Streamer preparation & deployment for ultralights
by Had Robinson
updated August 18, 2021
We are sorry to say that Gomberg Kites is no longer in business so streamers from them are not available. On the bright side, Southwest Airsports is ramping up to manufacture 1,000' streamers. Marilyn already makes the finest windsocks for ultralights in the world and streamers should be an easy next-step. She is already about to make her first streamer for a local airshow.
Our team has developed a safe and practical way for experienced paramotor pilots to deploy and tow streamers that can exceed 1,000' in length. 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, may deploy in the air and are not overly burdened by streamer drag.
CAUTION: ONLY EXPERIENCED PPG PILOTS SHOULD ATTEMPT TO DEPLOY AND/OR TOW ANY OBJECT, INCLUDING A STREAMER. THERE IS SIGNIFICANT RISK OF ENTANGLEMENT WITH THE PARAMOTOR AND/OR OTHER OBJECTS INCLUDING OTHER AIRCRAFT. ENTANGLEMENT WITH THE PARAMOTOR COULD RESULT IN THE PILOT BEING DRAWN INTO THE SPINNING PROPELLER! AN ACCIDENT COULD RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH. THE INFORMATION GIVEN HERE IS ONLY INTENDED TO HELP – IT IS NOT A THOROUGH DISCUSSION OF THE SKILLS NEEDED TO TRANSPORT, DEPLOY, AND TOW A STREAMER. IF YOU NEED EXPERT INSTRUCTION IN HOW TO TOW A STREAMER, CONTACT US.
A master 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 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 “must”. 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
photo by John Shaw
The streamers deployed in the photos here are approximately 700' long x 1' wide. The longer the streamer's length and width, the greater the drag. The safe maximum size has to do with how much force there is on the foot with the tow bridal. I have towed a 1,000' x 3' and the drag was pretty severe even with a powerful paramotor. I do not recommend using a streamer any greater than this size. I think the biggest problem is the weight and how to safely launch with something the size of a 40 lb. bag of grain. The hardest part we face with streamers is the launch and any complications that happen at that time.
Towing a streamer is about comfortably dealing with increased drag and having a tail 700'+ long.
- Always trim your glider to go as slow as possible because the drag (about 4 lb) increases dramatically as your speed through the air increases.
- 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.
- You must be comfortable flying with one hand or, better, no hands for brief periods which means you will not want to fly during thermic conditions.
- Pilots must be extremely careful around other aircraft.
- Do NOT deploy except when the paramotor is at idle speed and there is nothing around, especially other aircraft. This will reduce the risk of the streamer being sucked into a propeller (and maybe along with the pilot's hand/arm) or colliding with another pilot.
- Before launching, chose a suitable location where you can drop the streamer safely. You do not want to drop it on another aircraft below (the pilot cannot see it coming)!
- Practice deployment on the ground before doing it in the air.
- 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 can cause the lines and/or streamer to become tangled. If you do it correctly, (3) 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 paramotor. Of course, the risk of this is greatly reduced if the engine is at idle. A streamer that becomes entangled in the lines of another glider (including your own) could cause unpredictable handling.
- BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL WHILE TOWING and always have an "out" where you can fly away into clear air space.
- 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.
- Landing with the streamer attached is not a problem for a skilled pilot and is probably safer than flying around at low altitudes with one hand and attempting to get the bridal off your foot.
- Before ditching the streamer, a pilot must consider wind direction and speed. The streamer will drift with the wind and can land in such fun things as high tension power lines and trees. If this happens, you will likely have to abandon your streamer unless you are particularly brave.
- 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.
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE!
How to deploy a streamer
A. Preparing the streamer
You will need kitchen size garbage bags, a 2' bungee cord, some 1" masking tape, weak-link cord rated at 15 lb or so, a bridal (a speed bar works well), used glider lines (12' - 15'). You may double the glider lines so that it has a total length of 20-30'. The farther the streamer is behind your paramotor, the less prop wash and drag there is.
Attach the streamer, the glider lines, weak leak, and bridal in the order shown. You can add fishing "swivel" (not shown) to help reduce twisting of the weak-link and towline. The weak-link is the most critical part of the set up. You do NOT want the streamer attached to you if it catches something!
B. Packing the D-bag
Put a kitchen trash bag in a suitable container and start stuffing the streamer – end first – into the bag. 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. Just stuff it into the bag in 4-10' segments. It is slippery nylon and will deploy smoothly. Leave the lines outside the bag for now.
Remove the D-bag and carefully lay the line on the top of the packed streamer. If you have a long line (over 15'), it can be prepared like the lines of a parachute (see next photo down). However, experience has demonstrated that laying any length of line inside the bag in the same way as packing the glider allows the line to deploy nicely. If the lines are prepared like the lines of a parachute there might be a slightly less chance of friction knots forming or the line becoming entangled with the streamer when it is deployed. However, doing the lines in the fashion of a parachute re-pack is a lot of extra work.
