It’s been on most paramotor pilot’s radar for quite some time; after the first ever UK Parafest last year those who attended went on to tell everyone how great it was; those who didn’t attend promised that they’d do so this year.
Of course, there’s always the doubt about the weather; the old ‘What if I drive two hundred miles and it’s not flyable?’ question. Parafest had shouted very loudly that it was a festival that you could fly at - and the fact is that it was organised as a festival for pilots - so if you got to fly then that would be fabulous, but not the only reason for being there. And how right the strap line was - it was a fabulous festival for para pilots. The good news is that the weather was awesome for both - a festival and flying.
I arrived on Friday afternoon and it was already clearly in full swing. I was greeted by a hard-working but immensely friendly team on the gate who got me pointed in all the right directions very quickly. There were tents of all descriptions, a stage in the distance, camper vans, caravans, vans and trucks spread over several fields with an immediately likeable atmosphere. I drove over to an (at that point) empty end of the field next to the launch field and parked up.
A quick wander around revealed an amazingly well thought-out site. I walked through the immense collection of pitches and checked out the flying field which was launching paramotors, tandems and trikes. A few powered hang gliders were also in the air but it was evident that Parafest was mostly about paramotors.
Then onto the traders area where the trade tents were on the main drag and also in an arc behind the audience area in front of the stage. There were also mobile food and refreshment trailers advertising their wares, including vegetarian food, lots of seating with tables and a standing/dance area. And all areas were full of smiling, happy people. It looked perfect. So, this was obviously so much more than just a trade show - this was Parafest as it had been advertised.
I found Mark Meadows (Meds) a short distance away, he was in good spirits and went through the rules of flying, showed the areas to avoid on the map and gave me a sheet of the rules - nobody could claim not to have known them as they were laid out in big bold text and very clear. And simple. That was it - signed in and familiar with the rules ... so it was time to go flying.
The flying field was absolute chaos. I found a spot three layers of laid-out wings from the front and started my own laying out and setting up. I was beginning to wonder how safe it was going to be, I’d never seen so many pilots crammed into one side of a field and everywhere you looked the sky was full of paramotors, like bugs on a balmy evening. But then I realised that the marshals, who really did have their work cut out for them, were doing an amazing job. They were getting everyone off, but only when they were properly ready. If a launch was fluffed they were there to help sort it out and get everything ready for another attempt. It was done calmly and safely, and it was obvious that all launching pilots were in safe hands. When my turn came, which wasn’t actually too long of a wait, considering, I was given the all-clear to launch and was away into the very busy sky. That was a new experience for me, and with the exception of one pilot, whom I assume was blind, had no incidences of proximity issues. A fab flight out to and along the coast, a stunning sunset and finally back to the field. What a first few hours of Parafest, I couldn’t wait for more.
By the time I was back at my van, the music was underway, the sun was going down and the atmosphere was superb. Putting the paramotor away, getting some food together and opening a beer with the sounds drifting over from the stage took me right back to my days at Stonehenge Festival in the early 80’s. It was magical.
A couple, called Steve and Victoria had moved in next door to me in the field, Steve being a pilot who had recently trained at Membury with Simon Westmore. They proved to be great company for the weekend, their shiny new Zenith Thor 80 nicely adding to the scenery.
Saturday morning, 8.00 on the dot, and the roar (or ring-a-ting-ting, depending on your motor manufacturer) of squadrons of paramotors taking off in quick succession was the sound track for breakfast. The wind direction meant that everything now went over our heads after launch; it was spectacular. A balloon also did an early launch, which added to the atmosphere. Saturday was a good day to take in everything Parafest had to offer, the variety of manufacturers (and the proliferation of sunglasses-wearing, hungover staff manning the stands), the food, the atmosphere, and meeting old and new friends.
The field adjacent to the PPG launch field was given over to paraglider accuracy (run by the BHPA), and that was a very relaxing place to be. A winch was provided for launch and those lucky enough to have some wind when it was their turn got to the target. The peace and quiet of the accuracy field was in marked contrast to the noise and chaos of the PPG launch field.
