My way of saying Thank You
Five years ago, there was a knock at the door of my home. Thirteen strangers stood silently on my driveway with four rented RV's parked behind them.
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The only English speaking stranger (Luc Trepanier), albeit with a strange French Canadian accent, explained he was told to come visit me for advice on where to fly in the local area of Sedona, Arizona. Knowing the PPG world is small and most PPG pilots are good people (despite which state, country, or region of the world they may live), I invited them into my home for the week. At first, it was a game of charades with my new friends as I didn’t speak a word of French and my Spanish was weak. An open kitchen and a lot wine seemed to make the communication game much easier. Despite the language challenge, we all flew well together and thus began a five year flying journey together. Each year I travel at least once to France, Spain, or Quebec to attend their flying adventures. Each year they send a small group of pilots to the USA and I join in on their planned route.
This is where this particular story begins. After years of my foreign friends’ hospitality, providing me with a Paramotor, lodging, transportation, food, fuel, and wine while I was overseas, it was time for me to repay the favor. My goal was to provide a PPG trip they could never forget (my way of saying “thank you”).
Now slightly capable of having conversations in French and Spanish through immersion on the last few years of adventures, I invited these great friends and all their colleagues on my planned journey for them. I spent over a year researching routes, flying sites, and planning cross country flights throughout the southwestern United States. I knew small fields or dirt roads could not handle this many pilots launching and landing at one time. Coordinated cross country flights with multiple destinations while still remaining as one large group traveling together was the goal. I had to find a way to develop a bullet-proof itinerary and route for both pilots and non-pilots to enjoy – to put into the record books as “the best trip ever” (in their eyes).
In October of 2014, I flew most of the legs of this 1,500-mile (2,400km) Southwest Tour ahead of time to scout the planned itinerary, confirm landing options, and find remote camping sites able to accommodate such a large group size. It took another six months of planning and “negotiations” to secure flight permissions from the FAA, the Navajo Nation, and local airports to address a group size of about 85 people and 60 pilots. My goal was accomplished – at least on paper.
In September of 2015, motors and gear started arriving from overseas. On October 2nd 45 people from France had finally arrived and were reunited with their 35 paramotors in 5 huge crates. Another 22 people and motors arrived from Canada and 12 more from Arizona and California. Some of the French Canadians flew commercial airlines to Phoenix, Arizona while others drove over 40 hours with their friend’s equipment in tow. Kudos to those hardcore pilots from Quebec! I arranged for a friend’s six-door custom 4x4 limousine with a 20-foot trailer to shuttle the new arrivals between the hotels and the nearby Cruise America office where they rented RVs. When the group finally got underway, there were 30 RVs and about 85 people caravanning the southwest highways for this two week trip.
After assembling motors, we commenced our flight journey from an old abandoned air strip north of Phoenix. The plan of starting at low elevation to keep the potential crashes to a minimum worked flawlessly. Once we arrived two days later in the mountains of Sedona, Arizona at higher elevation, all pilots and gear were stretched out and warmed up. That is, until a pocket of rain clouds soaked our clothes and wings leading to the near-cancellation of the cross country leg from Cottonwood to Rimrock (via Sedona). But a few shivers and encouraging words later, some careful routing of pilots around the remaining storm clouds lead to an epic flight through the majestic red rocks in Sedona. I heard one foreign pilot say it was his new all-time favorite flight… ever.
Our next day of travel followed close behind the rain storm as the elevation continued to increase and the temperatures dropped to near freezing in the morning. When we arrived in the forested high mountains of Flagstaff, no one from the group was excited to venture into the mud left by last night’s rain and the lingering low clouds for our next cross country flight to Winslow, Arizona.
Cross country journeys such as this deal with more than just weather, group logistics, and flight GPS coordinates. The planned route started at an altitude of 1,100 feet (335m) in Phoenix and step-by-step rose to 7,200 feet (2,200m) in Flagstaff. This was a big challenge for those not accustomed to low air density. Launching at 7,200 feet is not for the faint of heart. Only six die-hard pilots attempted to launch in the muddy and cloudy morning in Flagsttaff to attempt the cross country flight to Winslow (via Meteor Crater). Two of the original six turned back to only fly the local launch area. The four of us who managed to fly on hoped we could overpower the cold with the views of the untouched natural beauty of the southwestern high-desert plains. Unfortunately, we lost one more pilot at the refueling spot with a broken propeller. Out of the six of us who braved the weather, only three of us (Luc Trepanier, Cliff Stone, and me) completed the entire cross country leg. We climbed to 9,000 feet (2,750m) and found heavenly smooth and dry air above the clouds. The sun dried our wings and warmed our souls for yet another epic flight on this journey.
