Ziggy Coyle’s voice rang out seconds before her engine roared to life.
“I’ve got to warm up,” she said. “Clear prop!”
In late-afternoon sunshine, her three-bladed propeller rose in pitch to a high, rattling whine, like a giant lawnmower. Coyle, wearing a white flight helmet and an orange ski suit, sat in the driver’s seat of her powered parachute ultralight aircraft, her rainbow-colored parachute carefully laid out in the grass behind her in preparation for takeoff.
At 81 and 82 respectively, Coyle and her husband, David Bauchspies, fly powered parachute craft, known as PPCs, from a private airstrip on their Patton Township land and from sites across the country.
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For 16 years, they’ve enjoyed a hobby spent cruising together through the sky in three-wheeled, open carriages that look for all the world like flying dune buggies. A two-cycle, 65-horsepower engine powers rear-facing propellers while a parachute overhead provides lift and maneuverability.
“It’s not scary,” Coyle said. “You have a wonderful sense of visibility.”
Before their recent flight, she and Bauchspies first settled on a plan for taking off simultaneously without being side by side and risking the possibility of their chutes colliding. Their grass runways branch out a fork created by a windsock.
“You take off that way, we can take off at the same time,” Bauschpies said, pointing to the left runway. “You can make a left and I’ll make a right.”
They then arranged their chutes for deployment, making sure the lines were straight and untangled and folding over the edges of the nylon material in an “accordion layout.” That prevents the 10-by-50 foot chute from popping up immediately from the initial prop wash.
Once Coyle started her engine, rustling her chute and rippling the grass, Bauchspies fired up his PPC. Coyle gave him a thumbs-up, then opened the throttle and taxied forward, her chute snapping up. Her husband followed suit.
Bumping along the grassy strip, they picked up speed, faster and faster until lift off. Up they went, as though suddenly yanked from above.
As they’ve done over deserts, plains and forests, during giant fly-ins and in small groups of friends, they climbed toward the clouds.
Finding new hobby
Since 1979, the couple have called their 200 acres of farmland and woods home.
Coyle, a Penn State graduate who had “in another life” lived in Lebanon, Greece, Indonesia, Taiwan, Panama, South Korea and the Yemen Arab Republic teaching and making art, sculpted ceramic figures in her home studio, D.M.Z. Coyle Studio. She still sculpts for herself, though she’s retired from showing in galleries nationwide, in Canada and overseas.
In 1980, she and Bauchspies wed. He had joined the business from working for a local company.
“When I met Ziggy, I started working for her,” he said. “In order for Ziggy to do her artwork, somebody else had to do all the stuff she didn’t want to do.”
He handled billing, communicating with galleries, firing the kiln and so on. Around 1997, while immersed in her studio daily, she thought of another job.
“I figured we had to have some diversity,” she said. “We had to have something to do that was fun. So I had the brilliant idea of getting David — who can do anything; he can make anything — to make a submarine.”
The proposal sank without a trace.
“He didn’t think it was such as good idea,” she said, laughing. “I thought it would be fun.”
“Not really serious,” Bauchspies said.
“I was serious.”
At any rate, the field was still open. Coyle soon found an alternative.
During a trip to Florida, the couple watched an introductory tape for powered parachute flying. That was it. On the way back home, they stopped in Tennessee at a PPC manufacturer. One thing led to another, and a pilot, today one of their good friends, took Coyle up in a two-seater.
She didn’t have the smoothest of rides.
“It was quite a windy day,” Coyle recalled of her maiden flight. “That thing was galloping all over the place. I didn’t know one shouldn’t be up in such wind.”
But unlike a James Bond martini, Coyle was stirred, not shaken.
“I thought it would be a fun thing to do,” she said. “And the galloping around, that didn’t bother me. Ignorance is bliss.”
She flew a couple of times more on the dual-control craft, rolling off the runway once into a cornfield. On another Florida trip, she and Bauchspies attended the huge Sun ’n’ Fun fly-in, checked out the PPCs there and ended up buying their own.
“I thought it would be a good idea,” Bauchspies said. “Some people are into motorcycles, and some are into boating and sailing.”
Their toy arrived in Pennsylvania, all assembly required.
“I never saw so many nuts and bolts in my life,” Coyle said.
After Bauchspies built the PPC, drawing on his mechanical aptitude, their Tennessee friend came up, inspected the aircraft, test-flew it and pronounced it airworthy. They had a new hobby.
Now they needed to learn to fly it.
Learning to fly
They started with home lessons from the southern pilot.
Their “little red book” picked up their education from there.
The PPC instruction manual took them step by step through the fundamentals, which they practiced on their field: taxiing alone, putting up the chute, then taxiing with it.
“Once you get that under control, the little red book said, ‘OK, you’re ready,’ ” Coyle said.
She took her first solo flight at the Keystone Gliderport, in the next valley over from their land, because of its long runways. It almost turned into an epic journey.