And so it went on … various artists performed throughout the day providing a pleasant acoustic backdrop to the event, and people spent much of the time smiling and laughing. Saturday evening proved very popular for flying as the conditions smoothed off, and the marshals were by now so slick that they were dealing with everything in an almost effortless manner. Everything was safe, well managed and fun. And the flying conditions were stunning. For me, a blast to the coast, around the wreck of The Duke of Lancaster, along the coastline to fly around Talacre Lighthouse (as so many of us did that weekend) and some great low-level beach flying, before heading back to the campsite before the light finally went.
More food, more beer, more live music, more fun and smiles … plus one extra special mood enhancer. The balloon, which had launched in the morning, set up near the stage and inflated but didn’t launch, just creating the most beautiful lighting over the site as the sun went down. This was done as a thank you to Meds, for letting the balloon come in the morning for his flight. How many festivals can boast having that as a feature?
Sunday morning arrived to the sound of launching paramotors again, but this time the conditions weren’t so good and after a while further launches were called and the launch field closed for flying. But it didn’t matter, we’d all had some great flying over the past two days. Parafest gradually wound down throughout Sunday and by the end of the afternoon was starting to thin out. Although some did stay on, most had gone by Sunday evening.
So, as a conclusion, what did I think of Parafest? It’s interesting to realise that when we fly our own areas, or meet up with others, sometimes we seem to be a relatively small bunch of pilots, but when you come to Parafest you discover that there are actually quite a lot of us, small in the grand scale of things but perhaps more than you would have realised otherwise.
It was the best UK para flying event there has ever been. It was well organised, incredibly well run by Meds and his marshals, it had an atmosphere of fun and cheer and I was genuinely sorry when it was over. I have no doubt it will go down in everyone’s memory as an unforgettable weekend.
That was my take on it.
I was keen to discover the views of those working behind the scenes of Parafest. So I got all of the marshals together on Sunday afternoon and we talked through the events of the weekend. They had all been on the field for all three days and this is what they came away with …
“It was very interesting to watch various pilot’s different methods for taking off and landing. What works and what doesn’t - which ones are called ‘technique’ and which ones are called ‘luck’.”
The marshal’s duties included getting pilots ready to launch, making sure they were ready but also giving guidance sometimes, especially for low hours and novice pilots. Perhaps better described as encouragement as the marshals obviously weren’t there to show pilots what they should already have known.
“It can feel like quite an achievement if you’ve got a guy who has had a few failed launches and then finally he gets off, then it’s very rewarding for us. It’s just been great and, with the marshalling side, if you’re a beginner and come to help with the marshalling, you can learn so much just by watching and being involved”.
Something which the marshals found very easy to spot were the pilots who had obviously been trained properly and those who appeared to be self-taught. The variation in piloting skills was very defined. For all of the marshals though, they all agreed they had had “a good time and a great laugh.”
From the managing the environment aspect, something which was quite a surprise was that all of the pilots received a verbal briefing and a copy of the rules when they arrived, but this didn’t stop a large number taking-off and just ignoring the rules.
“We were there for people’s safety and it was hard to understand why some pilots disregarded so much of the information they had been given. We talked to lots of pilots when they landed and a lot answered very honestly and said ‘Yes, I knew that rule but I just did something else.’ Regarding the rules - they just flew like they did when on their home field as soon as they had taken off.”
Friday night was an obvious point to bring up; the field was full and wings were laid out three or four deep for the entire width of the field.
“That was so hard, but so satisfying. There were a few times when you just looked up and you were like … seriously … this is crazy, so many pilots in the air, it was like the air was full of mosquitoes!
“But by Saturday night, we’d completely nailed it. It worked really well, like clockwork. It got smoother, the communication got better, the prioritization improved - Initially we were quite tentative, making sure every pilot was well clear of the field before we’d launch the next one but by Saturday evening we’d got into a rhythm where by the time each pilot had cleared the boundary we were ready to launch the next one, and we knew who was lined up to launch next”.
I commented, “It was very noticeable, from a pilot’s point of view, the difference between Friday, which just looked unmanageable in some respects, with the chaos of so many pilots waiting to launch, and Saturday which seemed like clockwork. But you put no pressure on anyone - if a pilot needed time then you gave them time”
“Well, you can’t rush people.”
I replied, “But I would imagine, from your perspective, you’d kind of want to get through the backlog as quickly as possible.”
