No one did that before
Most of our PPG flights are around our backyard in a known environment. Doesn‘t it get a little
boring after a while? And suddenly a bunch of pilots decide to strap the sleeping bag onto the
paramotor and leave for the unknown. This race is one of its kind. No such thing has been done
- Flying paramotors over 1900 kilometres. It’s like from Copenhagen to Barcelona. Oh yeah,
- it was F*far.
- Across 5 states from glaciers at the border with Canada to the desert at Las Vegas
- Fly all day, regardless of weather and turbulence
- Flying unsupported = carry all your gear
- You are on your own – only start and finish point are given. Plan your route, analyze the weather, make good decisions and accept the consequences of the bad ones…
The landscape changes every flight – and it’s breathtaking!
This is why we do it. To exit from our backyard and go to explore the new places. The landscape did not only change every day but literary every flight. After every flight when I greeted my flying friend Byron with a high-five, we concluded this was the best flight in our life. And every flight coming next just beats the previous one. Wow that was amazing, every time.
Fields and mountains
The Icarus Trophy started in Polson, Montana at the Glacier National Park. The country is similar to what I am used to back home in Slovakia: valleys, mountains, forests, blue rivers and lakes. There were not so many trees which reminded me we are at higher elevation. The grass was already quite yellowish which indicates that winter is coming. Elevation and winter combined … I already knew the first flight is going to be freezing. We were following the valley surrounded by high angry mountains with clouds even more angry. One feels so tiny and then suddenly the valley ends and we have to climb to fly over. There is a very tiny gap between the soaked cloud base and the mountains. The pass on the left seems to be more forgiving and leads to interesting landscape that the locals call the High Desert – almost lifeless mountains and hills. This reads as plenty emergency landing options and safe to fly. While the terrain seems inviting, there is a catch: the elevation. The next petrol station would be at 7000 ft ASL and that takeoffs at 5000 with all the gear were already quite demanding. Opting to cross the higher mountain pass in the south turned to be a good idea as I ended in Salmon. A green, flourishing but yet cold and rainy valley surrounded by high desert mountains. Maybe its green in early spring, who knows?
While the obvious and shortest route would be to follow a wide valley from Salom to south east in a pretty straight line to Idaho Falls, yet me and Byron decide of a detour in direction of Elk Bend and Challis. Simple reason: the narrow and curvy valley looks so cool! We were flying low over the river cutting through the mountains with plenty bends and turns, new and new layers of mountains appeared ahead. At that time we were still trying to locate some emergency landing options. That task was only to be accomplished with false optimism. Yet it was well worth the risk despite the ugly weather.
Cant believe the landscape changes again on the next flight from Challis to Arco. The wide valley continuously rises and we end being at 7000 ft. ASL. And it gets alll white. Snow everywhere. Even in the chambers of my glider. Suddenly the sun comes out and makes the day bright. We make it to Arco at the end of the valley where strong winds force us to land and stay overnight. The flight next morning, OMG, something I have never seen before. The mountains give way to miles and miles of flat land. We fly over the Craters of the Moon: volcanos, craters and lava fields everywhere until the horizon. The patterns on the ground are amazing, like painted, black replaces brown, red, grey and yellow. Dead land. No traces of life. No roads, no houses, no traces of human activity. Nothing. Just vast lava fields. You would definitely not want to land there. The lava is far from being flat and even. Imagine the waves and splashes suddenly freeze to form sculptures. The lava is hard as stone and sharp as a knife. A broken ankle is the best you can hope for. We are pushing our risk tolerance further again (see chapter trust your Guardian Angel)
As we are coming closer to Pocatello the lava fields are replaced by circular farm fields – green circles everywhere as we got to the Snake River. The closer we get to the Salt Lake City the higher the mountains get. They eventually reach up to 9000 ft while the Great Salt Lake spreads on the west. I flew over. Not the mountains, I flew over The Lake. A totally different landscape again. Well, the water of the enormous Great Salt Lake looks exactly same all the time. Trust me, no big deal. But the swamps in the north of the lake were so colorful and beautiful. All the bright green, yellow, sand color mixed with bright sky reflections… Plenty birds were giving me way and dropping shadows on the water and breaking the mirror with their wing tips. Getting to the miles wide beaches on the other side of the lake was a big relief. I survived and I was rewarded by fantasy patterns of salt on the shoreline. I got to fly low to see them close and I was chasing some guys having their fun with ATVs on the sand… My big dream was to fly over and into the the Bingham Copper Mine, the largest surface mine in the world. The mine is massive and impressive, but you need to google for some images of the mine. I have none. Unfortunately by the time I got closer a huge cumulonimbus was erected right above the mine so I had to skip it this time (Hey, one more reason to get back to this part of the world again).
