As Sam Wedgwood tugged on the starter cord and sent the tiny, two-stroke engine buzzing into life, I couldn’t help but think of that line from the late David Bowie’s Space Oddity: “Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you”.
And I have to admit that the subsequent sight of the same motor driving a 4ft propeller into a frenzied spin and Wedgwood attaching the whole lot to his back with a pair of nylon shoulder straps suddenly got me thinking: “Do I really want to do this? Even for How To Spend It?”
“This” was my maiden take-off by paramotor, that decidedly Heath Robinson combination of a giant, aerofoil kite (or “wing”, as it’s properly called) and a motor-driven propeller that’s carried by the pilot and controlled by a hand throttle.
Such initial flights are best undertaken with someone who knows what they’re doing, which is how I found myself attached to Wedgwood’s harness (and therefore to Wedgwood’s pelvis), following his non-optional instructions to run across a stubble field in order to fill the wing’s wind pockets with air and effect a take-off.
I had assumed we’d have to run for some time to have any hope of becoming airborne, but we hadn’t taken more than four paces, straining against the wing like a pair of optimistic World’s Strongest Man contenders trying to pull a 10-ton lorry, before the field became but a postage-stamp patch on a far bigger picture that was the English county of Wiltshire stretching below.
There was undeniably a fear phase and, as images of my children flashed into my mind, even a momentary wish that I had paid for adequate life insurance. But an adrenaline-fuelled surge of unbridled joy took over within seconds, along with the confirmation that paramotoring was everything I had hoped it would be – ie, the most straightforward way to fly for the pure fun of it.
The idea of owning a light aircraft has long appealed, but the associated drawbacks have not: hangarage, maintenance, private pilot’s licences, purchase and running costs and, above all, the fact that landing and take-off sites are almost invariably not where you are or where you want to go.
A conventional (ie, unmotorised) paraglider addresses the first few points, although it’s necessary to find a hill from which to take off, direction of travel is governed by the wind, and it’s rare to be able to predict a landing spot. In that regard, gyrocopters offer greater versatility but, like other light aircraft, are subject to licencing and maintenance regulations, and require an initial outlay that many people who simply want to fly for amusement might find difficult to justify.
The paramotor, however, seems to overcome all those problems. It is relatively inexpensive to buy, it packs away to a size small enough to sling into the back of most cars and it is simple to maintain. No special licence is required, there are no official service intervals and, perhaps best of all, a pilot can take off from any suitable, flat area (with the owner’s permission) – and, thanks to the versatility afforded by the motor, can cover significant distances and choose exactly where to land (again, with the owner’s permission).
There are numerous paramotor manufacturers to choose from too, ranging from better-known brands such as the Czech Republic’s Nirvana and Germany’s Fresh Breeze to far smaller operations, but one that is currently enjoying particular success is the UK’s Parajet, for which Wedgwood is the group creative director and Parajet team pilot.
While hunting down Parajet HQ in the village of Semley, I’d had it in mind that I should be looking for a windswept shed containing three or four people quietly working away to fulfil a handful of orders. Having traversed a farm track and drawn up on the immaculate concrete of the bucolic Chaldicott Barns trading estate, I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong. Parajet operates from three large industrial units where it makes up to 40 machines per month and employs a team of more than 65 people, ranging from highly qualified design engineers to time-served fabricators and skilled assembly technicians – and the place hums with a thrilling vibe of creativity that’s inspired by its unlikely boss, Gilo Cardozo.
A 38-year-old with the youthful looks and enthusiastic demeanour that would instead suggest someone not long out of sixth form, he’s the founder of a business with the suitably Boy’s Own name of Gilo Industries Group. As well as Parajet, it includes Rotron Power (a maker of small-capacity rotary engines) and the recently founded Mako Boardsports, which has developed a motorised, carbon-fibre surfboard.
Cardozo, one of 10 children, became fixated by engines at an early age and built his first, entirely from scratch, when he was just 14. It was two years later, however, when he first saw a thumbnail-sized photograph of a paramotor in action, that he decided there and then that he had to have one. “It was pre-internet, so finding information about paramotors or where to buy one wasn’t as easy as it is today,” he says. “But it turned out that an old army friend of my father’s had one, and he sold it to me for £2,000.”
The vendor in question – the father of singer James Blunt – had abandoned the machine due to its amateurish construction and dubious reliability. “It was certainly a bit primitive, but it did get me flying,” continues Cardozo, “and it got me thinking about how to make one that was far lighter, safer and more efficient.”
Although only 19 at the time, he funded his project by designing and making long-range fuel tanks for owners of the Japanese-built paramotor DK Whisper, which at the time was the leader in the field. But production of the Whisper ceased when its manufacturer, Daiichi Kosho, one of the world’s largest makers of karaoke machines, appointed a new president who saw no future for the paramotor subsidiary.
The irrepressible Cardozo subsequently managed to acquire the remaining Whisper inventory, which he shipped to Britain and around which he formed Parajet 17 years ago. He improved the design, initially working in a barn workshop at his parents’ home, where he formulated a new framework and collaborated with a local engineer to develop and build a lighter, more efficient engine.
Cardozo gave his fledgling firm a publicity boost a decade ago by flying above Mount Everest alongside adventurer Bear Grylls in order to prove the capability of his designs, and the latest Parajet models are now considered state-of-the-art within the industry. They comprise the entry-level Volution 3; the Zenith, which features an ultra-accurate, CNC-machined framework; the Falco, which combines the paramotor with a sit-in trike frame; and the Maverick, the premium model made from ultra-light titanium. Prices for the various versions range from just £2,868 to around £9,180, on top of which you’ll need a wing costing from £2,120 to £3,590 and some basic flying clothing such as a safety helmet, gloves, boots and possibly a flying suit. Theoretically, once you’ve bought the kit, you’re ready to fly – although Parajet, and most other reputable paramotor makers, won’t sell it to you before you’ve had some formal training.
“If you know what you’re doing, a paramotor is very safe,” explains Dan Wareham, group brand marketing manager. “But we would never support the idea of anyone flying solo before completing the proper training, which typically takes around 10 days and costs about £1,000. Initially, pupils learn ground handling of the wing, the theory of flight and how to read the weather.
“After that, they move on to practising getting into and out of the seat, and take some basic tow flights with the wing before moving on to running with both it and the paramotor to get used to the weight and balance. Then they should be ready for a first solo flight, during which they will be in radio communication with the instructor on the ground. Novices typically reach that stage within three days of starting their training.”
Parajet works with several training schools, and many more are listed on the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association’s website. But according to Joe Schofield, editor of Skywings – the official magazine of the BHPA – paramotoring still suffers from being something of a “cottage industry”.
“It seems to be a far more solitary occupation than paragliding, which tends to be done by people in clubs,” says Schofield. “As a result, there is nothing to stop people taking it up without training, and that is potentially dangerous as well as bad for the image of the sport, because pilots often don’t know the rules regarding things such as flying in commercial airspace, causing a nuisance by flying too low or using their machines in nature reserve areas.
“The main problem is that there are plenty of wealthy people who already have a sports car or a superbike and are looking for a new thrill and can afford to spend a few thousand pounds on a paramotor. They are often tempted to fly without training but, like most things, it looks easy when you watch someone who’s proficient.”
That bit about the sports car, superbike and search for new thrills sounds horribly like me. But at least I’ve booked some training. Now forgive me – I simply must fly…