“Something we noticed was that pilots talked about this - a lot of them stated that, regardless of their experience, with the pressure of an audience, and the risk of a fluffed launch maybe, they didn’t want to let themselves or their team or the wider flying community down. You’re kind of feeling like you’re forced to perform. If you’re in your own field, you can abort a launch for whatever reason you like, as many times as you like, until you’re happy. But when you’ve got people backed-up behind you, all set up and ready to launch and then fluff your launch, then you are holding up so many other pilots who are equally keen to get off.
“Of course, no pilot would think anything bad about you, it’s all just added pressure in the world of the pilot who is holding everyone up.
“Going back to the rules, when it got quite packed-up on the field and we had to create a holding area, pilots in the holding area would then see a trike, for example, trundling past and jumping ahead of them - but that’s the rules and it all worked out and everyone got off for their flights.
“There was a problem yesterday with the accuracy field, and paramotors coming through the towing area despite having been told to avoid the field. But that did get resolved fairly quickly and pilots got the message.
“Regarding banning, there was only one and that was for a pilot whose launch was very dangerous and when he came into land he was out of control, nearly hitting the hedge and he didn’t land so much as have an uncontrolled flight into the ground. He explained that he’d been having problems with his equipment but the marshals barred him from flying - he had to go and make his case elsewhere with the organiser regarding further flying. Considering the amount of pilots flying at Parafest, the fact that this was the only one is very, very good news.
“A few pilots had warnings from the marshals but they all took it on the chin, agreed with what was said and apologized. By Saturday everyone knew that the rules had to be followed and everyone pretty well stuck to the rules. Plus they all knew that Meds would likely come hurtling across the field on the quad bike, arriving sideways to administer ‘some advice’.
“But, we all agree that we just can’t believe how good it’s been, it’s been fantastic.”
I agreed, “It’s been great and people have had some satisfying flights.”
“We’ve had some awesome feedback. And the great thing is that, despite a huge amount of launches, we only counted three broken props. A lot of it was not only down to the fact that the marshals, as a team, got our act together and got to grips with how to handle the field, but also the fact that the pilots clearly trusted that we would get them off - they could see that there was method in what we were doing and that all pilots would get off safely.
“One of the other things pilots picked-up on was the ‘Don’t start your engine on the floor’ rule. We had pilots coming up to us saying ‘Well, what do we do then? I can’t start my motor on my back’ and we would reply ‘Well, that’s what we’re here for’ ... amongst other things. ‘Oh yeah’ would be the reply. We had one guy who told us that his machine was really hard to start, and it was, but we got it started on his back. And that is what we were here for, it’s all about safety and starting the machine on your back is the safest thing to do. Safety has been a massive thing for all of the marshals.”
I mentioned that that aspect really came across.
Their reply was, “An interesting thing is that pilots have their own routine, maybe a routine they have been using for many years and works flawlessly for them. But then they come here and we say you can’t do it like that, it kind of throws people sometimes - which is understandable. But we asked pilots to work with us and it worked. The amount of people who looked at us and said ’Start on my back? I always warm it up on the ground.’ But we all know that the most dangerous part of the whole affair is starting the paramotor and how many people have had life-changing accidents through doing this.
“The whole marshalling experience is good, because not only are you keeping people safe and organised but you’re helping people out - keeping it all running freely and keeping everything incident-free.
“It was a really good weekend. The weather was fantastic and we made some good decisions. On Sunday morning the wind was getting a bit strong and we called Meds and the decision was made to stop flying. A lot of pilots had decided to take-off but most of them came flocking back to the field quite quickly once they realised that it was not very smooth up there. It was a good decision and everyone had already had so much opportunity for great flying on Friday and Saturday.
“With the paramotoring community, it really feels like such a big family here. The social side was fantastic. It was also interesting that a lot of pilots fly their own area on their own or with a few friends sometimes, but when they come here the whole thing is different and adds something new to the experience. It’s interesting to see how many people have travelled a long way to be here.”
We discussed the fact that it was also good to see that there are people who fly paramotors who aren’t grey or bald and are actually young!
“Perhaps it’s the fact that the equipment has changed in recent years and has provided an adrenaline side to the sport. The girls were good too, and outshone some of the guys. There were three of them. There were no failed launches from them.