In spite of this initial weather hiccup, all of the remaining days of the trip cooperated incredibly well with plenty of sun and low wind levels. This allowed most pilots at least two flights every day of the two week trip. Most of the pilots completed each cross country flight as well as flew each local area in the afternoons as planned in the itinerary.
One of the highlights of the trip was camping on private Navajo Nation land near Window Rock. Since campsites cannot be found within hours of Window Rock, I coordinated with the local Indians and brought bags of coffee, chocolate, and food to trade with the Navajos for their generosity and hospitality on their land. The Navajo Indians prepared traditional food (including the “Naniskadi” – their sacred traditional fry bread), open fire BBQs, live music, and a sound system to share their personal historical experiences and stories around a camp fire. An old Navajo woman told stories of her past from before the arrival of “the white man” and recounts of the Navajo Code Talkers from World War II. She said this was the first time in history where the white man had “circled the wagons” (our RVs) around the Indians - not the other way round. It was truly a multi-cultural and memorable evening.
The next morning we flew from Window Rock north towards Crystal, New Mexico. Everyone was speechless from the amazing southwest scenery we all experienced. I couldn’t help think about Cars (the animated film) as many scenes in the fictitious place of Radiator Springs along Route 66 looked nearly identical to the scenery I was witnessing on this flight. For a second, I thought I heard my paramotor talking to me in the voice of Mater the tow truck from the film (Larry the Cable Guy). Of course, the altitude might have contributed as well since the launch was at 6,850 feet (2,100m) and we flew another 1,600 feet (500m) higher through the first half. A few of us discovered ancient images (petroglyphs) carved into the walls of red rocks as we flew in, out, and between the towering vertical cliffs of these small plateaus.
After we stopped for lunch in Canyon De Chelly (a hidden canyon and Navajo oasis), some of us went hiking down into the canyons with an Indian guide while others braved horseback riding for the first time before we continued our journey north. Although the cross country flight from Kayenta to Monument Valley was initially blown out, a few of us found completing this leg of the trip in reverse a few hours later in the evening worked out great. Most pilots flew this leg on the last day of the Monument Valley fly-in event as we departed. As I looked back at the planning of the itinerary on paper, my dreams of creating cross country expedition were becoming realized each day as my friends flew all legs of the planned trip.
By the end of the first week we had finally arrived at The Gathering at Monument Valley Fly-in event. Earlier in the year, I was asked to organize the annual event for 2015. So continuing to coordinate and organize another 50 pilots from across the USA fell right into place. Combining our group with the attendees of the fly-in resulted in the largest turnout in history. The airport was overflowing with wings and motors. Parking overflowed beyond the airport grounds into nearby fields and turnouts. I held the annual flight briefings in the morning (translations by Luc Trepanier), coordinated takeoff’s and parking, and organized group dinners both Friday and Saturday nights. Friday night’s dinner was held at the outdoor community pavilion where people from 6 countries gathered for a BBQ meal, singing, and a PPG movie (thanks to Cliff Stone) around an open fire. Saturday evening’s banquet dinner filled the house with more people than anyone could remember in over 10 years. Prizes from the first week’s scavenger hunt were awarded and an appearance from “The PPG Moron” (Paul Anthem’s character) attempted to translate my evening presentation into a unique Moron language (very funny).
Each day of the journey brought new excitement as the scenery changed. Starting in warm Phoenix’s low desert surrounded by sculpted mountain ranges, saguaro cactus, and wild donkeys, to the green hills and towering red rocks in Sedona, the forests in Flagstaff, the high desert plains of the southwest, and finally the mammoth monoliths of Monument Valley. I heard one pilot from France explain how he had always dreamed about flying in America and his dream had been fulfilled after flying this trip’s first week. But this (Monument Valley) was an unexpected surprise for him. He was overwhelmed in awe of the scenery and full of joy.
