Sky's the limit


POSTED: Sunday, February 08, 2009

Denise Sanders can't resist a new adventure. So in 2001, when her husband, Tom, took her to Kauai to go on a powered hang-gliding flight with his longtime friend Gerry Charlebois, she didn't hesitate.





        » Meet at: Dillingham Airfield, Mokuleia, Oahu

» Flights: Every morning, by appointment only


» Cost per person: 30-minute flight, $135; 45-minute flight, $180; 60-minute flight, $220; 90-minute flight, $295; 120-minute flight, $375


» Information: Call: 497-6033


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» Web site:


» Notes: A flight suit, headset and helmet are provided. Wear shorts, a T-shirt and shoes that will stay on your feet. Sandals are fine as long as they have a back strap. Nonpolarized sunglasses are recommended to avoid visual interference with the helmet's visor. There's no minimum age requirement, but participants should weigh a minimum of 80 pounds and a maximum of 260 pounds. In order for the seat belt and flight suit to fit properly, the maximum waist size is 44 inches. Mounted on the aircraft are digital still and video cameras which can photograph your flight from multiple angles. Digital photos are $40, the DVD (available in either standard or Blu-ray high definition) is $55 and the photo/DVD package is $75. Kamaaina, students, senior citizens ages 65 and older, and groups of six or more receive free photos or $40 off the DVD or photo/DVD package.




“;Tom told me Gerry owned a powered hang-gliding business called Birds in Paradise, and he thought it would be fun to do the same thing on Oahu,”; Sanders recalled. “;No one was offering it here, so it seemed like a great idea. Plus, we're both experienced hang-glider pilots, so we had most of the basic skills and knowledge.”;

A renowned sky-diving cinematographer with three James Bond movies (”;The Living Daylights,”; “;Tomorrow Never Dies”; and “;GoldenEye”;) on his resume, Tom had gone powered hang gliding with Charlebois several years before and loved it.

On her two-hour excursion with Charlebois, Sanders flew completely around Kauai on an odd-looking machine that she described as a “;motorcycle with wings.”; Over Mount Waialeale, Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali coastline they soared, admiring postcard views all along the way.

“;It was amazing!”; Sanders said. “;When we landed, I took off my helmet, looked at Tom and said, 'Heck yeah!' I knew my life as an emergency room nurse was about to change forever.”;

In August 2002, nine months after her introductory flight, she and Tom moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Oahu. With advice and encouragement from Charlebois, they bought their aircraft, obtained the necessary training and pilot ratings, and received approval from the state Department of Transportation to operate at Dillingham Airfield.

Paradise Air opened in January 2004. Since then the couple has introduced 4,500 thrill seekers to powered hang gliding.

Sanders has sailed beside rainbows, seabirds and cloud-wreathed mountains. She loves feeling the cool wind on her face, and, if she's flying low enough, she can taste the salt spray from the surf and smell the sweet scent of plumerias and pineapples.

According to Sanders, Paradise Air's two open-cockpit Airborne 912 XT ultralight aircraft, commonly called “;trikes,”; are safe. “;They're registered and given an airworthiness certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration, just like any other aircraft,”; she said. “;They are, first and foremost, hang gliders, so they glide well even without the engine running. In fact, we'll often turn off the engine at the end of the flight for a quiet gliding landing.”;

In addition, Sanders said, “;Trikes are the easiest type of aircraft to operate. Unlike other aircraft, it doesn't have a tail, so you don't need to use your feet to coordinate turns with the rudder. You also don't have to look for lift from the wind like you do with a regular hang glider. You just step on the gas pedal and go!”;

Should the need arise, each trike is equipped with an emergency parachute. “;While we've never had to use it, it's nice to know we have a Plan C,”; Sanders said.

PARADISE AIR'S instructional flights are scheduled in the morning, when the winds are the lightest, thus providing the smoothest rides. The trikes can fly up to 98 miles per hour and ascend to 10,000 feet, but flights usually cruise at 70 mph and stay between 500 and 2,500 feet in altitude.

Throughout the trip, the pilot explains the fundamentals of flying, including how the aircraft works, wind currents and how to read them, and weather and landing patterns.

You can even take the controls if you want.

“;Each flight is instructional, and we encourage the student to play an active role,”; Sanders said. “;Most people enjoy being hands-on, but if they're not comfortable with that, it's OK. They can fly as much or as little as they want.”;

To date, she and Tom have welcomed customers ranging in age from 6 to 92, including some with physical limitations.

“;We've taken up blind people, deaf people and people who are partially paralyzed,”; Sanders said. “;Flying a powered hang glider doesn't require any special skills. It's instinctive, like riding a bike. As long as you can sit in a beach chair, you can do it.”;

Four years ago, Sanders took an Oahu resident named Stella on a 45-minute flight to celebrate her 80th birthday.

“;It was a gift from her family,”; she recalled, “;and her husband, children and grandchildren were all there to cheer her on.”;

Sanders recently accompanied Lana, 10, and Hana, 8, two sisters from Hong Kong, on their 60-minute flights.

“;Usually, I recommend shorter lessons for kids because their attention spans are shorter than adults,”; she said. “;Not those two girls! They came back two days later, and they both took another 60-minute lesson!”;

About 75 percent of Paradise Air's students are visitors. A few dozen of them have been so enthralled with their flight, they've continued lessons when they've returned home. Some have even bought their own trikes.

“;On a powered hang glider, there's nothing separating you and nature,”; Sanders said, “;The experience stimulates all your senses; it really is the closest thing to flying like a bird!”;


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.