Great Salt lake
I have given a promise to Shane (see chapter Trust your Guardian Angel) not to fly above the water again. Thus I had to fly around the Utah Lake instead of taking a shortcut over. It was awesome> the water was so shallow at the shore that the birds were hitting the bottom mud when taking off the water leaving cloudy mud dots in the water. It was like beach flying – midday, hands off, nice laminar wind, pure fun on this generally very exhausting trip. So I had some relax before the next high elevation mountain passes – crossing the Spanish Fork Canyon and Price Canyon. Entering the canyon was a little scary. I hate to fly canyons upstream as one might get trapped if an unexpected end of the canyon that I could not climb over and canyon would be not wide enough to turn around. This definitely was wide enough; it’s just a weird feeling. The landscape was already known to me – very high mountains, mostly dry with some sparse vegetation, bright sun, plenty cumulus clouds above and highway and railway under my feet. Yet flying across the Price Canyon everything changed – I have entered southern Utah. No highway under my feet. No railways. No towns. No farms. Not even dirt roads. Nothing. Seemingly no life.
No life around
This is so unusual to me coming from Slovakia that is a densely populated tiny country. You could point your camera to any direction without capturing any traces of human activity. Southern Utah to Arizona is a paradise for geologists, it’s a pure study of any rock formation you could ever imagine. I was totally alone with all the rock monuments around me. Cliffs changing color from yellow to brown and red. I could clearly see the different layers being wildly cit by endless canyons. The whole place is like a plateau with random scars in it. I headed on a straight line over the noman’s land from Price to Hanksville. The loneliness was suddenly so scary, so threatening. I still had the flight over the Great Salt Lake in my mind and suddenly I felt so anxious I had to turn back to get closer to the highway. I was still far from it but (at least) seeing it in a far distance gave me a false impression of safety. At least I had a chance to have a look at the Arches Natural Park with all the crazy red rock pillars, walls and bridges. Imagine how much fun would that be to fly a slalom glider INSIDE and INBETWEEN!!! It was so tempting to break the rules and have my dosage of illegal fun in the national park. Fortunately it was still turbulent and thermally very active so did not feel sorry for having to skip this. The Canyonlands National Park is just a little Grand Canyon, but compressed and zoomed in. Beautiful. Wonderful. A must see. I have to get back here one day. And it’s a neverending supply of geological surprises. Imagine flying low over a flat land and slowly coming to an end of it.
You don’t see what’s behind it but you feel there is an end to it. Flying low turns it into a video game experience and you see the edge coming faster and faster as you get closer. And then there it is. The ground just disappears underneath your feet and you are over a HUGE valley with a massive ridge spreading from far left to far right. This is the Comb Ridge. I continued on a straight line and the planet Earth just kept on showing me the best of the best. Suddenly there were the Goosenecks of the San Juan river – moonlike surface squeezed in a spasmodic agony. The place was so dead that not even the dark yellow muddy river could grant conditions sufficient for life. Dead river cutting through dead land.
