Very long streamer preparation & deployment for powered paragliders

by Had Robinson
updated March 30, 2022

Discussion

towing a 750' streamer
video of a typical streamer tow

Our team has developed a safe and practical way for experienced paramotor pilots to deploy and tow these streamers.  Very long streamers (up to 1,000') may be towed by a powered paraglider.  Length is not so much the limiting factor but the size and weight of the deployment bag (D-bag).  As the length of the streamer increases, so does the height of the D-bag.  After a point, it becomes more difficult to see ahead while flying.  The longer streamers also have greater drag and this can cause uncomfortable fatigue in the foot/leg that the streamer is attached to.  Bigger paramotor engines are required to tow the longest streamers e.g. the Moster 185 or larger.

Ordinary fixed wing aircraft have a complicated way to pick up a streamer or banner from the ground using poles and hooks.  Slow moving paramotors, on the other hand, can launch with the streamer packed in a kitchen trash bag, climb out to altitude, and deploy the streamer safely.  Paragliders, unlike all other aircraft, move so slowly that streamer drag is not a significant problem up to 750'.  Climbing with a 1,000' streamer, for example, is easier done by circling.  This keeps the streamer moving in a tight circle at a few miles per hour – an easy task for an experienced pilot.  Heavier ultralights (wheeled powered paragliders) are not able to safely turn in circles small enough to adequately climb with the streamer attached.

An experienced PPG pilot and instructor asked me about picking up streamers from the ground.  My answer: We quit doing it.  When it works, it works great. However, we had serious problems – even with experienced pilots.  One missed the pickup device and had a frustrating time trying to pick it up again and wasted precious time allotted to us during an air show.  Another came in to pick up a streamer, got a bit too low, caught his foot, and did a nice face plant – tearing up his prop and slicing a few lines on his glider.  After such incidents, we decided there must be a better, safer way that works 100% of the time.  For air shows, this is a mandatory requirement.  On the other hand, at casual events, who cares if you miss it?  At contests, someone drills in and props/lines get whacked – it’s part of the deal.  But at public events like what we do, it looks bad.  I would submit that crashing into the ground is always bad no matter where the venue....

Below, team members Lee Boone & Had Robinson perform in the Amigo Airsho October 20-21, 2012  El Paso, TX

streamers for powered paragliders

photo by John Shaw

The streamers deployed in the photos here are approximately 700' long x 1' wide and are made of very light fabric.

The hardest part we face with streamers is the launch and the complications that happen at that time.

General practices

Towing a streamer is about comfortably dealing with increased drag from having a very long tail.  When towed in a straight line, a streamer is always directly behind and at the same altitude as the pilot.  When circling, the streamer's speed through the air is much less and it will slowly drop towards the ground.

  1. An assistant should be available for help with attaching the deployment bag to the pilot.
  2. Only launch in an area where you can easily abort during the first 30 seconds of flight.
  3. The paramotor propeller *must* not extend beyond the rim of the cage.  If it does, it will snag the towline1
  4. Wear running shoes because it is easier to remove the bridle than from boots.
  5. Winds should be light or nil with no thermic activity.  Having the streamer going up in a thermal behind you somewhere could complicate things and create a hazard.
  6. Before launching, chose a suitable location over the ground where you can drop the streamer after the tow.  It should be short grass.  Asphalt will allow the streamer to roll up in a wad if there is any wind.  Tall grass makes it harder to repack the streamer.
  7. Until the streamer is deployed, you *must* be able to shut down the engine at any time.  This means check the engine kill switch before launching.
  8. Always trim your glider to go as slow as possible because the drag increases dramatically as your speed through the air increases.
  9. Do not deploy or tow the streamer at low altitudes (below 200') unless you are certain that it will not contact water or anything which could snag it.  When a long streamer gets caught by something on the ground, it can take hours to recover it, especially if it hangs in trees or on power lines.
  10. You must be comfortable flying with one hand.
  11. Pilots must be extremely careful around other aircraft because of decayed situational awareness.
  12. Do *NOT* deploy except when at altitude, the paramotor is at idle, and there are no other aircraft around.  This will prevent the streamer from being sucked into the propeller, your colliding with another pilot, or dropping the streamer on another pilot.  Deploy the streamer when the AGL is equivalent to the length of the streamer plus about 500'.  For example, if the streamer is 700' long, the pilot should fly to at least 1,200' AGL before deploying the streamer.
  13. Practice deployment on the ground before doing it in the air.
  14. If you fly with a flight deck, you may not be able to use it when launching with very long streamers because the deck will push the D-bag even higher, cutting off frontal visibility.
  15. If you over-seal the D-bag with masking tape, it requires more time to open the bag when you are ready to deploy.  A D-bag that is not completely open when released in the air can cause the lines and/or streamer to become tangled as it falls.  If you do it correctly, three pieces of tape is sufficient to prevent the streamer from "leaking" out of the bag.  A carelessly or poorly sealed D-bag can suddenly "leak" the streamer which will – without exception – find its way back into the propeller.  A streamer that becomes entangled in the lines of another glider (including your own) could cause unpredictable handling.  We learned all of this the hard way....
  16. Always have an "out" where you can fly away into clear air space.
  17. Do not tow with another pilot unless you have practiced flying in formation together without streamers.  Piloting your paramotor must be second-nature as you will be occupied with the streamer and have little concentration left to think about flying, especially directional control.
  18. Landing in a straight line with the streamer attached to the foot is possible but not preferred for a skilled pilot and is probably safer than flying at low altitudes with one hand and attempting to get the bridal off your foot.
  19. Practicing before the public or friends is not the best venue to learn this skill.  Towing a streamer requires intense concentration.  Task saturation is about 100% most of the time so everything but the streamer must be 2nd nature.

