Andy Place - Zero to Hero

Six months ago Andy was a desk jockey with a dream. In his youth he'd bossed the Mongol Rally in a mini as well as pioneering the Rickshaw Run, but now a middle aged family man he dreamed the same dream man has since he first saw the birds overhead. Flight. Here's how he got there.

(Interview with Adventurists Chief honcho Jenny)

 

What's  your  day job?

I'm a freelance Web Developer.

 

How did you get into paramotoring?

Mr Tom (Adventurists founder and Icarus brain-parent).  I helped build and run the Adventurists' tracking website and had habit of looking at the adventure tracking only when it went wrong; team page not working etc. But the first Icarus Trophy in the USA - which Mr Tom flew - I was absolutely hooked on dot watching. The topology, the scenery - it looked absolutely incredible. Plus I'd always been interested in flying anyway and though I'd started to fly real aircraft I ran out of money quickly.  Paramotoring felt more accessible and flexible.

 

How long have you been paramotoring?

My first flight was at the end of April 2018.  3 months prior to Icarus.

 

Why do you do it?

Good question. I don't really know.  The reason I started flying was to do the Icarus Trophy.  Having done so I'll continue to fly.  I'm totally hooked.  Ultimately this is the most affordable form of aviation out there and very unrestricted comparatively to anything else.

 

What's your favourite thing about it?

The freedom - going where you want, within reason.  I love the different perspectives. I've always loved maps and aerial views and once you're up there, you get that view.  

The moment you get take off is like... "YES, I've done it!" An amazing, exhilarating feeling. "Fucking hell I'm actually flying!"  It's all a bit surreal when you start. Over time, you start to realise what you're actually achieving.

 

When do you find time to fly?

I struggle to find time around family and work, but as I work for myself I can fit it around my hours.  Weather conditions are best early morn or late pm, so with some flexibility you can get out quite a bit.

Other friends are restricted to weekends which limits you in terms of weather windows.

 

What was your best experience / worst experience on the Icarus Trophy?

Low points

There was no worst experience, because in the long term it's all positive.  But Day 1, multiple times, I thought; "Why the fuck am I doing this?" Learning to navigate alone for first time, first time in thermals, first time finding, scoping out and landing in unknown places  - all on Day 1.  I had a sketchy landing on the first day and parked my wing in a tree . I wasn't hurt but it left me thinking, "What am I doing?" I have a family at home and this is so much, all at once. It was a low point.  Despite both South Africa and Botswana being really big and open, there's actually not that many places to land.  I found myself thinking  "What would I do if I had an issue?" I felt overwhelmed.

One other real low point was flying out to Kubu Island. In my mind it would've been one of best flights of trip.   I got in the air first time, but accidentally hit the kill switch and came straight back down! It was hilarious at the time and I laughed it off.  But after 4 failed take offs subsequently and then running out of time, I was really angry with myself, really frustrated.  Once I finally  got there (with the help of ground support who got stuck/broke down several times), I met some of the other pilots who said it was best flight of their lives - I was gutted.  It took a while to get over that one.

High points

Throughout the race, there were simple things like random village landings, coming in to land, and seeing what looks like 100 children running towards you to see you land.

 Andy shortly after landing in Mahalapye, Botswana.

Andy shortly after landing in Mahalapye, Botswana.

 Matt Rutherford, after landing in Mmashoro, Botswana - taken by Andy.

Matt Rutherford, after landing in Mmashoro, Botswana - taken by Andy.

The finish was definitely a high point - I had bugger all experience - so to have made the finish after all the low points and difficulties, to fly in on my own at end was really quite special. I couldn't have cut it any finer.  Plus there was the bonus of knowing I was in last place.

That final take off from the border in Zimbabwe to fly to the finish line was the first time ground support saw me properly stressed.  Lots of people were taking off in the same place and I found getting off the ground stressful and hard. But as soon as I was in the air that feeling was gone.  I could hear the cheers of the guys on ground after all the fluffed launches over the sound of my engine, and that really spurred me on. I was conscious that I wasn't going to make it before the cut off time, but would land just before dark.   Between the airfield coming into view and me getting there was an age - I was flying against a strong headwind.  So when I made it there, from such a stressful take off, it was a complete high.  I missed the finish line pylons on landing so ran over the finish line. It was a brilliant feeling. 

My other big high point was the Victoria Falls flight. Oddly people were knackered after doing the Trophy and some of us were secretly hoping the permits wouldn't come through and that they wouldn't have to fly in windy conditions, or worry about radio comms, or fluffing launches, etc. But when the permits came in and it was go, I thought  "Oh no! have to do this!"  I made sure I was right at front of queue to allow for fluffed launches. I fluffed one but got up on the second. The wind was so strong, and it was that slow I thought I'd have land and come back round. But I saw the other pilots struggling and was ascending fast so I kept going and got above the winds. Up there it was much calmer and I did the full flight.

 Andy's knees...over the spectacle of Victoria Falls. 

Andy's knees...over the spectacle of Victoria Falls. 

We had seen the falls from ground the previous day and they're impressive - but that didn't prepare me at all for what it would be like to fly over it.  We were high up, higher than the helicopters and  we did a couple of laps of the fall's. It was unforgettable, the spray, the rainbows, the water falling over the gorge, the river spreading out.  A massive highlight.

 

What were the worst conditions you flew in? How did you cope?

The day we flew out over the Sua Pans on an early morning flight from Kubu Island, which was brilliant.  We flew to Nata to re-fuel then we hopped up to Elephant Sands on a short leg  of about 40 mins.  Usually we'd sit out in the early afternoon due to the thermals but this time we decided not to. So we took off in Nata and I met the worst thermals I had ever had.  It was so bumpy I thought we should should turn around and land. Then I realised it would be more dangerous to land than to sit them out.  My advantage was having a beginner wing which sorted itself out in difficulty. On a more experienced wing I would have had to fly much harder. I had confidence in the wing. My motor also has a high hang point, so I don't feel the bumps  as much as other pilots  with lower hang points would have, but it still felt like I was being thrown around.

 Andy about to take off on the Salt Pans by Kubu Island. One of the few take offs that worked first time.

Andy about to take off on the Salt Pans by Kubu Island. One of the few take offs that worked first time.

Altitude makes a difference. You have to run longer and further to generate lift. It was not too bad as the wing was big enough to give the lift, but what I struggled with was taking of in the afternoon at 3 or 4pm when the wind was constantly changing direction, but not strong enough to do a reverse launch.  Forward launching in changing winds meant lots of fluffed landings. There was the psychological hit of thinking you can't do it and then losing confidence and fluffing it even more. It was very testing mentally. 

 

Do you have any advice to future pilots taking on the Icarus Trophy?

  • Practice nil wind take offs over and over again - nail them every time.
  • Flying fully laden, full offuel, with all your gear, you don't want your first take off of the race; even in the practice days, to be with all the gear.
  • Don't go in with less than 40 flights. Even if they are just take off and landing flights. And make sure that experience is recent.
  • Spend the months before the race walking around with 60kg of ballast in your backpack.
  • Don't be afraid to do it on your own.  The best adventures are had by those who do it on their own and find a way.  I didn't do this but I know some experiences would have been better solo.  Just take Nadav's trip as an example, besides some Some of my best take offs were on my own with no one watching.

Fancy taking on the Icarus Trophy in Brazil in 2019?  

Joolz Ingram

BS3 4AY

Content overlord at Adventurist Towers