Powered paragliders, or paramotors, are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to more expensive fixed and rotary wing aircraft for defence and security missions, and have even been trialled in the Kruger National Park to combat wildlife poaching.
The sport of powered paragliding has taken off across the world, including South Africa, and although originally intended purely as a recreational activity, is gaining traction as an alternative to more expensive aircraft in roles as diverse as game counting and pipeline inspection.
Riaan Struwig of flight school Epic Aviation in Centurion sees a growing number of pilots using their machines for security, protection and surveillance. For instance, a number of pilots in Memel have been trained to fly paramotors for their community watch programme, and training has been done for mining security. Epic Aviation also trained a pilot who patrols the Lesotho/South Africa border by paramotor.
A big focus is on the farming community – paramotors are being used for game counting, tracking, fence inspection, anti-poaching and combating cattle rustling. Although it is illegal to fire a weapon or drop dangerous objects from paramotors, it is possible to fly with a weapon and when necessary, pilots can land and assist those on the ground.
Police forces around the world are adopting powered paragliders in ever-growing numbers. For instance, in June 2017, police in Marbella, Spain, acquired a couple of paramotors to patrol the beaches during the holiday season, conduct search and rescue and oversee traffic problems.
The Palm Bay Police Department in Florida is a well-known user of powered paragliders, and has been flying them since 2010. After their first few months of flying they had found several stolen cars, and used the aircraft to search for wanted persons and marijuana fields. Paramotors were chosen due to their low cost and the fact that there was not enough activity to justify supporting a helicopter.
Over half a dozen police forces fly powered paragliders in the United States alone, with many other countries flying them for police or military purposes – for instance China used paramotors as a policing tool when they hosted the Olympics, with armed officers conducting airborne patrols, and several countries use them in their militaries, such as Qatar. In Africa, this includes the Egyptian military.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has also trialled powered paragliders. Around 2009 Struwig and record-breaking paramotor pilot Tony Gibson became involved with the military’s Recces, which at the time wanted to explore the utility of the aircraft. Three military personnel were trained to fly and various trials were carried out. This included flying in the Kruger National Park, with about two weeks’ worth of flying taking place in September 2013. This included successfully flying after dark with night vision goggles and thermal cameras. Flying was done on SANParks’ behalf and, according to Struwig, was a 100% success, with the low and slow paramotors being able to follow tracks in riverbeds and discover poachers’ hides/camps.
The SANDF also used paramotors during flooding in Mozambique to help find survivors and bodies and in one case a pilot flew in battery packs to stranded emergency personnel whose radios had run out of charge.
Part of the SANDF evaluation was intended to see how easily it was to deploy a paramotor, and involved a parachutist jumping out of an aircraft with a paramotor and wing in a cardboard container. This was attached to the parachutist via a bungee cord – the box would land first, followed by the parachutist. He would then unbox the paramotor and fly away.
While the trials were largely successful, the dissolution of Struwig’s company ended his involvement with the project, which was taken up by Nirvana Africa, which was established to focus on conservation work and military supply. Nirvana used input from the Recces and hundreds of hours of development flights to create the mission specific ‘Ranger’ paramotor. This featured camouflage harness and tan colour plus thee ability to carry a rifle. Nirvana Africa also developed a combat/ranger kit that included a bullet-resistant vest, flight suit with built-in tourniquets, magazine and equipment pouches and pistol holster.
The Recces has a number of unique requirements that Nirvana met, including a single ignition button allowing the pilot to keep his hands on the toggles for when a possible restart has to be done; a short propeller for rapid acceleration in order to quickly get out of tight spots; a toughened frame that could be bent back into position in case of a crash; a tan body and camouflage harness; and a unique spacer system that would allow a pilot to throw away one damaged blade and fly on as a two-blade configuration.
According to Eugene Cussons from Nirvana Africa, the Recces continued to do long flights, including at night, with the idea to complete a design request before putting paramotors into service. One of the goals of using paramotors was infiltration and exfiltration. In the end the Recces took the Nirvana Instinct into service and still use these machines to this day, with Nirvana providing maintenance and support. They are moving towards acquiring the new Ranger and lightweight F-light paramotors. The Ranger is also marketed to farmers and game rangers as a cost effective alternative to fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
Meanwhile, Epic Aviation developed its first Spider paramotor frame, which evolved into the Spider II, with input from the paramotor community, and now the Spider III, currently being manufactured by Epic Aviation. Almost 100 Spiders have been sold to date, with many going overseas. Epic Aviation is currently developing the Spider IV, which is designed to be a more affordable and compact unit – it is already cheaper than most imported frames on the market.