“It made for a long day, with the flights open from 8.00am until 9.00pm, people thinned out a bit during midday and then it got heavy again for the evenings. We were originally only going to have the field open until 8.00 in the evening, with regard to the locals and also as the marshals would have been at it for a very long day, but we all decided to stay on for an extra hour to get people out, because it was so busy.
“On Friday we had between 120 and 140 pilots launched.”
From a pilot’s point of view, it certainly felt like it, everywhere you looked whether up, down or sideways, there were paramotors in the air around you.
“About 200 pilots were registered for flying. It was good … and incident-free, which is the main thing. A few props, a couple of wings but that was it.”
So, what would the marshals do differently next time?
“More marshals. Just to get some kind of shift pattern and spread the burden”.
From my perspective as a visiting pilot, it was obvious how hard the marshals were working because whenever you visited the launch field the same guys were there doing the job.
“We would definitely get the sun cream on sooner and thicker next time.”
So, more marshals next time!
“The thing is, it’s a rewarding thing to do, it’s not a burden. You haven’t got to come and not fly - we all got to fly. Most of us have driven five to six hours to get here and it’s been a rewarding experience to do the marshalling, but it would be nice to do the marshalling and also enjoy the holiday aspect of it too. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to come in to land, grab a high-vis vest and come over and give us a hand, even if it’s just for half an hour. It would give us the chance for a break and a moment or two to relax.”
Being a marshal is perfect for beginners and low hours pilots who want a chance to learn.
“If you have a pilot who wants to learn, just being there watching what everyone does, they will learn so much. Exactly what to do, and what not to do. We’ve all done it, but the amount of pilots who jumped in the seat too early was amazing. There were loads of them, jumping into the seat too early, scraping the bottom of the cage along the ground, with the assumption that as soon as their feet leave the ground they are off - but we’ve had wind conditions that dropped them back down again after that little gust that initially picked them up had gone. We even had one where the pilot literally flew half way across the field with the his cage dragging along the floor because he couldn’t get the lift. All this is invaluable education to a new pilot, and it’s rare to get the chance to see so many poor launch techniques and so many really good launch techniques in one place.
“One thing that you don’t often get to see is such a variety of kit. It really makes you realise how much variety there is. You could also spot groups marked out by their nearest school or their nearest dealer. We could identify which groups of pilots had trained at which schools sometimes, by the identical kit they all had. It was very funny to see.
“It used to seem that paramotoring was the poor man’s sport. Back in the day, it was people camping out and sleeping in the back of cars but you turn up to events now and it’s £50,000 motorhomes and massive caravans as the appeal of the sport has grown.
“It’s also interesting to see the different types of flying that pilots like to do - some will take off and just go high and be doing sats and spirals in the local area, maybe having many short flights per day while others will head off to the furthest reaches on a long trip and be gone for hours.
“It’s also very good to see the history of paramotoring demonstrated in the different kit that people had; from some very old wings and motors to the very latest equipment. You’d get a pilot on an old motor and a 28 wing who worked really hard to get off in no wind, and then see a Thor 250 and a 15m wing be off the ground in a few paces. It was also very apparent that some young skinny pilots seemed to demonstrate little problems with lugging their paramotor about, compared to only a few years ago when everything weighed a ton.
“Also, the variety in pilots, from girls to boys, from skinny to overweight. We had it all!”
Something all the marshals were keen to point out was that although none of them were paid, their time was rewarded by food and drink and by having a great time.
“We have to say that Meds has done a great job! We think everybody would agree with that. We had a Marshals' Facebook page and so we were briefed and had some idea of what we were coming up to. However, this wouldn’t have prevented anyone from grabbing a high-viz jacket on the day and just joining in. If you’re not comfortable with helping and giving encouragement to pilots about to launch then there are plenty of other invaluable jobs which need to be done.
“But we’re all knackered, absolutely knackered. But also so, so pleased to have kept it all running smoothly all weekend. We’re very happy.
One of the highlights for the marshals had to be when a local Policeman had come in to the site because a member of the public had reported seeing a paramotor going down somewhere in the vicinity. It turned out to be just someone doing spirals and there was no problem. Just as the Policeman was finishing up, he turned around and right over the edge came Delboy Trotter’s yellow three-wheeler under full power.