Optional – A longer bridal line rubber-banded and attached to the exterior of the d-bag. We have tried wrapping the lines with masking tape instead of rubber bands and it seems to work OK.
There are (3) - (5) pieces of tape sealing the d-bag. Be careful as you do not want the d-bag to "leak" streamer. If a little piece is exposed while flying, the streamer will quickly start coming out and find its way into the paramotor. Heavy bags can be tightly wrapped with tape but the more the streamer is compressed the greater the risk of it "exploding" when the bag is unsealed and then getting tangled in equipment or the prop (even if it is not turning). Experiment on the ground with what works best for you but keep these warnings in mind. We have had streamers wind up in props which were at full power a few times.
Keep the tape to a minimum as you will have to tear it open just before you deploy.
The D-bag is ready. Note the 2' bungee cord used to attach the D-bag to the frame of the paramotor. We generally remove the bungee when 100'+ over the ground and flying safely in a straight direction. Removing and stowing the bungee is one of the more difficult things. We have tried slipping the bungee down and off the bag and it seems to work well. The bungee remains attached and you don't have to waste time trying to stow it. Do what works best, even throwing the bungee cord away.
C. Attaching the D-bag to the pilot
The pilot, Lee Boone, 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.
photo courtesy of John Shaw
Below, Had Robinson launches. The D-bag rests nicely on his closed flight deck. The D-bag must have some sort of lower support or it will slip out when doing a vigorous forward inflation. (We discovered this from experience.)
photo courtesy of John Shaw
DANGER: Carrying the D-bag anywhere but in front where it can be carefully watched is risky. Accidental deployment during the first 60 seconds of flight could result in an accident so pilots must be exceedingly careful. That is, if the streamer starts to deploy and snags with something on the pilot and then with something on the ground, the pilot could be yanked backwards with the glider plunging forward before he knows what has happened.
Removing the bungee cord prior to deployment is awkward and difficult. Shove the bungee cord down and over the D-bag. The cord remains attached to the pilot and paramotor but is effectively out of the way. With this method, the pilot does not have to stow the cord someplace. The on-rushing air will keep the D-bag nicely pressed against the pilot's chest once the cord is removed. The cord is only needed at launch. Be sure you have plenty of altitude when preparing for deployment. You *must* be at idle! Pilots have had their hands pulled into props by entangled brake lines. It happens so quickly that you do not have enough time to think "Let go!"
Here, the bungee cord is removed so it can be stowed or dropped. At this point, you can resume full power and fly about safely. Prior to deployment, you do NOT want to be at full power when any part of your body is connected to the streamer.
E. D-bag deployment
When you are ready to deploy, get away from everyone and everything, make sure that you are flying straight and will not collide with anything for a minute or so. Go to idle or turn your engine off. Things will go more smoothly if you first break/tear all of the masking tape. Having the bad open allows the line and streamer to come out more easily and in just the same way it was packed. Grab the D-bag bridle firmly.
If necessary, use both hands to firmly and quickly shove the bag down between your legs. If it goes to the side, it could get snagged on the paramotor frame. Remember to be at idle when actually deploying. It is so tempting to climb out while deploying but you place yourself at significant risk if anything goes wrong.
If you did not open the bag properly, you may have to yank up smartly on the bridle to get it free. If the bridle line gets tangled in the streamer, LET GO OF EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY! Go and land, retrieve the D-bag, and try it again. Don't fiddle around in the air – you are not concentrating on flying, risk, hitting other pilots, getting too low, etc.
Quickly put the bridle on your foot. Someone may ask, "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. Ascending/descending efficiently is done by flying in a tight circle – a skilled technique used to lower the streamer to a single spot on the ground or in the water and then raise it up again. This is a fun stunt to perform before an audience.
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.
Here is a YouTube video of various deployments. Carefully 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.
Climbing with the streamer attached is easiest by going in tight circles. The drag is a fraction of what it would be flying straight. In fact, climbing out with a 700' x 3' streamer requires tight circles because the drag is so much.
F. After the tow
Generally, a pilot must learn how the streamer behaves when in huge coils in the air. If the air is calm, climb to a few hundred feet and begin tight circling. The streamer will drop right down to the ground. At 100' remove the bridal from your foot and drop it. Practice getting the bridal off your foot without using your hand so you do not have to let go of the toggles – which is always dangerous when near the ground.
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 before making your coils. As the coil drops, it drifts so continue to make the coils upwind. When you are ready to drop the bridal, fly to just upwind of the coils on the ground and drop it. It will look something like this photo below. Doing it this way saves a lot of time re-packing the streamer. It is easy for the streamer to get snagged the moment it touches the ground but it does not matter – if you continue flying in a circle.
If you let the streamer drop onto a tarmac (below), the slightest breeze will blow it around and it tends to roll itself into a long wad. If you pack it when it is rolled up, it tends to deploy rolled up and is harder to see. It will unroll in the air but takes a while.
Be smart – be safe. Had
All photos and videos by Had Robinson except as noted. This is a team effort so any suggestions are welcome that would improve safety and prevent equipment damage are welcome.