I imagine the majority of paramotor pilots will think back to their first days of training with gratitude for three things; Firstly, your instructor who was there to answer a seemingly never-ending stream of questions. Secondly, your instructor for providing you with equipment on which to learn. And thirdly, your headset and radio which connected you and your kit to your instructor during those first powered moments and your eventual first flight.
So, imagine taking away the third thing in the list, the ability to communicate with your instructor during your first tentative steps with power and flight. I remember my first flight and wondering why my instructor hadn’t said anything to me over the radio since I took off. When I came in lower I saw him frantically running around grabbing at every radio he had, only to discover that they all had flat batteries. His eventual last resort of indecipherable hand signals provided the realisation that I was on my own, just when my hand needed holding the most. It all ended well but I recall that feeling of being prematurely alone, vividly.
So it was with great interest that I learned about a rather special student pilot at the PMC school by the name of Connor Amantrading; Special because he has been deaf from birth and has not let this stand in the way of him getting the most out of life, including learning to fly a paramotor.
I met Connor on a cold, soggy underfoot, day at Membury Airfield. He had been flying for a few months by this time and it was clear that he could not be kept on the ground. Despite the bitterly cold temperatures, he was flying every moment he could, only landing when he couldn’t feel his hands any longer - and we all know how painful that is. But twenty minutes of thawing on the ground and he was off again into the sky.
I was intrigued as to how one would go about learning and teaching flying when the student pilot is deaf. This was one of my first questions to Simon Westmore, Connor’s instructor. Simon’s reply was perfect; “Why don’t you ask him?”
So I did.
Connor had what I imagined as the equivalent of a Spinal Tap Marshall amp turned up to 11, condensed into a small earpiece which he wears behind one ear - This, combined with some slick lip-reading, allows him to understand what is being said. He’s so good at this that it’s easy to forget that he can’t hear you and to turn your head away when talking because you forget that he needs to read your lips and face. As it turned out, Connor is considerably more eloquent that I am.
I was very interested in Connor’s background and wanted to know more about him and how he got the flying bug. It turned out to be something which many pilots will recognise immediately - At the age of sixteen, Connor was in Brighton and saw a paraglider in the sky. Since that day he frequently recalled that memory until he finally decided to get himself airborne.
A search on Google quickly brought up the PMC site and in August 2015 Connor found himself at Membury Airfield as his taste of the paramotoring world began. To check that paramotoring was what Connor actually wanted to do, his first visit was a ‘watching session’. This very quickly turned into a ground handling session, which he loved and took to very quickly. Connor found himself overwhelmed with excitement by this and the thought of the flying which was still to come.
A couple of weeks later Connor was back and trying the power unit on his back and getting used to it. During this time, communication skills he had learned, resulting from his deafness from birth, meant that he got used to each person very quickly (recognising each person’s different way of speaking ... there’s more to lip reading than it appears!), especially Simon who taught him all of the finer details of ground handling, preflight checks, safety precautions and everything a paramotor pilot needs to know instinctively.
There still remained the issue of not being able to use a two-way radio, as regular novice pilots do. To overcome this, the first lessons for taking off, control in the air, landing, etc. were all carried out by flying tandems with PMC instructor Clive Mason (CM Paramotors). Over two days, two long tandems were undertaken daily. Then followed a day in the classroom one-to-one, with Simon going through diagrams and demos of everything.
Connor was then ready for his first solo flight. Properly solo - no comms, no tandem pilot, just Connor.
It was no surprise for me to learn that Connor’s first launch was near perfect. He performed a couple of circuits of the airfield and went through everything he had been briefed about prior to the flight. Then followed an uneventful landing ... although the first question had to be did he land on his feet? No, of course not. It was his first solo flight but he didn’t care because as soon as he was on his feet he wanted to get back up in the air without delay. Which he did and has spent every available moment since that day flying or preparing for flying or waiting for the weather (a bit like every other pilot then!).
During training, Connor was using the school wing and motor, which isn’t unusual. The old rule of ‘Don’t buy anything until you are qualified’ is one of the best bits of advice any student is given because until you are flying and have used equipment you have nothing other than advice, sales pitch and your imagination to use for making buying decisions, whereas after training you are more likely to be in a better place to appreciate the pros and cons of various options.
As of now (March 2016) Connor is awaiting delivery of his brand new Synth II and has become the proud owner of the Parajet paramotor that he learned on.
At the time of writing, Connor has completed 25 solo flights and spends all of his time thinking about, looking forward to, or actually doing, PPG.
Looking back to life before flying I asked Connor what had changed. His friends and family had expressed concern prior to his taking lessons and weren’t sure that he should be learning to fly a paramotor. However, since he has been flying regularly (the British weather version of regularly, that is) they are all very happy and proud of his achievements.
Living in Oxford and working in the family business means that Connor can visit Membury Airfield when the weather is suitable and has already made efforts to find his own flying sites locally.
When asked about the future Connor expressed his desire to be flying for many years to come. Flying has given him a happiness which is different from previous experiences, leaving any worries and troubles back on the ground ... a familiar story for many pilots, I’m sure.
And a final sentence form Connor: "Flying means adventure, fabulous views, great people, lots of fun and it also fills the sometimes emptiness of life."
To our knowledge, Connor is the only deaf paramotor pilot in the UK, something for which he should be very proud. He has also now passed his PMC tests and is qualified.
Keep a look out for him at any PMC bashes - He’s very likely to be the first on the field and last on the ground every day!
Have you been inspired by this? www.paramotortraining.com