This is not the first locally manufactured paramotor – Cape Town-based xPlorer Ultraflight began to manufacture its own models in the mid-2000s – but it is helping meet the demand from new pilots. Over the last ten years the sport has grown rapidly, with the number of instructors and schools doubling over the last five years – there are a dozen paramotor schools in South Africa and 160-180 trained paramotor pilots. Epic Aviation, for example, currently has two dozen pilots in training.
Although most pilots fly for leisure – paramotors are the cheapest form of powered flight – they are discovering almost unlimited uses for the aircraft, from towing banners (or flying branded wings) to counting crocodiles in St Lucia. One South African company uses powered parachutes for geological surveying, and flies with laser radar and other sensors. Paramotors can also used for search and rescue – pilots carry lifebuoys which are thrown to people in distress in the water. Pilots often spot sharks while flying along the coast – Struwig once counted 21 sharks in a single flight near Hartenbos, including swimmers that got very close to the sharks. He says paramotors would be a great tool for shark spotting at popular beaches.
The ability to fly low and slow (20-60 km/h typically, but advanced wings can easily do 80 km/h) makes the paramotor an ideal tool for surveillance, game counting, pipeline and cable monitoring, search and rescue, photography, damage assessment and other duties. The engine can be shut down in flight and the aircraft glided for complete silence, but paramotors are almost inaudible when flying at over 600 metres.
Powered paragliders have significant benefits compared to conventional aircraft. They are extremely compact and mobile, and can be stored on the back of a bakkie or the boot of a large car, and are also light – an average backpack unit weighs around 20-30 kg. They are considerably cheaper to operate than even light sport aircraft or microlights, with a fuel burn of several litres per hour – in comparison, a four/six seat light aircraft can cost around R1 000 an hour to operate, and even the smallest helicopter, such as a Robinson R22, costs around R2-3 000 an hour. They are also drastically cheaper to buy, with a complete unit comprising paraglider (wing), motor and cage coming in at R100-200 000.
Another advantage of paramotors is their flexibility and versatility. Whereas most fixed and rotary wing aircraft pilots are required to file flight plans before takeoff, and must remain at certain altitudes, paramotors are not as heavily regulated, and can fly without a flight plan, and at extremely low altitudes.
Although they do require a license to be flown in South Africa, powered paragliding is relatively cheap to get into, with a license requiring 35 flights and 8-12 hours in the air, two open book exams and a radio license course. At R15 000, all of this comes to less than a third of what a private pilot license (PPL) would cost.
Especially in South Africa, paramotors are an attractive alternative to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, as flying a UAV commercially is a cumbersome process as the UAV pilot and aircraft need to be licensed and a certificate is needed to fly certain jobs. Although smaller UAVs are cheaper than powered paragliders, high-end professional units can cost almost as much as a paramotor. Struwig believes it is more accessible to fly a paramotor in South Africa than a UAV, as it is cheaper to train on a paramotor and legally much easier to fly than a commercial UAV.
It is also presently extremely time-consuming to obtain a commercial UAV license from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), with many operators waiting up to 18 months. The SACAA is trying to reduce the waiting time, but without adequate staff and hundreds of applicants, the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon.
A powered paraglider typically comprises the paraglider wing attached to a frame and harness that accommodates the pilot, engine, propeller and fuel tank. Foot-launched or ‘backpack’ units typically carry one person (with a payload capacity of 100-200 kg) while larger wheeled trikes or quads generally fit bigger engines and can carry up to two people. Two stroke engines dominate powered paraglider propulsion due to their low weight and high power output, but quieter, smoother and more environmentally friendly four stroke engines and electric motors are also available. Endurance is typically around three hours, but it is possible to increase this with extra fuel. As the wing is easily detachable, different wings can be used depending on the desired speed, manoeuvrability and payload.
Powered paragliders do not require a runway to take off or land, and, depending on the wind, can be airborne in fewer than 50 metres. Landing is even shorter – a skilled foot launch pilot can land in less than five metres. It is for this reason that paramotors are a common sight over beaches and farms.
Although powered paragliders are versatile, cost effective and practical, they do have one big limitation: the weather. They fly best in calm air, and as a result most flying usually takes place in the early morning and late afternoon when there are few thermals around and the air is still. If the wind is stronger than 20 km/h, this can result in a bumpy flight, and winds stronger than this can be dangerous to fly in. Powered paragliders are also not designed to fly in the rain, as the water can weigh down the paraglider with potentially catastrophic results.
Paramotors are also restricted to VMC (visual meteorological conditions) flying, meaning they cannot fly when the pilot cannot see around him, such as when flying through cloud or fog. Flying is also limited to 15 minutes before sunrise and after sunset.
Although paragliders are limited by payload and weather, their advantages of cost, portability, flexibility and ability to take off and land almost anywhere are making them increasingly popular aircraft for both leisure and practical use, including defence and security.