Taking a broader view, this is similar to other forms of aviation. One only need look at airliners. From the outside, they’re virtually identical except in size, and for good reason. Airliner designers have discovered the optimal ways to build jets that accomplish their narrowly defined mission of speedy transportation.
On the light end, essentially the same can be said for trikes, or for that matter, for most types of ultralights. Fortunately, however, the purpose of fun aircraft remains widely varied, and that forces an interesting assortment of sport flying machines.
In this month’s Ultralight Flying! Pilot’s Report, we’ll look closely at the Para-Ski powered parachute. I believe you’ll agree it stands apart from the rest.
Versatility a Goal
Para-Ski International describes their machines as “the ultimate ATV/ASV (all terrain/all season vehicle).” It may sound like a big boast, but I think you’ll see Para-Ski may be able to honestly earn the title.
Back in the early ’80s, I tested another aircraft that laid claim to all-terrain vehicle capability. This was the JetWing ATV – a trike that could be used as an aircraft, or a ground vehicle, or (with floats) a water vehicle.
In fact, the tri-geared JetWing was a lousy ground vehicle. With its 40-hp Kawasaki TA-440 engine, it could easily accelerate to 35 to 40 mph, at which time it became one of the scariest contraptions I have ever tried to control. Without the trike wing on top to add some control and stability, and with just three wheels like most aircraft, the JetWing became highly unstable. At speeds above 20 mph on a turf runway, it bounced around so dangerously I only tried the experience once, and felt lucky not to have hurt myself.
The JetWing was better on floats, but without water rudders, the only way to direct it at taxi speeds was to bank the trike wing and stick the wing tip down into the water, which produced a slow turn in that direction – certainly no way to aim your ship! Not only that, but there was no protection for the prop. The spraying water quickly ate up three propellers in one morning. Thank goodness it was an experiment for the manufacturer, or the cost would have destroyed my flying budget for a while.
Those were early times in the ultralight industry. Today, trike manufacturers like France’s Air Création have perfected the float-equipped trike. Yet, in my opinion, no one has offered a vehicle more versatile than the Para-Ski.
I did not operate the Para-Ski in all its modes, but I witnessed a demonstration on the ground (without wing) that made it appear to be a much more stable machine, even at considerable ground speed. In addition, the company offers a 25-minute videotape that shows off the ATV capability quite convincingly. It also shows the fitting and flight of a trike wing, replacing the more customary powered parachute (canopy) wing.
Para-Ski’s innovation is simple enough: four wheels (or skis). Combined with its bicyclelike steering bar, the Para-Ski appears able to traverse terra firma as well as it flies through the sky.
Given its apparent stability in ground operations, I can see how the Para-Ski also does well on snow skis, although the reduced surface friction might allow speeds to build up to a fearsome velocity. (Para-Ski International states the maximum snow speed is more than 80 mph, while ground or water speeds are a more docile 35 to 40 mph. Flight speeds are the slowest of all – with the powered parachute canopy wing, it cruises about 25 mph.)
In yet another way, the Para-Ski betters the older JetWing ATV. It brags the ability to fit a trike wing in lieu of the canopy wing. Though Buckeye’s Brat and Spartan Microlight’s DFD manage this same trike-to-canopy wing transformation, and while others are also predicting such multiple-wing choices, certainly the Para-Ski remains a craft with numerous vehicular possibilities.
At some point, to truly prove its chameleonlike qualities, I hope Para-Ski International representatives bring all their toys to an airshow and demonstrate each variation on their aircraft’s theme.
Not only does Para-Ski International devote their promotional literature to the multiple capabilities of the design, but they also observe, quite correctly, that these other opportunities help the machine offer year-round use. Many sport aircraft spend one season or another hangared as their usefulness suffers. Nonetheless, flight is what interests both you and me, so let’s look more closely into these characteristics.
No More “Road Crossing”
In my one and only other encounter with a powered parachute, I managed to do poorly what many nonpilots achieve with some ease. I ineptly handled a Buckeye Dream Machine, and in so doing drove the aircraft into a ditch on the far side of a road by the runway. Oh, I did better later, but my vaunted ability to adapt to any aircraft took something of a body blow.