Comb Ridge and Goosenecks at San Juan river
Passing the Mexican Hat the country changed again and I could see the typical view of the Monument Valley in the far distance. There is never too much of Monument Valley. Flying close to the monuments I had the feeling I could touch it if I stretched my arm. The Monument Valley is a playground. You could foot drag the messas, touch the rock statutes with the wing tip. Byron just invented a new paramotor trick – walking the wall. You need to fly straight onto a massive wall, then in the very last moment you make a wingover style tight turn and walk the wall down. Byron almost nailed it. I dare You! Proximity flying at its best.
The Monument Valley
If you feel the Monument Valley is the most beautiful part, its only because you have not seen the Rainbow Plateau between Monument Valley and Lake Powel. Well, hardly anyone has seen this beautiful spot. It is Navajo area, no trekkers, no tourists, just a few dirt roads. Pretty much the only way to observe this beauty is from an aircraft. And the paramotor is the best aircraft to do it! Fly low, fly close as if you would want to talk to the ridges and canyons. It is same red as Monument Valley, but it more shaped by water, round, fluid waves, like a stadium to play around. Red rocks are in contrast with dark blue sky above and a white rock layer on the bottom to dive into the intensive blue water of the Lake Powel. Passing over Page we continued to the Horseshoe bend – a deep canyon bend that spoils the perfectly even desert plateau.
Rainbow Plateau and Horseshoe bend
This is the beginning of the Grand Canyon that we could see in the far distance. Not now. Not this time. We continue over the Marble Canyon and Paria Canyon to northwest (entering Utah again). The final challenge was to cross the Virgin Mountains to the final destination – Mesquite Airport in Nevada. High-five and champagne time!
Every weather is flyable, though not every weather is enjoyable.
We have started in snow, hail and sub-zero temperatures in Montana over to Idaho. On the first night in Polson I had ice on my sleeping bag in the morning. It was the moist vapor freeing on the surface of the sleeping bag and the tent. Once I landed I ended up not being able to unlock one carabiner on the glider as my fingers were totally frozen. I just stood there for a few minutes, helpless. Other day ice hail was biting my face in flight, I was collecting snow inside the chambers of the glider. Within 9 days we got to Arizona and Nevada with tropical temperatures – swimming in the Lake Powel and flying in T-shirt.
It’s not only climate changing over the whole adventure. It’s also the weather changing every day. We have been literarily flying slalom in-between the storms, watching storm clouds moving on the radar an adjusting the route in real time. On a stormy day I was a bit ahead of Byron having a rain cloud formation on the left and on the right ahead. It was obvious that these two clouds will join and block my way. I landed at a small farmers airport at Downey. On the tracking website I have seen Byron is flying just a few miles on the right heading full speed to squeeze in-between the two clouds before they merge. I immediately set the glider for takeoff to follow. After two minutes in flight it started to rain and I landed back again. I was watching Byron’s online track log, fingers crossed…he nailed it. It must have been very tight. About 30 minutes later the rain was over and I noticed two fellow paramotor pilots clearly heading to land on my airstrip. No, no time for party. They were followed by another massive wall of rain. I took off as they were doing their final approach. Later I was told it started to rain when they touched the ground. If I was just a minute late, I would be caught by rain again. The whole flight the rain followed me. Rain just behind my prop, rain on left, rain on the right, tiny window of opportunity in front of me. Man I was lucky…
Almost every weather is flyable!
Trust your glider.
The morning and evening flights are truly enjoyable. Reading my landscape description you could probably distinguish the down and dusk flights as those parts sound more optimistic. Yet, every weather is flyable and we were flying all day, despite the massive turbulence. At Arco the tailwind changed into turbulent headwind with no warning. It was like hitting an invisible wall when we suddenly slowed down from 60 mph to 15! The takeoff at the Lava Hot Springs facing a venturi wind in the valley was sketchy. Flying into the Spanish Fork Canyon and over the Price Canyon was the most turbulent ever. I was thankful for these thermals as it helped me to gain altitude, but it was so exhausting to keep my full attention. I have finally learned my lesson in the Moab area. As another valley merged from the left, the head wind got so strong that the only way how to penetrate was to release my trimmers all the way beyond the red line, push full speedbar and fly 2 metres above the ground.
