SAR After Action Report 2-26-20

Lessons learned at the end

Situation: 3 boaters missing in vicinity of Pickwick Dam.

Search Area: Approx. 1 mile wide, 12 miles long. Flooded timber. Flooded and recently flood row crop fields and river bank.

Personnel: 3- Pilots; Kurt, Alan. Ground team; Mike

Made contact with authorities the night before, but we were unable to get a firm answer on whether or not we were needed/wanted. Search area is approx. 2 1/2 hour drive so I made the call to go and be available in the area.

Official meet up time for volunteers was 0730, we arrived at 0700 and made contact with the command post. The large number of boats had priority so we waited until those were assigned search areas.

The EMA director showed us the area he wanted us to work in and briefed us that helicopter support was expected at 0830. We decided to look for a safe LZ to operate from and plan to launch when the helicopter exhausted its fuel. We were given approx. location of a sod farm on the opposite side of the river that was believed to be usable and set out to find it.

The command post had contacted the sod farm owner who luckily found us soon after we got to the area. The owner led us to a perfect location near our assigned search area. The field was recently flooded but accessible and had plenty of open area to operate safely.

We set out wind socks and started pre-flighting equipment by 0830.

The helicopter came on station approx. 0845 and began working the search area. We contacted the command post to get an idea of the helicopters fuel supply. Shortly after they learned an additional helicopter would be available for the search.

We were reassigned to an area down river near the Savannah bridge. The closest usable LZ was the Savannah airport approx. 3 miles from the search area. We collected our gear and headed there.

Making contact at the Savannah airport, we were given an area near the fuel farm to operate out of. We also made contact with one of the helicopter crews on the ground and were able to better de-conflict our search areas and get radio frequencies before they took off.

We launched at 1115 and started our search just above the bridge. We made the call to stay together on the East side of the river due to extensive flooding and no visible safe path to search the West side.

We were able to search approx. 5 miles of the river bank and flooded fields before turning back. It was difficult to drop below 200′ due to high winds and heavy turbulence. It was a rough flight but doable. While we were able to maintain safe emergency landing areas, some of them would have been very difficult extractions due to flooded roads/debris and very muddy terrain.

We landed at Savannah at 1230, reported our actions, and began planning our next run. Winds were increasing at this time and weather was expected to deteriorate. After talking to the helicopter crew again we decided we couldn’t safely continue so we checked in with the command post and advised them we were departing the area.

We were all very impressed with the professionalism shown by the search directors.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Contact cards- Having cards printed with our contact information, cell phone, email, names of personnel involved, explanation of capabilities, would have been very useful.
  2. Have a plan, plan to change it regularly. Be patient. Search directors are working hard to herd volunteers we are just one small part. Look for every opportunity to not bother them.
  3. Ground support is critical. Having someone who can concentrate on navigating and communicating takes pressure off pilots and allows them to focus on safely conducting the flight.
  4. Don’t forget food and warm or cold drinks depending on the weather. Patience wears thin as people get tired, keeping their energy up will make everything run smoother.
  5. A thorough search is difficult especially over challenging terrain. Don’t sacrifice safety for a better view.

The Physical Side of Paramotors.

Some people seem to be very concerned about the physical challenges of foot launching a paramotor. It’s intimidating strapping on a 60lb backpack and being told you have run sprints with it on your back. Luckily it’s not as hard as it sounds, and you have many options with equipment to make that easier.

Let’s start with motors. I fly a Talon 190 built by Blackhawk. At just under 70lbs with fuel it’s one of the larger, more powerful options for foot launching. The harness distributes the weight nicely (just like a good hiking pack) and for me the great climb rate is worth the few extra pounds of a big motor.

A friend of mine recently purchased one of the lightest setups available, the Vitorrazi Atom 80. It’s an 80cc engine vs. the Talons 190cc but it has plenty of power to get his 165lbs airborne. At 58lbs fully fueled and a comfortable harness it’s very manageable for smaller pilots. At 190lbs, the Atom 80 is an option for me, but it will be working a lot harder to keep me up. Your choice of wing will affect your experience as much or more than your choice of motor.

