Friday, September 1, 2006
Coming to America in a big, big way
Out the window, there’s not a hint of light on the horizon. Inside, the room is dark except for the glow of the computer screen on John McAfee’s face. “Winds aloft out of El Paso are from the northeast at 22,” he says with a crinkle of his nose that pushes his glasses a little higher on his head.
McAfee is a Sky Gypsy. The group is a conglomerate of aviation singularities, which includes a retired physician, a police officer, a female airframe and powerplant mechanic, a geneticist and so on. The Sky Gypsies congregate regularly to explore locations throughout Arizona and New Mexico in all but the coldest of the winter months. They’ve discovered Anasazi ruins, explored the 19th-century haunts of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, and orbited countless hidden waterfalls and lush green oases ringed in conifers and cottonwoods. This morning’s flight will be over the Chiricahua Mountains, which are so rife with secret nooks and crannies that Apaches no less than Geronimo and Cochise used the mountain mazes to make fools of the U.S. cavalry for decades.
The sun will soon edge above the eastern horizon, and the group is working through the last bits of preflight and preparation for takeoff at first light. Neil, a flight instructor for weight-shift aircraft, is briefing the morning flight with Joel, a student who’s looking to log his first solo cross-country this weekend. Ivan has started his engine and is waiting for the oil temp to come up, while Rich starts a slow taxi with red and green position lights glowing. Ish moves the few remaining kitewings out of the big hangar as Helen puts the final adjustment on a pair of bright pink sunglasses she’ll wear under the clear visor of her helmet. “I wanted people to look at me and at least see that I’m a girl!” she laughs. There’s an unmistakable excitement now in the group of trekkers.
The kitewing light sport aircraft they use are amazingly well-suited for the missions they fly. They can come close to a hover when suspended over something of interest and then completely change directions almost within their own wingspan. For moving over distances, most of these planes can push through 70 or 80 miles an hour, then slow immediately for a lazy climb over the treetops or alongside canyon walls where trekkers peer into caves or enjoy the kaleidoscope of colors that tumble down an arroyo toward the valley floor below. And wherever these aircraft and their aerotrekkers go into the wilderness, not a footprint is left behind.
“Aerotrekking really started in other countries, not the United States,” says longtime trekker, John Kemmeries. “But with this type of aircraft being regulated by the FAA as light sport aircraft and requiring a sport pilot license, now is kind of the perfect storm for aerotrekking. It’s become legitimized.” Kemmeries, whose first memory of flying weight-shift-style aircraft was when he “tried to impress some girls in high school by landing nearby in a hang glider,” is elated. He has operated a school out of Pleasant Valley, Ariz., for years, teaching kitewing/weight-shift techniques and organizing trekking trips on his own. “It’s been great fun, but it required an incredible amount of ground support; plus the world just wasn’t set up to support aerotrekking,” Kemmeries says.
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