Impossible to land
The wind was plenty turbulent because of all the canyons and ridges that I could not rest at all. That was the moment I gave up. I was tired, exhausted, dehydrated and I gave up active piloting. Well, there is not much you could do with the glider in a collapse at full speed two meters above the ground anyway. I did my SIV on this glider, I know. While the Viper 3 is a very nervous glider, it is pretty pitch stable and throttle control was sufficient for for-aft oscillations. I grabbed my tip steering to control the roll and surrendered my life to the will and ability of the glider. Later I had a vertical landing with trimmers fully open. This was the “Trust Your Glider Day”. From that moment on, flying was easy. From that day I did not care about oscillations, about hits and bumps in the air. I continued to chew my breakfast, replacing the batteries in the camera or just kept my hands warm without bothering to touch the brakes. Good news for you as I took more pictures:-)
Trust your paramotor.
We have flown over no man’s land. We could either follow the highway or take a shortcut to see the unseen. We chose the risky way. The entire adventure was about the reliable engine. I trusted my SCOUT paramotor as the Moster Plus engine never ever missed a beat. Oh yes, we took a ton of risk. At so many places we could die in case of an engine out. Flying over The Great Salt Lake was obviously a stupid decision and I would not do again. There would be no chance to open all the twelve buckles and carabiners on the harness, auxiliary fuel tanks and travel bags while being tangled in glider lines and having salt water splashing into my eyes. Yet other places were not much more forgiving. The Lava fields are known for people dying because of breaking their ankle and not being able to get help. Remember, it’s a dead land. Byron concluded that in case of emergency it would better to throw the reserve for a vertical parachutal landing as there would be no chance to swoop land on the razor-sharp lava.
Impossible to land vol.2
Beawerhead Mountains, San Rafael Reef, Rainbow plateau, Paria Canyon to name some examples … The whole southern Utah is unforgiving. While there were some emergency landing spots (if you are optimistic enough) you would end up being f* far away from any help. There are no people around, no roads, no houses, no farms, no cell phone coverage… Trust you paramotor or go home. The risk is included in the package. Take it or leave it.
Trust your Guardian angel.
Our satellite GPS Guardian Angles made us feel a little safer. The Adventurists provided us GPS satellite trackers and an unrevealed guy called “Tracker Tom” was watching our flight all the time. The tracker was able to send and receive messages over satellite, so it was not dependent on poor cell phone coverage. After every landing I had to send an arrival message confirming I am OK. If I forgot, I could expect a call or a message within 10 minutes as someone wanted to make sure I am safe. Knowing someone is constantly watching me pushed my risk-acceptance limits further. During the adventure I have followed a simple rule – stay one day walking distance from civilization. The idea was based on following assumptions:
- Fly over landscape that gives some chance to survive in case of emergency landing. Broken ankle fits into these limits.
- Don’t count on quick help, no way to drive a SUV, no way for an ambulance. The best case scenario is Shane hiring horses or dirt bikes to pick me up. The real scenario is to walk.
- Someone could eventually fly over and drop me few bottles of water or some food.
Getting along (refuel, eat and sleep).
5 Gallons of fuel is legal maximum in the US, so grab an auxiliary tank. I have used a 6 liter bladder that was hanging on my chest. After an hour when I consumed half of my regular tank I connected the fuel bladder to the fuel line and let the fuel gravity-flow into the main tank.
Refueling is possible at local airports (avgas) or simply land at gas stations (regular gas). However, you will need to carry a gallon of 2stroke oil, it is not possible to buy on most places.
