It was dawn. It was cold. And Stephen Conte had to be kidding. I was in the middle of inspecting a hangar full of beautiful (and very airworthy) looking sailplanes when the sound of a loud two-stroke engine shattered the early morning tranquility. Outside the hangar sat a tricycle with the lanky frame of Aerochute manufacturer Stephen Conte hunkered down in its bench seat.
Gliders may not have motor but at least they have wings. Conte’s craft didn’t appear to have a prayer of flying let alone any visible means of aerial support. All the trike had – lying in the dirt behind – was a huge, multi-colored rag attached by a tangle of cords.
But then came a miracle. Conte cranked the two-stroke motor hanging off the back of the trike to full noise and the giant rag was transformed. First, the pusher prop blew it off the dirt. Then the trike rushed forward and a parachute swung up and blossomed above. One blink later and Conte was airborne, screeching into the distance like a lawnmower gone wrong. The whole process can’t have taken more than 15 seconds; it was like watching a parachute landing in reverse.
A few circuits for the camera and Conte lands. My turn to fly. On goes a mandatory open face motorcycle helmet along with a thick pair of gloves in deference to the early morning freeze. I strap in next to Conte – accommodation for two is tight on the thin bench seat.
Clear prop, zip start and we are off into the take off roll. Conte looks back and up to make sure we have a flyable wing, decides we don’t, chops the power and we roll to a halt. It’s my first aborted take off in any flying machine and I start to wonder whether the Aerochute is as safe as the promotional blurb makes out.
The Aerochute design idea came from a Ministry of Defence specification calling for a durable, easily rigged and transportable machine that was simple enough to fly for the dumbest grunt with the worst hangover. It also had to be hard to crash.
We get set for take off again. A heavy dew has wetted the nylon ‘chute causing deployment problems. But this time the wing swings up sweetly and, after a much longer roll than Conte’s one-up take off, the little ship gets off the deck. We climb to 150m and watch the world awake. All is serenely beautiful but my rational mind starts to wonder about the structural integrity of the four solitary D rings holding the ‘chute harness on (the karabiners are similar to those used in hang gliders and could probably secure the QEII). From there it wanders to the possibility of an errant propeller mowing through the lines – but they’re made of Spectre, which is strong enough to foul the prop before a line could possibly break.
My gloomy reverie is broken by Conte screaming something through the two stroke din. I shrug my hands up to motion that I don’t understand and Conte responds by handing me the controls. Oh my God, I’ve got the ship. Fear turns from illusion to the real thing.
Flying an Aerochute is bone simple. A foot throttle controls the climb and descent. Put the boot in and the Aerochute climbs; back off and it descends, and somewhere in the middle of the throttle travel it cruises level. Full tilt is 70km/h with a minimum airspeed of 40km/h. Aerochute flying controls consist of two steering toggles (or “brakes” in parachute talk), which hang down at shoulder height. Pull left to go left and right to go right. One foot goes on the throttle bar and the other can do what it likes. Conte has a hand throttle designed so that paraplegics can fly the craft.
The Aerochute has to be one of the world’s most austere powered aircraft. The only contraption more minimal is a Para glider with an engine that straps to the pilot’s back.
I grip the brakes as if they were Lotto cheques. “Turn left!” gets hollered in my ear and I give the left brake a half-inch tug. We keep sailing off to the right in the general direction of New Zealand “More!” and I give it another half inch. New Zealand remains the destination. A hand grabs my left wrist and reefs it down a good 12 inches. The ship responds smartly by swiveling left and heading for Brisbane. Aaah ha – a little bit of effort goes a long way in steering the thing. Bank in turns is gentle, even with the steering toggles pulled all the way to the stops. The ship will fly straight and level with hands off the brakes.
Conte is managing director of Aerochute Industries, which distributes the machine throughout Australia and overseas. He sees the domestic market for the Aerochute split between sport flyers wanting to get into the air quickly, safely and cheaply, and farmers using the Aerochute like an aerial trail bike. The Aerochute machines have been sold worldwide, with the majority going to recreation flying and farmers for aerial survey work.
Selling points are ease of use and safety. Australian regulations call for 20 hours instruction as per ultra-light pilots.
The Aerochute is certified under Air Navigation Order 95.32, which relates to powered parachutes and trike hang-gliders. Under ANO 95.32 the Aerochute can be flown to a maximum altitude of 1500m (true ceiling is 3050m) and can be flown cross-country so long as you stay out of controlled airspace. Gusty winds will keep an Aerochute pilot on the deck, as flying is not recommended in winds over 15 knots and the maximum allowed crosswind for landing is five knots.
Conte says the most obvious safety feature is the wing; if something goes wrong then you have already bailed out under a good ‘chute.
In more than 10,000 hours of operations world-wide there has yet to be a serious Aerochute crash. The aircraft is incapable of getting into a spin and stops in the brake lines make it impossible to stall the ram air wing. The machine has been flown 1500km across the Australian outback and has been tested for high altitude, high temperature performance in North East Africa. A variant equipped with skis and balloon tyres was flown around the Arctic for three months.
We land. This is achieved by leveling out close to the ground, backing off the throttle, and pulling on both brakes. The increase in drag on the wing pitches the nose up and the craft touches down back wheels first. Braking during the landing roll is accomplished by extending a Reebok until the ship stops.
My second flight is much more relaxed. This time I know the thing is a gentle flyer and I get involved with enjoying rather than worrying. The sensation of flying low and slow is fabulous: there is no cockpit to dampen the experience of being in the air and you can watch the countryside roll under in exquisite detail. The feeling is God-like. My grin has spread to the vicinity of my ears by the time Conte lands and I am hooked. As the ship rolls to a halt all I want to do is hand over the readies and make it mine !