Riding the Sky Over Montana

The urge to defy gravity takes many forms.

The Skye Ryder powered parachute comes as a kit for assembly. A 50-horsepower engine is standard, as is the feeling of freedom experienced when flying it. (Jim Rader / EAA)
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At the Avon women’s softball game, Denny Almendinger sat next to me explaining how he’d screwed up flying his Skye Ryder. “Power lines,” he said. “You can’t forget about them goddang power lines.” The week before, he flew low along Spotted Dog Road and forgot about the power line that runs up to Kertulla’s ranch. “The back wheel kind of bumped over the wire,” he explained.

Several times recently I’d seen Denny up in this powered parachute. The Skye Ryder is a three-wheel go-cart affair with a motor and pusher propeller mounted behind the pilot’s head. In flight the whole thing hangs under a rectangular parachute canopy big enough to cover a trailer house. When I had gone to look at it the second time, I loaned Denny my skydiver’s wrist altimeter.

A few low clouds hung over the Garnet Range foothills that abut Avon’s ballpark. The Avon Ladies were having their way with the Seeley Lake team. The most captivating part of the game was the lousy umpiring.

Denny and I kept up the flying talk.

“You’re a skydiver, Tom. You could fly it.”

I didn’t answer. I thought about saying that I had to go home and mow the lawn or start the barbecue or set fence posts.

Denny didn’t press me. We watched another inning. We kept looking up and assessing the nascent cumulus puffs that would coalesce into thunder cells by late afternoon. “Pretty sky,” Denny said. “Should stay good for another couple hours.” My heart beat faster. “Yeah.”

There it was. There was no sense in putting this off. Since the evening I watched Denny fly above the Little Blackfoot River, turn, and cover the two miles to my place above the valley in a few minutes, I’d known that I wanted to fly this thing.

‘’You’d really let me take it up?”

“Sure,” he said as easily as if he were loaning me a socket wrench. “C’mon, I’ll show you how to take off.”

We walked to Denny’s shop, where he works on his silver Peterbilt log truck, his Timberjack log skidder, and the various dump trucks, pickups, and chainsaws he uses in his logging business. Denny’s reputation as a reliable logger has grown, and he makes good money. Nosed up to his new double-wide trailer house is a white Mitsubishi 3000 GT, probably the most exotic car ever seen in Avon, Montana. But that sports car couldn’t sate a middle-aged logger’s adrenaline addiction, and sitting in his shop was the bright green Skye Ryder.

It looked about as substantial as a K-Mart chaise lounge. The molded plastic seat had a lap belt. A triangular frame rising behind the seat held the two-cycle motor. Denny grabbed the tubular frame that encircled the four-foot propeller and protected the parachute canopy and shroud lines during takeoff and landing. He rocked the little bird lovingly and said, “Pretty good deal, huh?”

He explained how you fly it. “Pretty simple. You want to go up, you push the throttle forward,” he said. “Pull back and you come down.” He had me sit in it. A pair of three-foot-long pipes were hinged out from the foot rests. Attached to their ends were red toggle lines exactly like those with which I steer my parachute. “Push with your foot on the side you want to turn to,” he said. “You’ll know what to do.” For taxiing there was a steering stick with a padded grip that turned the nosewheel.

He pulled the starter rope that dangled above the seat. The engine coughed and stuttered up to a racket somewhere between a big chainsaw and a small snowmobile. The whole frame shook and surged, and I chocked a wheel with my foot while Denny adjusted the idle. He hollered at me to open the gate to Earl Knight’s hay meadow across the highway. As Denny taxied over, Earl rode across the meadow toward us on his old Honda 90 with a shovel bungeed across the handlebars and his little border collie blurring around him. Denny shut the motor off and told me that Earl might be coming to ask him to quit using his meadow now that the grass hay was up six inches.

Earl puttered up, pulled a pack of butts from his bib overalls, and asked if it was okay to smoke, as if this deal could blow up anytime. Denny said he hoped that he wasn’t hurting the hay crop. Earl hoped “the water don’t mess up—what would you call it?—your landing strip?” Denny said “landing strip” was probably right.

Denny handed me his helmet and pulled the canopy out of its stuff sack, arranging it behind the machine like he was straightening out a table cloth 10 feet wide and 40 feet long. “On your takeoff, start out slow,” he said. “Be smooth with the throttle. A little speed and you’ll feel the chute fill up. If you remember, look over your shoulder to see if it looks normal. Then just goose it and stay on it and pretty soon you’ll be flying. Stay on it at least until you clear the power lines.”

Earl, straddling his motorcycle, looked doubtful. “You’re going to fly, Harp?” he asked. Denny continued. “Like I said, ease back on the throttle and you’ll come down,” he said. “Hell, Tom, you’ve landed parachutes more times than I’ve landed this thing. You’ll know what to do.”

“How much throttle do you use when you land?”

“Oh, it’s different every time. It’s hot today, it’ll take a little more.”

“How many revs on the tach should I be looking for?”

“You’re going to be pretty busy. Don’t get hung up looking at the tach,” he said. “Just come in low and slow and flare it like a parachute when you’re maybe six, eight feet off the ground. If you don’t like the looks of things, give ’er the gas and come around for another try.”

“Let’s do it,” I said. We checked the shroud lines for twists and tangles and I put Denny’s bicycle helmet on. Before I strapped myself in, I tossed him my Swiss army knife and told him if anything bad happened, he could keep it. He weighed my pocket knife in his hand, surveyed—perhaps for the last time—this $9,000 machine that he’d built from a kit, and had the heart to say, “Nice knife.”