Staying overnight was a lot easier than I thought. At the beginning I was carrying my tent and sleeping mat with me. After two days I got rid of the tent and matress because I have found out it is not necessary. These are your sleeping options:
- Every airport with a gas station had a pilot lounge that is open for airmen. The code to enter is mostly the airport frequency. A couch, bathroom and a warm place to stay overnight was available. I did my sink laundry and took some rest. Some were even equipped with a shower, small kitchen. In Kanab they had monster TV screen with Netflix…
- Every airport had a courtesy car! Wow what a service. Its just a car that is free to use by pilots to get into the city for dinner or whatever. At some places there was no personnel at sunset anymore but we have found the keys and piece of paper to sign up if we want to use the car. So we just drove to the city for warm dinner and shopping. Amazing, isn’t it?
- Few times I landed at a gas station and stay overnight in a city. Before landing, make a few rounds above the gas station to attract attention. Thus after landing there will be at least 10 people wondering WTF just landed and offering you help. Many times I just loaded my paramotor on the back of their truck and they gave me a ride to the hotel in the city. An option is also to walk into the gas station and ask them to store the gear until next morning. Then you hitch-hike to the city for a hot shower and proper bed. People in the states are very helpful, really. Ask for help and you will be helped.
With these tips the only equipment you need to carry is:
- Additional fuel bag
- 2stroke oil for the whole route
- Sleeping bag
- Some spare clothes but not much is needed in fact. I smelled badly but gasoline was my parfume.
- Bottle of water for emergency landing.
- Some food as I did not waste time to eat on the ground.
A quick guide to route planning.
Three points were given: the start, the finish and one waypoint to be the Monument Valley. That’s it. Now it’s up to you to choose your way… And pretty much everyone chose a different route. Some like it safe, some like it hot. This is the workflow for planning the route:
Gas station plan
- Open the skyvector.com aeronautical chart. It’s a great tool to plan your route with the comfort on your laptop.
- In flight you will need a navigation app. I was very satisfied with ForeFlight on iPhone.
- Plan route, prefer to follow the valleys. Check the elevation for crossing the mountains. Try to avoid flying over high mountains. First you burn too much fuel climbing and second, the cloud base might be low and not let you pass (this nearly happened at crossing the Beaverhead mountain range).
- Look for regional airports. These are the best spots for landing, mostly have fuel available and offer additional services. Both Skyvector and Forflight will give reliable information on avgas availability.
- Search for gas stations on the way. Choose gas stations outside of towns for safe and legal landing.
- Place all the airports with fuel and suitable gas station as waypoints into your ForeFlight route. Have a gas stop every 20-30 miles.
- In flight make a decision which gas stop to skip and which gas station to fly to based on your actual fuel range.
Navigation during flight
F*ck the race – have more fun along the route with Adventure Division.
This is my personal preference and point of view. Once you pay a ton of cash for participation fee, tickets, getting you gear over the pond and arrange a work leave…so get the most of it. Racing for the goal, chasing every minute on the ground, pushing hard for speed makes you miss the best places. I would feel very sorry to fly a straight and efficient bee line and not to make a small detour into lovely inviting canyons around the Indian Creek and the Grand Gulch Plateau . Would I rush for immediate takeoff at the Stevensville airport I would miss the coffee with the nice airport manager showing us the hangars and all his military posters on the walls. With Byron we had some stops at hot springs – having cold rain from above while soaking in hot water was priceless. The racers were rushing for miles while we had our zen moments of relaxation. At the Canyonlands airport I have found a soul mate to jointly complain about all the instrumental and radio flying taking away the beauty of flying as such. He was flying and double wing open cockpit oldimer. At the Monument valley we stopped for the whole day to have some pure joy proximity flying without all the extra gear. We exchanged some flyable time for the best barbeque in the world. Make sure you don’t skip the Big John’s Texas Barbeque in Page. .. I was not lucky to fly into the Bingham Copper Mine but I do not regret the detour. Make sure you share the video with me, if you make it next year!
Having fun on the way
So my advice> don’t rush for race, take your time to get the most of this adventure. The Icarus Trophy has a huge potential to be the holiday of your lifetime.
Is it really the toughest race ever?
Yes, I am totally sure.