Yet, each day’s cross country flight seemed to top the last. By the time everyone reached Lake Powell, Utah it was hard to believe it could get any better…But we were wrong. The beauty and contrasting colors of the sparkling blue lake, the surrounding brown desert and rolling hills, the towering red and white cliffs, and the deep black and orange canyons were tearfully overwhelming. A pilot from Quebec (JF Leblanc) actually had tears of joy streaming down his face after he returned from a flight through Marble Canyon. A few of us brave (or stupid) pilots flew down into the deep cravats and explored the 1,200-foot (366m) vertical cliffs of the Marble Canyon area south of the Lake Powell Damn. It was definitely a “top five” flight we’ve ever flown. Flying under the Marble Canyon bridge was stunning. We camped on the beach at the lake for three nights which allowed time for some swimming, kayaking, sightseeing, and local tours through Antelope Canyon and inside the Lake Powell Damn facility. We also finally had time to relax and recharge our batteries after a grueling first week.
However, the trip was not over as our crowning achievement was still yet to come in a few more days. Early Wednesday morning we all launched from the Page Airport and flew to the Tuba City Airport (90miles/145km) before driving the remaining part of the leg into the Grand Canyon. Somehow, nearly a year prior and with six months of persuasion, I secured permission from the FAA and the Grand Canyon Airport managers to allow our group of pilots to fly from the Grand Canyon Airport to the Valle Airport within normally restricted airspace. It took many calls and emails to even find a sympathetic ear and two personal visits to the airport and control tower before things started to fall into place. Ultimately, the authorities agreed to issue a NOTAM and shut down the airport for two hours. No one could remember anything similar ever happening before. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us all.
As pre-arranged, we were met by the airport managers and a paramedic team before dawn at the gates. Our launch window was 6:00 to 7:00 and airtime from 7:00 to 8:00 within the vicinity of the airport. But we had a huge paved tarmac to set up multiple rows of wings in a very organized fashion. Seven wings wide (laid out tip to tip) and seven rows deep littered the tarmac by 6:15. Multiple pilots were ready to launch at the same time and awaited the one of three air boss’s permission to take flight. Thankfully, a light north wind aided our high elevation launch at 6,800 feet (2,070m). We were authorized to go nearly to the canyon edge three miles north of the airport and then we needed to clear the area before 8:00am to allow normal commercial aviation traffic to resume.
This was it… the moment everyone was waiting for… the first ever, legal flight in a paramotor to fly at the Grand Canyon! Over fifty pilots managed the difficult launch to be in the sky with this group’s one-time, historic flight above the Grand Canyon – in a paramotor. I carefully coordinated with the officials and directed our group’s flight traffic before launching last. I saw one propeller break, two defective engines, and one out of gas stop, but the rest of the team made the easy 50 mile (80km) journey to the Valle airport. As I swept the air from behind herding in the last remaining airborne pilots, I landed last to the cheers of all the other pilots for our final flight of this two week journey. This was the Grand Finale Flight and everyone roared with enthusiasm, high fives and joyous hugs to all those around.
After two full weeks of flying and nearly 50 hours of flight time, about 50 people from the remaining group prepared their gear and motors for their long journey home. A final celebration for the larger “two-week group” was held at the Blazin’ M Ranch where the French and Canadians were indoctrinated with some good old west American values – guns and alcohol. I am not sure who drank the most but Martin from Quebec won the sharp shooter pistol award. A western music show accompanied dinner and the costume photo gallery was booked solid all night.
With such a large group we were fortunate to have no serious injuries and only one difficult retrieval during the entire trip. After the first three days of dodging storms, the weather became perfect. Everyone seemed to have good training, know their gear, and stay within their limits. In the end, all the initial efforts to plan an exceptional trip for “them” resulted in the most unforgettable trip I have experienced. In addition, planning is only a small part of a huge trip like this one. The execution and coordination with all of the other people who helped along the way allowed this journey to be so successful. Many thanks to everyone who helped facilitate this trip (Luc Trepanier, Sarah LeCoq, Oliver Durant, Bernard Bretin, Lex Hemeyer and others) for such a superb and successful Navajo Nation Southwest Tour 2015.
Epilogue – Week 3
Although many pilots departed after the first two weeks with huge smiles and few sniffles, myself and 23 others continued on. We flew a third week in “undisclosed locations” (possible hidden secrets within the southwest waiting to be discovered by paramotors).
— Scott Ritchie