Everyone has very different physical abilities and challenges. I have knee problems that make themselves known anytime I push a little too hard or the barometer changes for example. But you can get past just about any physical limitation if you want too.

This is an image of a Resurgence PPG trainee. Resurgence is an operation that travels the country making foot launch paramotor flight a reality for wounded vets. These guys have a wide range of invisible to very obvious challenges. They constantly prove that challenge does not equal impossibility. All it takes is the will to make it happen.

The trick is you aren’t really fighting that weight the whole time. As soon as you pull the wing overhead it starts taking on the strain. The motor provides the power to move you forward, like a steady hand at your back. The faster you move the more weight is carried by the wing. You’re really just keeping your feet moving to stay centered under the wing as your equipment does the work for you. It’s about finesse and technique more than strength.

Having said that, being fit will help you out, especially during kiting practice. If you’re thinking of getting into PPG this spring now is the time to start getting ready physically. You don’t need to be a power lifter, agility and endurance are more important than brute strength.

Low impact options work best for me. Biking is a great one. You don’t need an expensive road bike to make it happen. A decent $100 bike(or less at a good yard sale) will be perfect to start building leg strength and cardio. Body weight training can work great as well. Burpees, lunges, planks of all flavors. You don’t need a gym membership, just a block of time and the discipline to make it happen.

There really isn’t one muscle group more important than the rest. On the ground you need your lower body, back and abs to run and steady the motor. In the air you’ll notice the work your shoulders are doing pretty quickly. The more agile you are the easier it will be for you deal with bad inflations and turning into crosswinds on launch as well as running out a landing.

The Blackhawk Lowboy

Of course wheels are an option. This takes out most of the physical requirements. And I will admit some days I would like to just lay my wing out, roll on the throttle and go. But if you want to footlaunch don’t go for wheels because you’re intimidated. All it takes is the willpower to learn. A good instructor can take that and direct it where it’s needed to achieve your goal.

Now, train hard this winter and I’ll see you in the sky.

Astronomy…enjoying the sky when it’s too cold to fly.

The days are short and getting colder. Working from dark to dark means less opportunity for air time, and below 40 degrees it’s hard to enjoy being up very long anyway. But this time of year does offer it’s own advantages.

Astronomy is a great way for every person at every income level to enjoy the sky. Winter offers some of the best, clearest views and best chances to observe interesting things.

You don’t need an expensive telescope to get in this game. You can start learning the sky for free. Apps like SKYVIEW are free and make it easy to start identify objects in the sky. Just download to a phone or tablet and use your camera to travel the night sky.

Speaking of learning the night sky, the book “Nightwatch” by Terence Dickinson is an excellent resource for the budding astronomer. It discusses telescopes, history, star charts and astrophotography in a way that’s easy and fun to grasp.

As for star charts, Skymaps makes an excellent monthly chart. Printer friendly, it comes with easy instructions and notes of all the events to look for each month. And the price of free means it’s there for everyone.

In the realm of free, Stellarium might be the most valuable open source software in astronomy to date. This is a free to download planetarium. The quality is so high it’s used by real planetariums all over the world. It allows you to plug in any location and time on earth and see exactly where everything in the sky is, including satellites. You can watch it move in real time or as fast as you like.

To start seeing the universe up close doesn’t take a lot of expense either. My favorite two tools for this has become a set of binoculars and a spotting scope my friend Joshua at Secondhand Prepper found for me at a flea market for about $10. A decent set of binoculars will show you craters on the moon and star formations you can’t see with the naked eye. The trick is to find somewhere totally stable to observe. A layout lawn chair or on your back on a blanket in the grass make perfect observatories for this game.

Having a printed Map of the moon handy can make it even more fun for kids as they try to identify surface features.

I recommend learning these things before you pull the trigger on more expensive gear such as a proper telescope. Orion Telescopes make excellent equipment. I’ve been using a 90mm refractor on an equitorial mount for a few years (thank you Bitcoin) and I’m very pleased with it. It lets me see cloud bands and the red spot on Jupiter along with it’s moons. The rings of Saturn will take your breath away the first time you find it, and this is enough telescope to spot the Cassini division in the rings when conditions are right. On one occasion in perfect conditions I was able to make out light areas that are the polar ice caps on Mars, it was a perfect night though I haven’t been able to get that again.