I will skip the details not to discourage you:-)
Good luck doing it on your own.
I have gained a ton of experience during the adventure. And I have learned my lesson> It is probably not possible to do it on my own. Definitely not smart.
These are many reasons why doing it alone is not possible/smart:
- Before the start, I had detailed interviews with race director Shane to discuss my planned route. He pointed my attention to landscapes and obstacles difficult to fly. His inputs were valuable. Without that information , I would struggle a lot more and it would be more dangerous and less enjoyable
- Despite the crew did not help us (in the Race Division they are not allowed to give you even a sip of water) it was nice to meet them now and them. Having some talk or a beer or two in the night took away the loneliness and made the whole trip easier. Feeling good is necessary for flying good.
- The whole adventure was followed by professional camera crews. I am looking for the awesome footage to live my memories again and again.
- The Guardian Angel gave me a (false?) feeling of safety. I was lucky on my flight but not everybody was so. There were crash landings, broken props, tree landings, engine outs, running out of fuel in the wilderness… Last year there were hospitalized broken wrists and a broken backbone …see chapter Trust Your Guardian Angel.
- Thanks to the Guardian Angel following my track real time, I was able to push my risk tolerance and fly over places I would never do alone. Without the GPS location I would never fly over the Rainbow Plateau and many other places. I would have to follow the highway:-(
The Best and the Worst…
The most beautiful spot on the adventure
The Rainbow Plateau, for sure. It was a surprise to me. It’s only accessible by air so its totally unknown beauty to tourists. There are hardly any photos or mention of this spot on internet and this gave me the feeling of a true explorer.
The Rainbow Plateau
The scariest moment
– watching the storm coming from the right and the left and estimating my chances to sneak in-between before these two merge. I had some good margin in the end but it I was not convinced in the air.
The scariest moment
The most fun
– burning cow shit in camp fire with Byron. Byron’s quote was the headline for the rest of the trip: “You know, we are burning shit for the first time. We may not get it right.” We had lot of fun and nailed it in the end: you need to break the cow shit into small pieces:-)
Burning cow sh*t
The best of Icarus Trophy
– plenty moments of feeling satisfied with my own achievements. I got an opportunity for such feeling every day.
The worst of Icarus Trophy
– the cold. I hate to fly in cold.
Exhausted, drained, tired … giving up! – I was approaching at Challis airport totally frozen, exhausted, tired, deprived, wanting to give up. Then I spotted Byron waiting for me at the airport. It suddenly gave me so much energy and joy to continue. The next leg was totally enjoyable despite the fact it was the coldest flight on the trip.
Exhausted, drained, tired…giving up!
The most turbulent
– Probably crossing the Spanish Fork and Price Canyons. Yet the most annoying was the flight from the Horshoe Bend to Kanab. We have had very calm conditions. We had blue sky above despite cumulus clouds being massively formed in distance all around. When we hit the Bucksin Mountain it suddenly got turbulent out of a sudden. It was clearly thermal turbulence and it kept hitting all the time. When I turned back a little later I have noticed the right behind us the sky is fully covered with fresh cumulus clouds. It seemed like we were triggering a full frontier of thermal activity. It was tiring and annoying.
My smart moment
– I was heading a direct straight line over totally isolated and unforgiving area of Castle Valley south of Price when I suddenly felt anxious about flying there all alone. I had doubts about my fuel range and suddenly felt fear of the emergency landing. I decided to turn sharp towards the highway. I would make it straight, but I just felt better the safe way. I made a good decision.
Am I a different pilot now?
– Oh yes. I have learned a lot>
- Every weather is flyable
- I trust my glider
- I trust my paramotor
- I have learned to read the landscape and definitely improved my navigation skills.
- I am a lot more confident in the air, relaxed, calm and easy.
- I have learned to value the time on the ground:-)
Team Byro. Winners of the adventure division
Byron Leisek and Miroslav Svec
Text by Miroslav Svec
Photos by Miroslav Svec and Byron Leisek