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We weren’t born with wings but the sensation of soaring through the air is something to be sampled and savoured, thanks to a unique flying school in Muscat.
It’s a cool Friday morning, and the sun has just risen over the horizon of the pristine sands of Sharqiyah. The setting is nothing short of picturesque: the dunes highlight the background with a golden hue, and the shadows of the larger dunes overpower the smaller ones in the vicinity. The setting is beautiful; nay, magical. This is probably what Michelangelo meant when he used the term “divine perfection”.
And knowing this, numerous people across Oman travel hundreds of kilometres to head to the sands in search of this glorious moment. It may only last for a few minutes but those who have experienced it will tell you that these few minutes will be etched in your memory forever.
But those looking at the horizon today are up for more than just the sun and the dunes. They’re looking at two men flying across the horizon, into this very sunrise; savouring this moment closer than one could ever imagine.
No, they’re not super-humans. It’s only Bryan Richards and his instructor, taking to the skies for a spot of paramotoring. You heard that right: paramotoring is finally here, and there’s no better location than the Sultanate for giving this a go.
But if you’re new to the term “Paramotoring”, we’ve got Samantha Newman, the spokesperson for SkySchool Oman – the first licensed paramotoring school in the country – to explain it to us.
“Paramotoring is essentially the same concept as paragliding, except you have a powered motor attached to a frame to aid in your flight. Think of it as a powered paraglider,” says Samantha.
The term was first used by Englishman Mike Byrne in 1980 and was popularised in France in 1986 when the makers of gliding equipment La Mouette began attaching motors to the-then-new paraglider wings.
Paramotoring was initially used as a quick and easy mode of transportation from higher to lower grounds and was adopted in various countries. For instance, in Botswana, paramotors are used to fly from one end of the salt pans (Makgadikgadi Pan: more than 16,000 sq km in area) to the other safely.
“Paramotoring was initially only reserved for a trained pilot or the military. But today, it is accessible to all and here in Oman, we use it as a form of leisure,” Samantha says.
SkySchool, which brings paramotoring to “everyone in Oman”, is based in the UK, and is already Europe’s leading school for motorised paragliding. SkySchool began its operations in the Sultanate in November 2016, and has already catered to many students.
“We are the first school in the country to be given a licence to practise and teach paramotoring. As you know, there are restrictions to fly anything across the skies but we have been given the licence to fly at the beach at Al Sawadi and Sharqiyah Sands,” Samantha adds.
The school currently has three instructors (from the UK, Turkey and Malta) who have more than 30 years’ experience between them. They use three-wheeled twin seater steel tricycles that are framed to an aircraft with a four-blade propeller. This propeller is further powered by a three-cylinder, four-stroke air-cooled engine that provides the power. These machines are dubbed ParaTrikes, and are used to train those who lack flying experience.
The result of using motors in paragliding is the increased range and stability, which essentially translates to more airtime. Paramotoring in Oman is conducted from 90 metres to 150 metres above sea level due to the undulating surfaces, rough uneven terrain and lofty mountain ranges (although the flight path avoids any such terrain).
There are no weight limits when it comes to flying either. Samantha says that the instructors at SkySchool recently flew with one enthusiast who weighed more than 145kg.
“The response to our school has been amazing, since we only started in November. This is our first season and we already have people visiting us for paramotoring on weekends.”
She also didn’t expect the activity to be so popular so soon. Samantha adds: “While we are doing really well we have also catered to some amazing people who have so much passion for flying.
“Of late, we have had so many queries and some really good responses from many people in Oman. We also have a lot of Omanis who are opting to fly frequently. Come to think of it, we have sort of started a paramotoring club, with a lot of people who come to us to have some great time out on weekends.”
To make sure that paramotoring is as fun as it seems in Oman, Bryan Richards headed to Sharqiyah Sands for a one-on-one session with instructor “Zeb” of SkySchool. Here’s what he thought:
Despite a drab delivery, David Tomlinson managed to convey the delight of launching a kite “up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear” in the musical film Mary Poppins.
And the legendary British singer Kate Bush once exhorted us all to “come up and be a kite, and fly a diamond night”.
Yes, and to actually fly like a kite instead of staying on the ground gripping a long piece of string is infinitely more fun.
Doesn’t every small boy dream of being propelled though the air in some form or another, only to find out that human beings can’t actually fly?