Powered parachutes are different machines, and I was unprepared for those differences, despite having flown well over 200 aircraft in my role as a flight reporter, and despite having expert instruction (to which I regretfully listened too little).
Subsequently, dealers for Six Chuter informed me that not all powered parachutes are like the Buckeye. For example, one problem I experienced was the “reversed” (compared to general aviation) throttle control of the Buckeye, where one moves the throttle aft to increase power. Every other aircraft I’d flown uses a backward-moving throttle to decrease power. I won’t say Buckeye is wrong, but their method is nonstandard in aviation and the Six Chuter dealer with whom I spoke said their brand uses a conventional throttle application.
In addition, Buckeye and most trike builders use counterintuitive nosewheel steering (push left, go right). Para-Ski International changes this feature dramatically.
In their four-wheeled powered parachute, Para-Ski employs a handlebar steering system rigged to both wheels and canopy. While the rigging looks daunting to get precise, this isn’t the owner’s problem, as the Para-Ski models come ready to fly. Operating the controls appears completely natural, at least for anyone who’s ever ridden a bike.
It seems to me to be a fine innovation and yet another way to distinguish the Para-Ski. You simply steer the way you want to go. Practically every other powered parachute with which I’m aware uses footbars for primary canopy steering (the new side-by-side 2-seat Viking II uses foot pedals). Like trikes and their typically “wrong way” ground steering, this can be learned in a relatively short time, but you must indeed learn it. It won’t come automatically. Eventual adaptation of customers to these methods has caused these manufacturers to stick with their nonintuitive methods as they have now become “standard” methods.
While I respect diversity in both design and nature, industry standards also have value. Pilots of conventional aircraft are somewhat less likely to transition to powered parachutes (or trikes) precisely because they don’t already possess the mechanical reflexes to handle the vehicle correctly. More importantly, 70% of the people who start in powered parachutes are nonpilots, and they may need to learn new techniques should they elect to enter “conventional” aircraft flying later.
Given what I’ll call a “transition factor,” Para-Ski International has gone a long way in making the powered parachute somewhat more like other ultralights.
I add “somewhat,” as the throttle is more akin to a snowmobile throttle. Para-Ski has a thumb-operated throttle on the right handlebar that does not work quite like most aircraft throttles. More people ride snowmobiles than fly airplanes, so I can’t criticize the choice. But if conformity has value to prevent mishandling, then Para-Ski’s throttle is – for conventional pilots at least – somewhat counterintuitive. At least it has a friction lock, so those pilots used to conventional aircraft throttles can “lock in” their power setting.
A Little Honesty
I must be truthful with you. I took an introductory flight in the Para-Ski. I did not fly it solo, and in fact never even held the controls (it has none in the aft seat position). This forces me to discuss the bird in a different way than my other pilot reports. Conversely, it allows me to better describe the machine to the majority of you who don’t fly powered parachutes.
I’d like to take you through my observations of the Para-Ski. Please bear in mind, I’m no expert among powered parachutes or vehicles with multiple “personalities.” My comments may be different than those of the manufacturer’s representatives and other powered parachute enthusiasts, but they may more closely parallel your own. The following points are not portrayed in any orientation of importance.
Unique Construction – The Para-Ski is a sturdily-built aircraft. The wheel axles are welded steel and felt extremely brute in their ability to absorb bumps or poor landings. The “fuselage” is aluminum, a material used widely on the machine. The sides of the fuselage are lower on the X-treme model I flew in. You can still get the VX and XS models, which feature higher side walls. What’s the difference?
The higher sides offer a greater feeling of being inside the machine, which some pilots and occupants prefer. The X-treme lowered the side walls to permit easier entry and exit, as some customers had requested. Para-Ski boss Joe Albanese also says they can make the cockpit wider for a specific order because “a lot of Americans are quite big.”