Later you might be interested in astrophotography, astronomy podcast, or finding a local “Star party” to talk to more experienced observers.

Just because it’s colder and the days are shorter doesn’t mean you have to miss out on enjoying the sky. It just means you need to change your method of touching it.

NASA Live Feed from the International Space Station.

Winter is Here


The last two flights have left no doubt it’s getting deeper into winter here. High 30s to low 40s isn’t terrible on the ground, but it can get a little painful in the air if you aren’t dressed for it.

I hate cold. And I really hate all the bulky clothes you need to combat it. Gloves are the worst. I’ve been avoiding breaking out the thick gloves as long as possible but the time has come. The problem with heavy gloves comes mostly from the loss of feeling during launch. Difficulty manipulating radios and touchscreens in flight is an inconvenience, but good control at launch is critical. You have to kite with new gloves before you fly with them.

My last few flights were with light gloves. It makes for a better feel, but you pay the price with a little pain. The real danger of cold is losing fine motor skills and a tendency for poor decision making. I’ve noticed both of these in my flying.

Your throttle hand is the worst. It’s always working and always open and exposed and in contact with an aluminum handle. It’s also the hand that needs the most discrimination in it’s actions. Throttle equals thrust which controls your climb/descent rate. At altitude your thrust isn’t critical. Climbing or dropping 10′ while flying at 300′ isn’t a big deal. That same variation flying at 15′ can lead to problems pretty quick.

Brakes can be used for small quick adjustments to altitude, but the effect is temporary. When you pull both brakes you can trade airspeed for a little lift, like pulling back on an airplanes yoke. And just like an airplane, if you use it too much you will bleed off too much airspeed. Eventually your going to stop flying and stall the wing. It’s a balancing act that gets tricky when your losing blood flow to your arms and hands. This means you have to constantly evaluate your physical condition as well as all the other variables if you choose to get low.

You also have to consider how far you are from your LZ. You might be in good shape right now, but how will you be after fighting a headwind for the next 30 minutes to get home. Those fine motor skills get real important during landing. I misjudged my wind last Sunday due in part to wanting to get on the ground and warm up. This lead to coming up a little short and having to bust through the brush at the edge of my LZ. It all worked out, I just had to run out the landing a little longer to keep from dropping my wing on the scrubby bushes. Being off by 2 more seconds could have created a much bigger problem.

From here on out I’ll take the discomfort of bulky cold weather gear over the possible bad effects of getting too cold.

Like a kid at Christmas

10-28-19 Launched from home at 8am.

I really needed this flight. Aside from a few 15 min runs I hadn’t made a real flight since the crazy ride that ended the Darkhorse 450. I had great weather and Kate made sure I had the whole day to make it happen.

I got off the ground about 30 minutes after sunrise. Wind was light and the temps were high 40’s. Perfect conditions for smooth air and I wasn’t disappointed.

Climbing out of the alley.

It was odd not having a plan or any goal to meet. I didn’t even decide which direction to go until I had climbed out. The leaves are just starting to turn and with a little ground mist here and there, the view was everything you would imagine. Spectacular.

Waving at cars on an elevated road, you get the strangest looks.

I decided to head towards Troy and just see what the day might bring. I had a great view of the town starting to wake up.

Good Morning Troy, TN

I made a loop around my parents a few miles outside of Troy and then started hopping tree lines heading back towards Union City.

I see me.

I was starting to get pretty chilly about an hour into it, but like a kid in the snow, I couldn’t quit. It was too much fun. At one point I thought I was losing power until I realized my throttle hand had gotten so cold it was sluggish squeezing.

2nd Baptist Church, Union City TN

I rounded U.C. headed back home, and landed just shy of the 2hr mark. I was shaking so hard I could barely control my flare. That’s probably why it was so smooth.

Headed home shivering.

That flight has made my whole week better. I can not wait for the next one.

Dude, Where’s the Ground???


I went up for another long flight to gather fuel burn data last night. I got a really cool surprise.

