I get questions about paramotors that sometimes include the comment: “I’d like to have extra power in case of emergencies.” It’s a common and sensible desire, but is it a good idea? And if so, how important is it?
Before throwing in my 2 cents, I’d suggest getting advice from an instructor who knows your skills, sites, and situation because that impacts the choices immensely. Here is some of what should go into into the answer.
Generally speaking, have enough power to give an initial climb rate of at least 200 feet per minute. If you’re heavier, or launching from high elevation, that obviously means more power. An 80cc motor near sea level will climb a 180 pound pilot fine but not at 5000 feet. Experience suggests that 200 fpm is enough to get out of most situations at our slow speeds. For sure there will be situations where more power is better but that comes at some cost as covered below.
Lower power just means more planning. In my observation of paramotor unreliability, flying into places that rely on power is a bad risk trade. I’ve had engine failures on several demos with low time. Pilots have been hurt when they flew over unlandable terrain and the motor quit. So flying into a place where you count on the motor running is already something to avoid. And avoidance is so easy: at 25 mph, a reasonably skilled pilot can climb out within a 90 foot diameter space using a 30° bank (here is a bank/turn calculator). Just don’t descend into a space smaller than that to preserve the ability to climb out of it. If you had a 200 foot climb rate to begin with, you should be able to keep climbing even with the 15% loss of lift from being banked.
Or maintain a long, skinny climbout option. Lower power means more vigilance for wires, though, in that situation since it will take more time to climb out.
There are situations where more power is good, of course. For example, flying down a blind canyon then realizing it ends and you can’t outclimb the wall. Maybe more power would get you out of that spot, but better planning is a much better plan. Going down blind canyons has proven to be a bad play even on powerful machines, especially given how wind spills into canyons causing sink.
If you’re flying low and find slowly rising terrain, more power will be welcome.
If an aircraft or heavy ultralight flies in front of your flight path it’s nice to have more power to climb above his wake.
Downsides of More Power
It’s not all lollipops and roses, though. There are downsides, especially for new pilots. Even experienced paraglider pilots transitioning to power have been hurt from some side effects of more power:
- Starting the motor is more dangerous, especially for foot launchers. It doesn’t take much throttle to knock you off balance and eat into a body part. Use methods mentioned here and in the book to mitigate risk.
- There’s more likelihood of twisting and all that goes with that.
- More power means more likelihood of getting into pilot-aggravated oscillations.
- More power usually means more weight which, for footlaunchers, makes falling more likely. Some newer machines have come a long way in this area but always be aware of trade-offs there.
- More power means more abrupt throttle response. Our hands only have so much travel so will the throttle. A motor that goes to 160 pounds of thrust must do so in the same amount of travel as one that goes to 100. If there’s twisting involved, sudden power changes can be bad. Or on launch: if you’re just bringing the wing up without power, then throttle up while still leaned forward, the sudden burst of thrust can easily plant the face. You get the rose’s thorns.
If you’re fairly new to paramotoring, even as a highly experienced paraglider pilot, these can be potentially lethal outcomes. For many years I flew an extremely low powered machine (direct drive) and just had to do a lot more planning. Descending to do footdrags meant thinking about terrain slope and surrounding obstructions, especially since I couldn’t do more about a 10° bank (3% loss of lift).
It’s about balance. Before going to a powerful machine, be skilled enough to handle the throttle well, to almost instinctively reduce power at the first sign of twisting, and to be able to finesse it on launch. But have enough power for that 200 fpm climb.
Be balanced and enjoy thrusting to the heights.