The prop is protected from water spray in float applications, but this also provides protection from flying gravel and other debris. With the price of a 6-blade composite prop, as used on the Para-Ski, such protection could save you money in the long run.
The seats are uncontoured and, frankly, didn’t look very comfortable, though the company may change this as they continue to respond to customer requests. Surprisingly, the present seats felt reasonably good, at least for a short hop.
Only a lap seat belt was offered. Normally, I’d be quick to criticize such an arrangement, as any upset of the aircraft can throw you out of even a tightly-drawn lap belt. Maybe I need to rethink this complaint on a powered parachute, as the slow speeds and slow attitude changes may rarely allow upset. Nonetheless, I’d prefer more restraint, and I think this could benefit the machine when used with a trike wing or without a wing for ground operations.
A storage area under the seats can hold the folded canopy, which allows ground/water/snow operations while still carrying your canopy with you.
I never saw the construction of the trike wing supports, though images on the videotape appeared to be similar to that used by most trike builders. At the time in April, Para-Ski International indicated they had sold only one trike wing model. Albanese reports that most trike pilots still prefer the standard undercarriages offered by other builders. This might change when trike pilots discover the wide versatility of the Para-Ski.
Para-Ski uses multiple connect points for the risers. All powered parachutes I’ve examined concentrate the attachment to two or four points, and while this certainly appears adequate, the six-point attachment of the Para-Ski seemed to assure the landing attitude would always be predictable.
Four Wheels Versus Three – As I recently drove around Europe, I still saw a few of those curious three-wheeled vehicles that once dotted their roadways in large numbers. Even though they may save a few manufacturing dollars, the three-wheelers simply aren’t very stable at speed on winding roads.
Joe Albanese claims the four-wheel arrangement offers clear and recognizable benefits for airborne operations. He says that during takeoffs where some crosswind element is present, the Para-Ski can lean up on two wheels and remain controllable. Much like those older three-wheeled vehicles of Europe, tri-gear can produce a turning influence when only two wheels are in contact with the surface.
I’m less sure of the value when using a trike wing, but with canopy wings, I’ve often seen inflation take place with a bias to one side or the other. In these situations (not unlike my “road crossing” experience), I can identify with the value of four wheels, even if they are very rare among aircraft throughout aviation history.
Regardless of the air operation value, I can easily see the benefit for ground operations without the wing attached. The Para-Ski appears a capable ground vehicle far superior to the JetWing ATV without its trike wing overhead.
Rudder – Perhaps I’m showing my ignorance of powered parachutes, but I’ve never noticed any rig using a rudder aft of the prop. Albanese says the rudder does help twist the carriage in flight, though the effect is subtle. Positioned as it is directly aft of a 6-blade prop, it surely offers some additional control authority.
For ground operations, the rudder adds no additional control power, reports Albanese. While water rudders will still be needed in float operations, some assistance is given via the rudder in this environment. As it is linked to the control system via a push-pull cable, the rudder movement coordinates with applications of the handlebar and rudder pedals.
Handlebar and rudder pedal steering and handling – I imagine the Para-Ski’s handlebar seems completely natural for a snowmobile rider, or for that matter a bicyclist. As most pilots will have experience with one or the other of these two vehicles, the handlebar seems more intuitive than other ideas common in powered parachutes.
The movement is natural enough (assuming snowmobile or bicycle experience) and you steer the way you wish to go. Adding to this easily-understood system, the rudder pedals – which are linked to the handlebars via a pulley system – also work intuitively.
Though I did not operate the Para-Ski, I watched closely as pilot Joe Albanese flew the Para-Ski around the patch. (This led me to hug Joe’s back much like riding on the back of a motorcycle, while normally the aft seat pilot would relax rearward into his own seat and back support.)
You can use either foot pedals or handlebar for turning, but as with conventional 3-axis fixed wings, using both together helps accentuate turning inputs.
Throttle – About the only device that differs from what conventional pilots would expect is the throttle, and even this should not prove a deterrent. For me, the system is better than the Buckeye throttle/joystick system that worked counter to my experience in aircraft.
