10/13/2010 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Powerchuting in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona


I look at the contraption nervously. It's neither a plane nor a hang glider. It's a Powerchute, considered one of the safest aircrafts in the world. It looks like a go-cart with its 3-wheels, but also has an engine, propeller, and a parachute hooked onto it.

Pilot Randy Long, owner of Arizona Powerchutes, hands me a helmet and headphones with a microphone, then straps me into the passenger seat behind him. He has a perfect record with over 2000 hours of flight time, but I am still nervous.

Dressed in Randy's extra black down jumpsuit, hood with a neck warmer, and fleece gloves, I should be toasty warm, but my blood feels like ice and my teeth are chattering because it's dawn in the Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale long before the sun will warm it up. "Ready?" he asks. I nod. And suddenly, in less time than it takes to say airborne, we're ascending into the air as the forty-foot long parachute, which a moment ago was laying in the desert sand, billows and arcs behind us. I'm still leery and want to kill my friend Laura, who lives in Scottsdale and assured me it would be the most fun thing I've ever done.

Randy pulls on the throttle and the plane goes higher. The sun peeps over the mountains. Randy points out Prickly Pear, Cholla, teddy bear and barrel cacti below. We fly higher -- not the 10,000 feet the Powerchute can fly, but 2,000 feet up, way above Camelback Mountain. In the distance are the canal and Lake Pleasant. Pinnacle Peak looks no bigger than a pointy thimble and the Deer Valley Airport observation tower is no higher than a parking meter.

"Okay," Randy says, "Your turn to fly. Push your foot down on this pedal, pull on the left cord and we'll turn left." We turn 360 degrees. "Good, now push the throttle all the way back." As I do, the plane makes much less noise and I panic. We're going to stall. We're going to die. I take my hand off the throttle.

"Keep going, all the way back," he says.

I do it and we don't stall. We're idling and floating, almost like a hot air balloon. This is what the Wright brothers must have felt when they glided over Kitty Hawk. We speed along at 28 miles per hour.

Randy takes over the controls and we descend above a dry creek bed, like a mini-canyon. He flies through it like Luke Skywalker, except we're not fighting the Galactic Empire, we're searching for wildlife. He spots a coyote, a cow whose calf we have scared out of her wits, then an entire Javelina family. We fly out of the canyon and ascend as first, a small plane flies beneath us, then a helicopter. We head back towards Randy's van and trailer, and, without so much as a jerk or bump, we're back on the ground. Randy grins and says, "Good job. All you need is eleven and a half more hours and you'll be a certified sport pilot."

The first thing I do when I'm back home is call Laura and ask her for another fun adventure near Scottsdale. Canyoneering in Salome Canyon, she says. I'm ready!