Wearing gloves against the chill, Ron Denowh strapped himself in and fired up the engine.
The tiny craft jounced across a field.
Trailing behind, a parachute swelled and filled with air. Rising over the machine, the chute strained upward. Motor whining, the machine and its parachute sailed up over the still-sleeping prairie.
“You start seeing things you’ve never seen,” said Denowh, the pilot. “The road you’ve been driving down for 20 years, when you get up above it and look down, is a whole different world.”
Invented in 1982, about 3,000 of the so-called powered parachutes are believed to be in existence. Though derided by some as “flying lawn chairs,” the craft are touted by fans as a relatively cheap, safe way to fly.
For one thing, pilots don’t need a license to fly the single-seat model. And they say it’s almost impossible to collapse the chute.
Even if the engine quits, the machine just coasts down to Earth using the parachute.
“As far as we can tell, nobody has ever been killed in a powered parachute,” said Jim Stephenson, head of Aero Sports Connection, an ultra-light aircraft enthusiasts group in Michigan.
“I know of a few people who have flown into walls and trees. But usually the guy repairs the craft and flies it again.”
“I don’t think there’s any way, unless you’re suicidal, that you could hurt yourself seriously,” said Brian Taylor, a Cranbrook, British Columbia, businessman who was flying with Denowh in Rathdrum on Sunday.
“You may swing and buffet, but you’re not going to fall out of the sky.”
Working out of a small office in Post Falls, Denowh sells the machines and teaches people to fly them.
He bought his first powered parachute four years ago when he owned a Montana auto shop.
“There’s virtually nothing out there that flies for less,” he said.
“And it’s pretty much idiot-proof. You float around like a marshmallow in a hot cup of cocoa.”
Denowh’s machines are made by a Yakima company called Six Chuter Inc. It’s one of at least three American firms making powered parachutes. This year, Six Chuter expects to sell about 150 of the flying machines.
“We just sold one to the Thailand army,” said company President Dan Bailey.
“We’ve got a lot of farmers, especially in Texas and Wyoming, who are buying them for predator control, keeping coyotes away from cattle.”
Ranchers also use them to check fences and farmers use them to monitor seeding, he said.
Two search-and-rescue teams also have bought the machines, and many are used for aerial photography.
On the downside, the machines have a top speed of 26 mph, meaning it’s not much fun to fly them if the wind speed is more than 10 or 12 mph.
Also, powered parachutes aren’t cheap, costing about $8,400 for a one-seater, $10,000 for a two-seater.
“It’s rather expensive until you compare them with Jet-Skis, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, even boats,” said Bailey.
“And you can use those only part time.”
Taylor outfitted his powered parachute with homemade skis for landing on snow.
In the winter, he flies from lake to lake, visiting places inaccessible by road.
“If you want to see what’s over that mountain, no problem - you just fly over it and go look,” he said.
“There’s nobody up there to bother you. You go where you want and see what you want. It’s freedom.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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