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Three wheels, one big sky

Amateur pilots climb aboard flying ‘trikes’ for aerial exploration

Cheney resident Denny Reed, 33, is only half joking when he says he’s “just another guy who hates his full-time job.” A former design engineer at Seattle-based Bayliner boat manufacturing, he now supports himself making construction loans.

But you should see his escape hatch.

Backcountry Aerosports is Reed’s business and his passion. The company offers guided aerotreks – a new take on adventure travel done on flying tricycle aircraft, known as trikes to aficionados.

“They’re like a snowmobile with wings,” Reed said after touching down at his private airpark overlooking the Palouse.

Popular in Europe, aerotrekking is starting to take off in the United States.

The trike is a type of powered hang glider in which the wing is coupled with a propeller-powered, three-wheeled undercarriage. The pilot controls the flight by shifting his or her weight. Trikes also have room for a passenger.

Reed is working toward a full-time career leading flights on overnight jaunts, renting accommodations in his Skylodge to drop-in trekkers and selling trikes from his hangar atop Prosser Butte.

Devotees from around the region travel to Reed’s airstrip and have formed the Backcountry Aerosports Club. When the weather’s good they take to the skies, and when the weather’s bad, they sit around and “hangar fly.”

Reed teaches people to fly trikes and hosts introductory flights and parties for groups that want to give them a whirl. Reed said he’s logged 3,000 hours teaching others to fly and countless more hours “just chasing coyotes” on his own.

On a still evening recently, Reed lifted off before dusk, soaring 500 feet above wheat farms, hawks and grazing deer for a bird’s-eye view of the Eastern Washington University campus, its football field and arena.

Below, neat rows of houses, streets and lawns lined up like pieces on a Monopoly board.

It’s a scene that could be seen by an even wider audience.

“We just inked a deal with ESPN Outdoor for an aerotrekking episode,” Reed said.

It was a serendipitous development. A freelance travel videographer stumbled upon Backcountry Aerosports while looking for a vantage point from which to capture the sunset. The videographer got so excited by what he saw he sold a TV production company on a pilot, Reed said.

Filming could begin this fall, depending on weather and people’s schedules, he said. If the pilot episode flies, it could lead to a series pitting aerotrekking teams against each other as they navigate difficult conditions to reach various locations.

Meanwhile, aerotrekkers are seeing short strips popping up on both coasts, Reed said. And absent them, “we can land these things almost anywhere. And everywhere I’ve ever set down, people have asked us to come and stay” overnight.

Reed has flown frequently to the West Coast. He’s also flown his trike over Spain, Austria, France and Australia. He’s hoping to organize expeditions to Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Canada and Mexico.

Trikes aren’t the flimsy flying contraptions that took off in the 1970s when daredevils strapped lawnmower engines to aluminum lawn chairs and lifted off on large homemade wings, he said.

Now, “we are flying machines that have been designed and built with today’s technology and expertise. I like seeing titanium, Kevlar, carbon fiber and exotic alloys on the bill of materials,” Reed said.

Ultralight design, safety gear, navigation and communications systems have never been better, he said.

“The sport chooses you. You know it as soon as you take off for the first time,” he said.

That’s not to say it’s risk-free, he acknowledged. He relies on a GPS unit, heated suit when necessary and an intercom.

“Everything is calculated. But if in doubt, we don’t go out.”