How to deploy a streamer

A.  Preparing the streamer

You will need:

  1. FLY WITH A HOOK KNIFE!  I have had to cut away the towline after it got tangled in the cage.  It also got tangled in the free-spinning propeller and I had to land without power.  At the same time, the streamer became loose and fell to the earth.  What can go wrong did go wrong – everything went wrong.
  2. Kitchen sized trash bag e.g. Sam's Members Mark Power Flex – these bags are stretchy, tough, and light weight.
  3. A waste basket the size of the trash bag.  You cannot tightly pack the streamer without it.  Count on spending 45 minutes packing a 1,000' streamer.
  4. 15' of 50 lb. test towline.  Get the slipperiest line possible as it tends to get knotted when deployed.  If the line gets in the propeller, it is better to have this kind of line rather than glider line.  Note: connect the towline to the bridle and the steamer with a bowline knot.  Seal the knots with nail polish.  We have had surprises caused by knots loosening during deployment.
  5. 1" masking tape
  6. Bridle – it can be a speed stirrup but it is easier (and safer) to use a homemade arrangement using a piece of fabric and a round stick.
  7. 36" Bungee cords to attach the D-bag to the pilot – they must tightly hold the D-bag to the front of the pilot.  The cords can be shortened by putting a knot where the cord goes through the hook.  Longer streamers may require (2) bungee cords.  The bungee can be stowed after deployment or dropped from the air at a convenient spot, usually near take-off.  Tie some orange flagging tape to the center of the bungee which can help recovery as it drops.

B. Packing the D-bag

Put the kitchen trash bag in the waste basket and start stuffing the streamer – end first.  The technique here is similar to how climbers stuff a rope into a rope bag.  You must not attempt to fold, wrap, roll, etc. the streamer in any way.  It is slippery nylon and will deploy smoothly.  Leave the lines outside the bag for now.

streamers for powered paragliders

Remove the D-bag from the container and lay the line on the top of the packed streamer.  Note: the photos show a piece of glider being used as the towline.  This is *not* recommended.  We longer use glider line for anything because it does not break easily and it forms friction knots much easier than slippery poly-type lines.  Optional: attach the tow bridle to the outside of the bag with masking tape.  If you put it in with the lines, it tends to get tangled up with the lines.  If you do not attach it to the D-bag, make sure that it cannot get loose on its own.

streamers for powered paragliders

If you have a long towline (over 15'), it can be prepared like the lines of a parachute (see photo below).  However, they also tend to get tangled more easily.  If the lines are prepared like the lines of a parachute there might be less chance of friction knots forming or the towline becoming entangled with the streamer when it is deployed.streamers for powered paragliders

There are (3) pieces of tape sealing the D-bag.  If a little piece of the streamer is exposed outside of the D-bag while flying, The rest of will quickly start coming out.  Heavy duty trash bags can have a more tightly packed streamer but the more the streamer is compressed the greater the risk of it "exploding" when the bag is unsealed at deployment and then getting sucked into the propeller (even if the engine is idle).

Keep the tape to a minimum as you will have to tear it open just before you deploy the streamer.  Prepare the masking tape pieces by adding a short piece of tape to the underside of the tape at the midpoint.  The tape adheres very well to the trash bag and it is much easier to tear the tape the joint if the tape is not sticking to the trash bag.  Use a felt-tipped marker to make a line directly over the joint where the trash bag is joined together.  Tearing the masking tape is easy compared to tearing the trash bag.  Having it marked will speed up deployment.

streamers for powered paragliders

C. Attach the D-bag

Use the bungee cord(s) to attach the D-bag as shown in the photo below.  The bungee cord(s) can be hooked to the cage.  Have the hooks facing up so they are easier to remove.  If the cords are too tight, the pilot may have difficulty unhooking them.  Place the bungee over the lower center of the D-bag.  If it is high on the D-bag, the D-bag tends to slip out.  Bigger streamers will require a second bungee cord near the top of the D-bag.

