They’re used to seeing flying machines at the motocross track beyond Longwood. But Rémi Bruneton’s paraglider was a step up from briefly-airborne motorbikes.
Bikers and spectators all stared as he flew a wide circuit before heading back to Francis Plain.
On an island where aircraft of any kind are rarely seen, it was quite an oddity. As Tony Leo put it on Saint FM, “I can only describe it as a very large overgrown pushchair for twins, one in front and one in the back.”
An engine just behind the pilot’s head turns a large fan that inflates a fabric kite. With the revs up, take-off and ascent are rapid.
Frenchman Rémi had already turned heads by leaping off mountain tops strapped to an unpowered paraglider, drifting over Sandy Bay with just the breeze to keep him aloft. Going anywhere else was a problem.
“I found I could not fly on the north side of the island because the wind always comes from the south-east,” he said, “so I decided to get an engine.”
The wind problem solved, he was then kept grounded by days of October rain, but he’d managed two flights over Alarm Forest and Longwood by the time Tony interviewed him at his hangar.
“I started off in France quite a few years ago without the engine,” said Rémi, who is on the island to work for Halcrow on its airport project. “I took lessons. Then a friend showed me how to do it with an engine on days when there is no wind.
“It takes off very very quickly. I don’t have an altimeter but from experience I would say I was about flying at about 700 metres, the height of Diana’s Peak.”
Rémi is on the island with his partner, Sophy Thorpe, whose father Nick described him as “absolutely fearless.” Rémi was unruffled about the risks of paragliding.
“That’s the main question people usually ask,” he said. “It’s probably safer than riding a bicycle, if you look at the accident figures.”
Yes, but if you fall off a bicycle, you don’t have far to tumble. On the other hand, Rémi takes rather more care than the average cyclist.
“I go all around, check everything, then let it run for a minute or two, let it warm up before I ask for the maximum out of it. I check there’s no leaks and then I take off.
“The most important of the checks is not the engine; the main thing I check is the glider – the kite – because it’s fabric and it’s knitted together basically, and if there was anything wrong with it I would worry.
“On the base there’s a parachute that you pull out if something goes wrong.
“There’s not very much open space area I can land on but from the air you would be surprised how much pasture land there is on St Helena. Over Longwood there is plenty of land – on the field in front of Longwood House would be more than big enough.”
Rémi does need some protection when he flies: for his hearing. The engine is very noisy – “you need a lot of torque to take off” – and it’s only 12 centimetres from his ears.
Landing is quieter: he actually turns the engine off shortly before he hits the ground, and slows to perhaps 20 miles an hour. The 38-square-metre kite brings him down gently.
Could he fly down the valley into Jamestown?
“Technically I could, as long as there’s no aerials. When I drive on the road I tend to have a look and check in advance.
“When I went to fly around Longwood, there’s two quite big aerials for the weather station, so obstacles like that need to be considered. Usually you prefer to get more altitude. The more altitude you have, the more time you have to react if the engine breaks down.”
It’s not a gas guzzler. “The reservoir takes 20 odd litres, and the manufacturer gives fuel consumption of three litres per hour, so I should be able to fly for six hours.”
That doesn’t make it the future of air travel for Saints. As Tony Leo observed: “You can’t get to Ascension.”