Sometimes height can make everything look better. Heading to the Jazirah Aviation Club, in the concrete-factory-and-diamond-showroom world of greater Ras Al Khaimah, it was hard to imagine that this would all look better from above. But perspective really does do strange, revealing things to a landscape.
For those new to the concept of powered parachuting it is, as my pilot Kevin Donaldson explains, ‘the closest you’ll get to flying like a bird’. The craft itself is a bare metal buggy with a huge hovercraft-like fan built into the back. A single, growling engine keeps the fan beating and, with this propulsion, gets the speed necessary to inflate the huge parachute attached to the top of the machine. Once it’s blown up, this acts as a movable wing.
When we meet with Kevin – who four years ago traded flying a floatplane carrying supplies and missionaries up the Amazon for Ras Al Khaimah – he is making the finishing checks on one of his machines. ‘We train people up in microlites here at the club’, he explains in his thick Philadelphian drawl. ‘But I find these chutes to be more relaxing than flying a microlite. When you’re in a fixed-wing craft like that, you’re watching the airspeed all the time, you have to worry about stalling it. With these everything happens a lot slower. You physically can’t stall it because you’re just relying on the parachute to keep you up in the air. It works on a very simple principle.’
We drag the craft to a pink patch of sand just past the club’s main runway and Kevin pulls out the parachute and lays it behind. After strapping ourselves in he hands me a pair of headphones and, with a crack of the engine, the buggy begins to roll forwards. He looks back and pushes up the throttle. The straps of the parachute twitch into life before whipping upwards as the chute inflates. As we take off, triumphantly, there’s little for me to do but howl into the microphone.
We begin to climb and the emptiness of the desert comes into view. Save for a few pylons and imposing factories behind us, endless scrubby dunes stretch into the distance; the sun drops slowly over the coast to our right, casting a luminous pink fuzz.
Once in the air, the simplicity of the craft is obvious. The steering wheel is useless at this height – the controls really amount to a throttle and two foot-slides that are used to pull the straps of the parachute and direct the craft to where you’re heading. As Kevin says, it is slow, but there is something relaxing about this.
Our flight edges towards the sea and people run out of the water to wave at us. ‘You feel like the President’ says Kevin through the mic. ‘Or the Queen in you Brits’ case.’
Soon we’ve reached quite a height and can see the vastness of RAK’s backlands spread out behind the coastline. ‘Do you like rollercoasters?’ he asks, and slowly drops the throttle. Silence rushes back as the fan stops and suddenly we’re gliding downwards by parachute alone. The craft begins to spiral faster towards the sea, as Kevin deftly manoeuvres his feet, lifting my stomach to awkward, new heights. There’s a moment of real fear before the fan spins back into life and we straighten out.
Drifting back towards the desert, we come in close to the landscape, disturbing a pack of desert foxes sniffing round a bleached camel carcass. A pace of wild donkeys scarper behind parched trees. Who knew that just beyond the industrial heart of RAK lies a patch of real desert that is, as far as deserts goes, teeming with life? As we touch back down at the club, I realise that the real joy of power parachuting isn’t speed (it isn’t fast) or stunts (just try that one with a parachute and a fan), but the sensation of being completely exposed to the world around you. Rather than rushing over it all in a microlite, or tearing through in an air-conditioned 4x4, you slowly drift above it, fully exposed in the open craft to what lies down there – reconnecting you with the Disappearing desert around.
Want to try it?
Fun flights lasting 30 minutes are Dhs250; one-hour flights are Dhs500. The Jazirah Aviation Club offers lessons to those interested in manning their own powered parachute. All trainees must get government clearance before beginning training (the club arranges this) and be members of Jazirah Aviation Club (Dhs1,000 for the first year, Dhs500 after that). A 15 hour training course, Dhs400 per hour, plus test at the end gives trainees a licence issued by the club that is valid in various countries. Jazirah Aviation Club sells powered parachutes (averaging Dhs10,000), but also rents them out to licensed pilots at Dhs300 per hour. Call Blue Banana on 04 436 8100 to arrange fun flights, or contact Kevin Donaldson directly to discuss lessons on 050 277 8464.