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I was hesitant to go, but my buddy Chris Montes was pushing me to attend the Salton Sea Fly in with him. It was early spring 2013, my girlfriend Nikie and I packed up my 1987 BMW 325 convertible, loaded up the trailer that I would be towing behind it and met up with Chris and his wife Tukky. The drive from Colorado to California was long and monotonous, but we endured the dreaded 18 hour trek in hopes of adventure of flying our paramotors in California. The drive over the I70 pass came with no surprise, being early spring meant that we would be dealing with potential snow storms in the mountains. Given the fact that I was pulling a trailer behind a rear wheel drive BMW convertible in winter conditions I could only believe looked ridiculous to others, but it was a good combo. The BMW was incredibly reliable, got good gas mileage, and my trailer in which I called the “cheese wedge” due to its looks, mated a good combo for the car in ease of pulling at highway speeds. As we expected we got caught in a snow storm in Utah, it was cold, the roads were icy and lets be honest a convertible top doesn't insulate heat very well. We endured the storm and drove on, behind Chris, time seemed to pass by slowly but the reliving sight of the “Welcome to California” sign was in distance and our minds soon filled with excitement.

Midway through California, Chris’s Ford truck went “bang” and broke down. He was stranded as the parts needed to fix the truck wouldn’t arrive for a few days. He left his truck at the Ford dealership, packed what stuff he could manage to fit in my already tight trailer (he was always known to pack too much stuff), and Tukky and him hopped in my car and we continued onto Salton Sea. 

Ten miles away from Salton Sea we were created by a horrendous smell. It was a concoction of dead fish and a salty sea water cocktail. It was pretty bad and only seemed to get worse the closer we got. Paramotor’s could be seen flying in the distance and we knew we were close. As we pulled into the gate, dozens of RV’s were lined up with a variety of tents and beneath them flying machines lurked. There is something strange about arriving at a fly-in, you get filled internally with an enormous amount of excitement and it never fades. Its rather hard to explain to a non flyer this emotion. We were greeted by friends and acquaintances and I was relieved to step out of the car after such a long drive. 

Excitement soon lessened and a sadness seemingly lurked amongst the pilots, I could tell something was horribly wrong, but was not sure what it was. Mike Robinson the president of the event came up to me, shook my hand, I asked him what’s wrong. His face showed sadness, he explained to me that Michael Mixer was practicing for the pylon race they were hosting that mid morning, was hit by a dust devil while flying and took a major wing collapse in which caused him to crash. When medics arrived, he was unable to feel anything below his waist and was determined to be potentially paralyzed. With any sport comes risk, when you launch your body into the sky on essentially a fabric wing with lines holding your soul and a fuel tank beneath your butt with a motor attached to your back, you can’t expect total safety from the gravity of the earth. Its hard to see a pilot crash and hurt, let alone a friend. Michael was the most genuine of guys, had a heart of gold and was a class act pilot. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through.  


Still eager to fly and catch a glimpse of the scenery that gave the gift of stink, I got setup for take off, launched, and climbed into the sky. Flying sea-level is always a treat coming from the high altitude of Colorado, as you have nearly twice the thrust and lift that you normally would have. The Salton sea is a mystery for sure, its a large lake, that at one time was a bustling resort with boaters and outdoor enthusiasts in the 50’s and 60’s. The history behind it is quite fascinating, as well as the deterioration of the lake and slowly becoming a ghost town due to the water becoming incredibly salt ridden from farming, that it was deemed unsafe to humans. It was a lake that had no inhabitants, what made it even more strange was the millions of dead fish floating on the surface. My nose was not pleased and my flight time was cut quite short due to my focus being overtaken by the stench. I landed and we went exploring around the lake. My enthusiasm of seeing a beach soon turned to disappointment when we walked closer. What I thought was nice white sand turned out to be millions of fish bones obliterated over the years. Why in gods name would you host a fly in here is beyond me, but a pilot will do what a a pilot has to do to simply fly.
We dipped out from the Salton Sea early, and decided seeing the Pacific ocean and a real beach was a better plan of attack, our noses couldn’t take it anymore. We planned on meeting up with some flying buddies of ours near Huntington Beach. Shane Denherder and Byron Lesiek from Utah were waiting in a parking lot when we arrived. California is quite restrictive when it comes to flying, but the nice thing with Paramotoring is we get quite the flexibility from the FAA and parks. I was looking forward to taking off from the huge beach that laid out before our eyes, but was soon met with disappointment from the beach ranger. Turns out we couldn't legally take off from the beach, but he told us we could take off from the creek side bar that was between the beach. I looked at it, and thought to myself there is no way I’m getting airborne of that bar before crashing into the water. We had no other options though, and I really wanted to fly. We all got lucky, and had successful take off’s in such a short area. The air was warm and buttery smooth. Seeing the waves crashing below your legs as you skimmed just a few feet above the ocean was magical. Chris was next to me just skimming the surface, flying free as a bird with a smile on his face. We flew north up the coast. The ocean was loaded with surfers trying to catch the best wave. They seemed shocked yet thrilled as we flew in between them, it was an experience i’ll never forget. We landed and said our goodbyes and parted ways with Shane & Byron.

