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Free Flying

Woody Hayes hoped to take his globe-spanning hobby up over the symphony

Woody Hayes, originally from Olpe, shows students his powered paraglider. Hayes had hoped to fly over the the symphony event, after the concert. (Photo by Brogan Gillmore)

By Kevin Benavides
Flint Hills Media Project

When most people want to visit another state or country, they’ll probably take a car, or trust a pilot to fly them where they need to go. Woody Hayes would much prefer to fly on his own terms.

Hayes is a paramotorist, the term used for someone who participates in powered paragliding, or PPG. Hayes was on his way back from working in Waco, Texas, and was looking for an area near Cottonwood Falls and the symphony site to fly one of his paramotors before heading back to Indiana.

PPG is a unique form of aviation as there are only a few simple regulations placed upon the pilot and their equipment. The laws mostly regulate where they cannot fly, such as near airports or above people.

“What’s nice about this is you can play down on the ground, play real close to the ground. Fences, roads, trees, creeks, rivers, just play. You start getting above 1,000 feet, then you lose the feeling of the earth, you start getting disconnected from that,” Hayes said.

Woody Hayes, Flint Hills native, talks about his hobby, powered paragliding. Hayes had hoped to fly over the the symphony event, after the concert. (Photo by Brogan Gillmore)

A native of Olpe, just south of Emporia, Hayes works for a company that fixes and rebuilds power plants around the country. Because this forces Hayes to travel, it’s a perfect match for his hobby.

What separates PPG from paragliding is the use of a paramotor — a harness and a propulsion motor set up almost like a backpack — with a parachute “wing” or “kite” to lift the rider into the air aided by the motor rather than relying on natural winds.

“We like to fly when there’s little to no wind, less than 5 miles an hour is ideal for us because it’s really smooth…So when you’re flying five or less, you can let go of your controls and just sit in your seat, and just sightsee,” Hayes said.

A private citizen in the United States does not need a pilot’s license to participate in PPG.

While there aren’t as many regulations, many riders recommend getting training with the equipment before taking flight.

“First time? Yeah, it scared the living crap out of me,” Hayes said, chuckling. “They didn’t tell me the winds up there were about 20 miles an hour. So for a new pilot, 20 mile an hour, up there, it scared the living dog out of me. But I didn’t give up, I loved doing it.”

Despite the near traumatic first flight, paragliding ignited a passion in Hayes. He has been a paramotorist for more than two years.

He first discovered the hobby online, but even as a child growing up in the Flint Hills, Hayes had always wanted to fly.

“Ever since I’ve been about yea high,” he said. “I remember as a kid always wanting to fly and watching the birds. And it took me 54 years to get there, well, 52 when I started.”

Hayes served in the Army as a tank turret repairman from 1983 to 1986, where he hoped he would get a chance to become a pilot.

“I ended getting married and having kids instead, so I gave up on that dream,” Hayes said.

But after finding paramotorists online, he decided to try it out.

“That’s the most common thing you hear from people my age is, ‘God, why didn’t I do this years ago?’” Hayes said. “So we encourage young people to get involved.”

The hobby is practiced in both the United States and parts of Europe and is growing in popularity, but is still unknown in some parts of the country. Hayes said there are about 5,000 to 10,000 pilots in the country, with about 12 in the Wichita area and only a few more in the Kansas City area.

Every year there is a meet up of paramotorists to host a fly-in together and lead a week of instruction to introduce the hobby to those curious about paragliding. The fly-in used to be in Florida, but is now hosted in Fredonia, Kansas in May.

While communication is possible during flight, Hayes would prefer to listen to the sounds of his surroundings, even when he flies with his friends.

“A lot of guys will listen to music, or you can get on an airband frequency for traffic, air traffic. Or even fly with your buddies and connect sena, like motorcycles do, talk back and forth,” Hayes said. “A lot of guys do that, I just want nothing. I don’t listen to nothing, I don’t have no radio, I don’t have no music. I’m just up there in serenity.”

Hayes learned of the Symphony in the Flint Hills during his stop in Cottonwood Falls and was planning to fly above the concert at sundown, when the symphony stopped playing.

He wanted to leave the audience with a patriotic show of blue and red smoke while carrying the American flag.

“I was bummed out, I really was,” he said after learning that the concert was canceled.

It would’ve been the first time that a paramotor pilot flew over the symphony.

Hayes enjoys sharing his hobby with anyone curious about it. He loves seeing the hobby grow in number of pilots and wants to help in its expansion.

Hayes recommends that anyone interested do their research before taking their first flight and to be taught by a certified instructor. He also warned that not everyone will enjoy PPG, but this kind of flying is a unique experience.

“When your feet leave the ground, every flight, it’s really difficult to explain that feeling of freedom when your feet come off. It’s euphoria,” Hayes said.