“I used to sit in class and dream of flying like a bird,” says Mike Tiffee, a 36-year-old power paraglider pilot from Charleston, S.C., who flew in this week’s “Wings Over Winter” event being held at Chalet Suzanne.
One-hundred-fifty pilots from all over the world are in Lake Wales for the event, most of them bringing their powered paragliders by car or truck.
A powered paraglider (also known as a paramotor) is a motorized ultralight that is small enough to fit in the trunk of a car and helps a paraglider to fly.
Tiffee, a freelance tech director for CBS and major sports networks was just in Boston for the Patriots game, and the following day in Lake Wales so he could really “fly like a bird.”
Powered paragliding is known as PPG or paramotor flying.
“I have always wanted to fly since I was a kid,” Tiffee said.
“Some people just have it in them. They love looking at the earth from the sky.”
He said there is just something about having a motor, taking off and flying in any direction, “total freedom.”
“It’s 360 degrees any way you look. That kind of feeling is really cool,” he notes.
Tiffee’s love for the sport was ignited when he saw a buddy of his was selling his paramotor on Craigslist.
Paramotors cost between $4,000 and $10,000, depending on whether you buy new or used.
Each can carry about three gallons of gas, providing about two hours of flight time.
Flight time varies some, according to wing span and the weight of the pilot.
It’s been almost exactly a year ago that Tiffee took up his new sport.
The way it works is that generally, the first time a person goes up, they go up with an instructor who will do tandem flights with them.
“They will take you up where they are as the pilot to see if you like it, and do you like the sensations you are feeling?” Tiffee says.
“When you are up there, it is total peace, generally very smooth, usually not a rough ride.”
Pilots like to fly when the air is smooth, early in the morning or late in the evening, and either two hours before or after each, he says.
His first flight took place in Florida, where he trained with an instructor who towed him.
“They tow you up, you learn how to launch the glider, and you learn how to land,” he says.
They are also taught how to “kite” the wings in case the engine quits.
That’s so they can just glide to the ground.
Most experienced pilots use their gas for climbing, then glide down.
“It’s not an emergency,” Tiffee says.
But what goes up must come down, scientifically speaking, and that is where as pilots, they have to know where to fly.
Tiffee notes they aim for “landable terrain,” that is within gliding distance at all times.
One reason pilots love Lake Wales is that it’s “wide open” in most directions, with cattlefields.
“It’s beautiful here, there’s orange groves,” Tiffee said, noting “we are not bothering anybody’s residence. You can be out in the middle of nowhere.”
Tiffee admits he was pretty scared the first time he flew.
“You are about to fly yourself into the air — so many things go through your mind. Training is designed to develop a muscle response to a certain situation. It was scary before I took off. You start running and the wing inflates, suddenly the harness starts picking you up off the ground, and you are flying in the air.”
“Any kind of fear is overtaken by how awesome it is being in the air,” he said.
“Now it’s just amazing.”
He says that in South Carolina, he is mainly confined to flying on the beach, because the winds are pretty steady and smooth.
In Florida, the thermals cause turbulence.
“Some guys seek the thermals. They can find a thermal and circle and fly all day. It’s somewhat thrill seeking. It’s a little more dangerous,” he says.
Though the event started on Monday, the Florida weather and high winds got in the way, and flight was suspended that day because of it, according to Eric Farewell, of Aviator PPG, who organized the event.
According to the city’s economic development director and the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Jim Bell, Eric Farewell is “ a real go-getter” who tries to “do something to generate interest in our city and area.”
“This is a facet of it,” Bell notes.
“I think any time that we have any type of good, clean event that brings in visitors to our community, it is great. It gives us a chance to show off our neighborhood,” Bell notes.
“A lot of people coming in have no idea where Lake Wales is.”
Chuckling, Bell, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot, notes jokingly, “I think that people that do that are crazy. Just think about it. You are just strapping a huge propeller to your fanny.”
“I hope the weather is good. They are going to have a great time up there,” he adds, noting that he personally has plans to go and watch the event at some point this week.
Tiffee notes that though no training is required to fly, for safety purposes, it’s a good idea.
“Getting good instruction is very important,” he says.
Wings Over Winter will feature a trade show and competition.
There will be free flying, timed races, aerobatics, spot landing trials, tandem instructional flights and a United States Powered Paragliding Association sanctioned qualifier competition will offer pilots entry into the world air games.
For information on the sport of paragliding, visit aviatorppg.com.
Spectator admission is free, and the powered paragliders will fly from 6:30 a.m. till 10 a.m. and then 3:30 to 7 p.m., weather permitting.
Meanwhile, Tiffee says the cool part of the whole day is when everything winds down at the end of the day, when everyone sits around a bonfire, exchanges stories, and talks about equipment and the next time they all gather again for their time in the sky.