.We headed south down PCH, en-route to Laguna Beach to visit Nikie’s mom who lived close to the area. Of course as we are driving down, Chris spots an empty beach and insists we stop and fly it. I agreed and drove into the parking lot, in which was at the top of a cliff and the beach was below. We unloaded our gear, strapped our units on our back and proceeded to hike down the long trail to the beach. As we got to the beach, a white truck approached, it was a ranger. Chris and I looked at each other and knew this was not good. A park ranger got out of his truck and walked towards us just as I was laying out my wing for take off. He was a big gentleman, with broad shoulders, he asked what we were doing. We told him we were planning on taking off from the beach. The look on his face was very serious, and I knew we were in for disappointment. He told us we could not fly here, that it was a protected beach and we would have to take off somewhere else. I looked at Chris who I could already tell was furious and about to blow on the inside. Our units are quite heavy *70lbs+ with fuel, and we had just hiked 25 minutes down a cliff trail, and now we were instructed to have to hike back up. I pleaded with the ranger, I told him we cause no issue or damage to the beach and we were skilled pilots who knew what we doing. I still was not hopeful as the serious look on his face remained unchanged. I pleaded with him one more time, promising him I would be airborne in just a few steps and we would be gone. Right then and there a glimpse of hope emerged and I saw the ranger smile. He said “alright let me see this contraption fly, but I was never here” with a wink in his eye. A huge relief overcame Chris and I, we setup our gear as the ranger watched us with eagle eyes. I told Chris, “don’t you dare fail your take off, you only get one”, he smirked and nodded. Wing was setup and I fired my motor, I was nervous, I usually don’t mess up take offs, but this ranger was watching us hardcore, and I knew I could pull this off only once. I popped my wing overhead, and throttled my engine to full power, felt my feet leave the earth, looked back and waved to the ranger. I yelled in excitement, what we had just pulled off, and caught up to Chris who was only a few hundred yards ahead of me. We headed toward Newport beach, which was 15 miles north, watching the jagged rock cliffs move underneath me as I flew over made me worry about having an engine out with nearly no landing spots in sight. Seeing those waves crash against the cliff sides below, made me realize if I went down here my chances of survival were slim, and the odds of getting torn to shreds on the rocks were high.

With Newport beach in sight, I made my approach and landed, Chris then proceeded to land as well. We were greeted by people on the beach who were quite curious about our machines. We hung out and talked for a bit, and then figured it was time to head back to the LZ south. We got everything laid out for take off, and Chris proceeded to launch first. I could hear his prop drive belt slipping as he went to full throttle, his running seemed to never end, and as he lifted into the air, my calm state soon turned to worry. He was not gaining altitude as he flew over the crashing waves, rather he was sinking closer and closer to the water. I knew his belt was slipping, but it had to of been slipping really bad as he was not gaining altitude. I feared he was going to crash into the ocean below, but then out of the blue he started climbing dramatically, his belt must of heated up from the friction of slipping and his propeller regained the thrust it needed to climb. I was relieved, and I cant imagine how Chris felt as he climbed into the sky. My take off was much smoother, I climbed up a few hundred feet adjusted my trims and flew next to Chris headed south. The air from when we landed at Newport beach to when we took off took a big change. I had a hell of a tail wind, and I was moving fast, I don’t know what my ground speed was, but it was fast. We flew right over multi million dollar homes which seemed to hang off the cliffs only Hollywood actors would own. I got cocky and dropped lower to just only 10 feet off the ground, and I was moving fast, as I flew directly over an oncoming cliff face that was quite high. Rotor is an aspect that can put a paramotor pilot in a heap of trouble if not respected. Rotor is essentially disrupted rotating air that can make a pilot fall out of the sky. My wing violently surged upward, and then I felt a paraglider’s dreaded feeling, a collapse. As my wing surged upright, I felt my brake control toggles go completely soft which means you are no longer in control. My heart sank and I was filled with fear, as you become helpless in the sky. I looked up and in a split second what was a perfectly good flying wing had turned into a crumpled ball of fabric and lines. I was falling towards earth and fast, I tried everything in my power trying to get the wing to recover. The ground was approaching fast, I knew if this wing didn’t recover any second, I was dead. I kept pumping the brake toggles trying to breathe life back into the wing, 40ft...20ft...10ft..this was it, it wasn’t recovering, destined to impact the ground. And then just as I closed my eyes, I felt lift, the pressure in my brake toggles regained. I opened my eyes, I was maybe 6ft from the ground, and I was climbing again. I was numb, almost in shock of what just happened. It was a miracle, my wing had recovered, if it had been one more second I would of been history. To make the whole incident of events even crazier, was the gate lock on my carabiner failed and was open. My riser could have easily came out, or a carabiner failure and that was a guaranteed death wish. My heart was still racing, I was breathing heavy, I pretty much brown stained my paints (not really, but close) and I still had to land back where the car was. The flight back to the LZ seemed to linger on forever, maybe it was because I was so mentally and physically drained from the prior events, or time was still in slow motion from the adrenaline flowing through my body. Seeing that parking lot with the girls and Chris waiting for me was the best sight I could hope for. I landed safely, packed up and watched the sun set with my friends with a whole new level of appreciation.

The trip had come to an end, but I sit here typing this and every time I think about the turn of events, the experiences of this adventure, it fills me with fear as well as happiness. Its moments like this that last a lifetime, and it makes me appreciate life and what it brings before my eyes.

Until next time.. 

-Drifto 

 


Comments

11/02/2015 2:22am

Great read, brings back vivid memories! Very nice writing bro, thanks for doing this and helping to preserve the memories of our adventures...

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    Blog Author 
    Nathan Finneman
       is a Colorado native who thrives for adventure, primarily in the sky. His blog takes you through the events  and experiences of his life.  From his personal thoughts and emotions to traveling and his motoring collection. Thanks for visiting!

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