point in the heavens, Bissell sees it all. When he flies above the Walla Walla River, he looks down to observe beaver and fish as they swim; he has glanced over to lock eyes with a hawk; and he often looks up to see a full moon rise over the Blue Mountains.
Nothing beats what he sees when he’s high in the sky.
“I really fly for perspective to get above things and look down,” he says. “It’s almost a spiritual perspective. You don’t normally see the world that way. It’s a special place to be. It’s the closest thing to being a bird a person can be.”
Bissell, 31, has been on the hunt for wings for some time. Aviation captured his attention in high school when he went to ground school to get his private pilot’s license, which he never completed. His desire ever since has been to find a way to fly.
After researching kit airplanes, Bissell decided he wanted to fly sooner than he could if he were to build a plane. And his savings account didn’t allow him to purchase a plane. So his search for potential wings continued until his discovery of powered paragliding about three years ago.
“Paragliding is a descendent of skydiving,” says Bissell, who works as vice president of sales at Color Press when he has both feet on the ground. “In Europe, powered paragliding is very popular. There are about 200,000 paraglider pilots in Europe compared to about 5,000 to 8,000 here in the United States.”
A fairly new hobby, powered paragliding combines the motorized elements of ultralight aircraft with the inflatable fabric airfoil of a paraglider. Bissell says he’s the only powered paragliding pilot in the Walla Walla Valley. There are others in the area who paraglide, hang glide and fly ultralights.
Through research, Bissell discovered a powered paragliding dealership, called Personal Flight, in Kent. He learned the basics there from his instructor, Don Reinhard. During several days of training there, Bissell learned how to inflate and steer the wing - first by running into the wind, then by being towed behind a four-wheeler and finally advancing to cliff launches. He completed three training sessions in Kent before he actually flew with a motor.
“You learn to fly a paraglider first,” Bissell says. “The engine is the last element you add. The hardest thing is taking off and landing - probably true for everything people fly.”
Bissell flies a French-manufactured powered paraglider called La Mouette, which means “the gull.” He purchased his unit at Personal Flight last year. Powered paragliders, he says, range in price from $5,000 to $12,000.
His turquoise, purple and neon-yellow wing is made out of rip-stop nylon. Bissell sits in a seat harness and wears the 22-horse, twocycle Japanese engine and propeller like a backpack. The wooden propeller is housed in a netted cage. On top of the motor is a two-gallon tank of gasoline.
Bissell dons his helmet, ear plugs to drown out motor noise, and the 90-pound backpack. Ready for take-off, he straps into the seat harness and runs into the wind, which inflates the wing. The engine creates thrust for gaining altitude. Contrary to popular perception, the motor does not make the glider fly more quickly, only climb faster.
“You run with it,” Bissell says about takeoff. “You feel like a clumsy goose on the ground. You have to do this little dance on takeoff with all this equipment on, and it’s not very elegant.”.
He flies about 18 to 20 mph and has enough fuel to stay airborne for about two hours. He’s gone as high as 2,000 feet but has more fun flying at 5 feet.
Bissell uses two brake handles, one in each hand, to control the 42-strand spidery web of colorful lines that suspend him underneath the wing. He dips into a turn by pulling either the right or left handle, which controls the 21 strands on that side of the wing. For example, to turn right, Bissell pulls on the right handle which slows the right side of the wing and he dips into a right turn.
Bissell has logged about 100 hours of flying time, with about 35 of those coming this summer. The longest he’s flown was almost two hours at the Walla Walla Hot Air Balloon Stampede in May.
It’s less dangerous to fly in calm conditions, so Bissell only takes to the skies in winds up to 5 mph.
“There is a psychology that comes along with flying,” he says. “There are a lot of risks, the stakes are high. You have to develop good judgment skills and good flying skills, but they still don’t protect you.”