The pilot is ready to go.  I recommend that pilots attach themselves to the glider, do their pre-flight check, and THEN attach the D-bag.  The presence of the D-bag hinders a clear view of the pilot's critical flying areas such as the speed system and riser attachments and also complicates the pre-flight.

streamers for powered paragliders

photo courtesy of John Shaw

D. Streamer deployment and recovery

1. Trim your glider for slowest possible speed.

2. If you decide to jettison the bungee cord, climb to a hundred feet or so, let go of the toggles, and remove the bungee cord(s).  Using one hand, fly back to launch and drop the bungee cord(s).  An assistant can get them for use next time.  There is no danger of losing the streamer because the wind keeps it tightly pressed against the pilot.

3. Climb out to altitude (length of streamer plus 500').  It is difficult to find a visible place for your variometer or GPS with the D-bag just in front so you may have to guess when you are high enough to deploy.

4. Fly straight.  Ensure you will not collide with anything for a minute.  Pick an area on the ground 10 or 20 yards up wind from an open area so that if the streamer goes all the way to the ground, it will not snag on anything.  When the streamer is deployed, it pretty much goes straight down.

5. Go to idle.  If you are not at idle, the streamer will be sucked in to the propeller.  Please do not ask how we know this will happen....

6. Let go of the toggles but not the throttle.

7. Break/tear the pieces of masking tape that hold the top of the D-bag closed.  It is not easy to do because the masking tape adheres very well to the trash bag.  It is not hazardous to continue flying with the D-bag unzipped, if you need to, but keep a *close* eye on the streamer that is does not start to come out.

streamers for powered paragliders

8. Grasp the tow bridle with one hand, lean over as much as possible, and then push the D-bag down between your legs.  Do not let it roll off as the streamer may start coming out and go into the cage.

The streamer will start to come out.  If the bag does not open immediately, you may have to yank up smartly on the bridle to get it free, just as you might do with a reserve parachute.  If the bridle line gets tangled in the streamer, LET GO OF EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY!  Go and land and recover the streamer.  The drag of a tangle streamer is similar to throwing your reserve parachute.   Generally, do not fiddle around in the air because you will not be concentrating on flying, on the risk, on hitting other pilots, and on getting too low.  It will not hurt the streamer to drop it from any altitude.

streamers for powered paragliders

Below, the D-bag dropping to earth with 700' of streamer pouring out is also a beautiful and unique sight.  It is a one of kind thing that only we can do.

streamers for powered paragliders

9. *Immediately* put the bridle on your foot (see the photo just above).  At this time, the drag from the streamer will be less and it will be easier to put the bridle on your foot.  Every second counts.

Why not attach it with a karabiner to the engine frame or harness?  With the bridle on your foot, you are always aware of the streamer's drag and can sense any change quickly.  You can also discover how to ascend with the streamer while minimizing drag and so increase your climb out rate.  If you snag something on the ground, you will have plenty of time to drop your bridle and not tear the streamer and/or break your weak-link.

10. Re-grasp the toggles, apply power so that you do not lose altitude.  Keep your eye on the streamer.  It will begin to trail out behind you.  If flying in a straight line, the end of the streamer will only drop about 50'.   At this time you can begin your show with things like making a huge coil, flying through a loop in the streamer (it will not form a knot, lowering the streamer to a single spot on the ground or in a pond or lake then raising it up again.  When making tight circles and streamer will sink quickly.  With care, the pilot can touch the ground with the end of the streamer and then bring it up again.

Here is a YouTube video of various deployments.  Watch the streamer as it deploys – dropping hundreds of feet towards the ground.  My desire is that no one gets hurt flying streamers and that we share this beautiful sight with the public.

Towing a streamer at a fair.  Remember: ultralights cannot fly over any congested area so keep away a safe distance.

towing a streamer at the Poteau OK Balloon Fest

E.  After the tow

When you are ready to drop the streamer, fly one-handed and use the free hand to remove the bridle from your foot and tow the streamer using your hand.

Pick a suitable location to drop the streamer.  The best place is a large field.  Any place else complicates recovery of the streamer e.g., if you drop it on the tarmac of an airport, the streamer can roll and knot up from the slightest breeze, get soiled with oil, run over by other aircraft, etc.

streamers for powered paragliders

It is easiest to drop it straight on a grassy area but it takes much longer to collect it than if it is in a coil, as in the photo below.

streamer

To create a coiled-up streamer on the ground, begin making tight circles at altitude while slowly climbing so you do not fly through your own wake.  It will take some minutes for the entire streamer to form a uniform coil in the air.  Once this is done, go to idle and let it drop to the ground.  At 100', let go of the streamer.

If you drop the streamer too high it can drift with the wind and land in such fun places as in power lines or trees.  If this happens, you may have to abandon your streamer.

Practice makes perfect with this, especially if there is any surface wind.  It takes about (15) seconds for a streamer to drop 100' so if the surface wind is (5) mph, for example, the streamer will drift about 175' before coming down to the ground.  Therefore, you will want to fly upwind for this distance.

streamers for powered paragliders

Repack the streamer after you land using a new trash bag and the waste basket. \

Be smart – be safe. Had

vulture