“The comedic timing of that was perfect, it was absolutely hilarious. You can imagine the officer going back to his station and saying ‘ere Sarge, I just saw Delboy’s car flying over our patch.’ We do know for a fact that he did go back to his station and did tell everyone there about it.”
And finally, a word about the windsock. When someone came over to stand by the marshals and the windsock as a ‘safe spot’, it was pointed out that perhaps they shouldn’t feel too safe standing there. A quick look at the windsock revealed that it was shredded after an encounter with a paramotor prop early on in the event.
The Parafest marshals on the field were:
Neil McMann (Chief Marshall) and the team consisted of: Stuart Mallett, Graham Rowe, Eddie Smerdon, Nick Lambert, John Simms, Matt Wayne, Dr Paul ‘Footdrag’ Cronin, Paul Green and Robert Frankham.
When I spoke with Meds at the end of Parafest, he was very different to the Meds I’d been talking to on Friday afternoon - absolutely exhausted.
When it was pointed out how many people regarded the marshals as the stars of the show Meds replied, “I can’t fault the marshals at all, I owe them everything. They kept it well organised and kept their nerve together. It became apparent that I am not marshal material - I don’t have the patience and have a very low tolerance level for that kind of thing."
So, with this being Sunday afternoon, the obvious question had to be, “How do you feel after several days of getting it all ready and having the gates open for three days?”
“I feel relieved that it’s over!” he laughed.
“Everyone’s had a good time, the weather’s been perfect, we’ve had no bad accidents … but I’m glad it’s over as my stress levels are though the roof. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I have to say that some of the pilot skills left a lot to be desired. Some were very good, some can follow a flight plan and follow the rules, but others completely disregard everything you tell them. Watching some of the takeoffs I was wondering whether they’d even been trained! That was the one thing which affected me the most, seeing such poor skills on such a busy field. To ensure it was safe for all, I instructed the marshals to bar anyone from flying who clearly demonstrated that their skills weren’t up to it and were holding the field up with repeated failed launches, then get them out of the way and to the back of the queue. When you’ve got dozens of pilots waiting to take off, and dozens more coming onto the field to get ready, you can’t have one person who doesn’t have the fundamental and essential skills to launch holding everything up. I did wonder why you’d put yourself in such a position, with it being such a public spectacle!”
Irrespective of that, the whole event was a triumph - the way the field was managed, the way the marshals carried out their instructions to the letter, the way that everyone holds the marshall in the highest regard means that the event was nothing other than a success.
“Yeah, but despite all of this, if there’s going to be another Parafest then it’s not going bigger, in fact it’s going to be smaller. I can’t assess every pilot before the event to know whether they can take-off, fly and land properly. I either have a pre-event registration system for pilots or just have a smaller event and keep it manageable. It is a bit of a lottery and at this point I don’t know which way to go. I did consider lots of different ways to run it, to make sure we got proper pilots, but then I thought it was all getting a bit like Hitler and was not the way I wanted to go with it. But now I’ve seen a few days of this, I am thinking to myself I should have done that. It’s my neck on the line, it’s for safety and pilot benefit, take it or leave it, follow these simple rules to the letter or … go and get a beer and watch.”
That slightly jaded view was coming from someone who has spent months putting the event together, who has passed over work, thus reducing his income, to allow him to put enough time into organising it, who has spent the past week getting the site up together and running it - plus being the person where the buck ends since the first visitors arrived on Thursday, and therefore very much lacking in sleep or rest. However, when we come onto the positives …
“Oh yeah, the positives! It was a lot better than last year’s event, a good festival atmosphere, the music and the bands were great, everyone has had a good time, nobody has had a bad word, and that’s one of my main driving forces, to give everyone a good time. That’s why I do it, so everyone can come together, have a good time together - that’s my goal. And I pulled that bit off! It’s been friendly, open and exactly as I wanted it to be. And everyone keeps asking about next year.
“Which is a funny position to be in - and it was the same last year. By this time last year, everyone at Llangollen was saying, ‘What about next year?’ and I was saying ‘No, there’ll be no next year.’ I was finished, exhausted, and had no interest in doing it again. And then six months go by, it comes to Christmas and I’m thinking, ‘It was good fun though, wasn’t it.’ So I started organizing it again in January - it’s taken me six months of planning, of phone calls, of chasing my own tail, and sacrificing my own business so that I can organise this - my work has had to take a back-seat whilst I made site visits, had council meetings plus this, that and the other.”