Between Rives and Mason Hall there are dozens of square miles of row crop fields. All the corn is cut and the beans are starting to be harvested. This means there are dozens of square miles of bare dirt getting warmed by the sun.

Approaching this area at a gentle climb, I intended to level out at 1200′ and just cruise there for an hour or so. I hit my altitude and reduced throttle to stop the climb, but I didn’t stop climbing. At first I thought I had an altimeter problem. I didn’t think I had entered a thermal, normally you feel a bump going in and if you don’t turn to stay in you feel a bump as you fall out the other side.

I stayed on my heading and kept steadily climbing at idle. It wasn’t fast, 50-100 feet per minute, but the lift was there over this entire area. I did a few turns to change heading and lose some altitude but even in a decent turn I kept climbing.

It was fun but not the flight I needed so I headed back to a forested area to leave the lift. By the time I got out I was at 2300′ and If I had stuck with it I might have gotten to 3000′ with no power.

The rest of the flight was great. I followed I-69 construction around Union city, buzzed the Titan missile at Discovery Park, met Kate taking pictures at a walking track, and put on a mini airshow for some kids that chased me out of Graham park. But feeling that huge area of lift taught me a lot about how to find free altitude.

As for the fuel burn. I flew 2hrs 15min, transferred 3L from my homemade Aux. tank and landed at sunset with 3L left in the tank. That’s about 45min worth if I’m careful. That fuel burn was a little above normal due to all the playing I did down low when the air stabilized. I couldn’t resist. That took me 51 miles with an average speed of 24mph.

With careful throttle use I’ve got no doubt I can break the three hour mark. Especially If I can find a little lift like I did last night.

Speed Record and Rough Day.


The weekends mission was a cross country to Graves Co. airport. About 40 miles one way.

Climbout at 7300 RPM

Winds aloft were the highest I’ve ever launched in, 25-30 mph at 1000′. But they were steady and fairly smooth in the morning. A layer of warm air(inversion layer) led me all the way to Graves Co. That kept me at about 500-1500′. It was super cool to navigate by feeling air temp.

Fuel Reserve

After turning into the wind at Graves Co. about 300′ to setup a landing I noticed a new problem. With enough throttle to move forward I was climbing. Releasing throttle enough to descend and I started flying backwards. Kinda neat but not ideal for my purposes.

50 MPH

I turned back downwind and dropped down to treetop height where the air was rougher but slower. Then turned upwind again and crawled to the airport at a slow jogging pace. It did make the landing super slow and easy.

53.3 MPH

I got to hang out with a great pack of pilots all day at Graves Co. and had a ridiculously tasty cheeseburger from “Off the Hoof” then got ready to head home that afternoon.

Welcome to Graves Co.

The wind had dropped to 10-15 mph. Not ideal but enough for me to make headway. Launched at 4pm so there were some very active thermals boiling up, and it was rowdy. It took about an hour to make the morning flight. It took 2 hrs to reach Fulton Co. airport, twelve miles shy of my destination, and every inch was a battle. By the time I landed airsickness was becoming a problem.

Down and safe

Wasn’t sure about beating the sunset getting home so I called superwife for extraction. Not making it back was a bummer but it was a great day and I learned a lot.

My Density Altitude Education.


My LZ is at 300′ Above Seal Level(ASL). My density altitude last night was 2800′. I’ll explain the real world consequences in just a bit.

First what is density altitude? The simplest way for me to say is: It’s a measurement of how dense the air “feels” compared to what altitude you are really at.

Think about climbing a mountain. As you go up the air becomes thinner, harder to breath. For aircraft this means your wing has less air to “bite”, less lift is created as a result. And just like it harder for you to breath, it’s a tiny bit harder for your engine to breath.

The equation to figure this out takes into account temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity. In hot, humid conditions your density altitude will be higher. Colder temps give us denser air and a lower density altitude.

Flying from home I’ve gotten into the habit of checking winds aloft( and the radar but not tuning into the AWOS(Automated Weather Observation System) at the airport. Mistake.

