New Parajet Madagascar long distance record

On 6 June 2015 I finally realised one of my dreams, to fly from Toamasina to Sainte-Marie Island in Madagascar by paramotor, a distance of 220km.

Last year I had already set the Madagascar record for the longest paramotor flight at 4h30. It was with a Parajet Zenith Thor 200 Evo and a Paramania GTR 24 wing. I had covered 200km, returning to my departure point.

After various other shorter cross country flights in varying conditions I knew I had to get a lighter paramotor and more stable and efficient wing. So after some good advice from my best friend Nic from Parajet Africa, I ordered myself a Parajet Zenith Thor 190 light and a Dudek Nucleon WRC 29 wing.

The Zenith Thor 190 light has met all my expectations. It feels like a more powerful Thor 100, the engine of my first Zenith.  I’d had fuel quality issues running local 95 octane fuel in my 200, so following recommendations from Parajet HQ, I tuned my 190 to run on AVGAS 100LL. The result is a beautifully smooth running and powerful engine.

The Dudek Nucleon WRC wing has also met my expectations. It is extremely stable in turbulence and very fast, a bit like a Paramania Revo2 on steroids.

Planning the flight to Sainte-Marie brought up some challenges that had to be solved.

First: the weather. The prevailing wind is from the South East, and steadily increases during the day, and then drops off in the evening. The first 160km would probably be with a steadily increasing tailwind, but the final 60km would be with a strong headwind. I had to have perfect conditions to avoid having to carry more than 5 hours of fuel – 3 for the first 160km, and 2 for the last 60km.

Second: the ocean crossing. Although the distance is only 7km at the shortest point between the Mainland and Sainte-Marie, I had to take into account the possibility of ending up in the soup. I fitted my Paramotor with an AGAMA paramotor inflatable life vest. I had tested it once by accident when it rained on my paramotor and set off the gas cylinder. Suffice to say it’s pretty impressive. But being able to float wasn’t going to help me much. So in addition I had planned for a boat to follow me and a standby Cessna 172 airplane to spot me if required. I also had a vehicle on the mainland ready to come and pick me up if I landed on the beach somewhere.

Third: alternates. If things weren’t going to plan because of the weather, I had identified alternate destinations where I could land in safety and wait for help.

Fourth: communication. I not only had my Icom aviation radio to listen in on the aviation VHF to avoid traffic or call for help, but also my iPhone with Bose noise cancelling earphones with which I can make surprisingly clear phone calls and of course listen to music the whole way. I also had a Satellite Personal Locator Beacon just in case all of the above failed and I was injured or floating somewhere and couldn’t get help.

Fifth: Fuel. I had previously adapted a 20 litre Turtlepak flexible jerry can underneath the standard tank with a small transfer hand pump. It worked very well, but I didn’t find it ideal. Since then I had purchased a 14 litre belly tank. It is connected to the main tank by replacing the filler cap. As the engine uses fuel it sucks fuel from the belly tank until it is empty. In addition the tank serves as a nice cockpit to Velcro the GPS and iPhone in place.

Finally the day had arrived with the perfect forecast. I was ready, having tested everything. I was at my take-off spot, a local football field at 7h30 am. There was a faint breath of wind. I was going to have to make a heavy no wind take-off, something I had never done before.

I took my time to set things up and do a thorough pre-flight. By the time I was all strapped in and ready to go, I realised that the wind had shifted direction by 45 degrees. With all that weight on me I decided to try and launch anyway, but as expected one side of the wing collapsed. 15 minutes later and already feeling the strain of the extra weight I was ready for my second try. I knew that I would probably have only enough strength for three tries. Concentrating on technique rather than brute force I launched myself forward. The Nucleon WRC came up swiftly and I smoothly applied the power as I ran. Within 20 metres I was in the air climbing steadily, but to my dismay I found myself hanging by my leg straps, incapable of getting into my seat.

I had never tested the fuel tank full of fuel. I had misjudged the connection points and the result was a fuel tank that was weighing my legs down. Within seconds after take-off I new that I had only a few minutes remaining before the pain inflicted on my family jewels would be unbearable. I had to either get into my seat or attempt a potentially dangerous landing with 26 litres of fuel. It is amazing how adrenaline can increase ones strength, as I managed to inch myself up by pushing down on the swan necks one side at a time until I slid into the seat.

I could now focus on the trip. I started by flying around the world-class Ambatovy Nickel Plant where I work, and headed north. Once up at 500 feet altitude, I untrimmed my wing and accelerated to 55km/h as I flew around the town of Toamasina, staying far away from the airport control area by flying several kilometres inland over the hilly forest. Looking down into the forest I new that if I had an engine failure now it would take me days to get out, but my Thor 190 was humming beautifully at 6200 rpm.

Soon I had flown around the town and was back over the safety of the beach. The ocean glittered towards the horizon and the beach seemed to stretch out for infinity. The conditions where incredible with no wind at all and perfect visibility. The Dudek Nucleon WRC was rock solid on top of me. I could let go of the controls and fly just by weight shift as I took photos of the stunning scenery below me.

After an hour of flying I reached the lagoon of Foulpointe, marking the start of the bay of Sainte-Marie. The island was straight ahead, but I had to follow the coastline around as I did not want to attempt a 60km water crossing. I could overhear my friend on the radio in his Cessna talking to the tower asking for take-off permission to Sainte-Marie. He was my ticket back home once I had reached Sainte-Marie safely.

The flight continued on without incident. After 2 hours I had covered 115km. I was not covering as much ground as I wanted so I started climbing to try and catch a bit of a tailwind. The tailwind increased but then starting dropping off as I climbed to 5000 feet. I was at 60km/h and apart from a ready to burst bladder and feeling a bit chilly with an air temperature of 19 degrees all was well.

I decided to descend slowly back to 3500 feet, the safe altitude for crossing the channel. I was finally coming up to Laret Point, the closest point to Sainte-Marie island. At 2h30 into the flight I had already consumed 14 litres, having burnt fuel heavily on the climb. All was looking good for the crossing. I reached the crossing point after 2h45. I could see the safety boat below and I sent an SMS to confirm I was about to cross. As I turned I got a bit of a headwind and I pushed full speedbar to cross as quickly as possible. I maintained altitude for the first few minutes and then started losing altitude as I crossed the middle point. Less than 15 minutes later I was safely across the channel, heading to the safety of the east coast of Sainte-Marie island and its shallow lagoon and wide beaches.

I dropped down now to 100 feet and enjoyed the last hour of the flight along the east coast of this incredible paradise. Nearing the south of the island I crossed over to fly over my friend’s pontoon at his hotel. A gave my friends a couple of beat-ups and wing overs to celebrate the successful journey, much to the delight of the local children watching from the beach. I carried on to the football field on the southern tip of the island and circled until my friends arrived with a quad bike and a classic Citroen 2CV.

After chasing the local Zebu cattle off the field with a couple of low swoops I landed cleanly, overjoyed by a successful arrival. I checked my GPS before switching it off – 3h59 minutes and 220km. I next checked the fuel and found I had 4 litres left, enough for another 45 minutes. I packed up my wing into the bunch bag I had kept in the pocket of the seat and loaded it onto the front of the quad bike, while I strapped the paramotor back on and climbed onto the drivers seat. It was now time to go and celebrate!

Paramotoring is the ultimate flying experience. The Parajet Zenith is the ultimate paramotor. And Madagascar is the ultimate virgin paramotoring destination.

— Stephan Hodgson