Denny cleared back. Earl kick-started his dirt bike and circled away a few feet. I pulled twice on the starter rope above my head and the two-cycle motor burped maniacally and ramped up to speed. As my forward speed increased, it felt as though the big chute was holding me back. But as it climbed and arced overhead, its profile became a wing in the wind, and I gained speed and took off. It was strange to feel the billowing tug of the canopy transferred through the frame instead of pulling at my crotch and chest. Once I was airborne, I swung sideways. My attempts at controlling the canopy seemed like I was one step removed from the action. But with my right hand on the stubby little throttle, I could ascend at will.

By the time I got to the power lines, I was up 150 feet or so. I started trying to make a left turn out over the couple of dozen houses, two churches, and general store that make up Avon proper. It seemed vaguely intrusive, flying along at no more than a bicyclist’s pace, invading what little privacy such a small, tight town affords. I could see sloppy woodpiles, vehicles with their hoods open, and major appliances lying in backyards. Avon looked shoddy and dangerous.

Wondering where I could land if the engine quit, I flew southeast and, still climbing out over the highway, headed for the east end of town, where the softball game was in late innings.

The Little Blackfoot valley narrows dramatically just east of the ballpark. I didn’t think the Skye Ryder would turn sharply enough to avoid the timbered slopes that form the valley walls. Denny had mentioned that, according to my altimeter, they are 700 feet high. The altimeter showed me at 500 feet. I didn’t know if I had time enough to climb over them. I pushed on the long pipes to which the steering toggles were fastened, and not feeling the response that I’d expect from a parachute, I released the throttle, grabbed the toggle line above my right shoulder as I would in a parachute, and pulled hard—and involuntarily screamed “Shit!” at the alacrity of the canopy’s response.

I let go of the toggle and pushed the throttle all the way forward to regain the altitude I’d lost. Impressed by how well the little thing climbed, I reached up and pulled sharply on the left steering line, grateful to discover how to get some performance out of the machine. Later I learned that the softball players, who had become accustomed to Denny’s buddha-like silhouette under the translucent canopy, became curious about this pilot cursing and laughing and flailing his arms while circling pendulously above their game. Feeling more adept at turning, I headed back to the meadow where Earl and his border collie and Denny waited like a little clump of cottonwood stumps. I gave them a thumbs-up and looked for ditches that could mess up my landing. As I made another circle out over Denny’s shop, I noted the flaccid windsock. I experimented with the throttle to see how fast I would drop when I cut back on fuel.

I had only a row of 60-foot cottonwoods to clear at the east end of the meadow. I eased back to about a quarter throttle and seemed to drop slowly.

I saw Earl and Denny peripherally, from about 20 feet up. I cut back more on the gas, then reached up and pulled hard on both toggle lines to flare the canopy and slow down. The huge chute reacted so slowly that I gave up on a safe landing, released the toggles, and jammed the throttle forward in panic just as the rear wheels touched.

But as I climbed slowly, I thought I had it, so I jerked back on the throttle, flared the canopy again, and landed on the rebound. The Skye Ryder lands at the same speed it flies, 26 miles per hour, which seems pretty fast when your butt is about a foot off the ground. The engine fell to a loud idle, and the canopy stalled. I shut off the two ignition switches and the prop stopped before the chute fluttered down behind me.

Earl and his dog went back to irrigating and harassing gophers. “Pretty good landing,” Denny said. I told him the landing was less than graceful. “Don’t worry,” he beamed, “you’ll do better next time.” He told me there was a guy in the Helena valley with 200 hours in these things who could probably land on the roof of his trailer. “Whose trailer, yours or his?” I asked. “Either one, but his ain’t no double-wide,” Denny said.

For me the image of this graceful, accessible form of flight is intertwined with the image of trailer houses. Like hang gliders, paragliders, and ultralights, these machines make flying egalitarian. The pilots may live in trailers, but they can take to the air in a machine cheaper than a used pickup. They don’t need licenses, registration, airports, radios, or thousands of dollars’ worth of training.

But it was hard to appreciate that richness at the moment because Denny told me that he was getting a little bored with the whole deal. He added that it might be fun to fly places with other people, like an aerial motorcycle club. “I’d sure like to fly with somebody,” Denny said shyly.

When I got back to the softball diamond, the victorious Avon Ladies were giving some kids a turn at the plate. My son and his pal Brett Wheeling rode up to me. “Was that you in Denny’s, uh, flying machine?” Derry and Brett are learning the intoxication of trampolines and I didn’t want to devalue any of this by sounding too hearty. “Yeah,” I said.

Brett, who can do a full flip with a half twist, said, “You flew it alone?”

“It was glorious.”

“Cool,” they chorused, and popped mountain bike wheelies over to the schoolhouse swing set that they had outgrown until they discovered the pleasure of swinging high and jumping.

Last week Derry asked me: If a guy can do a flip on the trampoline, couldn’t he do one off a picnic table? I suppose, I said, but it would be different. I told him he’d have to be way faster than he is on the trampoline. Derry will probably try it soon. And soon, one evening, I’ll head down to Denny’s to see about my pocket knife.

Tom Harpole recently published Regarding Willingness (Riverfeet Press, 2020), which was named a Montana Book Award Honor Book.

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