The Setup: It’s 1700, winds 3-8, and it is hot here in TN with 99.9% humidity(possible small exaggeration). I’m flying with my bulky XC bag, luckily with most of the weight removed. I’ve got 400′ of runway in front of me. With this wind I usually need about 100′.

The Launch: Wing inflates well and within a few steps I have it “locked in”, go full throttle and commit to launch. Pretty quick I notice a lack of lift. I can tell by the sound my engine is spinning up nicely, but the glider just isn’t wanting to fly today. No cravats or other problems so I push on. Finally at about 250′ I start to lift off, barely. I have to tiptoe for another 50′-75′ while applying more than normal brake pressure before I finally break contact with the grass.

The Climb out: Roughly 1500′ beyond my runway there are trees and power lines. Most days I would clear them by 100′ or more easily. But I was not climbing at all. I was “stuck” 20′ up still holding brake pressure at full power. Finally about 500′ after takeoff I started to get some lift but no way was I going to clear the obstacles. I released my left brake pressure and let the glider go into the gentlest bank that would allow me to turn away from the trees, and got away with it.

A friend called a few minutes later from the airport to ask about the flying conditions. That’s when it dawned on me what the likely culprit was and I asked him to check. In the future I will for sure keep a closer eye on the Density Altitude before attempting a launch.

Darkhorse450 Update


Ready to Launch

The flight’s one month out and a few changes have been made.

As of now I’ll be the solo pilot with Kate and Mrs. Gretchen Catherwood running ground support. This isn’t a bad thing, it allows more flexibility in planning.

I-69 Construction

I’ve adjusted the route to be a touch more aggressive in the beginning which should allow more flexibility over the rougher terrain at the end. New route here.
The first leg is the longest at 66.5 miles. With an average speed (No wind) of 30mph that is a serious stretch with 2 1/2 hours of fuel on board. With any tailwind I should make it without cutting into my reserve.

Obion River

I’m not just “hoping for the best”. Each leg has at least one alternate along the route, most are halfway through the flight. If there is any doubt about making the next planned stop, there is no doubt about what to do, and I will divert.

As of now each days goals are:
Oct 4th Friday- Overnight at Tullahoma (THA)
Oct 5th Saturday- Overnight at Jamestown (2A1)
Oct 6th Sunday- Overnight at New Tazewell (3A2)
Oct 7th Monday- Land Johnson Co (0A4) before lunch. Load up and crawl home.

Home Landing Zone

If your are familiar with the route or want to fly a leg or hang out at a stop, get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

And to the donors who have already stepped up to back us before we even take off, thank you again. Knowing people believe in the Darkhorse Lodge as much as we do will keep us moving forward no matter what.

Icom A-16 Bluetooth Review


I’ve been looking for a good com setup for a year now and I think I’ve found it.

I got the Icom A-16 last week, and have spent the last week testing it out. Here are the highlights.

Construction– Appears to be very solidly built. The buttons and screen are easy to read and manipulate. The “Lock” button is located on top beside the power/volume knob. This makes it easy to access during flight without having to look for it.

Programming– The unit came with the basic instruction manual. This is enough to use the radio, however if you want to get the most utility you will need to download the Full Manual in PDF. Link here. It is not intuitive at all but the manual is easy to follow.

Bluetooth function– I use a BT-S2 motorcycle headset to pair with this radio. This also allows me to pair my Galaxy S8 at the same time for music and phone calls. Pairing is simple and quick, after reading the manual. There is a slight time lag between hitting the PTT on the handset and the headset picking up your voice to transmit. Music cuts out automatically when transmitting or receiving.

Communication– Using this setup, transmissions are very clear and crisp. I’ve had no problems talking to other pilots 5 miles out. And I’ve picked up transmissions from 20+ miles out.

Battery Life– This came with a 2400Mh battery and charging station. Icom claims 5 hrs Tx time, much longer standby time. My longest flight has been 2hrs so I’m not getting close to the end of this battery.

Overall impression– I’m very happy with this purchase. It paid for itself the first time out while making an approach at our usually low traffic local airport. There were multiple aircraft moving on the apron, doing pattern work and touch and gos as I came in. I was able to talk with everyone from several miles out and work in safely for a landing near our fuel farm without inconveniencing anyone.