The throttle is placed near the right hand grip and is thumb-operated. Though spring loaded, it has a friction lock and it can be set in position just as you might on your conventional ultralight. Think of a modern mountain bike gear changer with similar features and you’ll have the right image.
The fact remains, you are buying a powered parachute. Even if it succeeds handsomely as a ground vehicle on many surfaces, pilots will focus on its air operations. And despite its “bi-wingual” capability (using canopy or trike wing to achieve flight), the Para-Ski stays quite nonconventional in a country full of 3-axis, fixed-wing aircraft.
Indeed, surveys show the overwhelming majority of pilots prefer 3-axis fixed-wing ultralights to either powered parachutes or trike wings. Fortunately, Ultralight Flying! magazine addresses the needs and desires of all ultralight readers, so this report has value. Hey, 3-axis pilots, open your minds! Trike flying and powered parachutes offer interesting aviation capabilities even if they don’t initially seem to fit your interest. The Para-Ski has many benefits as a powered fun machine for all seasons.
Among powered parachutes, the Para-Ski appears to be one of the most expensive available. You can choose the new X-treme model in single- or 2-place varieties just like the older (higher side wall) models. New and older versions carry the same pricing.
The VX or X-treme single-seater goes for $12,695 and the XS or X-treme 2-seater sells for $15,995. In both cases, the prices are ready-to-fly so you should compare fairly to other machines, but the number is about $2,000 more than any other powered parachute brand in Ultralight Flying!’s “1998 Ultralight and Microlight Buyer’s Guide” (in our January ’98 issue). An argument can be made that the Para-Ski offers more for the money than some others, and indeed its features differentiate it clearly. But price is important to all buyers and the Para-Ski is the top of the price line.
More than 90 machines have been sold in the last decade and deliveries are steady at a dozen a year. With broader publicity and planned new products, Para-Ski International should enjoy increasing sales, I believe.
Assuming I’m right about the fact of more for the money, though, and assuming you want your aircraft to do double (or triple, or quadruple) duty for you, the Para-Ski seems a sharp choice. Certainly, it deserves a close look.
After all, if you buy a powered parachute, a trike, a snowmobile, an airboat, and a four-wheel ATV, you’ll spends tons more than Para-Ski is asking.
|Empty weight||340 pounds|
|Gross weight||820 pounds|
|Canopy Span||40 feet|
|Canopy Area||555 square feet|
|Canopy Loading||1.5 pounds/sq ft|
|Standard engine||Rotax 582|
|Power||65 hp at 6,500 rpm|
|Power loading||12.6 pounds/hp|
|Cruise speed||30 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||600 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||150 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||50 feet|
|Standard Features||4-wheel powered parachute/trike/airboat/ATV, ground- and in-air handlebar steering (front wheels, split rudder and canopy), thumb throttle with friction lock, 3-blade composite prop, 8-gallon fuel tank, instruments (tach, water temp), in-flight adjustable trim, split rear rudder, gravel shield/prop guard, 6-point parachute hookup, parachute storage under padded seats, 2-point lap seat belts.|
|Options||Rotax 503, Rotax 618, electric start, 656-square-foot canopy (425- or 454-square-foot canopy for single-seater), rear-wheel brakes (wheels/skis), snow skis, aluminum floats with water rudders, water-deflecting skirt, cover, 6-blade composite prop, trike wing attachment. EIS engine monitor system.|
|Construction||Welded T1026 aluminum frame (no nuts/bolts, all panels riveted), zero-porosity ripstop nylon canopy.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Unique design among powered parachutes (or most aircraft) in that it can be used as a ground vehicle or air vehicle with a choice of two wing types (canopy or trike wing). Very sturdily built. Judging from full demonstration videotape, Para-Ski achieves its multiple-use goals very well.
Cons – Versatile as it is, the Para-Ski won’t deliver the flying qualities that fixed-wing enthusiasts may desire (although the choice of wings considerably broadens its flying characteristics). Not available as a kit to lower cost.