It was humbling to learn that Meds had sacrificed his income whilst dedicating himself to making Parafest a reality.
“But I had to, there was no other way it was going to happen.”
I pointed out that to those of us who rolled up, pitched our tent and went and got a beer, it all seemed so perfect but with little understanding of what had gone on to make it all happen. Meds was the person who had everything on his shoulders, it all came back to him.
A very hoarse Meds replied, “Yeah, I am the buck-stopper! Every problem that anyone had with anything came to me. Plus the stress of ‘what if’ such as a mid-air or something. Who’d have to deal with all that? It would be me, which is why I’ve been shouting so much all weekend, trying to avoid that. But seeing some great piloting skills, the community spirit, and seeing people forming new friendships and a common bond has made it all worthwhile for me. And also seeing the new young faces of our next generation of pilots. And I have enjoyed it. I always enjoy giving people a good time, and I’ve done it in a big way. I love a good piss-up as much as anyone and I’ve created a big party for everyone.”
I mentioned, “I expected it to be good but I didn’t expect it to be so good. And you laid on the weather too!”
“Yeah, the weather was amazing, but that’s a problem too because when the weather’s so peachy for flying, everyone wants to get up in the air, which creates the problems for managing it. But we did manage, so it was fine. If it had been blown-out all weekend, everyone would have been on the ground partying and my stress levels would have been a thousand times lower, with no worries about the local inhabitants or air law infringements, it would have just been one big social,” he laughed.
When I asked about whether there’d been any feedback from the locals or the authorities, Meds replied, “Well, the locals in all the shops and the pubs are pleased because they’ve had the tills ringing all weekend. There’s been a constant queue in the shop. Some of the locals have been up and have had a look around and have been saying how amazing it is, how different and how good for the local community it is. A couple of locals have even expressed an interest in learning to fly a paramotor. And that’s a really positive side of things, it has really promoted paramotoring in a good light and shown how much fun it is.
“Actually, from the locals point of view we were expecting that on day one it would be ‘wow, look at that’, by the second day it would be ‘Hmmm’, and by the third day out would be ‘I’ve had enough of this’. We have had a little bit of this, which is understandable”.
“With in excess of 200 registered paramotor pilots at Parafest (signed in and issued with blue wristbands, without which you cannot fly) it was encouraging that we didn’t have too many issues with the locals. That makes me very happy."
Remembering that it was called Parafest, not Paramotorfest, Meds is keen to point out what a good time the paraglider pilots also had.
“My good friend Alan, who is a local pilot and knows all of the sites, has been running the paragliding side of things. We didn’t need to register the paraglider pilots as they were always off the festival site for flying - I don’t have exact figures, but there were likely to have been about 100 of them. Paraglider pilots had a site brief every morning and the conditions for the sites were given out, what conditions were forecast, which hills were flyable. The convoy would be taken off to the hills, with a local brief about thermals, where not to fly, etc. and they just got on with it.
“Reports were coming back each day that paraglider pilots had achieved personal bests, best height gains, fabulous thermals, etc. All the paraglider pilots were buzzing, they’ve had such a good time.
“Regarding our Sponsors, I have to say a big thank you to Parajet. We love Parajet, they have donated a V3 chassis which is to be sold to help cover costs - This will pay for the stage, which is a huge contribution. That’s why we had the Parajet banners up behind and to the sides of the stage.
“And all the traders too, they’ve all bought a pitch, which has all helped towards the costs. We haven’t charged much because we really wanted all of them to be here - and we’ve heard some good things regarding interest and sales of paramotors and kit over the weekend. The traders made a huge difference to the weekend, it was great to have had so many of them here. It meant we had a bit of a trade show element to it as we have no proper trade show in the UK. We’ve even had traders from Europe here this time. We were really expecting to have Paramania here too but sadly they didn’t make it."
So a final couple of words from Mark Meds about his feelings about Parafest 2016: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”
Mark Meds has his own PMC flying school, details of which can be found at www.iflyppg.co.uk.
Ty Ucha Farm, Caerwys, Flintshire, North Wales, 3 – 5 June 2016