Fortunately, that visceral thrill of sweeping through the air has been made easier for us mere mortals in modern times, with pursuits such as parascending, paragliding and tandem sky diving.
And paramotoring is even more fun. At the precise moment of take-off, I realised my boyhood dream had come true.
But it’s defiantly not a kite. It’s something much, much more.
Paramotoring opens an even greater sensation of flying; the exhilaration of soaring high in the sky or low to the ground as well as the unique freedom of being airborne.
It was my welcoming first flight experience with SkySchool Oman, and I loved it.
I have flown micro-lights (powered hang-gliders) and light helicopters, both of which require a certain level of skill and coordination.
However, this was my first time in a paramotor, and micro-lights have nothing on this flying experience.
It was absolutely mind-blowing: not too high and not too fast. There is ample time to take in the spectacle, and it offers some pretty sublime views over the deserts of Oman.
These include the majesty of the desert, the ridges in the sand dunes, the wadis and dune peaks; none of which you can see from the ground.
We camped overnight, near the Onyx desert camp in Sharqiyah Sands. We woke up early, just before dawn, at 5am, to prepare all the machines in readiness for take-off.
As the sun peaks over the horizon, you get the sense as you take off that you are flying up to meet the sun as it rises in the heavens. It’s the instructors’ mission to ensure you have (weather permitting) the best possible flying experience that there is to offer.
This experience is a collection of stunning views flying over parts of Oman never before seen from the air, some superb flying with experienced pilots and the memory of flying over naked desert and sometime-desert mountains that previously were inaccessible.
Anyone who wants to try this should take lessons from qualified instructors, as without proper training it can be somewhat precarious.
The instructors and learners work in tandem to check and re-check their equipment. The instructors take their time in explaining the flight plan, and will caution those who might think about NOT following it.
Safety is the key word in this sport, and each instructor re-enforces it with a set of instructions continually until it becomes second nature.
It takes a reasonable skillset to hold a 20kg engine pack with fuel on your back, and to trot at least 20 metres to inflate the canopy. Once trained, you need to have reasonable hand-eye co-ordination to take off, and it’s not as easy as the instructors make it look.
I was to experience the ParaTrike. It’s a three-wheel twin-seater steel-framed aircraft with a four-blade propeller, powered by a three-cylinder, four-stroke air-cooled engine, to which the canopy is attached.
Preparing this baby took a while but again; safety first, and Zeb my pilot/instructor took his time in explaining how it worked.
As we made our run up to take off, the ParaTrike ran over the sandy ridges on the desert floor and then we were suddenly airborne.
As this aircraft had a bigger engine than those of my fellow participants, we quickly caught up with the solo flyers almost at their halfway point and about to return to the base camp.
Zeb slowed down, bringing up the rear of the flyers and we took in the sights plus a few selfies.
This early morning flight lasted almost an hour-and-a-half on a 100km round trip.
It’s an experience available to anyone who has never flown a canopy before or never flown at all.
What totally surprised me was how stable, manoeuvrable and comfortable these trikes are. We hit a little turbulence, which had no effect on the craft. I felt totally safe and secure and I even took control for about 30 minutes. That’s when the selfies started.
My day and my weekend were totally awesome. I was well looked after, my safety was ensured and my experience was the best.
Would I take a Sky School course to become a solo pilot? Definitely. So where do I sign up?
SkySchool Oman is the most recently founded adventure sports company to open its doors in Muscat. It offers specialised air adventures and activities, which also include Paramotoring, Tandem ParaTrike and Paragliding.
SkySchool Oman run their courses (weather permitting) from November up until the end of April, flying at several locations around Oman, including Al Sawadi in Seeb, as well as Sharqiyah Sands.
SkySchool Oman currently offers two services:
1) A 25-minute flight in tandem with the instructor on a ParaTrike. You can pilot the flight yourself, regardless of flying experience, but this is under the careful guidance of an instructor and costs RO60.
2) Flying lessons for those looking to become a certified APPI (Association of Paragliding Pilots and Instructors) PPG pilot. This translates to a 12-day course and includes classroom training, hiring of equipment, ground training and 15 solo flights. This will set you back RO650.
Follow SkySchool Oman @SkySchoolOman on Facebook and Instagram
Tel: +968 9786 0115 (also available on whatsapp)