Subsystems available to pilot such as: Flaps; Fuel sources; Electric start; In-air restart; Brakes; Engine controls; Navigations; Radio; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Several systems can be added to basic aircraft which is otherwise simply assembled. Floats and skis can be joined with brakes and an electric start system. In other ways, though, the Para-Ski is quite basic like most powered parachutes. Access to all components for inspection and repair is excellent.
Cons – Did not see a trike wing application where trim might be available. Brakes weren’t fitted (and are hardly needed for flying operations, although I think they’d be very valuable for ground operations with no wing).
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Very easy entry and exit (a special feature of this new X-treme model). Surrounding fuselage offers some protection from the elements. Seats were more comfortable than they looked and allow room for two generous-sized occupants (2-seater XS model). Seat bottoms flip up to reveal a large storage space where parachute wing can be stored.
Cons – Though enclosed on the lower half, you are still easily chilled if conditions are cool. Seats have no contour shape and may not remain comfortable for longer flights (changes in this feature are planned). Lap seat belts only are a negative in my mind. No aft seat controls.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Arguably, the Para-Ski’s greatest strength is its ground handling. To prove the point, the company video shows the craft zooming around on many surfaces. Ground handling controls are quite intuitive and easy to operate; significantly better than most powered parachutes, in my opinion. Visibility is absolutely huge.
Cons – Taxiing appears to take more muscular effort than rudder pedal steering on the best tri-gear or taildragger fixed-wing aircraft (though I did not operate the Para-Ski myself). No other negatives.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Rigging system to the canopy wing done at six points, which appears to aid takeoff and landing. Company video shows engine-off and engine-idle landings that look very tame (of course, canopy size is a big help in powered parachute operations – two sizes are offered). Trike wing operations look very typical of that type of aircraft. Visibility, as in virtually all powered parachutes, is one of the great strengths of this ultralight.
Cons – With the canopy wing, the Para-Ski has the typical powered parachute restriction for crosswind operations – although the machine’s four-wheel construction appears to give some advantage. No slips or flaps to aid approach angle (admittedly not vital in canopy wing operations).
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – More intuitive controls are beneficial to operation by pilots with conventional training (assuming you’ve ridden a snowmobile or bicycle). Rudder appears to add control authority in air and water operations (though not ground operations). It links via a push-pull cable.
Cons – Rigging system of handlebar to rudder pedals looks daunting to adjust should that become necessary (the Para-Ski comes ready-to-fly, however.) No aft seat controls to permit standard 2-place instruction (though this is common on powered parachutes).
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Speeds for ground-only operations are strong (35 to 40 mph on ground or water, and 80 mph on snow skis). Takeoff and landings can be done in very small spaces. Choice of two canopy wing sizes will change operating envelope somewhat to suit customers’ desires. Climb is strong – about 1,000 fpm according to factory. Low and slow flying is the strength it usually is on powered parachutes.
Cons – In-flight speeds are typically powered parachute slow – although (1) this may be the precise objective of some pilots and (2) a trike wing will considerably broaden the speed range.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – As powered parachute enthusiasts say, “If you lose the engine, well, you’re already under canopy.” Factory says stall is “resistant,” though the company videotape says it can’t happen. Very small landing area requirements aid safety, and videotape shows engine-out landings that look very mild. Strong carriage will help poor landings.
Cons – Lap belts only are typically a negative. Powered parachutes are somewhat vulnerable to erratic pilot operation of the throttle which can cause a swinging under canopy wing.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – Significant payload – the Para-Ski can carry more than its own weight. Two-seater comes with Rotax 582 standard (an extra cost on some 2-seat ultralights). Single-seat VX model easily qualifies for Part 103 with canopy wing. Design protects prop in air, ground and water operations. Storage, breakdown and transport are simple (a pickup truck will do).
Cons – Price is higher than other powered parachutes (though the Para-Ski is sold ready-to-fly). Price may change somewhat due to exchange rate differences (the Para-Ski is made in Canada). Not widely supported with U.S. distribution network.