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.
Beside him, John Kemmeries transfers the Tucson International Airport AWOS to the speakerphone, where a similar “winds aloft” forecast plays to the room full of pilots. “That could trash the air coming off the ridgelines,” Kemmeries frowns. In a lot of ways, this could be a typical early-morning preflight weather briefing. But it’s not. This group of pilots, who refer to themselves as the “Sky Gypsies,” is about to go aerotrekking.
In aviation terms, at least in America, it’s a relatively new sport. Aerotrekking is the art of low-level flying in which an airplane follows the contour of the ground. Low level can translate to anything from flying in ground effect to floating hundreds of feet above a mountaintop. Though not specifically limited to kitewing aircraft with small Rotax engines on the back end, that’s exactly what most trekkers fly. With speeds varying from 25 to 90 mph, enthusiasts report a sensation of being part of the landscape over which they fly, not simply observers suspended thousands of feet above it. And the great thing is that they can go almost anywhere.
“We’re really explorers,” McAfee says with a hint of idealism in his eyes. “I mean, if you think about it, most of us see just the few miles we can catch from either side of a road or highway, or the mosaic of land from the window of an airliner at 40,000 feet. With aerotrekking, we’re seeing places where perhaps no one has been for the last hundred years, or thousand years, for that matter. It’s very, very special what we do.”
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.
That began to change when Kemmeries met McAfee, a relatively fresh aerotrekking enthusiast. He added his entrepreneurial experience to Kemmeries’ trekking knowledge, and an evolutionary moment occurred in the sport that to many was almost unimaginable.
What if a giant circuit of aerotrekking “settlements” could be established, each with a nice runway, a comfortable place to stay, a hangar for the kitewings, food, ground transportation—places where trekkers could fly in and stay for a base of operations from which to explore for a few days, then move on to the next spot, and then the next? A plotter laid across two maps of Arizona and New Mexico indicated that 11 of these aerotrekking havens were needed to join the circle and make virtually everything—everything—in the great American West accessible to this new breed of pilot.
That was little more than a year ago, and by now eight of the eleven properties have been purchased, and negotiations are progressing for the remaining three. Work to ready the destinations for trekkers is already underway, and locations will be brought on line one by one the moment each becomes ready. The first facility is scheduled to open this October in Rodeo, N.M. Of course, that’s why the Sky Gypsies are up this morning—to help work out the bugs.
And in short order, nine kitewings are in the air. Over a common air-to-air frequency, pilots and passengers alike are chattering. Ivan has jumped a herd of deer that are moving up a nearby hillside. Rich is in the lead aircraft and is reporting no rotors coming off the ridgeline. The air is velvet smooth. John has spotted a javelina trying to become invisible in a strip of green that runs along a riverbed, and Jen is orbiting a lava tube. She discusses landmarks with Jim in hopes the two can lead the group back by foot to explore it. The whole gaggle is in a loose formation, excited, flying, aerotrekking through more than 11,000 square miles of mostly empty country, headed toward a high-mountain dry lake bed where they’ll land in an hour and share stories.
Sooner rather than later, they’ll reconvene at yet another of these new aerotrekking stations and explore the canyons and the mountains for whatever they can uncover in their low-level fliers. All of them know this private party won’t last forever. Already aerotrekking operators south of the border have heard about McAfee and Kemmeries’ creation and want to talk about connecting the American facilities to other aerotrekking operations all the way down to South America. And it’s only natural that McAfee and Kemmeries have imagined the steps of tying together all of the United States for this new style of aviation. If only half of all the possibilities on the table come to fruition, it may one day be possible for an aerotrekker to leave Cleveland and hopscotch from one aerotrekking facility to another all the way to Patagonia and back, exploring the world as perhaps no one else has before.
McAfee takes it all in stride. “It’s pretty cool actually because that’s really the whole reason we’re putting all this together, to open up aerotrekking as a serious sport, to open it up to the world, really,” he says. “From our perspective, most of this planet has never been explored, not really, not from this point of view. It’s just great to be able to share something this exciting with a whole lot of people! It’s an honor to be part of this!”