PITTSFIELD – A weeklong charity ride across the width of Maine is drawing attention to a little-known but fast-growing segment of the aviation world: powered parachutes.
The machines – essentially ultralight aircraft that substitute a nylon parachute for the wing – are powered by small gasoline engines that drive a propeller and enable them to fly at 18 mph to 27 mph, usually at altitudes of 150 feet to 1,000 feet.
Members of the Maine Powerchute Association are in the midst of their annual “Chute Across Maine” ride this week from Bethel to Eastport, with funds earmarked for Camp Sunshine, a retreat in Casco for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.
After stops earlier in the week in Auburn and Augusta, eight fliers spent Tuesday in Pittsfield and Wednesday at the airport in Brewer. The group is scheduled to be in Deblois today and Machias on Friday before completing the trip Saturday in Eastport.
Instructors from the association were offering rides to visitors at local airports in return for donations to Camp Sunshine. The group was inspired by efforts such as the annual motorcycle ride by the United Bikers of Maine, who collect gifts for needy children every September through the Toys for Tots program, association president John Gobel said Wednesday.
“We said, ‘We can do better than that. We can do it three-[dimensional] rather than on the ground,’” he said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the association had collected more than $500, Gobel said. Each ride, lasting about 15 minutes, requires a $20 donation, he said.
Powered parachutists say the sport, favored by those who prefer to fly low and slow, has grown significantly in the past three or four years.
“It’s the safest, easiest, most economical way to get up there and fly,” said Jerry Sukeforth of Warren, one of the fliers taking part in the charity ride.
The hobby tends to attract three types of people: former pilots, ex-military personnel, and people who have always wanted to fly but never had the opportunity, Gobel said.
“A lot of people all their lives want to fly,” he said, adding that the group’s average age is about 55.
The avionics are simple: steering is done with feet by pulling down one corner of the chute to get more drag. To change elevation, a hand throttle can add power to climb or reduce power to let gravity come into play.
Most of the machines are two-seaters, which require the pilot to be certified to carry a passenger. One-seat powered parachutes are exempt from regulation.
Would-be fliers can get into the sport for $10,000 or so, a small fraction of the cost of other ventures into private aviation.
Association members say they enjoy flying throughout the year, even in winter when they don warm clothing and outfit the aircraft with skis in place of wheels.
“We fly 12 months a year,” Sukeforth said. “With the skis, we can take off from a lake or from any field that has snow on it.”
BDN reporter Jackie Farwell contributed to this story.