“I took off over there, and it was a nice takeoff, and I circled around this mountain (ridge) and got caught in this airflow,” she said. “There are gusts, winds, that take the gliders down to Kentucky and Tennessee.”
She radioed back to her husband that, uh oh, she could see their farm and, uh oh, it looked like she was southern-bound. There was another problem: He couldn’t hear a thing. She forgot to hit the transmit button.
But she didn’t panic, managed to bring her PPC around and stuck the landing after about a 30-minute jaunt.
“It seemed like it was forever,” she said.
Back then, they didn’t need a sport pilot license, a Federal Aviation Administration requirement since 2004. Bauchspies could have done his solo flight at the gliderport, too, but, in light of Coyle’s experience, he waited until a trip to Tennessee where they could have their experienced friend on hand.
“I’m a little crazier than David,” Coyle said.
“Just a little more impatient,” he replied.
She chuckled. “I figured we got the thing, you put it together — had to do it.”
The next step was another PPC.
Their first has two seats but they never flew together. Neither wanted to be the passenger. The solution was obvious, if expensive, given the price tag even back them. Today’s models start about $20,000 to $25,000.
They proceeded anyway and, in 2000, became a two-PPC household.
“So we could fly together,” Coyle said.
“Together separately,” Bauchspies said.
Enjoying the view
By now, she has logged about 400 flight hours. He has 100 or so more.
Their mutual passion has taken them to more than a dozen states, to isolated forest service airstrips and to crowded fly-ins where they’ve met fellow aficionados who have become close friends.
At typical speeds of 25 to 35 miles per hour, depending on wind, they’ve looked down on Utah canyons, Kansas fields, New Hampshire forests and a prehistoric lake bed in the Oregon desert. Steering by pulling on the ends of their chutes, they could climb up to about 14,000 feet without oxygen, though because of the cold, they usually fly far lower.
“I’ve been up 5,000 or 6,000 feet over the deck,” Bauchspies said. “What is really nice is, you can shut off your engine and then glide down until you either land or power up at, say, 500 feet or so.”
Beyond the thrill of soaring silently like a hawk, there’s practical value to gliding. It’s good to know how to make an emergency dead-stick landing — not that the couple have had the pleasure. They’ve dodged mechanical failures, knock on wood.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Bauchspies said.
They can tell tales of mishaps: pilot-less PPCs rolling away while being warmed up and taking off, craft crashing, usually from weather or pilot error. But those incidents are extremely rare, they maintain. Their sport has inherent risks — it’s flying after all — but so does, they argue, driving down a busy highway.
To some, their PPCs might look like contraptions on the flimsy side. But the couple say they feel safe equipped with sturdy frames, reliable engines, radio communication and GPS navigation — whether they’re going from home to Mid-State Airport in Rush Township or exploring out West.
Coyle said she’s no “Evel Knievel of Buffalo Run Road,” a reference to her address.
“I’ve got a good seat. I’ve got a good headrest. My feet, I can dangle them if I want to or I can rest them on the bars. It’s really not scary,” she said.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that,’ only they don’t try. That’s as far as they go because they think that it feels too insecure, but it doesn’t. I would rather fly this than a commercial plane.”
Wind is their chief concern.
Strong gusts, of course, pose a serious threat. Any prudent PPC pilot knows to steer far clear of approaching thunderstorm clouds, which create powerful updrafts for miles around. One of their friends was sucked into one, surviving only by collapsing his chute and freefalling to safety.
But even seemingly slight breezes on the ground can scrub a flight. Not only do they portend stiffer crosswinds above, but they also make for risky takeoffs.
“The chute wants to follow the wind, and if you have a big chute like that, you’re going to go where it takes you,” Bauchspies said.
“And if it decides to take you into the trees, why, you’re looking at leaves pretty quick. It’s just not worth the effort. The daredevils do it, but we’re a little more conservative.”
Their adrenaline rush comes from seeing beauty.
Both have spied plenty of wildlife from their perches aloft. Two hefty bucks clashing over turf once looked up in surprise to see Bauchspies drifting in silence over them. Another flight, he kept pace with a flock of bewildered Canada geese.
Once, they were late coming back after “civil twilight,” the half-hour grace period for returning after sunset allowed by the FAA. They found themselves flying by moonlight.
“We flew the full moon, and it was just gorgeous,” Coyle said.
So was a fall day spent over Penns Valley after a western trip viewing canyons and red mountains below their feet.
“We came back here, and it was in October, and we flew out of Centre Hall,” Coyle said. “And, honestly, the light and the trees, the color and the way the sun was shining, it was as beautiful as any place in the United States.”
On another autumn afternoon, she ended a shorter survey of native woods and fields by wheeling out of a blue sky and descending swiftly toward her airstrip.
Rolling to a stop, she cut her engine, flashed a thumbs up and let loose a single word of pure joy.